Review: Wallace & Gromit Project Zoo (PS2)

Platform: Sony PlayStation2
Category: Platformer
Developer: Frontier Dev.
Publisher: Bam! Entertainment
Also On: Xbox, GameCube
The Down-Lo: A perfect Wallace & Gromit adventure, but a so-so videogame.

Out of the many things that elude me in life… Goths. Wealth. Ryan Seacrest’s Success. Disney’s Wuzzles Getting Cancelled. Otherkin. Integrity. Common Sense. Writing talent. Etc. Miraculously, British humor does not make the list. While my less cultured friends and family scratch their heads in utter confusion at even trying to make out what they’re saying half the time, within my demented mind Mr. Bean rules the comedy world with an iron fist and nothing beats the heaps of sexual innuendo literally gushing out of Are You Being Served?. “Ding! Going Up!”

So it may come as a surprise to learn that up until just a week ago, I had never seen a Wallace & Gromit adventure. Sure I had heard about Nick Park’s stop-motion animated Oscar winning The Incredible Adventures of Wallace & Gromit as a young Big Daddy Cool, but I was too busy watching Pinwheel, Special Delivery, and Where In The World Is Carmen San Diego to give anything else due attention. The Mrs. however, my beloved Bella, grew up with and absolutely adores the series. You see, she gets the whole English humor thing too (I must have married her for more than her licentiousness), and after being in total shock that I never gave the films a two-second look, she set about the mission of educating me in the ways of claymation penguins disguised as chickens.

Once gaining an appreciation of the series, I figured an appreciation of the game would soon follow, right? To an extent it did. Wallace & Gromit Project Zoo has some great things going for it. Namely it stays true to the spirit of Wallace & Gromit that I’ve quickly come to love. The look. The feel. The comedy. This seems less like a standalone licensed game cash-in, and more like an actual part of the series legacy. The problem is it looks as if tons more work went into making the game sound, look, and feel like a true Wallace & Gromit adventure, then what went into making the mechanics of gameplay feel polished and functional…

10-Point Reviewing Scale Technology: “It’s why we’re just better.”

1. PLOT: “I say! Heavens above, lad!”

Ahh. Wallace & Gromit. A classic endearing comedic pair if there ever was one. Wallace is the eccentric overly optimistic inventor & cheese lover, while Gromit is his heroic and intellectual dog. The relationship between the two appears reversed however, as Gromit treats Wallace as more of a pet than vice versa. And it’s not because Wallace is stupid, oh no. He just has a different point of view of the world. Wallace’s naivety and over the top good natured-ness often leaves him more vulnerable to those with bad intentions and life in general. Gromit is so much more grounded and self-aware concerning the dangers of his surroundings, that despite Wallace’s bordering on genius technical ability, he ends up being the one to figure the way through life for the both of them.

Fortunately for fans, this game doesn’t take place in its own vacuum outside the main Wallace & Gromit universe. Project Zoo is a direct sequel to the Oscar winning Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers, a short film in which a criminal mastermind manipulates Wallace (and his self-made mechanical trousers) into helping pull off a diamond heist from a museum. The identity of this evil genius, you ask? Upon first glance, he looks like your normal everyday friendly neighborhood chicken, but upon removing his ingenious (read: obvious) “disguise” consisting only of a red glove stuck to his head, it’s revealed that he is none other than FEATHERS McGRAW!! A notorious felonious penguin set to obtain what he wants by any dastardly and unorthodox means necessary. In the end of course, Gromit saves Wallace, the diamond, and the day, and Feathers McGraw gets sent to the porridge house for some hard time in the cooler room.

Project Zoo takes place one year later those events. We pick up with Wallace and Gromit on their way to the Zoo visiting their adopted pet polar bear, Archie, for his birthday. Upon arriving at the Zoo something’s immediately amiss, as they find the entrance pad locked shut when the Zoo should have been open hours ago. While figuring out what’s going on, the duo catch site of Feathers McGraw, apparently escaped from his imprisonment, entering the Zoo big pimpin’ like he owns the place. Worse yet, McGraw has Archie as HIS prisoner. Of course our boys won’t stand for that and after finding a charming way in, which I won’t spoil for you, your spirited adventure begins. Feathers is now running the Zoo, Mr. Big style, and the diabolical penguin has incarcerated all the baby animals in order to persuade their parents to do his bidding and manufacture gems from the coal being mined using the incredible diamond-o-matic. How dastardly eeeeeevil….. It’s your job to free the baby animals to gum up the mining operation and ultimately free Archie and catch Feathers.

