Note: I’m headed out the door for vacation, and only just had enough time to finish playing Tron 2.0 through. With my wife waiting by the front door with the car keys in one hand and her foot tapping anxiously, I’m going to very (very) quickly get out the flavor of Tron 2.0 to you, but you’ll have to forgive me if this review is even rougher than usual. Think of this as a small glimpse behind the scenes at the GO network, your opportunity to see a first draft without the usual polish; like the MTV music awards, only without the blatantly manufactured lesbian kiss.
In 1981, a movie came out called Polyester which was presented in Odorama or Smell-o-vision, or whatever they were calling it. The concept was that the person going into the theater was handed a set of numbered cards, and on these cards were micro-encapsulated synthetic scents manufactured by, I believe, 3M. During the movie a number would flash in the corner of the screen, and everyone was supposed to scratch that numbered card at the same time, infusing the theater with whatever odor was appropriate to the scene. The flaw in this otherwise brilliant bit of creative thought was that, instead of writing a movie script and picking certain scents out of it, they kind of figured out which scents they could reliably produce, and then wrote a movie that used them all. The wife is having an affair with the pizza boy, and *surprise* he smells like pizza, or a scene in a locker room that smells like sweat socks, or the dog has an accident on the carpet no one is scratching that card. Odorama, like Sensaround before it, kind of died a quiet death. But also in the early 80’s, another burgeoning technology was trying to find its place in the movies CGI and Tron became one of the first movies (if not the first movie) to use them. The parallel I’m trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to draw here is that again the movie plot seemed as if it were written to fit the effects they could make, not the other way around.
The plot, if it could even liberally be called that, was of a computer programmer named Alan Bradley who is digitized bodily into a computer, a world visualized in sort of a Dali-esque way as a real place with buildings and roads, rivers of electricity and bridges of light, the programs functioning within it looking like humanoids with the faces of their programmers in white spandex bodysuits with neon piping. Our programmer works his way through a series of videogames, for which the price of losing is death, to eventually escape back to our world. What the makers of Tron didn’t realize is that you can’t make a whole movie anchored in just a bunch of visual effects, the overall result being far too much time spent panning across CGI landscapes, showing us just how cool the graphics can be, while the plot goes nowhere. Moviemakers apparently still haven’t learned that lesson: Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within being a perfect case in point. An ironic fact is that the videogame Tron, based on the movie, which let you play many of the games from the movie, I think did far better than the movie itself, earning money in the arcades for years and years.
So here we are 20 or so years later, and I understand that Tron 2.0 is kind of being floated out there as a piebald to see what the reception of another Tron movie would be. If the game does well, some marketing guru reasons, than the movie might also. Uh-huh. I can tell you that if they put the kind of care and planning into the movie that they clearly put into this videogame, I say “lights, camera, action.” For a videogame that wasn’t even on my radar (mostly I’m personally waiting for Doom 3 and Half-Life 2), Tron 2.0 is the best surprise of the gaming season.
The events of the game take place 20 years after the events of the movie, and you play as Jet Bradley, Alan Bradley’s son. Alan has continued his research into digitizing physical objects into the computer world, while his somewhat disappointing son Jet spends his life programming videogames and hacking into his college computers. But when Alan’s company is bought by another corporation, one apparently bent on world domination through covert information theft, and his father vanishes from his lab one night, Jet goes over to investigate. He is digitized into the computer (The apple never falls far from the tree, does it?), and from within unravels the mystery of his father’s new company as he fights to save his father and himself. He travels to many different systems: a PDA, the power supply, a firewall, and old PC, I/O ports, an internet hub; each one richly drawn and detailed.
