Review: Tron Evolution (Xbox 360)

Tron Evolution
Developer: Propaganda Games
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Genre: Action
Release Date: 12/07/2010

I was eight years old when I first saw Tron. It wasn’t long after that my dad finally ponied up the money for cable TV, and I found myself with free access to the Disney Channel, which at that time was a paid “movie” channel like HBO, which showed movies several times a day. Two of those were usually Condorman and Tron. Within a couple of months I’d watched the movie so much that I had its entirety memorized. It fired up my imagination about computers and what they could be used for. Now, twenty-eight years later, I find myself working on computers every day and I know how badly DISNEY LIED TO ME. However, that has not discouraged my love for the original film.

Along with that, of course, were innumerable quarters plucked from my Dad’s pocket and deposited into the Tron arcade game. It was the first machine I ran to for at least two years, and as I’d play it, I’d wonder if video games would ever reach the point where they looked like they did “from the other side of the screen.”

Well here we are in 2010. There’s a new Tron movie out, which I enjoyed despite its many faults (Most of which were in the original film as well. I honestly think a lot of the bad reviews the movie is getting are from reviewers looking at the original film through rose-tinted glasses.), and as is the norm these days, there is a movie tie-in game to go along with it. Does it finally fulfill my hopes of a game that lives up to the wonder of the first movie? Keep reading, users, keep reading.

1. Story

For some reason known only to Propaganda Games, Tron Evolution is a mid-quel that takes place between the original film and Tron Legacy. Now to explain it I’ll have to spoil some plot points for the second film, so if you haven’t seen it yet, be forewarned.

As it is explained in the second film, Kevin Flynn has been spending his spare time on a closed mainframe of his design working on building the “perfect system.” He designed a new version of CLU and brought Tron over from ENCOM’s mainframe to help him with this endeavor. During this time, these new anomalous entities called “Isos” appeared. As best as I can figure out, they are programs that have evolved into a sort of new lifeform, whose functions and coding offer the key to the mysteries of the universe. Or something. The movie plays loose with them, so it’s not made overly clear. According to Tron Legacy, CLU comes to see these Iso’s as imperfections in the system, and so begins what boils down to cybernetic genocide, simultaneously cutting off Flynn’s access to the real world. The game seeks to tell the backstory of how CLU pulled all of this off, and how Flynn initially tried to prevent it.

So as the game begins, Jalen, leader of the Iso’s, is apparently de-rezzed (Tron-speak for “killed”) by a viral progam named Abraxus (the game calls it murder). Flynn designs a new System Monitor (ie a security program) called Anon to find Abraxus and remove it from the system.

Now though the movies bear his name, Tron himself has always been a supporting character. He is a security program originally designed to “monitor everything that goes in or out of the system” and shut down anything that’s out of the norm. Again, it’s stated clearly by both the game and the new film that Flynn transferred Tron from ENCOM over to his new system. So with Tron, the ultimate Security Monitor, already ON the Grid, why did Flynn feel the need to design a new one, especially one that wears a mask and is apparently a mute?

Here is a game named after Tron, but Tron barely appears in it outside of a couple of cut scenes before he is “killed,” which happened in the movie as well (I’m walking on egg shells here to try and avoid a major movie spoiler). Why not just put the game a bit earlier in the time frame of the films and let gamers do what they’ve wanted to do since the arcade game: play as Tron, and let the plot end where Tron is “killed” and CLU takes over the system? Better yet, have Flynn and, why not, Ram, Yori and Sark as unlockable characters? I’m guessing it was to keep costs down by not having to pay Bruce Boxleitner to record a full game’s worth of voice-over work, and since the cut scenes are the only real time you see any of these characters with their masks off, I’d also guess that it kept them from having to constantly render the actor’s faces in the actual game engine.

So we end up playing with a faceless, voiceless, literally anonymous character whose very creation is made retroactively redundant from a story standpoint by the fact that Tron is already in the system serving the same exact purpose that Anon was designed for. And since this character is not mentioned at all in the new film, it doesn’t take a degree in computer science to figure out that you will play through this game to the end, only to see your blank slate of an avatar take a page from Noble 6’s playbook long before you actually make it there.

Simply put, I would have much preferred to have just played a game based on the new film’s plot and been given the option of playing as Sam or Quorra with Flynn, CLU, Tron, Rinzler (hehehe) and all the original characters from the first film as unlockable bonus characters, because none of the story that they have shoehorned in here makes any difference on the plot of the movie that follows it. It’s like reading a novel about what happened to Anakin between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. He still turns into an emo Vader at the end regardless, so who really cares?

