Sunday, August 25, 2013

Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex

When Naughty Dog started out with Crash Bandicoot back in the mid-1990s, its goal was to make a fun, deep, and likeable platform character game. While the first title had a few problems holding it back, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back set the record straight, and set Crash's, so to speak. Now that Universal has taken control of the title entirely, and has Travellers' Tales to take the mantle, the team decided to follow a familiar path. The goal? To make a fun, deep, and likeable platform character game for the PlayStation 2. Sound like a familiar phrase? Well yeah, it is, and every so often I have to remind myself that not every game has to be Twisted Metal: Black, Gran Turismo 3 or Grand Theft Auto 3.

Universal's Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex is everything you have come to expect from Crash Bandicoot in the past, from the classic bonus areas, to the forward scrolling chases to the pattern-based bosses, and Crash's cast of friends and characters, and it's wrapped up in a nice, high resolution set of graphics, presented with a good interface, and set to go.
It's simple platforming fun squarely set in the exact same mode as the previous Crash games. The Wrath of Cortex plays like the greatest hits of Crash Bandicoot, with extra vehicles, wild rides, and enemies to face off with, and while it's nothing terribly new, it's still a fun, light-hearted ride with one of the most liked platform characters on the face of the planet.
Everything you have come to know about Crash Bandicoot is right here in The Wrath of Cortex. The basis of the game boils down to the classic kind of plot with which you've become familiar: Uka Uka and Dr. Neo Cortex are working together again to try and do away with Crash, who has spoiled their evil plans at every turn, and this time Uka Uka wants to finish him off for good. Cortex's newest invention, however, may indeed solve the Crash Bandicoot puzzle once and for all. His new invention has been devised to utilize the power of these four ancient elementals -- earth, wind, fire and water. Each commands different powers and each causes destruction by creating natural disasters akin to their elements, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and tornadoes.
With his freaky new experimental creation, Crunch, Neo Cortex doesn't have to face Crash head-to-head; he can simply rule the world with his creation to do all the dirty work. Crunch, his genetically engineered super-creature, was specifically designed to defeat Crash, and like an evil twin brother, Crunch is relentless. But Crunch needs power to function well, thus the need for the Elementals. If Crunch gets the masks he could become the ultimate power in the world. Crash must secure the masks before Crunch and locate and destroy Cortex's bases to beat the game.
The game menu and design flow exactly like the first games. Players start in a five-fingered hub, in which five branches split off, and offer five missions each, for a total of 25 main missions. These are complemented by a handful of bonus levels (they kind in which you collect all sorts of booty) and one boss per world, for a total of 30 missions.
When it comes to gameplay, The Wrath of Cortex hasn't grown so much as it has expanded. The once narrow scrolling corridor has widened. Crash encounters a wild mix of adventures, that range from straightforward, third-person perspective platform levels, with apples to collect, Nitro to avoid, TNT to explode, and bonuses peppered everywhere. Some levels switch to side-scrolling sections, or forward-scrolling chase scenes, where Crash is either running or driving a parade of different vehicles, and Crash continues to plummet deep underwater for swimming and submarine levels.
Some of the newer experiences are quite fun. For instance, Crash flies a glider to torch a set of towers, while in another he drives a mech-loader (highly reminiscent of Ripley's loader), and in another he flies a helipack. Regardless of the vehicle of setting, the gameplay remains true to previous Crash games. He runs around, jumps on things, collects apples and bonuses, and through it all, players must balance timing and dexterous finger skills to succeed.
Little extras help add new little experiences along the way. Crash now earns a sneak move, so he can carefully walk on previous untouchable boxes and crates. He's able to collect new power-ups, too, such as invisibility and metallic, to help him through tough spots. Crash also pilots a gyro ball through several areas, which are designed like Marble Madness levels, and they're decent fun. Also, for the first time, players can take on the role of Coco, who has her own set of courses, snowboarding and starfighter levels, as well as straightforward platform adventures.
With the new version comes a certain level of annoyances and letdowns. The Wrath of Cortex's entire look and feel is sterile, formulaic and definitely unoriginal. It really doesn't offer anything new at all; I mean even the new stuff is old stuff. The game contains every clich? and overused platform gimmick in the book. Cart levels, the old swimming levels from Cortex Strikes Back, and well, the list pretty much starts from the game's beginning to its end. If I look at the game as a "Best of," I'd be mildly satisfied. But if I look at the game as a next-generation platform game, I'd be sorely disappointed.
One of my biggest grievances with Crash comes in the form of perspective. It's often incredibly difficult to gauge where one is relative to other objects. For instance, I can generally determine that how far or close a box is in front of me, and so the problem is easy to overcome. But in various places throughout the game -- in levels with lasers blasting from the walls, in some underwater levels or in the helipak levels -- gauging where Crash is relative to other objects is too difficult. In the helipak sections specifically, it's hard to measure how high or low Crash is, and so I died dozens of times unnecessarily. Better lighting and shadowing might have helped in these situations.
Visually, Crash Bandicoot is a highly polished, finished product. It's clean looking no matter what level you're in. Using the same cartoon-style design as previous Crash games, Crash Bandicoot and his cast of goofy friends look exactly the same as their predecessors, just crisper, cleaner, and sharper looking. The game itself is running at a generally solid 60 frames per second, and the resolution is high, so the overall look lacks aliasing and shimmering, and it looks nice and pretty.
The levels themselves shine with all sorts of effects, moving creatures, moving backgrounds, and deep, layered detail. The luscious landscapes, smooth surfaces, and specialized backgrounds are pretty. The special effects are top notch, too. The moving molten lava, torches and fires, with rising heat from torches and lava rivers, and reflective and transparent surfaces all look great. Frozen lakes to ice skate on, nicely gauzed underwater sections, and lots of particles flying everywhere sum up the rest of the game well.
When it comes to sound, the Crash games always have delivered a thumping, conga sound that's simplistic and follows a pretty basic formula. Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex follows suit without missing a beat. The music is exactly like those soundtracks you've heard before, and they're well, a little old, but still quite good for this kind of game. Personally, I'm ready for some new music in this game.
As for the sound effects, well, once again, we've got the classics up and down the line. The huge library of cartoony sounds that filled your ears years ago are here again with the exact same pop. None seem to be out of place.
But as has been the recurring theme in this review, there's a distinct lack of originality. Why not exploit the PlayStation 2 and its superior hardware to its full potential instead of falling into the same audio range as its PSOne buddies? Missed oppurtunity.
Over the years with Crash Bandicoot, I've had a weird time. Back in the PlayStation days, I felt overwhelmed by Crash marketing, dolls, and one new Crash game a year, including a technically good kart game that felt wholly unoriginal. Now that we're on the new system, the weight of all that stuff has fallen by the wayside, and I'm less hateful of the marsupial known as Crash. In fact, I have a strange endearment for him, or it, whatever.
Sure, I would have liked a newer game, and I definitely would have liked something with some spunk, originality, and creativity, but this game wasn't designed to be anything more than a functional, pretty platform game that follows the Crash formula by the numbers.
Given that Crash was created by a new development team, and has a new publisher, just from a design and production standpoint, Crash had a lot riding on him, perhaps too much. So, the best route for Universal Studios Interactive and its team was to follow the path already taken.
The result? A decent playing and pretty looking Crash Bandicoot game. It's nothing terribly special, but it's not bad, not bad at all. I hope that in the future we'll see some big changes, creativity-wise and hopefully, originality-wise, in the future with Crash. Or is that still expecting too much?