Tron 2.0 is basically a FPS, but with a lot of twists. The key game component is the memory block, which is depicted as a clear cube with smaller cubes floating inside. Each smaller cube is a bit of code that you can extract from the block using energy (Energy is also used to power your weapons and accomplish other tasks, so you can’t always afford to extract all the code you want). These little bits of code can be armor or weapons, skills like high jumping or walking quietly, or permissions to allow you to do other things in the system, or email or video segments through which the plot of the game unfolds. You have to install these code segments into your memory to use them, and you only have so much memory available, so you have to pick and choose which ones you want (though you can pause the game and change them at any time). Advancing in the game will allow you to pick up many code upgrades that automatically replace the older code segments in your memory. These upgrades are smaller, so you can run more of them, and they result in improved abilities as well. Neat, huh? If you find my description a little tough to follow, there is a helper named Byte (a reference to a similar being in the movie called Bit) that guides you painlessly through the tutorial, as well as a help menu that is always available.
The primary weapon is a disc, like a Frisbee, that is thrown to strike your opponents, and then returns to you. It can also be held up as a small shield to block other discs, or gripped and used to bludgeon your opponents at close range. The game allows you to steer the disc in flight by using the mouse, but I found it far too fast to do so effectively, and attempts would often cause me to miss what I was aiming at. I pretty much just lined up and let fly. It’s a difficult weapon to get good at, and if you happen to miss your target, the disc takes a little while getting back to you, leaving you open to attack. On the other side, the computer is very good at steering the disc in flight, and often gives it a little jig right at the end so that it slips by your shield block. Other weapons come along with the code segments such as an explosive disc, a sniper rifle, a “grenade” launcher, and an energy ball hurler. The effects are very cool, but some of them use a large amount of energy and cannot be used with great frequency. I tended personally to stick to the multidisc thrower, a device that lets you have multiple discs in the air at once, as my weapon of choice.
Like many FPS games, Tron 2.0 is primarily about killing things and flipping switches, and you’ll do plenty of both. For a time you also find yourself driving a light cycle in the arena. These are like motorcycles that leave a solid trail. The object of the arena is to get other light cycles to smash into your trail while avoiding theirs. While fun to drive, the computer is regrettably not very good at them, and if you just stay out of their way for a little while, they tend to smash into something. Your greatest risk then becomes simply running into a wall because the cycles move so fast. In this regard, Tron 2.0 is unlikely to give even the most rudimentary driving game a run for its money. In the way that many games are blurring the genre lines, Tron 2.0 has some RPG elements as well. You have several traits (health, energy, weapon efficiency, processing speed, transfer rate), and performing tasks throughout the game rewards you with upgrade points that can be used to improve these traits however you want. While it undoubtedly improves the performance of your character, I’m not certain it really increases the replayability significantly.
If you boot up expecting to see photo-realistic landscapes, then you’re going to be disappointed. The world of Tron remains much as it did in the 80’s that spawned it, a neon conglomeration of buildings and people that is both fascinating to behold and a little tough on the eyes. Video footage of events in “our” world are simply rendered affairs, looking much like they came out of Half-Life or something from that era. Reflections, lighting, particles, and liquids are all beautiful, but I don’t think I saw any shadowing to speak of. The voice acting is done by the actors from the original movie, and is professionally done all across the board. The music is an interesting mix of synth-80’s retro pop and modern instrumental pieces. They fit together adequately and change frequently enough that I never felt the need to turn it off.
I’d like to make some comment about the multiplayer elements of Tron 2.0, but honestly haven’t had the time to try them out much; the alternative being to wait until I get back from vacation and holding the review at least another week. I’ll tell you that it supports multiplayer, and that’s about it. Much like Jedi Outcast, which focused on light saber combat, I suspect that Tron 2.0 focuses on disc combat in a variety of settings. What muliplayer variants it supports, I don’t know, so I’m leaving a multiplayer rating out of my overall rating.
And around about here is where I would come up with some pithy summary if I had more time, which I don’t, so here goes. Tron 2.0 is a great game. It has solid, artsy graphics, good action, voicework, music it’s got it all. The plot, though a little slow to get rolling as you learn about it primarily through emails that you recover in the system, ends up being much better than the movie, and even better than the last Grisham book I read (which was The Summons, BTW). It just shows a great deal of polish, few if any bugs, and a general level of completeness that it seems so few games present these days, exuding none of that get-it-out-the-door churning of so many game productions. I’m going to call it the best FPS I’ve played this year, though with Half-Life 2 still on deck, that title might not stand for long.