2. Graphics

What you see is what you get. The game looks like what you see in Tron Legacy, with a few touches here and there that hearken back to the original film. But that’s not praise. Oh no.

Firstly, the character animation is very jerky. There are no smooth transitions from one moveset to the next. Anon’s running animation looks like it was lifted from Nathan “Rad” Spencer in the abysmal Bionic Commando game. During cutscenes the characters have facial mapping that’s up to the standards of this gen, but the lifelessness of the eyes and faces still somehow manage to give them a last-gen feel.

The environments, from a purely graphical viewpoint, are stunning, with great texture work and fantastic lighting. But the design renders them lifeless, as every single level looks almost identical to the one before it, with the only real differences being the shade of neon that lines the walls, and a bit of pixelated slime called “corruption” splattered here and there to liven things up with some nice pea soup green. What this amounted to were situations where, due to the camera (I’ll get to that in a minute), I would often find myself confused as to which way I came in and which way I was going, causing me to have to rely on Bit to show me the way more often than I should have. This also factors into being able to tell where you’re supposed to go once you DO find the right direction, as from a distance of more than thirty feet, everything seems to be this big gun metal gray rectangle with a smattering of neon here and there, so the way to the next area only becomes clear when you’re right up on it. For this style of game, that is not something you want to put up with. But I won’t lie. The light cycles look bloody amazing. Too bad you have to play the multiplayer to even enjoy them.

3. Sound

This one’s a real hit or miss too. The voice acting is mostly very well done, I’ll give them that, with the one glaring exception being the Jeff Bridges soundalike they used for Flynn/CLU. But since the game is telling a completely superfluous and lackluster story, you won’t really notice either way. The sound effects are appropriately electronic in style, with a nice otherworldly but subtle echo/reverb effect used throughout. Some of Daft Punk’s score is used in-game, and is just as great as it is in the film. Unfortunately, as far as I could tell, only two of them were used, and are repeated ad nauseum until your brain just turns it off as background buzz. I wish they’d either brought the entire score over, or better yet, had Daft Punk write some music specifically for the game. What little there is is good, but it’s just not enough, even for a game as short as this one.

4. Control and Gameplay

There’s no nice way I can put this: Tron Evolution is a straight rip-off of Prince of Persia with some God of War wannabe “Disks of War” style combat thrown into the mix. You have your contextual long jumps, your wall running, your wall climbing, the whole shebang. I am not exaggerating when I say that every single level navigation mechanic used in the last two Prince of Persia titles, short of the elemental manipulation seen in Forgotten Sands and the pole spinning, is on display here. They even ripped off 2088’s Prince of Persia reboot by having Bit from the first film appear at the push of a button to run along the floor and leave a trail for you to follow if you get lost. It’s blatantly copied to the point where the designers of Dante’s Inferno and even K.C. Munchkin would play this and probably say “Man, these guys are real rip-off artists!” It’s so bad that, what with the samey looking “Tron World” levels and faceless bland game character, it practically gives one the sensation of playing Prince of Persia with all the textures and mapping turned off.

The worst part is that they could so shamelessly rip off the game design, but not bother to rip off the control quality. Anon moves with all the grace of a misfired cannon ball in some scenarios and is basically running on auto pilot in others. You’re either missing jumps and falling to an instant de-rezzing (no rewind feature here, you’re just “restored from a backup” at your last checkpoint) or you’re setting off what can only be described as a navigational quick time event that has no on screen indicators.

Then there’s the combat. It’s a sort of mish-mash of the fighting system in The Forgotten Sands mixed with a little God of War, insofar as the long range attacks mixed with close quarters melee attacks and combos you can pull off with your identity disk. The problems here are almost limitless. First off, all of the enemies look more or less the same, and since there is no lock-on feature, the only way to know which of the six or seven drones the game throws at you at a time is the one you’ve been beating on is to look at their life bar, which is shaped like the v symbol on Sark’s chest from the original film. Secondly, the camera will randomly just decide to show you the back end of a wall whenever Anon gets too close to it, or change to a straight overhead view where you can’t see anything but the shiny silver floor. But don’t worry about dying because of such failures in design. The developers have compensated for this by putting these glowing trash cans everywhere that you can leapfrog over to instantly refill one of the slots in your special power bar, and strips of glowing neon all over the walls that replenish your life bar when you wall run across them. So while there is a very deep upgradable combo system akin to God of War, you’ll never need to use much more than the “disk, disk, melee” combo, even with enemies that have specific weaknesses to certain special disks you earn along the way, because if your lifebar or power bar is low, you just have to run around jumping onto walls or over trashcans to keep yourself alive. So every fight eventually boils down to “Kill two guys instantly with a power move. Run and jump over a trash can. Kill another guy. Jump over another trash can. If you get hit, find the nearest blue strip and wall run across it and fill up your life bar. Repeat.”

