TRON: Evolution (XBOX 360) Review
(Edited to contain my multiplayer review)
I was born six years after the first TRON movie hit theatres, so I wasn’t able to enjoy the fantastic digital world presented in that Disney flick when it was initially released; I did, however, get to view it when it aired on the Disney Channel sometime around the 20th anniversary. I think I was 13 at that time and I had seen better movies with far better visual effects, art direction, and writing—but there was something oddly alluring about the dated picture that pulled me in and kept me fascinated with the world of the programs and their struggle for liberation from the MCP (Master Control Program) and their belief in the Users. It was a movie that didn’t attempt profound storytelling, favoring flair and fun over meaningful messages (although one could argue that the flick had dealt with corporate corruption or the dangers of technological advancement, just as one could argue that it had strong religious meanings with the programs looking to Kevin Flynn, the User, for salvation—it, like any piece of fiction, is really up to the viewer to determine the meaning and, for me, it was just a fun movie).
TRON is a franchise heavily rooted in videogame references and has a history of successful videogames (fun fact: the original TRON arcade cabinet was a bigger success than the film upon which it was based (you can get the original arcade game on XBLA, but I wouldn’t recommend it because it is pretty wonky with a standard controller)). Following the 20th anniversary of the film, Disney had Monolith develop TRON 2.0 in an attempt to get the franchise some more footing to see if a film sequel would be a wise decision at that point and, while TRON 2.0 was a critical success (it’s an awesome game, btw, so if you haven’t played it, check it out—even if it’s no longer considered canon), it was a financial disappointment and the franchise faded back into its cult status and obscurity. It wasn’t until 2008 that the franchise would get back into the spotlight with a dazzling Comic-Con teaser that was met with thunderous applause and rabid fanboyish excitement (I wasn’t there to experience it, but I had a pretty hardcore nerd-spasm when I heard about it and watched the crappy shaky-cam footage on YouTube). The positive reception of the teaser led to the green-lighting of the film and two years later we got the absolutely awesome TRON: Legacy (I loved Legacy and think it’s a marvel to watch with a fantastic soundtrack—critics be damned!).
With TRON: Legacy released and Disney hoping to reestablish the franchise as a moneymaking behemoth, there is, of course, a game tie-in, TRON: Evolution. I was a bit wary when it was announced because it has the stigma of being a movie-game with the development cycle tied to being completed by the time the film comes out—I knew I was going to play it because I’m a major TRON geek, but I braced myself to be disappointed with ugly visuals, broken gameplay, and a substandard story. Disney’s own Propaganda Games taking the helm of this game and that was the another warning sign for me since they’re a studio with only one game under their belt (the lackluster Turok reboot). However, while I will make no claims that this is a great game or a game of the year contender, it is by no stretch of the imagination a “bad” game.
TRON: Evolution does away with the first-person gameplay of Monolith’s 2.0 and favors, instead, a Prince of Persia-esque platforming system. It doesn’t really have the brain-teasing puzzles that are present in a PoP game, but there’s an abundance of wall running and death-defying jumps. Level exploration is linear with a defined “point A to point B” structure of progression, but the environments are vast and there’s plenty of combat to keep you occupied on your journey. The platforming works fine and I honestly found it to be more enjoyable and fluid that the most recent installment in the PoP series (The Forgotten Sands).
Adding variety to the game’s progression are the light cycle and light tank scenarios—while it would be easy to complain about how heavily scripted these scenes are or how disappointing it is that it’s basically a race to get to the next area with no frills, I found both of them to be enjoyable and a much needed distraction from the platforming (as I said, the platforming works fine, but there’s no real puzzles to speak of, so the variety added here is essential). The light cycle sequences aren’t really anything to write home about and consist of you driving forward on a predetermined path while avoiding explosions, derezzing environments, and other programs on light cycles—it’s heavily scripted and not innovative in any way, but I found it to be fun with some heart pounding intensity as I raced toward my destination desperately dodging foes determined to derez me. It’s the kind of videogame sequence that’s fun for the first time, but more predictable with each subsequent playthrough. The light tank sequences are similarly structured on a predetermined path with scripted enemies and such, but they evoke nostalgia as they are obviously heavily inspired by Space Paranoids (an arcade game created by Kevin Flynn and seen in action in the first movie, for those of you who don’t know). A good comparison would be the Metropolis level in HALO 2 where you have to get across the bridge in the Scorpion as Banshees and Ghosts try to take you out—the light tank sequences in Evolution have you blasting through Recognizers and the armies of CLU to reach the end of the scenario. Again, it’s nothing spectacular or original, but the variety is a benefit, it works well, and I found it to be enjoyable as both a gameplay element and a nod to the original fiction.
Combat in the game has you using your Identity Disc to dispatch foes through a blend of melee and ranged attacks. As your character upgrades to higher versions (i.e. levels up), more combos and disc upgrades become available to assist you in derezzing enemies. Combat works well if you’re not a rabid button masher, there’s a needed finesse to pulling off a proper combo and constantly just tapping buttons in hopes to progress beyond the combat scenario is going to end in tragedy for you, program. The array of attacks that you can unlock become more flashy and (T-rated appropriate) brutal—the game is, however, lacking a finishing move (unless I was just doing something wrong) with downed enemies. I think it’d be neat if you kneel over your downed enemies and land a derez-dealing blow with your Identity Disc, but that seems to be nonexistent.
