IGN Review of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
I'm not going to start this review with the typical "wah wah, licensed kids games are laaaame" BS. We know they're bad, you certainly know they're bad (and you're doing your part to edumacate your elders on this fact, right?) and the poor folks making these games often know they're bad. One of the few upsides to the sorry state of affairs is that for reviewers like us, it's not hard to actually end up bucking our expectations going in. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, amazingly, has done just that. It's not an amazing experience by any stretch, but what's here is not only inoffensive, at times it's just... fun. Surprising? Yep.
It's also a rather short experience, but then I've long argued that keeping a game slim and trim while maximizing whatever fun the developer (in this case, Pipeworks) could come up with based on the source material. At no point does the basic concept of using a powered flashlight in conjunction with special ingots in a sacred tablet get old. There's just enough platforming mixed with some light puzzles mixed with a daisy-chained series of objectives to keep it all entertaining throughout the three or four hours that it'll take to get through things.
Achievement whores, take note: without even trying to tackle them, I managed to stop just eight Achievements short of banking a full 1000. Even on the Wii, accomplishing the same tasks will net you token points, which in turn unlock dozens of bits of concept, character and level art, plus audio tours, factoids with pictures and even evolution videos that track the game's copious pre-rendered sequences from storyboards through animatics to facial animation steps all the way up to the final rendered scene.
But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here. Ben Stiller's Larry Daley (who is arguably the only real discernible likeness in the game beyond the main villain, but then he was the only movie star to lend his voice to things) quickly gets caught up in reprising his role as the guardian of a mystical tablet that imbues his keychain and flashlight with a bevy of abilities. When the tablet is ganked and transported to the Smithsonian, Larry ditches his New York digs, heads to the Capitol to reclaim the tablet, magical ingots 'n all.
He's quickly thwarted by Kahmunrah (get it, common law? Har har har), the evil brother of Egyptain dude Ahkmenrah from the first flick, and quickly recruits the reanimated likenesses of Al Capone, Ivan the Terrible and Napoleon to help open a portal to take over the world. Fun. Larry, with pint-sized pals Octavius and Jebediah Smith, hops 'n bops his way around the museum scooping up all the ingots to place back in the tablet to (wait for it) eventually save the day.
The latter part of that hop 'n bop descriptor probably isn't all that accurate. At no point does Larry actually fight enemies himself, rather he uses the tablet's many gifts to do the dirty work for him. He'll tame beasts to solve puzzles, turn his keychain into a whip or grappling hook, call down lightning from the sky, repair things like doors and paintings, "activate" paintings so he can dive into them, uncover hidden objects, and so on. What's nice is that all of these powers can be funneled through a single power that will auto-switch to whatever's needed in that case, eliminating some trial and error.
Aside from splaying special abilities across a variety of objects with his flashlight and playing Indiana Daley, there's not a whole lot else to do. There are some basic bit of platforming that (usually) work well (when they don't you'll rarely have to go far to return to where you were after a fall), some button pressing and very light puzzle solving. One sequence has you diving through a gallery of paintings to unlock some treasure chests in sequence, another has you rotating columns, which you can also play on the main menu once you've finished the game, along with some trivia and a mini-game involving the trilobites that scurry around some of the levels and need to be herded, but that's basically it. All this leaves is a rather insane amount of item collection; magnets, pennies, aviator's wings, quarters, packs of gum, postcards, audio tours, factoids all rest in various areas of the museum and are the key to unlocking more points to buy bonus items at the end of the game (or unlock most of the Achievements in the 360 version).
If you can snag four quarters and a penny, you can use a handful of machines to press a special little penny, which unlocks a little trophy in the game's trophy room (shining a flashlight on an object here will reveal what's needed to unlock any missing trophies). Again, there's Achievements for each of these too. Because the game is so short, no one part of these sequences feels played out by the game's conclusion. You'll have ample time to seek out hidden objects or collect 14 tubes of paint or whatever, and you'll be able to use the various powers of the tablet more than a few times.
Maybe it's because it's all so inoffensive that I ended up really growing fond of Battle of the Smithsonian. It's a kid's game, clearly, but demonstrates that not all kids games have to be completely soulless. The dialogue in parts is actually chuckle-worthy, Ben Stiller does a solid (if kind of flat) bit of reprisal, the other voice actors actually side-step trying to ape the big screen actors in a lot of cases and just go with the actual characters themselves, and Chris Tilton's main theme, while recycled more than a few times (the muzak-ized version in the freight elevator was a nice one-off touch), is full of epic orchestral swells that fit the whole theme and pacing of the game perfectly.
Though it's not entirely solid on the 360 version either, the framerate on the Wii iteration is pretty bad -- usually well below a solid 30 when the camera is rotating and in some parts -- even enclosed areas -- it can drop into the low teens, turning everything choppy (made all the more jarring by the fact that the pre-rendered cutscenes play at full 30 frames). I'm not even sure why the 360 version doesn't run butter smooth, as the game was clearly designed with the Wii in mind first and then bumped up with better textures and some very basic filtering effects (no copious amount of normal mapping or realistic lighting here).
That said, looking around with the flashlight on the Wii feels more direct than using an analog stick -- faster, too (though I had to often wiggle the Wiimote at the screen to get it to update where I was pointing) -- and the dynamic shadows that it reveals look fairly slick. It's just a shame that they can also cause the framerate to bog down even more than it already does during normal play. Mapping a nunchuck flick to using the keychain was a nice (if somewhat unresponsive) touch, and though the camera keeps up most of the time, having manual control on the d-pad still feels clunky compared to a right analog stick. Some sequences, like flying Amelia Earhart's plane could have been done so much better by just pointing with the Wiimote but instead are insanely clunky with the re-mapped controls.
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