The developers decided to spice things up with some vehicle sections here and there. These boil down to two experiences: light cycles and tanks. Both of them, I am sad to say, are horrible. The light cycle levels are all just three to four minute intermissions where you fly down a straight line, avoiding falling objects and death-from-above enemy fire, while swerving to avoid drop offs and disk-spamming enemy bikers. For one thing, the bike is way too sensitive. Anything above just the slightest push will send you flying off the road. Secondly, there is no strategy to the combat. Just keep throwing your disk as fast as you can, and sooner or later, an enemy will swerve in front of you and eat it. I didn’t even have to pay attention to where they were outside of avoiding their light walls. I just kept throwing my disk, whether they were near me or not, and let the non-existent AI do the rest of the work for me.

The tank battles are even worse. These tanks feel like they move at half the speed of the tanks in the original film. You have a standard attack and a sort of EMP blast attack. You move from one side of a straight road to another, occasionally falling through a gap onto an identical road beneath you, and shoot at tanks, Recognizers, and foot soldiers. But every few feet, there are markers on the road that fill both your health bar and your EMP blast attack, so there’s never any challenge. Shoot one tank with an EMP blast, instant one-shot kill, back up over the road markers, refilling your health and power meter, then move forward, kill the next tank, back up again, then move past the barrier to the next identical section of the road. It’s so laughably atrocious that the game could have played the whole thing through for me like the game assist function in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and it would have been no less fun for it.

Then there’s the online multiplayer. This is where the game comes closest to shining, but still manages to fall short of the mark. You have four game modes, each with a ten player cap: Disintegration (Deathmatch), Team Disintegration (Team Deathmatch), Power Monger (Domination capture and hold style matches), and Bit Runner (Capture the Flag.) There are only four maps (though two more have since been made available as free DLC), and while you can use vehicles in all four modes, only two of the maps allow it, as the other two are smaller maps with multi-plane terrain.

In the levels that do allow for vehicles, it’s pretty fun, and the closest to what fans have wanted a Tron game to be. Much like last summer’s Transformers: War for Cyberton multiplayer, you can switch to light cycle/vehicle mode at any time during a match (in the two maps that allow it of course). You can choose between three different models: one based on the original movie, one based on the new movie, and a design made especially for the game. The differences between the three from a gameplay perspective seem to be minimal at best, but it is fun to be able to zip around in that old style bike. Unlike the light cycle sections of the campaign, here you’re free to blaze a trail in any direction you wish. When you dodge another player, you do a 90 degree turn as seen in the original film, which doesn’t cause an instant kill but does inflict damage to anyone that slams into it. When everyone is on their bikes zig zagging around, it makes for some really insane gameplay, and was the only time during my experience with the title that had me on the edge of my seat.

There are also tanks lying about, and if you can get to them before the other players, you can hop in and start blasting the bits out of opponents, though their placement on the map makes it almost not worth the effort, and they can be blown up fair easily if you let opponents get too close.

The disk combat plays exactly like the campaign, and your online stats are tied directly to your single player upgrades, so it causes a huge imbalance issue, since those who have taken the time to earn even a third of the power ups from the single player experience will be able to just dominate over newcomers to an almost laughable degree. This may come as highly discouraging for more casual players who mainly bought the title out of nostalgia and keep them “off Grid,” such as it were. However, the developers could make a few changes here and there, throw five or six more free maps online, and the multiplayer, at least for Tron fans, would be worth the sixty bucks alone. Firstly, make it so you earn experience faster in the multiplayer than you do in the single player campaign, so that those who haven’t been mining for experience in the campaign won’t be at such a disadvantage. Secondly, it would be nice to have some mini games thrown in, perhaps hi-def re-imaginings of the various game modes in the original arcade game. Thirdly, if any game NEEDED recordable matches or a spectator mode, this is it. In matches where everyone is speeding back and forth in their light cycles, just sitting back and watching it from an overhead view or an ever-changing perspective like the replays in a racing sim would become a very popular feature.

