Ah, summertime: a period of long, lazy days, skyrocketing temperatures and major vacations. It’s also movie blockbuster season, and every studio clamors to pump out its biggest and brightest projects on a public eager for entertainment. Take for example, Sony and Columbia’s latest venture, Men In Black II. A large-scale movie, (not to mention a sequel), the deluge of promos, trailers, interviews, and merchandise served to merely whet the fan’s appetite. You couldn’t turn on the radio and not hear a commercial hawking a value meal, a theme song, or some other tie-in. So it’s no small surprise that a video game would come out to help in the promotional campaign. Enter Men In Black II: Alien Assault, a fast paced shoot-em-up from Infogrames that attempts to present new adventures of the mythical intergalactic peacekeepers. I say attempts, because the game does not deliver a satisfying experience in any way.
Alien Escape attempts to fit into the MIB storyline in one of two apparent points: a) somewhere in-between the first and second movies, or b) directly after the second movie. Regardless of whenever the title is set, the storyline behind it is a fresh one, albeit riddled with holes. Thirty years ago, a prison ship was sailing through the galaxy on a routine to a prison planet transporting some of the most dangerous criminals in the universe. Naturally, in our solar system, very little is routine as far as extra-terrestrials are concerned. Knocked off course by a meteorite, the craft plummets to Earth, where it ends up crash-landing into an ocean. When the Men In Black (of that time) manage to locate and investigate the ship, they discover a murdered crew and the felons they shepherded missing.
Fast-forward thirty years to the present day, where the game’s action takes place. Thirty years? What the hell happened to the dogged pursuit of felonious otherworldly beings? The continual fight to uphold human/alien peace? Apparently the Men In Black of the ‘70s were too busy discoing down with some lizard women from Alpha Centauri or something, because this scum of the universe stays on the lam undetected by any MIB or extra-terrestrial law officer. Anyway, the aliens aboard that alien ship finally decide to return to their evil ways, and its up to you, the player, to track down and arrest these fiends.
Instead of a nameless, faceless, characterless persona (technically the modus operandi of the Men In Black), you take on the role of one of the two most famous operatives the organization ever had, Agent Jay or Agent Kay. Jay, the younger of the two, is a faster, more agile agent than Kay, and tends to run into situations with his guns blazing. By contrast, Kay is the older, more experienced agent who approaches battles like an old gunslinger. Careful and methodical, he also packs more of a punch with his weaponry than his youthful counterpart. While mentioned in the instruction manual, these stats don’t readily translate over into the game. Actually, they’re never mentioned in the game, leaving you open to choose whichever character suits your fancy.
Anyway, when you’ve finally chosen your character, you can begin to prep for your upcoming mission. This consists of a briefing from Zed, your stalwart, cynical, world-weary leader, who informs you of the particular criminal that you’ll be facing and the location you’ll be traveling to. You’ll also receive some info on the alien bodyguards that protect your prey, which technically should affect your strategy as to how you approach each mission. For example, armored or strong creatures might require more powerful weapons, while smaller, speedier beings can be dispatched quickly. However, as you’ll soon discover, this really doesn’t matter during gameplay.
After prolonged load screens (which seem absurd because this is not a very graphically intense game), a cinematic plays before you are immediately launched into the mission…or should I say firefight? This is because the battle begins the instant the cutscene ends, with aliens warping from all sides, guns blazing. Obviously, the time for discussion has passed, leaving little for you to do but dispense good old-fashioned justice. But your “peacekeeping” is assisted with new tools. With the exception of the standard issue sidearm, the other five weapons seen in Alien Escape are completely new. Of course, you’ll have to acquire these weapons as you go along, and, like most space guns, can be powered up to deliver additional damage. Furthermore, sparsely scattered around levels are smart bombs that wipe out most threatening aliens.
Which isn’t a bad thing, because the waves of aliens that spawn in can sometimes seem endless. Hearkening back to the old-school arcade shooters where you literally had to blast your way through anything that moved, you’ll wind up jumping, rolling and dodging around all six levels, ranging from a dock complete with ocean liner to a nuclear power plant reminiscent of Three Mile Island. All of them are full of nooks and crannies where creatures are lying. However, with the MIB Radar, any alien in range shows up, alerting you to potential threats or friendlies that need your help. Yes, the odd aliens that like to smoke and drink coffee known as the Worm Guys seem to have been kidnapped en masse, and appear to be awaiting rescue. Doing so nets you bonus points, as well as extra materials in the main menu, such as the ability to replay boss levels, pre-production artwork, or classified alien info.
