Given the ripe subject matter and iconic name, I would have expected somebody to attempt a War of the Worlds video game long before now. Outside of a 27 year old Sinclair ZX81computer game, we haven't seen any developers attempt to do justice to this internationally famous science fiction book. That is until now. Thanks to Other Ocean Interactive, H.G. Wells' influential masterpiece has been brought to the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.
In case you missed the 1898 book, infamous radio play or either of the two movies; The War of the Worlds tells the simple story of what happens the day Mars decides to attack our peaceful blue planet. It turns out that the human race doesn't take kindly to alien invaders, banding together to figure out a solution to Earth's mess. It's a story we've seen played out in countless movies and video games.
This particular retelling veers away from the original book, radio play and movies, instead opting to introduce us to a new protagonist who goes on his own unique adventure. You play Arthur Clark, a Londoner on his way home on the train when the Martians decide to strike. Dazed and confused by the wreckage, Arthur sets off on a journey to make sure his family is still alive and safe. This means fleeing from gigantic walking tripod aliens, aiding the military in their attack and solving all kinds of complicated platforming puzzles.
It would have been easy for the developers to turn this into yet another mindless action game, but that's not the case with The War of the Worlds. Much of this game involves you avoiding the various types of aliens and running as fast as you can. You never pick up a gun and shoot down the attacking Martians. About the only weapon you have is an unwieldy fire axe, and even that is hard to use against actual enemies.
Instead of making this yet another first- or third-person shooter, Other Ocean has gone the complete other direction and made The War of the Worlds a stylish 2D adventure game. The game has a lot in common with classic 16-bit platformers like Out of this World and Flashback: The Quest for Identity. In fact, the developers used the same rotoscoping technology that we saw employed in Prince of Persia and Karateka. The end result involves incredibly lifelike animations that have to be seen to be believed.
It's clear that the developers had Flashback in mind while making The War of the Worlds. The way Arthur runs, jumps and climbs is straight out of Delphine's landmark adventure game. Even the control mechanics feel like they time traveled from 1993. And while I'm one of those people who has been calling for a Flashback sequel, this blatant homage comes with a few serious drawbacks.
Let's start with the obvious: Rotoscoped video games are really hard to play. While I love Out of this World and Prince of Persia to pieces, it's hard to go back and play them now. The controls are sluggish and the platforming is often unforgiving. Sadly, the same thing can be leveled against The War of the Worlds. Other Ocean does do a good job of tightening up the controls a bit, but they are still a little too loose.
The slightly outdated control mechanics are further emphasized thanks to the game's steep difficulty. The game is frustratingly difficulty right out of the gate, which may turn some gamers off. Unfortunately, it's often the game's controls that get in the way. Because there is so much animation connected to each move, performing precise actions can be a real mess. It's also easy to overshoot your jumps and other platforming mishaps. These complaints were true about Flashback twenty years ago and, sadly, they are true about The War of the Worlds today.
While the controls may feel slightly outdated, the game's presentation certainly isn't. The game uses nothing but pixels, giving War of the Worlds a decidedly unique look in this day and age. The game's backgrounds are stunning, offering players a glimpse at the death and destruction happening to 1953 London. In the distance you see huge tripod creatures, dozens of layers of parallax scrolling and an insane amount of detail.
I was intrigued by the way the game seems to toy with color. Every time it looks like the Martians are going to win, the game has a ghostly black and white look. However, as you gain the upper hand you start to see colors penetrate the stylish art design. I was impressed with the different enemy designs. I was also happy that the look feels independent from both the 1953 movie and the 2005 Tom Cruise vehicle.
I do have one minor complaint about the game's visuals. From time to time the backgrounds obscure obstacles that will kill you. Worse yet, the game is extremely inconsistent when it comes to what will kill you. For example, throughout much of the game you can't get anywhere close to electricity or you'll get zapped. However, late in the game there are elevators buzzing with electricity that won't hurt you. It took me longer than I would like to admit to figure out that not all shocks lead to game over.
The one thing that really wraps the whole package together is the voice acting. Much of the game is told through narration, done expertly by none other than Sir Patrick Stewart. That's right; Captain Jean-Luc Picard lends his voice as the older version of game's protagonist. It's worth pointing out that he's not alone. About half way through the game our hero picks up a portable radio that picks up news from around London. We learn what the Royals are up to and how devastating the attacks are, adding much needed context to the action. Both voice actors do an excellent job and the game is that much better because of it.
The War of the World is an exciting retelling with a few minor hiccups. The presentation is stunning and the voice acting cannot be beat, though the control scheme may prove too much for some gamers. There's nothing here that can't be overcome with a few tries, but I found myself spending a lot of my time dying. Still, even with a few truly frustrating moments, the emotional core keeps this action-packed game grounded. Even if you already know how this game is going to end, The War of the Worlds is still worth your time and money.