17 September 2009

Perpetually teenage ninja turtles kick it back to grade school and play for the kids

When we first heard that the same studio that makes the fluidly acrobatic, lushly visualized Prince of Persia series was going to make a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, we were thrilled. In our minds, no other team on Earth was better suited to blend the four things that define the turtles: a dark personality (in the original comics at least), incredibly acrobatic ability to treat an entire city like a jungle gym, teamwork, and high-flying martial arts shell-kickery complete with different weapons, styles and co-op moves.

Or so we thought. Unfortunately, TMNT isn't the game we'd hoped for; the one that would finally have the teen turtles growing from the basic brawler playpen into gameplay adulthood and taking their place in the over-21 line. Rather, it's more a case of them going back to Jr High and snapping the lady turtles' training bras because they're still too immature to actually ask them out.
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The trouble is, this franchise has incredible potential and it just doesn’t realize it at all. First off, there are four ninja turtles. There have always been. Why then, is this a solo mission? Okay, the PSP version adds an ad hoc racing mode, but that just makes things worse. Playing alone only makes sense when you're playing as the fifth character, Raphael's masked alter-ego the Nightwatcher. Which is a nice touch, frustrating or not.

On the plus side, the turtles feel incredibly nimble as they hotfoot the whole of New York, from sewers to rooftop. They run, jump, pull-up, pole-swing and wall run so easily, smoothly and intuitively that Spider-man himself would approve. The real Spider-man we mean, not that half-hearted, "quitting after three movies" poser. Each has a specific move that helps him get around, too: Donatello pole vaults with his bo staff, Michelangelo spins his nunchuks like copter blades to glide, the sword-swinging Leonardo literally teleports through iron bars and gates, and Raphael just shoves the shafts of his sai into any vertical surface and pulls himself up like a stabby spider.

But this too feels like a missed opportunity - not enough puzzles really capitalize on these abilities and how they interact. A multiplayer game that required the turtles to co-ordinate their efforts and powers could have rocked so much harder. For that matter, so could a camera that chose better angles and thus caused to fewer missed jumps due to misjudged distances.

When it comes time to put a green-tinted bludgeoning on some generic gang bangers or foot-clan ninjas - even a rare boss - you're handed a pool of moves so shallow that a real turtle could stand flat-footed on the bottom and barely get his chin wet. You've got some basic kicks and swipes, a ground-pounding shock wave to clear out crowds, and a tiny selection of special or team up attacks - mostly grabbing another turtle by the feet and swinging him in a circle. But even this move just reminds you of first, figure skating and second, of how much wasted potential there is here. You usually stomp the enemies anyway, because they're all brain-dead, but... argh.

The various versions all have their weaknesses. The 360 and Wii versions are ten bucks more, apparently because 360 is the prettiest and Wii comes with nine single-player mini-games and a "wiggle to slash, jiggle to kick" control scheme that we ran from almost immediately. The PC one looks okay too, but clearly wasn't developed with higher-than-TV resolutions in mind. PS2 is cheaper, but fugly. And the GameCube one exists, which is a marvel in and of itself these days.

This could have been the greatest four-player brawler in history. Seriously, it could have - with deep, coordinated multi-player combat and vast, multi-tiered levels full of environmental puzzles and surprises. But, like the film itself, the game aims low and ends up typical and forgettable. It's even short, at maybe six hours if you stretch it. If this was a real turtle, it would be the one sitting on the side of the road watching cars whiz by, not the one lacing 'em up to take on the rabbit and the road and dare its way to immortality in the history books.
Eric Bratcher, GamesRadar US


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