Graphically, I found Evolution to be hypnotically beautiful. It uses the same visual style as the new film (which some might find odd considering it takes place during the time of Flynn’s disappearance, but you have to remember that this is a new system created after the MCP and the same system Sam is pulled into—so, really, it makes sense), so the environments have a futuristic black and blue sheen that some may find bland and barren, but I love the look of the movie and, therefore, the game. So, the armour and environments all look great; some of the faces, however, could have used a little more loving attention as they come off creepy and robotic. Character animations are fluid and refined, however some combat and platforming strings have an unwanted jerkiness to them—it doesn’t break the game but it could/should have been ironed out. Regardless of those complaints, Evolution looks like a highly polished game with high production values and a beautiful visual style.
TRON: Evolution’s story takes place in between the two films and chronicles the disappearance of Flynn and TRON as well as CLU’s uprising. I won’t delve into details in case you haven’t seen Legacy, but Flynn’s been gone since ’89, CLU (which is really CLU 2.0 since the original was derezzed by the MCP in the first movie) betrayed his maker, and TRON stayed to fight CLU and his minions so that Flynn could escape—he hasn’t been seen since and is presumed dead. The story isn’t a Shakespearian masterpiece, nor does it try to be, it’s more of the “here to be fun” kind of storytelling that is common to the franchise, but it does well to expand the universe and gives fans like myself something to talk about and geek over. I don’t need my TRON story to be filled with allegories and meanings, I need it to be fun and expand the fiction that I know and love, and Evolution succeeds in that task.
Evolution’s soundtrack is strong with a cast of talented actors bringing the story to life and a booming score that does a fantastic job of accenting the action—the score can easily stand on its own as a great addition to the TRON music-verse but it’s made even more memorable by the two Daft Punk tracks that are included. The cast of actors carry their roles well with Bruce Boxleitner and Olivia Wilde reprising their big-screen roles of TRON and Quorra respectively; Jensen Ackles of Supernatural fame lends his voice to Gibson; Fred Tatasciore takes over the roles of Kevin Flynn and CLU and does a fine job sounding like the Oscar winning actor who made those characters who they are; and, of course, Nolan North plays a voice role. It’s not going to win any awards, but the cast all do a fine job bringing their characters to life and making the world presented more believable.
With all that said, you must be wondering how long Evolution can keep you engaged, right? Well, Evolution employs RPG elements to improve your character and your version continues to grow in both the single-player campaign as well as the online modes. There are a total of 50 versions (character levels) at the point of this writing and the game features downloadable content to expand the experience (which will likely be restricted to online maps). There’s also an unlockable difficulty beyond the three you can choose to play when you first pop the game in. Evolution’s campaign consists of seven chapters that can take you anywhere between 6-15 hours to play (it all really depends on what difficulty you play on—if you play on easy, you can zip right through (provided you actually know how to play games), if you play on hard or insane, it’s going to take you a bit more time to get through the game’s challenges). If you’re a fan of the TRON universe, you’ll likely be more inclined to replay the campaign multiple times; for the rest of you, it’s likely to be a “one and done” sort of deal and you’ll be better off sticking with a rental instead of purchasing the game. There are also collectibles scattered throughout the environments that completionists and fans will spend extra time seeking out to gain the achievements or more insight to the world of TRON and the game’s story.
The multiplayer package of TRON: Evolution features a small variety of game modes: Disintegration (which is essentially a free-for-all deathmatch), Team Disintegration (it’s like standard Disintegration, but less free-for-all-y and more team-y), Bit Runner (which is similar to HALO’s Oddball but instead of a skull, you’re trying to hold onto a Bit (if you saw the original movie, you’d know Bit… Bit, unfortunately, isn’t in Legacy) which also sucks your life and energy), and Power Monger (which has you trying to control power nodes... like the capture points in Battlefield 1942 or STAR WARS: Battlefront or some other game with a similar game mode that I haven’t played or can’t think of). There’s not really a wide variety of games to choose from, which is disappointing, but, let’s face it, you’re only going to be playing Disintegration mostly so you can try to get as many light cycle derezzes as possible. There’s nothing truly innovative with the game mode offerings, but they’re all fun and the added TRON charm gives them that extra oomph to keep you playing a little while longer.
Initially, there are only four maps available, which is a really weak number of maps for a multiplayer mode, but new games come with a redeemable code for two more maps (as well as a multiplayer skin) and I went ahead and bought the recently released map pack for 400 MS Points which has five maps, one of which is the original light cycle grid from the first movie! So, I’m up to 11 maps and it only cost me the five bucks (five bucks for five maps, that’s the way it should be). The first four maps aren’t bad, but you might get sick of them pretty quick because gamers like variety—Circuit Board is my favorite of the original four maps but even I can only play that for so long. It’s probably the nostalgia, but Classic (the original light cycle grid in the $5 DLC) is my favorite map of them all (seriously, it has everything from the classic Recognizers to the hole in the wall where Flynn, TRON, and RAM escaped… playing in the vintage light cycle added to all that and you have hours of fun marinated in glorious nostalgia).