Laugh out loud funny, people. Laugh out loud. Fans of Wallace & Gromit will be in heaven with this game. The story retains the trademark humor and whimsical nature falling straight out of the short film classics. Spot the parodies. Spot the dozens of scenes containing well-known video game and movie clichE’s added in just to make fun of them. It’s a comedic paradise. True, the pair’s humor may be an acquired taste for some, but it’s bordering on brilliant for those that ‘get it’.

Having charm and character to spare, it’s obvious this is where the developers spent the majority of their time. It’s apparent Nick Park and his development studio had a heavy hand in working with the chaps at Frontier Developments, getting the heart and soul of Wallace & Gromit faithfully translated to video game form. Everything that made me love the animated shorts is represented perfectly within the context of the plot and I’m literally bursting at the seams trying to hold in telling you about it all, so as not to spoil the game just in case you actually go to play it. So I’m going to stop now before I even get started. Simply put, great.

Story mode rating: 8/10

2. GRAPHICS: “Champion!”

Much like the original animated shorts, the game looks simple and has a distinct Claymation appearance. Truly remarkable is just how close everything looks to being interactive versions of their stop-motion technique counterparts. And I’m not just referring to Wallace & Gromit. Everything from the jungle houses, underground mines, and volcanic environments you transverse to the Zoo animals, robotic enemies, and bosses that you’ll come in contact with all look like they came straight out of a Wallace & Gromit short film. This game stays true to its roots.

Character animation is equally impressive with little details down to Wallace’s ears wiggling when he gets happy added in for good measure.

Spanning all three major next generation platforms, Project Zoo on the PS2 looks unsurprisingly less grandeur than it’s Xbox and GameCube counterparts. Environments aren’t as sharp, textures look a little blurrier, and the framerate isn’t quite as consistent (all three versions hover around 30FPS). Highest recommendation goes to the Xbox version, but it’s still a darn fine looking game if you only own a PS2. I’m actually in shock it looks this good, as I’m never expecting much from my 4-year old system especially when it comes to multiplatform titles. But it turned out to be a pleasant surprise indeed.

Graphics rating (for a PlayStation2 game): 7/10

3. SOUND: “Oh my word, yes!”

Here’s the nice thing. They didn’t go overboard on the sound. Just enough of just the right things to hook you. Many times in the game there’s silence except for the echoing of caves, the hum of machines in the background, or a character’s voice. All the original voice actors are present too (Peter Salis as Wallace; Jon Glover as the Help System), lending more authenticity to the game. Everything comes together making this game feel just like an interactive animated Wallace & Gromit short. You’ll notice that’s a theme. :p

The music, when it does come in, is better than it has any right to be. It’s again derived from the animated shorts and draws you in just right; coming in and out at the perfect moments to illicit the proper emotions in the player.

Only quibbles would be some major sound glitches when the game is loading up mid-game. (And it loads QUITE often.) You know how it sounds; like someone’s remixing music on a broken turntable with a broken record with a broken speaker… during an earthquake.

Other than that, good all round. Wallace & Gromit Project Zoo shows that it’s definitely quality over quantity.

Sound rating: 7/10

4. CONTROL: “Eh. Well this is a fine how ya do for the books.”

Well, they at least tried something different here; I’ll give em’ that. Project Zoo is a very teamwork intensive game. You take control of Gromit and the computer AI controls Wallace. Both of you are free to wander around as you please throughout each stage, but it’s pretty much your job as Gromit to do all the heavy lifting to progress on. Ya know, jumping over lava pits, climbing huge trees in the heart of the jungle, fighting off Feathers McGraw’s robotic minions, basically killing yourself doing whatever it takes to save the day while Wallace comically twiddles his thumbs, wanders around aimlessly, and makes dumb remarks. Every so often though, you’ll need Wallace’s technical expertise in order to operate and or fix certain mechanical devices. With a quick press of the (Triangle) button the player can whistle for Wallace to come over so he can finally make himself useful. A mildly innovative concept to be sure, but only when it works. Many a time have I whistled for Wallace at the appropriate point and he was trapped at the bottom of a lake or stuck somewhere unable to come over to me, but somehow still alive and talking. It’s a nasty, nasty glitch that’ll drive the player nuts. Yet even worse, when he DOES fight the odds and make it over to you somehow, it’s a crapshoot as to whether the computer AI makes him do what he’s supposed to do at that point in the game. Sure. More often than not things work out just fine, but it’s an annoyance that creeps up now and then. And when it does… BLEH. This sort of thing could have been easily taken care of with just a bit more play testing. It would have been a wonderful play mechanic had they just taken the time to polish things up a bit.

