Zach Snyder's films have done well enough for both critics and moviegoers alike. People noticed his style in the "Dawn of the Dead" remake while "300" showed everyone that he can adapt works from other media by turning them into visceral experiences. The "Watchmen" movie was polarizing for fans of the original graphic novel but showed how he was willing to stay as close as possible to the source material.
Like all other up-and-coming directors, though, the video game adaptations of his works have not been met with the same amount of praise. The PSP game 300: March to Glory became another example of how not to make a licensed game while the episodic Watchmen: The End is Nigh felt tedious after a few levels of play. Before Snyder finally goes off into original territory with "Sucker Punch" next year, he has one more film adaptation left based on the Guardians of Ga'hoole novels.
As with most movies intended for children, there is an accompanying video game. On the surface, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole feels like it would befall the same fate as other licensed games that are, at best, mediocre and, at worst, outright terrible. After spending some time with it, however, gamers may find that the game is better than expected but prevented from being truly good due to some sizable issues.
The plot of the game is rather different from the one in the movie or the books. You play the role of Shard, an orphan whose father was once a great guard for one of the Owl Kingdom's sacred temples. The other owls' reverence for him quickly evaporated when he failed to save the temple inhabitants from being slaughtered, driving him into self-imposed exile. One day, as Shard was finishing his training, an owl arrived at Ga'hoole with two orphaned owlets and the tale of an orphanage that is forcing the owlets to dig for metal pieces known as flecks. Since the orphanage is run by the Pure Ones, ancient owls that seek to disrupt the peace in the land, the council of guardians does not take the threat seriously. Your mentor, however, feels differently. After being quickly promoted to Guardian, your task is to investigate whether or not the Pure Ones have returned and stop them by any means necessary.
One would expect that the licensed title would be a standard 3-D platformer. However, because these are owls, the developers at Krome thought it would be best to make this a partially open flying game. To put it into perspective, think of it like Blazing Angels or Ace Combat, except you have an owl instead of an aircraft. When the game starts, you can select from one of four different owl species that differ in both look and stats. No matter which owl species you chose, you'll always have the same voice and same story.
Most of your missions are of the combat variety, and since owls don't have guns, your fighting is melee-based. You can lock on to enemies and then decide to throw them into the surrounding environment, hit them fast with your talons, or strike them hard enough with your body to shake loose a piece of their armor. You also have some default defensive moves, like barrel rolls and deflecting incoming blows. Over time, you'll earn both defensive and offensive maneuvers, expanding your moves from corkscrew attacks to backflips to an attack called Fall From Grace, where you grab the enemy and dive bomb toward the ground at a high speed before letting them go and pulling back up at the last minute. Each defeated enemy gives you coins, which can be used to purchase battlesets to augment your default stats in battle. Combat also gives you the ability to have up to three wingmen, who you can send out to take care of enemies as long as the enemy isn't a boss or armored with a battleset.
There are about 25 levels in the game, though only 20 are required to finish the story. While most of the missions are combat-oriented, there is some variety. Bombing run missions have you grabbing hot coals before launching them into catapults, ballista or other enemies. Races have you trying to get through several golden rings faster than your opponent, and rescue missions have you grabbing owlets from enemies and bringing them back to their designated nests. Bonus missions, which are earned after you complete all of the missions in that section, include all of those aforementioned modes. Bonus missions also include hunting for art scrolls and survival missions, where you try to defeat a set number of enemy waves without the help of wingmen.
Overall, the gameplay is great. Flight combat is smooth and exciting, and the enemy variety makes you think of different attack strategies instead of simply button-mashing. There are a few things that mar the game, such as the lack of energy meters for the owls you're protecting in escort missions, but the biggest grievances are the amount of gameplay and lack of difficulty. Even when you take the bonus missions out of the equation, 20 missions sounds like a substantial amount of gameplay. Unfortunately, most of the missions last no more than 10 minutes, bringing the average gameplay time to around four hours. You can play the game again as the different owl species, but since they don't play too differently, only those who are looking for Achievements or Trophies will bother to do so. With only one difficulty level, the game feels rather easy — even during boss fights. Those who aren't adept at video games may struggle with the title, but almost everyone else will finish the game in an afternoon and move on.
The controls feel simple and a little loose at times. The left analog stick controls movement while the right analog stick controls barrel rolls, backflips and corkscrews. The left trigger lets you slow down and hover in the air while the right trigger accelerates your flight. The left bumper helps you lock on to enemies and objects while the X, Y and B buttons initiate different attacks and the A button is the general action button for everything from snatching owlets to throwing coals.
The controls are easy to manipulate, but it comes with some caveats. Holding down the right trigger doesn't always mean you'll go fast, so you'll have to constantly pull the trigger to maintain the top speed, and that gets tiring after a while. Piloting Shard takes some advanced planning since he can't turn or change directions quickly, and that is bothersome in races or cramped spaces since it'll mean missing a few rings or hitting the environment. While the lock-on feature is good, there is no way to immediately switch targets for locking. This translates into spamming the lock-on button and hoping it gets to the target you want. While it isn't bad enough to get you killed in battle, it isn't the smoothest method of combat, either.
The graphics get the job done nicely, but there are a few rough patches to iron out. The environments look nice, with some lush forests and expansive deserts. The particle effects, from the thick fog in Ga'hoole to the embers when Tyto is set ablaze, add a lot of character to otherwise humdrum locales. The character models look and animate fine, and you can always tell when Shard is wearing his Battleset during battle. The aspect of speed is handled well; you certainly feel like you're going fast when you hit a wind current or dive down to the ground.
As good as the environments look and as expansive as they are, though, there are constant areas of pop-up. It is much more pronounced in brighter areas than dark ones, but you'll see background objects in the distance suddenly pop into view instead of gradually fading in. The character models look good, but it's difficult to tell the difference between enemies until you get to a cut scene. Bats, Hagsfiends and Pure One scout owls tend to look the same in battle, forcing you to rely on the enemy's energy meter name to figure out what you're fighting against. Finally, the camera's lock-on system isn't too consistent when it comes to selecting the best target. There were a few times when attempting to lock on to an enemy resulted in locking on to a coal pit or an objective much further away. It is annoying, especially when you're trying to clear out a pack of enemies before completing your objectives.
The sound is quite good though it, too, suffers from a few problems. The musical score is exactly what one would expect from a fantasy film. Fully orchestrated and sounding like something from The Lord of the Rings soundtrack, it perfectly captures the tone of the scenes and almost feels like it was lifted from the film. Each blow and catapult impact resonates through the speakers nicely. Likewise, the voices all sound great, but since the video game features different characters from the movie, none of the original voice actors from the film are involved. The voice actors keep the same spirit of the film, and the majority of the voices have either an Australian or British accent.
Like most games, this one suffers from the lack of a deep voice bank for attack commands. Sending out your wingmen will result in the same lines being uttered quite a few times during the course of the game. The audio stuttering is really odd, though. Throughout our review period, the musical score and voices would stutter a few times. In case anyone thinks that this is limited to the disc, the same error also occurred when the game is installed to the hard drive. The error doesn't happen constantly, but it is noticeable enough for you to feel that the bugs haven't been ironed out yet.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole would have been a very good game for children had it not been for its brevity and lack of difficulty. The flaws in the graphics and sound could be easily overlooked because of the enjoyable gameplay, but the lack of challenge and the fact that the game can be finished rather quickly diminishes any desire one may have to pick it up again. It is still worth a look for fans of the series and young gamers seeking airborne action without spacecraft or jet fighters, but until the price goes down, it is better as a rental than a purchase.
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