Welcome to the sixth instalment of The Portable Project, a feature devoted to handheld gaming that gives critics a chance to comment on titles that aren't quite in-depth enough to merit a full-length review at the site.
Since The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers was released to DVD this past week, we decided to take a look at its Game Boy Advance counterpart after having already reviewed the console version.
Kyle Orland makes his debut to the portable project with his thoughts on Rayman 3, while Erin kicks off the feature by examining Road Rash: Jail Break.
Road Rash: Jail Break
Developer: Magic Pockets
by Erin Bell
It has come to be taken for granted that certain durable franchises will resurface on every new system—whether we want them or not. I'm talking about the kind of franchises that rarely innovate, yet continue to achieve a modest success among nostalgic gamers who know what they like, and like what they know. The stagnant arcade-style monster smash-up Rampage is one such title; the driving/beat 'em up hybrid Road Rash is another.
Road Rash: Jail Break distinguishes itself from other motorcycle games partly by its aesthetic—riders are a motley crew of trailer trash, and tracks are set in such locales as Suburban Dump—and partly due to the ability to wallop any opponent who gets too close during the race by using a weapon or well-timed kick. The final notable feature is that there are no laps; races are strictly from Point A to Point B.
Frankly, the idea seems as stale as the "classic" hillbilly-tinged rock playing during the menu screens. The game's six tracks and three riders (along with a very limited number more to unlock) aren't enough to hold interest for more than an hour or so.
The problem is the lack of interactivity offered by the environment. This manifests itself in a few ways, but of most concern is that the bike controls the same regardless of whether it's riding over sand, concrete, train tracks, wooden boardwalks, or water puddles. That nothing changes beyond a barely perceptible speed fluctuation (and this only sometimes) renders the different backgrounds and track themes sadly pointless aside from providing visual stimulation.
The actual racing stages completely lack background music so that the only noises are the constant buzz of the engine combined with the occasional thud or jarring yell as the players spar with one another. Sometimes I can do without music, but in this case it felt incomplete.
As far as modes go, there is of course the straight-ahead race mode in either Easy or Hard, as well as a Time Attack, Survival Mode (essentially race mode without the option of resuming after certain races via a password), and something called Cop Patrol. Cop Patrol lets the player ride on the side of the law as a nightstick-wielding motorcycle officer with the goal of taking out the street-racing hooligans before they finish their race.
What Jail Break does have going for it is speed. It's the fastest Game Boy Advance (GBA) racing game I've played since F-Zero: Maximum Velocity. There were moments during certain courses when, flying through unpredictable turns and hills at top speed and dodging around traffic on the wrong side of the road while being harassed relentlessly by the cop, the experience was truly thrilling. Unfortunately, the game is just too uneven to provide a consistent thrill.
Developer: Ubi Soft
by Kyle Orland
If you had told me twelve years ago that I would be playing something as pretty as Rayman 3 on a portable console, I would have put down my copy of Super Mario Land and laughed at you.
Today, however, it seems completely unremarkable to see graphics on the small screen that are the equal of the original PlayStation Rayman. This doesn't diminish the appeal of the beautiful backgrounds and animations Rayman 3 has to offer; it just makes them less noteworthy.
It's the level design that makes Rayman 3 stand out. While the early levels are mostly uninteresting, the game picks up as Rayman gains more of his trademark powers: the helicopter float, the wall climb, the super-punch, etc. These abilities open many more options for level design that the developers definitely exploit in the later levels. The challenge ramps up quite a bit in these later levels too; unlimited continues and a well-implemented auto-save feature are definitely welcome.
Psuedo-3D mini-game levels break up the stream of run-and-jump platforming with perfect frequency. The graphics become a little less impressive in these sections, but the responsive controls and well-designed courses make up for it.
My only real quibble with this portable version is the extremely light story. While the developers tried to include dialogue that captured the wit and wisdom of the console counterparts, their efforts ended up falling flat. A note to developers: Just because we're playing the game to pass time on the bus doesn't mean we don't want an engaging story to go along with the gameplay.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
Developer: Griptonite Games
by Erin Bell
The Game Boy Advance (GBA) version of The Two Towers couldn't be more different from its console counterpart. While the two do share the license of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, the adventure has been totally reconceived for the portable system.
It's hard not to cringe when a game takes such liberties with its license. The introduction of a currency system and randomly placed "stores" to buy items from seems more than a little forced in the Tolkien universe. The fact that Gandalf has an impressive array of attack spells and Frodo has equally impressive stealth moves show a desire to force the characters into the Dungeons & Dragons "wizard" and "thief" archetypes. The names and stats of items are randomly generated to produce unintentionally comical combinations like the Cheap Sword of Honor, or the Peasant's Axe of Slaying. Certain key items take their names from the books, such as the swords Glamdring and Orcrist, yet again are placed totally out of context.
So many licenses fail, however, because they present a familiar word and characters and then do nothing with them beyond drape them over a weak game and hope that the familiarity will carry the product. In this case, the gameplay is made paramount and the universe secondary to that is what makes The Two Towers enjoyable, if slightly harder to stomach to purists.
Two Towers combines solid exploratory hack n' slash with Diablo-esque levelling, magic and item manipulation, and rivals RPGs like Golden Sun in terms of sheer length. The player can follow the quest from the perspectives of Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, Frodo or Eowyn. Each player's scenario will branch off if applicable, such as Gandalf's battle with the Balrog in Moria and his departure from Helm's Deep to search for Eomer.
Intuitive controls combine with a convenient "quick-load" slot for storing a spell or skill that can be changed on the fly using the shoulder buttons without resorting to cumbersome sub-menus. This is a good thing since the enemies come in relentless waves and the player will easily settle into a simple routine of killing everything that moves.
There is also an impressive multi-player (something that was sorely missed from the console version), where Gimli becomes playable and which allows players to either fight together as a team or explore the environments independently.
The game comes with only four save slots for five characters, meaning that a character must eventually be sacrificed in order to get the full experience of playing through with all five. However this seems like a small gripe given the game's generous length.
"Too generous" may in fact be a more accurate way to describe the length, simply because certain characters travel through the same locales based on their role in the overall quest (for example, Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and Legolas all travel through Moria), and the wilderness and rock cave environments can get repetitive.