The not so dynamic duo.
Our troubles don’t stop there. Is there an unwritten law somewhere that says every 3D platformer shall have mild to horrendous camera problems? If there is, Project Zoo is one extremely law abiding citizen. 50% of the time the camera is in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. And the other 50% of the time, it’s inside a wall. Ok, slight exaggeration, but it’s a mess, people. This game makes Sonic Heroes look like the Holy Grail of camera angles. I thought the bloody camera was having a seizure the way it twisted and careened all over the blasted place. At times the game needlessly goes into a fixed camera mode at crucial moments where you seriously need to change your view. This all adds up to tons of frustration and tons of platforming related deaths.

Not that the controls are all that great for platforming to begin with. Admittedly, Gromit has a cool array of moves ranging from sneaking abilities, ground rolling for dodging enemies, kicking attacks, breakdancing and even an awesome running back flip off walls. He also has a significant amount of weapons and tools at his disposal accessed by holding down the (Circle) Button to select and then pushing (Square) to operate or fire. In your travels you’ll obtain items like the Banana Gun, the Porridge Gun, the Coal Flinger, the Fire Extinguisher, and even a staff that can be lit into a torch for lighting up darkened areas. Many of the items can be used in first person mode, as well, for tasks requiring more accuracy. Plus every so often Wallace will throw together items like the Springy Boots or the flying Gyrocopter for special game events. Sounds all fine and dandy. Problem is the controls feel a bit spotty in certain areas. Examples being sometimes you can pull of a High Jump with no hitches at all, and other times your button inputs just don’t respond. Sometimes the controls do what you want, sometimes they won’t. And guess what that leads to? That’s right… tons of unnecessary deaths. Again. This is further amplified because at random the challenge gets ramped up to super human levels. Project Zoo requires you to perform precise platforming maneuvers with unrefined platforming controls. Not a good combination.

So if the camera doesn’t get you, the spotty controls will. If the spotty controls don’t get you, the Wallace AI glitches will. If the AI glitches aren’t ruining it for you, then the frustrating level designs will. Yes, even the way the levels are put together seems aimed at forcing the player to consider suicide as a more viable form of entertainment. Often what to do next never seems clearly defined and you feel as though you should just wander around aimlessly until you discover something or something just happens.

It’s a shame, because when everything works and gels, it’s a very unique ride. But when it doesn’t… and many a time it doesn’t… it ruins the entire experience that the pretty graphics, great sound, and engaging story tried to make for you.

Control Rating: 4/10

5. REPLAYABILITY: “Aww, I spilt me hot cocoa on that one, lad!”

Pfft… replayability? You think I want to play through this mess again?! Well actually yes. But as much as I’d enjoy reliving Wallace and Gromit’s whimsical quest to capture Feathers McGraw, I wouldn’t want to relive all the excruciating, flawed, cookie cutter gameplay to do it.

Is there any incentive to play again? A bit. You have Golden Coins scattered and hidden throughout each level to collect, which aren’t necessary to advance through the game but end up unlocking some cool secrets later on. Alas, Coin collecting is the only main reason to play through this game again. Heck, if you’re meticulous, you can find all the Coins and release all the secrets the FIRST time through, thus killing any reason for replay.

Replayability rating: 3/10

6. BALANCE: “Could use a chin up, alright.”

Spotty. That’s what comes to mind when I think of this game’s difficulty. Real spotty. Early on things go smoothly, starting out with the traditional straightforward game tutorial level. But later it goes from extremely easy, to challenging, to pubic hair pulling frustrating and back in the matter of a single level. Only the boss battles consistently pose some sort of consistent challenge, progressively getting harder throughout the game. But there’ll be spots when it’s so blasted easy that you can go to sleep while playing, then only to be followed by something ridiculously hard, only to go back to being effortless yet again. Perhaps the aforementioned control issues contribute to this, but whatever the cause, it’s a bit all over the place.