5. Replayability

As stated above, you can boost your character Kratos style during the campaign, and those level ups and new equipment/skills are reflected in the multiplayer. So while the campaign is painfully short (between five to seven hours depending on skill and difficulty setting) the multiplayer makes up for it, but only to a certain degree due to the limited mode and map selection. The multiplayer component feels like the beta version, and we’re still waiting for all the other maps to come out, which is really a shame, since it’s the only part that’s really worth playing.

6. Balance

Due to its broken nature, the combat is insultingly easy, while the Prince of Persia platforming is needlessly frustrating due to shoddy, unresponsive controls and a horrible, jittery camera. While the multiplayer is just leagues above and beyond the campaign in terms of both playability and fun, the imbalance caused by EXP-miners from the campaign can cause it to be a bit more frustrating for newcomers than it should be. You can be the best gamer in the world, but if you go up against a guy who has twice your life and boosted stats that can kill you in one light attack, it’s going to be a while before you start feeling like you’re getting your money’s worth. In short, there’s no hope for the campaign, but the balance of the multiplayer could be fixed with some minor tweaking.

7. Originality

My, oh my, oh my. Do I even need to bother explaining at this point? While the multiplayer offers a fresh (yet sadly abbreviated) experience that I haven’t really seen an equivalent for in any other game on any other system, the campaign mode is just dripping with scorn from its outright theft. It’s very rare that I play a game that actually disgusts me, but the campaign mode really takes the cake. Even some of the animations, such as the way Anon runs along walls or climbs or vaults over obstacles, are just lifted straight from Prince of Persia. I don’t know how I could more accurately stress this point. It makes it to where instead of enjoying the game for what it is, you will spend the whole time slogging through the campaign loathing it for what it’s trying to be.

8. Addictiveness

The multiplayer, despite the lack of modes and maps, is very addicting. It’s a lot of fun, and after Christmas is done and over with I plan to go back to it and run some guys into my light walls. But the campaign is the exact opposite of addicting. It’s repulsing. It discourages you from even putting the disc in the machine, much less loading it up and actually playing it. It’s gamer kryptonite.

9. Appeal Factor

Obviously this title comes with a built in audience, but I have to question whether or not this is the game they want from the Tron license. I think this game would have been better served towards the legacy of the movies upon which it is based had the campaign been trashed completely and the multiplayer made the sole component, and this is not something I say lightly, as I am very outspoken about the negative effect a rushed multiplayer aspect can have on a game’s single player campaign, and how I hate that developers seem to think that they need to allocate funds from a primarily single player game’s budget to tack on a rushed multiplayer add-on. But in this case, the multiplayer really is the best part of the title, and is the closest to being in the actual world of the Game Grid that any gamer and fan of the series could hope for. Still, the campaign is there, it’s broken, there’s no fixing it, so I have to say this game’s appeal is limited to fans of Tron who will play five minutes of the campaign, hate it, and jump straight into the multiplayer, or fans of the Prince of Persia series who will buy this just so they can play what feels like a Tron skin mod.

10. Miscellaneous

Abraxus looks like one of the Helghast with neon-yellow fibre-optic cabling sewn into his cloak, so apparently no franchise was safe. I kept waiting for the Master Control Program to show up in black and neon red Spartan armor.

The Scores
Story: Awful
Graphics: Decent
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Bad
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Bad
Originality: Awful
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Bad
FINAL SCORE: Poor Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
I feel almost guilty about this score, because the multiplayer has the potential to be every Tron fan’s dream come true, but it’s hampered not only by the lack of modes and maps and the poorly balanced leveling system, but also by the inescapable lead weight of the horrid and completely derivative single player campaign wrapped around its neck, choking the life out of it. Unfortunately, I can’t rate a game based on the potential for one aspect of it to ONE DAY be great. I can only rate it based on what it has out of the box, and what it has is a worthless, too short single player campaign that is a soulless intellectual property heist on disk, and an exciting but flawed and all too brief multiplayer mode that feels like a beta that still needs more work. I wanted this game to be great. Maybe one day the multiplayer will be. But this is today, and today, Tron Evolution needs some serious debugging.

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