It's the summer movie season and with it come tons of terrible movie tie-in games. It's always rough because the quantity is so high and the quality so low. There are a few rare exceptions to this rule but they are few and far between so when a game with a modicum of potential shows up it's worth checking out. After playing through three of the thirteen levels of Kung Fu Panda I think the game has the potential to be an above average solid movie tie-in game.
Activision is certainly no stranger to the licensed game business and their games tend to be on the higher end of the tie in scale. This is a bit like being called the smartest kid on the short bus but it's still a compliment. They did come out with the serviceable Spider-Man 2 game and a few other non-clunkers so I wasn't too disappointed when the preview build of Kung Fu Panda showed up on my doorstep.
In the game you play Po, a Panda with dreams of Kung Fu greatness who must help save the Valley of Peace from Tai Lung. Along the way you'll meet (and play) the Furious Five and Master Shifu as they try to stop Tai Lung from possessing the game's MacGuffin of doom. It's standard move plot stuff with a Hero's quest and everything you'd expect from a game with CGI anthropomorphic animals. The gameplay is about as original as the plot of the game with the majority of the game being your standard beat-up gameplay with some quicktime events and other gameplay tossed in to keep things fresh. This isn't a bad thing as the execution is fairly spot-on and the controls are nice, tight, and responsive. Kung Fu Panda's approach to Kung Fu is in a similar vain to Tenacious D's approach to Heavy Metal in that they take the material a little too seriously. I'm guessing that Po doesn't break out the Five Finger Exploding Heart Technique if only to keep an E rating from the ESRB.
The graphics in the game are fantastic, and certainly above what I expected. I'm not going to say they are Pixar level but for a tie-in game they are outstanding. This isn't an Unreal Engine 3 game but it's certainly not slacking in the looks department. All of the characters are well rendered and very expressive.
It's a nice change of pace and it helps to have a fantastic Jack Black impersonator doing the voice work. I had to confirm it wasn't Jack Black with Activision's PR as the voice is a dead ringer for the Tenacious D singer. If you don't like the Jack Black style of comedy the game (and probably the movie) will probably not change your opinion. The rest of the voice work is solid and certainly helps bring you into the game.
While you play you have to track your health and your chi. Chi is used to power special abilities and is recovered by defeating enemies and collecting glowing orbs that are scattered around the levels. You can earn multipliers (measured on a bar on the left) by taking out enemies in groups quickly or in a stylish manner. There's also an upgrade system in place and throughout the course of the game you can pickup coins which you can cash in for new moves and costumes. What's nice is that you can upgrade anytime during the game instead of having to wait until the end of the level.
The first level was your standard tutorial level with the twist that it takes place in one of Po's day dreams. A dream where he's the Dragon Warrior, a Kung Fu legend. In this dream Po must save his village from marauders and along the way you get to learn the basic mechanics of the game and how to use the Kung Fu powers you have.
The next level (the seventh in the game) had Po rescuing some kidnapped villagers from the clutches of a band of alligators which requires you to jump across some giant lilly pads in order to get to the villagers. In true platformer fashion the pads sink when you're on them and touching the water results in instant death and a restart from your last saved spot. This was a bit frustrating as I ended up dying and restarting a lot on this level until I got the rhythm of the game's double jump nailed down. I still don't like the instant nature of this type of puzzle but there are a lot of save points scattered through out the level which takes some of the sting out of it. Once you have rescued all the villagers you have to pilot a boat down the river, avoiding rocks and the thrown bombs of alligators on rocks alongside the river. It wasn't that difficult to get down the river but it did break up the level pretty well.
The final level was the eighth level of the game which allowed me to play Master Shifu. While Po is fun to play, Master Shifu kicks it up a notch as he's smaller and much faster than Po. The easiest way to describe Shifu's style is that it is very similar to Yoda's fighting style from Star Wars prequels. There's a decent segment about half-way through the level where you have to defend a member of the Furious Five with some fireworks which breaks up the game a bit.
I didn't have a chance to try out the multiplayer portion of the game but it looks like a decent collection of mini-games. The game does a good job of capturing the sense of humor of the movie and from what I've seen so far it's slightly above average. Kids will probably eat this game up when it comes out next month and there's enough humor in the game that parents may get a chuckle or two while watching them play it.
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