I think the developers knew that this game wasn’t going to have much of an impact on the multiplayer front compared to other titles out there, so the approach to finding a game is more along the lines of just join and play (you can even switch teams during a match) than the more “serious” competitive games like HALO or CoD. There are no ranked matches and there’s no real punishment for leaving early other than losing the XP you earned during that match (your character’s version and XP carry over from single player to multiplayer). There’s also no regulation on what version characters can be in what matches or filtering it to find a more fair fight for yourself, but it doesn’t really matter because they did a pretty decent job of keeping things balanced (I have a level 50 character and have had my butt handed to me more than a few times by characters half my version).
You have character loadouts (you can have up to three different loadouts, but only one slot is available from the beginning with the other two needing to be purchased upon a version upgrade) that allow you to equip two disc mods, an enhancer (enhancers can either benefit only your character, or your entire team—this is another one of those balancing things because if a version 10 has a version 50 on the team and that version 50 has an enhancer equipped that grants all teammates added damage or damage resistance, then that version 10 is on a much more level playing field), and what light cycle you want to use (they all have their positives and negatives, but I usually stick with the Gen 5… the Gen 2 is awesome because it’s vintage and the fastest on the grid, and I like the way the Gen 4 looks because it’s like a cross between the original light cycles and the new ones, but Gen 5 is a balanced derez dealing machine… all of this makes me wonder what the Gen 3 looks like). So, with only being able to equip your character with 2 disc mods, one enhancer, and a light cycle, you can’t really overpower your character to the point of invincibility; being able to enhance your team as a whole also gives your less advanced programs the boost needed to play more evenly with the higher versions.
Combat works in multiplayer the same way it does in single player with that same blend of ranged and melee disc combat and you get XP when they derez. Instead of leaving behind energy shards in multiplayer, they leave behind some extra XP that anybody can pick up; so, if you want full credit for your kills, be quick to pick up the XP shard. Energy is refilled in multiplayer differently than in single player in that you are running along energy panels (similar to the health panels) instead of vaulting over glowing energy thingies. My biggest complaint with this is that it took me a while when I first started playing the multiplayer modes to realize this, but that was more a User error than anything else. With team games, there are also colored panels—if you use the opposing team’s panels, you will lose health… unless you have the enhancer that allows you to use their panels.
The real fun in the multiplayer modes comes from the vehicular combat. The vehicle maps all feature tanks that you can rampage in, yeah, but the light cycles are what you really came for, isn’t it? The light cycles drive on the grid as they do in Legacy, allowing you to ease in to turns and such (the original light cycles could drive like real-world bikes, too, but not on the game grid) while leaving behind a deadly wall of light for your opponents to run into—you can also do the famous 90 degree turn. Seriously, light cycle battles are some of the most fun I’ve had online in a game in quite some time… it’s a thrill when you are playing a game of chicken with an opponent and you both do a quick 90 degree snap and you’re racing head-to-head just hoping to get far enough ahead to cut the other player off to run him (or her, I guess… girls can play games too) into your light wall. It’s an absolute blast. While I will say that it’s not really canonical that you can drive through your own or your teammate’s light walls, it was a smart decision in game design (especially since the new light walls are translucent). My only real complaint is that sometimes you can’t make the quick turns you were going for—like, if you double tap the quick turn button too fast, you’ll end up only doing one 90 degree turn and likely end up crashing into the wall you were hoping to avoid. Still, it’s fun.
There’s probably going to be a lot of guff about this review since I actually liked the game and so many people are predisposed to hate it since it’s a movie licensed title or the “real” critics gave it abysmal to mediocre reviews, but I stand by my beliefs. TRON: Evolution may not be truly innovative in any sense, but it provides plenty of content that I found to be a joy to play, an excellent soundtrack, beautiful visuals, and enough TRON fiction to keep the fans happy for the time it takes for the next film or game installment to be released. Evolution is by no means a great game, and I won’t declare that it is, but it is a good game—the mechanics work the way they should with fast-paced, fluid gameplay in beautiful environments with a strong cast and awesome musical score.
I really would like to see them continue the game series independent of the inevitable film sequels to allow the developers more time to add more features and functionality to the games. I would love to see some free-roaming exploration added to the game on top of the action/platforming already in there as well as a BioWare-esque conversation system—just imagine how awesome it would be to truly explore the world of TRON and be able to interact with other programs and fight for the Users or become a rogue program that is a hazard to the system. That kind of freedom would be an awesome addition to the franchise. TRON 2.0 failed to get the sales it needed because it was a game based on an IP that had done nothing new for 20 years—not enough people knew what it was! With TRON: Legacy out and the brand reestablished, people know what TRON is now and the games should be able to stand on their own and it’s likely that they would be more successful than Evolution is going to be if they’re not carrying the baggage of being written off as a movie-game.