Graphically, compared to other titles on the PS2, Alien Escape is a sub-par game, one that doesn’t fully take advantage of its processing power or graphics chip. Were this a PlayStation title, the character models, in-game graphics and cinematics would be more than adequate. However, as a next-generation title, this is tragically less than average. Case in point are the character models: With anti-aliasing jaggies and flat, washed out textures, the figures Jay and Kay look even worse than the usual movie character representations found in games. Jay looks nowhere even near Will Smith on a bad day, and Kay looks like an older, anorexic Tommy Lee Jones. The cutscenes are rife with the same problems, leaving the full impact of the game as a dull platformer. The levels are implemented with decent textures, destructible elements like glass and exploding barrels, and adequate level design. But what minimizes this is the massive amount of clipping that runs rampant across each level, creating situations where aliens firing at you can do so through walls, containers, just about anything in your way. I can’t count the number of times a creature got stuck in a wall and was granted virtual immunity. The only thing that comes off nicely are the particle effects from the guns, explosions and alien teleportations, which would hopefully appear in a science fiction game.
The sound isn’t much better, with odd musical samples throughout the entire game. Alien Escape vacillates amongst almost every musical genre, but the music chosen is bad. Take the cheesiest techno, worst rock guitar and synth drums, and you’ve got a basic idea about the music that plays all over the game. Additionally, the voices are seriously lacking. While I don’t expect that acquiring Tommy Lee Jones or Will Smith was possible, the designers could’ve gone for the two actors that provided the voices for the cartoon. However, they did neither, choosing two people who sound nothing like the people they’re imitating. The result is a Jay that sounds like he’s trying way too hard to be hip, irreverent and edgy, and a Kay that sounds one step above a geriatric patient. Even the zip and pop of Kay’s “Slick” or “Sport” lines fall unbearably flat with this actor’s delivery.
There are other elements that don’t work well either…For example, I mentioned earlier that there were six different weapons that you can wield as either Jay or Kay. However, what you are not told by the instruction manual is that you can only carry three weapons at a time, and these three weapons are the same for each character. This limitation really diminishes the scope of the game itself. Similarly, the restrictive nature of continuing during gameplay hampers the replayability of Alien Escape. In most action games or shooters, you start off with a minimal number of lives. As you progress you expect to gain extra lives while losing a few in the process. But once you finally lose the game, and choose to continue, you relinquish all points gained up till then in return for those initial lives. Plus, you usually return to where your character fell in battle. Alien Escape doesn’t follow these rules whatsoever. You receive a few lives at the start, but once you lose them, they’re gone. Continuing doesn’t bring them back either; Meaning that if you reach a level checkpoint with no lives and little health left and are forced to continue, you’ll return there at the same status when the game finally loads.
Speaking of load times, what the hell is up with the load times on this game? The wait for the main menu or missions takes up to 45 seconds before anything happens. That’s insanely long for a game that isn’t graphically intense, but for some reason, it takes forever for anything to load with Alien Escape. I’d hope that there would be some rhyme or reason behind this, but there doesn’t seem to be one. Likewise, why are the training missions not accessible at the start of the game? You have to go through and complete a mission before you can unlock the training mission for that level. What’s the point of that when you’ve already faced down the threat? I no longer need instruction on foes that I’ve already defeated.
Anyway, one of the other problems with the plethora of “locked” features are the Worm Guys, who you have to rescue. Typically choosing the worst places to hide (middle of a firefight, anyone?), these creatures are so feeble and at times indistinguishable from enemies in a fight that you’ll torch them without a second’s hesitation. However, there’s no penalty for doing so in gameplay, even though they’re your allies. No fine, outside of not being able to unlock the bios or other features. But this really isn’t a punishment because the extras aren’t exciting or, in some cases, worth the time to unlock.
If you couldn’t tell, I was not impressed with this feature of gameplay, just as I wasn’t impressed with the gameplay of Alien Escape, which is criminal. This franchise deserves much better than this, especially given the depth of the universe, or universes, the mythology of the Men In Black covers. Unfortunately, it seems like there wasn’t a clear enough focus on basic elements of gameplay, resulting in a lackluster attempt overall. There are much better shooters or action games out there, and only the greatest fan of the Men In Black concept will derive any pleasure out of this one.