I'll be completely honest with you; I haven't played a Crash Bandicoot game since the second game on the original PlayStation back in the mid-1990s. It's not that I disliked Naughty Dog's smart-mouthed mascot character; it's that the Mario and Sonic series seemed to be doing the exact same thing, only better. I looked forward to taking Crash: Mind Over Mutant a spin, if only to see if the series brought back good memories. What I found wasn't exactly nostalgic, but it's also not the worst platformer on the Xbox 360 either. It's somewhere in the middle, which is exactly where I would expect a Crash Bandicoot game to be.
The Crash that I remember was a linear action game that had you running through narrow levels collecting fruit and spinning around. I was surprised to find out that this new Crash Bandicoot features larger levels with a lot more variety. And while in some ways this is a good thing, the result ultimately feels a lot less like the old school Crash and more like a cheap Jak & Daxter rip-off. Any way you look at it, Mind Over Mutant is an average action game peppered with a few moments of brilliance.
The game starts out strong enough; we're reintroduced to the evil Dr. Neo Cortex, who is trying to take over the world with his new personal assistant, the "NV", a headset that controls the minds of both mutants and bandicoots by transmitting bad mojo. This sets up an intriguing adventure that has Crash completing more than twenty missions in an attempt to thwart Dr. Neo Cortex's dastardly plan and save the day.
Oddly enough, Crash Bandicoot is at its best when it's not interactive. This game's target is none other than the evils of commercialism, skewering just about everything that makes the 21st century such a convenient place to live. I'm talking about everything from TiVo to blogging to SUVs to the skyrocketing price of gas. What's more, each of the game's 17 cinema scenes are mimicking other popular animated shows, including old school Warner Bros. cartoons, South Park and even Dragon Ball Z. Throw in the guy that voiced Stimpy on Ren & Stimpy (Billy West) and you have thirty minutes of great animated cut scenes.
Unfortunately the rest of the game doesn't quite live up to the promise of these cinemas. Instead of just being another platformer where all you do is go from one level to the next, Mind Over Mutant features a somewhat open world, similar to what we saw in games like Jak & Daxter and Super Mario Sunshine. Had this been done right it could have given the Crash Bandicoot franchise a real boost of adrenaline, but instead it makes everything needlessly complicated and requires you to revisit areas you would rather not revisit.
At first you won't notice the amount of backtracking you're going to have to do, but by the time you're half way through the game you will have visited each of the game's worlds at least three or four times. This means that you're going to need to complete the same platforming puzzles again and again, even after you've beaten the missions they are associated with. What's more, when you actually beat a level you don't automatically warp back to your central hub, instead you have to go back through the level you just came through in reverse, avoiding the same enemies and obstacles. Had these levels been developed in interesting ways this wouldn't have been a problem, but most of the time it just feels like busy work that is made to extend the game's already painfully short length.
It's also worth noting that even though this is a 3D platformer, you have absolutely no control over the camera. That means that you're stuck with whatever angle the developers thought was good, which isn't a good thing when you're constantly finding yourself running towards the camera. One of the key tenets of 3D platformers is the ability to see what you're doing, yet too often you're stuck not knowing what you're about to run into because the camera won't turn or change position.
And as bad as the camera and backtracking is, the biggest problem with Crash: Mind Over Mutant is that half the time you don't know where to go. Oh sure, there's a map you can pull up at any time (which, for no reason at all, requires several seconds of load time), but it's no help whatsoever. It tells you where you are and where you're supposed to be going, but the world is designed in such a way that the way it wants you to go could be any one of three or four different paths, with only one being the right one. Look, I'm not a bad gamer by any stretch of the imagination, I don't need my hand held while playing 3D platformers, yet I constantly found myself getting lost in this world. Maybe if the world was more interesting I wouldn't have had a problem with it, but as it is I just found myself bored and not having much fun.
Crash Bandicoot has always been a limited character, and nowhere is that more apparent than when you try and attack. The game does give you a few punches and spin moves (all of which can be upgraded alone the way), but he doesn't have nearly enough moves to keep the combat interesting. Thankfully he can jump on the back of certain enemies, which will give him new abilities and allow him to solve specific puzzles. For example, when you ride the Magmadon you will be able to cause fire bursts, you can freeze things with the Ratcicle, and you can use telekinesis when riding TK. All of these different enemies can be upgraded over time, but that doesn't seem to change much as you go through the game. In a lot of ways this gimmick of taking over enemies reminded me a lot of Rare's Xbox 360 launch title, Kameo: Element of Power. Kameo wasn't a great game, but it's light years ahead of anything in this Crash Bandicoot sequel (and a whole heck of a lot cheaper now, too).
When you inevitably get sick of playing the game by yourself, you can always bring in a friend to play with you. But don't get too excited, because the second player doesn't have a whole heck of a lot to do. The co-op player takes control of either Coco (Crash's sister) or Aku Aku, a wooden mask with the ability to float around the screen. Actually, that's not completely accurate. You never really take control of that character, instead you point at things you want to pick up and throw live chickens (yes, chickens) at your foes. To say this isn't much fun would be a huge understatement; at best this mode is for somebody who only has a passing interest in video games. Like Super Mario Galaxy's "co-op" mode, this seems to be meant for parents who want to aide their child on the quest to defeat Dr. Neo Cortex.
And did I mention that the game can be completed in less than six hours? Granted, that's more than enough time given the game's lame level designs and disappointing action, but it's hardly enough content to warrant a full $50 purchase. Couple that with the fact that the graphics aren't very good, the music is obnoxious at best and Crash isn't much fun to control, and you're essentially paying for a really funny 30 minute long animated episode. Crash: Mind Over Mutant is hardly the worst platformer ever produced, but companies are going to have to do a lot better than this if they want their game to be noticed. How can it be that we're already three years into the Xbox 360's life and there still isn't a worthwhile 3D platformer? Crash could have been that game, but instead it chooses to take the easy road and give us just another average experience.
What the heck happened to Crash Bandicoot? When I last played this franchise it was full of life and creativity, yet here's a game that seems beaten down and on its last legs. The game's stab at an open world falls flat, just like every other "new" aspect of this 3D platformer. Crash Bandicoot still has a lot of potential left in him, but the developers are going to have to try harder than this if they want to resurrect this floundering franchise!