While I loved Tron when it was originally released back in 1982, I was also six years old. When I look back at the movie with a more discerning eye, it doesn't hold up especially well. But the visual style and the basic setting of Tron--a man getting sucked into a computer world where he has to play video games for real--is still something that works today. With that in mind, it seems like we would have reached this point years ago, but here in 2010, the planets have finally aligned. That plodding-but-beloved 1982 sci-fi flick is finally getting a sequel in the form of Tron: Legacy. Meanwhile, Tron: Evolution (the video game) serves as a bridge between the two, giving you just enough of the cool old stuff to get interested while setting the stage and letting you know who the primary players will probably be in the upcoming film. The gameplay flounders in spots, but a few interesting set pieces and an informative story make this bridge at least somewhat successful.
The basic story of Tron: Evolution comes down to control over the system at large. A new type of self-evolving program has appeared, leading to racial tensions between the existing "basics" and these new "ISOs." Kevin Flynn, who is now revered by the programs as the creator of the grid, routinely checks into the ol' computer world to see how things are going. But when a virus known as Abraxas strikes, Flynn and Tron are presumed dead, and one of Flynn's creations--Clu, otherwise known as the "young Jeff Bridges" seen in the trailers for the upcoming film, attempts to seize control of the entire system. You play as a silent protagonist named Anon, a security monitor program that is another of Flynn's creations, and it's your job to stop the spread of the virus and, hopefully, stop Clu.
While the story can sound a little complicated and way crazy when you spell it out like that, seeing the early-game events unfold is really interesting if you've been at all interested in the upcoming film, which opens with Flynn being missing for 20 years. The game shows you where he went and why he wasn't around to raise his son. It also sets up the motivations for characters like Clu and Quorra while also giving you a sense of how the grid has changed since the first film. Chalk it up to advancing technology if you like, but the world of Tron isn't quite so neon-filled this time around. While it still has a big blue and futuristic tinge to it, you'll also travel outside the supposedly-safe havens of Tron City and see vast wastelands, where power is hard to come by. Like the original film, the game uses colors to signify things like control and influence, like the bright orange corruption that lets you know that Abraxas is at work in your current location.
Actually playing Tron: Evolution is where things get a little less exciting. For the most part, you'll switch between sections where you need to run along walls or climb around and sections where you'll fight groups of enemies before you're allowed to proceed. The traversal sequences are usually pretty straightforward, but sometimes the camera doesn't play along, leading to a few cases where you're not sure where you're supposed to be jumping next. To mitigate some of that, most of the walls and ledges you'll need to run on or hop to have icons on them. This reduces the need to explore the world, though there are collectibles stashed here and there for players who do decide to look behind every pillar and climb every surface. The critical path through these sequences is never too difficult and rarely requires you to do more than hold down the right trigger and make sure you're jumping off of the walls at the right time.
That wall-running and climbing also factors into the combat a bit, since you'll restore your energy and health by running over lit-up wall strips or vaulting off of energy nodes. But breaking away from the enemies that are lighting you up with disc tosses that home in on you can be a bit of a pain, making extremely defensive play the best way to stay alive when you're being attacked by wave after wave of glowing dudes. When you're blocking, any normal attack will bounce right off, giving you an opportunity to execute a more-damaging counterattack off of that block. You've got basic three-hit combos with disc tosses or melee, and you'll also acquire harder-hitting secondary attacks as you gain experience. This starts with the Heavy Disc, which is is a basic heavy attack. But you can eventually swap that for the Bomb Disc, which explodes, the Stasis Disc, which slows down enemies when they're hit, or the Corruption Disc, which siphons health from your targets. Certain enemies are weak to specific discs, so you'll have to switch them out on the fly as you face different types of foes. Those weaknesses are only shown to you when you first encounter a new type of bad guy, and since they all look pretty similar, I found it a little tough to keep track of all those weaknesses.
The combat can get extremely frustrating in spots, but it becomes easier as you get deeper into the game because you're constantly gaining experience points and getting points (megabytes, actually) that you can use to beef up your character. The standard add-ons of bigger health bars and more energy reserves are there, but the most game-changing ability I discovered is an auxiliary power that, once purchased, allows you to effectively turn invisible whenever you stand still. So in the middle of a fight, you can select Stasis and stop your enemies in their tracks. This lets you slowly crawl over to health or sneak up behind people to set them up for a charged-up melee attack. It makes the rest of the game a lot easier, and since your levels and abilities are persistent across multiple plays and multiplayer mode, it might be worth it to sink some time into multiplayer first before going into the campaign, just to start out with a little boost.
These two primary forms of action are broken up by vehicle sequences. The light tank sequences look sort of neat, as you get to blast apart a ton of recognizers while trying to get from point A to point B, but the tank controls feel clunky. The light cycle shows up in a few spots, too, and there's a great early moment--the first time you get to drive a light cycle--that's probably the best-looking thing in the entire game. The light cycles also show up in the game's multiplayer mode, but I think I'd rather go back to the original arcade game for light cycle action.
The behind-the-back camera view for the light cycles doesn't give you enough information to successfully ride them around the multiplayer mode's larger levels. Without a good sense of what sort of maze of lines you're leaving in your wake, using them effectively to murder your opponents is extremely tricky. In those maps, though, you're really only using the bikes to get from one control point to another, where you'll need to hop out of the bike (which is pretty cool) and finish the task on-foot. The game also has standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, but I was left feeling like the game's core combat doesn't really fit too well in the multiplayer. I ran into too many cases of focusing on defeating one enemy only to get totally jacked from behind by another combatant. The mode's not broken, and it makes use of Call of Duty-like perks, mods, and loadout slots, but aside from the bonus of building up your character in multiplayer to make single-player more varied, the multiplayer feels largely unnecessary.
While Tron: Evolution is set close to the events of the first film, the visual style appears to be a lot closer to the upcoming film. The ornate circuit designs on the characters from the original Tron have been replaced with fewer glowing paths and suits that look more like armor or computerized trench coats and such. It gives it all a more modern look, for sure. Also, the world has a decent amount of visual variety, taking you from the neon blue city areas to darker wastelands that have more mountain-like appearances. The best-looking parts of the game involve the light cycles, which deliver a good sense of speed with a healthy amount of camera shake. Racing away from recognizers as they bomb out sections of the road underneath you looks pretty intense. All in all, the game's environments look pretty nice, though the canned animations in the combat can get a little repetitive. The cutscenes also look decent, utilizing the likenesses of actors like Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and Olivia Wilde. The latter two of those actors also lend their voices to the project, though Bridges' two characters are voiced by a convincing soundalike. The voice cast, overall, does a fine job with the script, which helps make the story work. The music, some of which is taken from the upcoming film's soundtrack, is pretty good, too.
Parts of Tron: Evolution come close to breaking out of the standard licensed game mold, but most of those parts have absolutely nothing to do with the gameplay, which is usually pretty average. That said, as a guy that appreciated Tron back when it was released who is already interested in seeing the new movie, the way Evolution fleshes out the world and sets up the events of Tron: Legacy makes it a lot more interesting than it would have been otherwise.