It's been two years since Advent Rising
was first announced. From the onset the game was extremely ambitious. It was to be the first installment in a three part sci-fi epic with story elements contributed by famed science fiction author Orson Scott Card. The gameplay would blend third-person shooting mechanics with god-like super powers and an original targeting system.
However, when the game was playable At E3 in 2004 it suffered from a horrendous framerate and iffy controls. It looked as though GlyphX had overshot its capabilities and Advent Rising would slide into the dark valley of games brimming with potential, but lacking follow-through. Thankfully, the title was delayed and we watched with delight as elements of Advent began to come together. The result is a genuinely fun experience that mixes elements one expects from big-budget projects with some lingering technical shortcomings.
In a Galaxy Far Far Away...
Nowadays, it's not enough for a game to implement tight mechanics and flashy visuals, it must also contain a compelling storyline with an arc that leaves players with a satisfied sense of accomplishment. Just look at the backlash to the Halo 2 cliff-hanger. With Orson Scott Card attached to the project, (he co-wrote the dialog) it was a comfortable assumption early on that Advent Rising would contain a compelling narrative. In this category, the game does not disappoint.
Set in the distant future, humans are capable of interplanetary travel and have colonized new worlds. The game begins when first contact is made with not one, but two alien races. The first visitors are a benevolent group of fish-people that refer to humans as the "exulted ones." It turns out that the human race is the basis of a far-reaching galactic religion that believes the mythic creatures will usher in a new age of galactic harmony. On the flip side of that coin, another race called the Seekers are in the process of roaming space looking for humans and exterminating them. They are also converging on Gideon's planet.
The arrival of the Seekers sets off a series of catastrophic events that puts the main character at constant risk of joining the rest of the humans in their untimely death. There are plot twists, back stabbings, and a smattering of political intrigue that make Advent Rising feel like it was adapted from a classic science fiction novel. In fact, this is the first time I've really wanted a game to be transformed into a feature length film. Heck, the plot is ten times better than Chronicles of Riddick although I'm sure people who think atmosphere is generated by using the "F" word will disagree.
There is a well-rounded story arc that transcends a basic "kill the bad dudes" mentality. Yes, the game is the first part of a series, but it feels like a complete episode and closes out the plot points raised in the beginning of the story. The main character, Gideon, isn't your typical gun-toting lug. He's a rookie pilot with strong ties to his war-hero brother and a beautiful fiancé. The systematic extermination of the human race rips away everything dear to Giddeon and provides plenty of motivation to take the battle back to the Seekers.
Gideon has an impressive range of combat techniques including dual wielding 11 different guns, a melee attack, grenades, and an eventual arsenal of six different super powers. On top of this, he has the ability to perform a slow motion dodge jump with Max Payne mechanics. The dodge not only avoids damage, it focuses the targeting reticule to an enemy's weak point increasing the power of Gideon's assault. In print, it seems that using these skills in tandem would require a third hand, but this is where Advent's targeting system comes into play.
Advent employs a system called Flick Targeting that resembles the Z-targeting found in Zelda, but with a few key differences. By flicking the right analog stick in the general direction of an enemy the reticule locks onto the target and directs all of Giddeon's attacks at this point. Players can toggle between enemies in the heat of battle by simply nudging the stick in their direction. Players who are used to constantly maneuvering the camera will find this system to be awkward at first, but as you learn to work with the targeting system it opens up a world of possibilities. It also saves the game from being completely broken by a low frame rate because targets remain fixed and can be killed in succession regardless of the camera position. Playing this game like a normal third-person shooter it will become immediately frustrating and gamers should be prepared for a period of adjustment.
We've covered Gideon's super-human powers in a series of previews, so I'll won't detail every ability. I will say that the powers are well implemented and provide players with a myriad of options during battle. Every power and gun can be mapped to the left or right trigger, so if you prefer shooting waves of energy with your left hand and launching rockets with the right, this can be quickly arranged. The D-pad takes players into a menu of powers and pulling a trigger when over a power, maps it to that button. Guns are equipped Halo style: hold X to put a weapon in the left hand, and Y to grab it with the right hand. After the first two levels this combat technique feels fluid and natural even if it looks choppy.
WATCH THE VIDEO REVIEWWhen locked onto an enemy, players can forget about the camera all-together and focus on toasting Seekers with their array of powers. Games like Psi-Ops also provided a huge number of combat options but the result was a severely over-powered protagonist with no reason to tap all of his abilities. Advent averts this problem by throwing a ton of enemies on the screen that pack some incredibly powerful weaponry. Some adversaries can block or deflect projectile attacks, forcing players to get creative with the environment.
If there is one area of Advent Rising that betrays its early development problems it is the framerate. The game is consistently chuggy and slows down to a crawl in areas where there are a crowd of enemies on the screen, the problem even presents itself during the in-engine cut scenes. Because flick targeting keeps players locked on to their targets, the frame rate doesn't affect the gameplay as much as one would think, but it does slow down considerably in many places. It is a shame that this technical detail was never smoothed over in the final builds. Camera problems are slight; with some wild swings when players enter a tight spot and when then targeting reticule jumps more than 45 degrees. What we are left with is a game that wonderful ideas and in some cases adequate implementation barring an engine that can't handle what is being displayed on screen. Some of the environments are staggering in their breadth and have a simply gorgeous design. All signs point to a visual treat, until Gideon begins moving.
Other than the framerate, the game possesses a strange character design that will not sit well with some people. The human figure has been elongated to produce a strange take on anime. Unfortunately this stylistic decision doesn't extend itself past a character's height, and human faces are left looking flat and bland. The aliens stand in sharp contrast to the humans, with extremely detailed anatomy that stand on their own without borrowing too heavily from other games or movies.
In many areas, the textures are plain enough to inspire thoughts of cell-shaded environments. Other effects like the way space is warped around Gideon's surge attack and the fiery sparks of explosions are impressive visual additions and deserve to be recognized. The numerous cut scenes are well directed and only display a few awkward moments that ruin the immersion. Also, if you have the opportunity, play this game in wide screen on an HD display.
There are a few areas in Advent Rising where scripted events refused to play out and I was forced to restart the level. There were also some sporadic problems with AI patterns and characters becoming stuck behind or inside of objects. These technical issues were by no means common occurrences, but were worth noting for picky gamers.
Advent Rising has not one, but two Emmy Award winners contributing to its soundtrack. The score was performed by a 70-piece orchestra and an operative choir with a lengthy post-production process. Not only is the music moving but it includes the dramatic "punch" found in most Hollywood productions. This isn't just music that complements the gameplay, it's a soundtrack that will send you searching for the mp3s.
The sound effects and voice acting are held to the same high standards. Rocket explosions and weapon discharges are accentuated with punchy blasts and rumbling bass. If you have a 5.1 setup, this is an excellent game to crank. The human and alien characters are well acted and thankfully they lack the emotionless drone that pervades the voices in so many games with dramatic dialogue. Maybe my brain is still scarred from the near demented dialogue in Star Wars: Episode III, but the script for Advent Rising puts that movie to shame. The next movie-to-game translation should look to Advent Rising for its audio cues.
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