Balance rating: 5/10

7. ORIGINALITY: “Blinkin’ nora!”

Project Zoo’s teamwork inspired gameplay certainly separate this from other platformers. And the ambiance this game gives off, one of you actually feeling like you’re in a stop-motion Claymation world, further gives this game a fresh standalone vibe. Plus there’s tranquility here. It’s not like other action games where there’s ludicrous amounts of giant explosions and gob loads of violence at every turn.

Hrm. But when it comes down it, it’s all one big scavenger hunt just like every other game in this genre ever created since the beginning of the space time continuum. Wallace can’t fix objects in the game without certain tools/coins/items. And wow! Who would have guessed? All the tools he needs are conveniently scattered throughout the levels for Gromit to find. Better go get em’ Gromit! Oh please… How many times have we done this before? Whether we’re collecting “Shines”, stars, coconuts, bags of rat fecal matter, it’s all the same crap.

Ok, maybe I’m being a bit jaded. Platformer scavenger hunts with bad camera angles ARE a dime a dozen, but again I give lots of kudos to Frontier for the unique team gameplay aspects and the excellent atmosphere it puts the player in. Project Zoo may borrow elements from past games, but it’s still infused with its own individuality. This game is its own beast.

Originality rating: 7/10

8. ADDICTIVENESS: “Hoy! Not what we hoped for, lad.”

Dang it, you HAD me Frontier. Hook, line, and sinker, you had me! From the second the opening cinema ran, I was completely immersed. But then it all fell apart. Believe me, I wanted to keep playing, I really did! But the bloody game kept fighting against me. With its non-descript goals for moving forward and control that randomly induces controller-throwing fits, it was one frustrating experience after another. You’ve got two strong opposing sides of the ‘Force’ working against each other here: Narrative and Gameplay. And the ‘Darkside’ wins out. All the charm and hilarity that compels you to watch an actual episode of Wallace & Gromit is faithfully translated to video game form. But after my 50th time dying from shoddy collision detection jumping over bottomless chasms, let’s just say Gromit and I needed a little time off. ‘Little’ meaning like a WHOLE lot.

Honestly, it’s not that any one thing is tremendously wrong here, but the individual little things keep picking at you until the game’s issues combined put a damper on how often you want to come back to it. A shame.

Addictiveness rating: 4/10

9. APPEAL FACTOR: “We should have given it some Willie!”

Project Zoo has tons of competition in this arena, especially for the PS2. Every two-bit hack with a wisecracking furry or robot sidekick has thrown their dimes into the platforming arena. Thus it takes a little something extra to garner attention. A competent print ad campaign helped. And the semi-mainstream appeal of the Wallace & Gromit license separates this from the legion of faceless Taks, Kyas, and Sphinxs that have saturated the ‘me-too’ adventure gaming market as of late. So it’s got that going for it.

But that’s about it. It’s still a pretty low profile title. And if the game had say… oh I don’t know, PLAYED better, then we’d be on to something. But as is, there will be very little word of mouth and the only ones to truly derive major enjoyment from this game will be Wallace & Gromit fans. And if Bella is any barometer, even they will soon grow weary.

Appeal Factor rating: 6/10

10. MISCELLANEOUS: “All’s well that ends well, that’s what I say.”

Ok. The Extras. Remember the Golden Coins? The game rewards you for amassing them by unlocking film shorts in the game’s Extras menu. And that’s not a bad set of bonuses at all, as there are a LARGE amount of movies to open including Wallace & Gromit classic shorts and a full GamerTV documentary on the history of the franchise along with a making of the game.

Sure, it’s tough to find, let alone actually attain all the Coins. Some of them are just laying around for you to pick up but many Coins are hidden inside mildly difficult bonus levels where you’ll play for a good 10 minutes just to get one of them. Staggering to think about, especially when you factor in that each level has 30 Coins apiece (150 in all). But trust, if you’re any sort of fan of Wallace & Gromit, it’s probably worth the effort.

Miscellaneous rating: 7/10

Short Attention Span Summary
Great story. Good graphics. Good sound. Pretty much blah everything else. It’s certainly not a bad game. Just middle of the road. Average. Remember a 5.0 from us is the equivalent of a 7.0 from just about everyone else. But what a shame, with a little more polish to smooth out the rough edges this could have been a very good experience. Sadly the mediocrity of the controls and gameplay functionalities serve to cover up what the developers obviously worked so hard to accomplish with this game’s undeniable charm. Wallace & Gromit fans and those curious about the franchise may want to give it a rent on a lazy Sunday afternoon. However the bottom line is: There’s a lot worse, but there’s certainly a lot better.



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