I have to confess, I’ve been a fan of Nick Park and Aardman animations for decades now. Not just the Wallace and Gromit stories, but the broader range of less-often-seen animations and projects they have produced over the years. I was really looking forward to this newest venture, an “episodic” series of adventure videogames, the first installment of which will have hit the market by the time this review goes to digital. Featuring the charming inventor and his forever patient pooch, “Wallace and Gromit: Fright of the Bumblebees” is developed by Telltale Games, arguably *the* only studio out there turning a profit following the episodic model of game development, so I had very high hopes. Telltale is professional — they take their stuff very seriously and would, I felt, treat the brand with the love it deserved.
The visuals are delightful. They pegged the look and feel of the more recent Wallace and Gromit universe (Curse of the Were-Rabbit) dead-on, and they spent the extra polygons where they were needed in order to get that rounded claymation look and feel. Thrown up on a 42” screen, you really get the sense that Wallaby Lane is a place you could visit if you had a mind to. There’s a bit of glitchiness with the shadowing, particularly around the eyes, but nothing beyond the pale for what I’d expect to see from a game. The voices are fabulous; though I’m given to understand we have a stand-in for the original Wallace, the actor they chose to replace him for this does a great job bringing the original characterization through.
The animations are really stuttery. The lip-sync seems to keep skipping to catch up and you get a constant sense of “oops, hang on a sec” that put me in constant fear that the game was just going to hang or lock up entirely (yes, you can lock up a console just like a PC or a Mac). Since I downloaded the game off of Xbox Live, I gave it an extra hour to be sure it was completely loaded onto the hard-drive and they weren’t pulling some oddball streaming content thing in the background. Didn’t help.
My big issue with the game is the gameplay itself. For those of you not familiar with the various genres, W&G: FoB falls under the heading of an “adventure” game. It’s a point and click interface where you explore the world to discover clues, find out new pieces of the story and generally mosey your way through the story. I played the XBL (Xbox Live) version of the game and found that, while moving Wallace through the world was simple enough by using the left thumbstick, the static camera angles really made you feel restricted, like you were deliberately being kept from exploring everything outside the ten-step-by-ten-step box encompassed by the camera’s POV.
I much prefer the “floating” third-person cameras you get with the more platformer-like adventure games such as Prince of Persia or even Super Mario Galaxy. Granted, if you restrict the camera you can do all sorts of pre-render tricks to give massive amounts of visual depth to the environment, but the systems can handle so much more these days than they could back when Myst was new under the sun that I would be surprised if this was still a truth rather than an established convention. On top of this, they didn’t really take advantage of the Xbox controller to give us additional gameplay options. The thing has as about as many buttons as the cockpit of a Cessna, which could have allowed for a much more expansive control scheme. It’s true that adventure titles usually try to restrict themselves to minimal mouse/keyboard usage on the PC, but along with the jump to console, I would have liked to have seen a bit more flexing of the creative muscles, a bit more taking advantage of the strengths a dedicated system has to offer.
In this style of game, you click on the object you want to interact with. Interactable objects show up when the mouse passes over the hotspot. In the XBLA version, however, you use the right thumbstick to select the first interactable object (which can be a bit of a trick if you’re not used to precision pointing), then you can scroll through the rest with a bit of button pushing, taking out a bit of the fun of these types of adventures. Between the immovable camera and the pre-selection of the objects, as well as the fact that the selection cursor is nigh-invisible even on a 42” screen, the gameplay feels choppy and slow, even though Wallace himself can move through the world with ease.
Despite the inherently clunky feel of the interaction, elements like the inventory system work very cleanly and are easy to access and use to solve problems. As in all adventure games, you collect items that you will need later on. A significant portion of the gameplay is in figuring out which items are used to do what, and if you don’t yet have an item, figuring out where and how to obtain it. This element, in fact, is so ingrained in adventure game play that you pretty much know, off the bat, that you need to pick up everything you can possibly get your hands on. I suspect if a game designer were to include multiple objects that suck up an inventory slot without having any actual gameplay purpose other than set-dressing, the ensuing flood of hate mail would send them back to designing free-to-play Flash games. That said, I would have liked a little more difficulty in figuring out some of the straightforward problems, a little more sideways thought required to make me feel like I’m contributing to Wallace’s bizarre sense of invention, rather than just posing as an errand boy collecting components.
The stories themselves are delightful as only Wallace and Gromit can be and the inventions will work in the wonderfully roundabout style you’ve come to expect from the videos. All in all, the game will probably take about 5 or 6 hours to work your way through with careful consideration, and there is not a lot in the way of side-quests or other inclusive elements to draw you back into exploring once the game is completed.
Knowing Telltale’s track record, I’m fairly confident the hanging and jittery elements of the animation will be fixed by the time the second episode is available (there were some similar issues when the first Sam and Max hit the Wii) as long as they are not inherent to XBLA in some fashion (for example, if assets are being streamed directly to the Xbox, rather than the entire product being downloaded in a single package).