Now, I will be the first to admit, I was pretty psyched about getting something other than the love and innocence that has been peddled on the Wii since its emergence. Don’t get me wrong, I had an absolute blast working through Mario Galaxy, and My Sims Party had its moments, but in my heart and soul I am a “core” gamer and sooner or later the call of the gritty textures and blood soaked tiles overrides the saturated colors and cheery, bouncy gameplay of most Wii titles. PLUS, this game promised to feed my ever-growing Discovery Channel/Animal Planet addiction by immersing me in the dangerous daily life of any number of my favorite venomous critters and their ten best rivals.
So I booted up the game and was immediately struck (think hammer to the fingernails) by the cheap horror-flick stylings of the title and main menu screens. While I can understand the need to back up the promise of the title, I was beginning to doubt how much of this game was going to be yet another thinly disguised fighter versus fighter title, like Street Fighter but with big venomous insects.
I was pleasantly surprised when the game then dropped me into a surprisingly (given the visual state of most Wii-fare already available) realistic version of the Sonoran Desert with an equally surprisingly realistic tarantula at my beck and call. Yes, I know all about the box art, but I have worked on marketing materials for this industry so I keep a big box of salt in my desk just to take with the screen shots put out before a game ships.
Surprisingly boring at first glance too. I was haunted by images of “edutainment” titles and badly written 3d “encyclopedia” entries. Lots and lots of beige in this game. Beige, brown, dust, sand and a hint of red ochre thrown in when the artists really got their wind up. Well, you wanted realism, not come fancy a** metallo-organic arachnid with racing flames painted on his abdomen and rocket boots strapped to all eight legs, but it does take a little bit of getting used to. As a game-player you are used to looking at a form of hyper-realism, actual photo-realism is rare. Bright colors and bobble-heads, zombies, weapons that defy the laws of physics, these are the things the mind is used to suspending disbelief for. Not dirt, rocks and lots and lots of legs. The music is almost nonexistent, instead replaced with ambient sounds of wind on sand and muffled echoes of boot steps and scratchy spider footfalls. I’ll front them the “roar like a tiger” sound effects for critters like the lizard, it certainly gets the “extreme danger” point across. When you do get music, it’s usually to announce an impending boss battle, so make sure you’re standing with a clear line of sight to the Wii sensor and your Wii-motes have a fresh set of batteries.
The exploratory element is limited, what there is of it is nice, but there’s just not enough sandbox to it to make it a highlight of the game. What I found very interesting however was the level design itself. You can crawl on all the walls and ceiling of the tunnels in the game, much like an actual insect could do and the level designers have done a tidy job taking advantage of this fact. The underground tunnels and warrens branch off on all axes, keeping in mind that “up” is relative to wherever your critter happens to be standing.
Layered through and on top (literally) of all this are the only two humans in the game. True to the experience the game designers were going for, Billy Bob Thornton and Tommy Lee Jones play perhaps two of the reddest necks to be found this side of King of the Hill. Their story runs parallel to yours and is revealed bit by bit as your bug of choice gets close enough to the surface to hear them talking. Fortunately (or not) early on the game designers have planned for the immediate gamer instinct of “I’m playing a venomous arachnid, let’s see if I can bite people!” and you are not in a position to actually come in contact with the itinerant treasure-seekers. It is an interesting and unusual storytelling mechanic not often seen as the core in videogames.
Ever wish you could be a fly on the wall? It would probably be something like this, booming nearly distinct voices filtering down the tunnels, words spoken by figures so large that you can’t hardly get a a good look at them in their entirety, even when you make it into the full light of day to do so. Your interaction with that aspect of the game, however, is somewhat unsatisfying. The two humans poking around serve more as a complex deus-ex, potentially causing trouble for the underground denizens, than an actual part of your story as the player. In fact, your story is much simpler and more primal. Eat, kill the other critters before they kill you, eat some more. The RPG elements, the brief missives delivered by the game as a part of the HUD (the visual toolset that does things like tell you when you’ve been damaged, etc.)
If you’re a platform fan, then the game play isn’t going to be hugely innovative. But then, if all you play are platformers, then perhaps innovation is not your cup of tea. The standard conventions are all here, lots of running about, collecting items (in this case grubs or crickets as an example) that will help you earn points, boost your health and give you a little extra oomph when you need it. There are a number of “boss” style battles that follow standard protocol (boss attacks, attacks, attacks, then gives you an opening to strike their weak spot) with the interesting twist here being surviving the battle as opposed to winning the battle. This game also has its share of standard annoyances, rocks you should be able to jump over but can’t, the occasional invisible wall, or inability to leave an area (though it looks like you should be able to) until the combat is finished and/or all the enemies have been dispatched.
All in all this is still a fun, fast little game, turned on its ear by the unusually realistic graphics and audio work. It could be setting the stage for a new type of game, one that focuses on a more “photo-real” look and feel as opposed to the “hyper-real” we are so accustomed to. Enjoyable (particularly for the 8-12yr old set) and not as huge an investment of you time as, say, Twilight Princess. I’m not one to hand out a ratings ranking (there’s a solid billion other sites that will do that if you’re looking for numbers) but I would absolutely recommend renting this and giving it a go until after the second level to see if it trips your trigger. Once you get used to the lack of “gamy-ness” I think you’ll find something unique on the game store shelves and hopefully a harbinger of more to come.