You may not recognize it, but, like our society, games have hierarchies as well. There are the teeming, unwashed masses of foes that players face which make up the lower classes. Above them come secondary and main characters, the entities that a plot revolves around. Finally, at the top of the hill comes the game mascot, those indomitable heroes that can helm a game franchise, launch gaming platforms and create buying frenzies (not to mention parental headaches).
But what makes a good mascot? It would appear that a solid control scheme anyone can pick up and use is part of the equation. Innovative, genre creating or redefining gameplay is also a factor that imbues the gaming experience with a more tactile, enjoyable feel. Finally, a dash of attitude endears a mascot to the player, making you cheer when they succeed and cry when they fail. Take a look at some of the more recognizable icons and your see what I mean. Mario and Sonic embodied these qualities to a tee, not only achieving legendary status and popularity, but also dramatically powering the sales of their respective systems. Crash Bandicoot performed similar business for Sony across three platform titles and a racing game. However, with his latest exploit, Crash has defected to Microsoft’s camp in a large-scale adventure across land, sea and air.
Uka Uka, Dr. Cortex and his associates have a serious problem on their hands. No matter what plan they come up with or villain they unleash, Crash stops them in their tracks. The meeting they have quickly degenerates into chaos, only to have Dr. Cortex re-establish order with the unveiling of his latest secret weapon. His newest creation is a genetically enhanced, bionically augmented bandicoot named Crunch whose sole purpose is to destroy Crash, but Cortex needs additional power sources to complete its construction. Uka Uka, the evil witch doctor mask, gets an idea and tells the scoundrels about the Elementals. Rogue masks with power over the elements, the Elementals were imprisoned with special crystals because of their destructive natures. Releasing and harnessing the power of the masks, Uka Uka reasons, should allow Cortex to finally beat his nemesis.
Of course, Crash must retrieve the crystals in order to defeat Dr. Cortex, Uka Uka and the Elementals.
Fortunately, Crash is not alone against Cortex’s minions. Aku Aku, the benevolent witch doctor mask, still mentors Crash through his adventures, making sure that good triumphs over evil yet again. His little sister, Coco, is also along for the ride, creating a warp device to help Crash navigate around the world in his journey. Neither one of them is a sideline player however; Aku Aku continually pops up on stages to confer temporary invincibility. Coco leaps into the fray as well during certain stages, showing her brother that he’s not the only one with the skills to save the world.
If you’ve ever played a Crash Bandicoot game before, you’ll be glad to know that the basics of the game haven’t changed a bit. Crash still runs around, collecting fruit for extra men, spin kicking enemies and butt stomping certain crates while avoiding those packed with nitro or TNT. He’s managed to pick up a few new moves, like the ability to double jump with the momentum from a slide or a low crawl to avoid projectiles. Crash also acquires new powers whenever he manages to defeat a boss, such as the ability to tip toe over dangerous boxes. These new additions come in handy as you traverse the more than 25 levels available in The Wrath of Cortex.
Deep, dark jungles, factories, and castles are just a small sample of the locales holding the elemental crystals. Completing a level attains a number of the crystals; however, these are not the only rewards that can be obtained. Gems can be found within secret areas or by breaking every box in a level. These gems can open up additional areas to explore. The other prizes that can be acquired are relics, which are won by replaying already completed levels in Time Trial mode. Completing the level under the specified times can net either a sapphire, gold, or platinum relic. To fully complete the game and receive a 100% rating, you must obtain all the rewards for every level.
Graphically, this is the most impressive Bandicoot adventure yet. Most of the levels are large, graphically expansive areas. Although you’re not allowed to freely roam around every area, the sections that you can move in and around are considerable, and are much larger than previous versions. This is further augmented with sweeping camera movement, which pans in and out during play to highlight immediate action and distant areas. While some areas may seem to be slight variations on the basic theme (i.e. castles, factories), the layout of each level is nicely crafted and imbued with a life of its own, adding to the danger that Crash faces. Crash and Coco have also been fully remodeled in 3D, with more expressive animations for each character. For example, levels that take place in cold climates will typically make the bandicoots shiver uncontrollably.
Musically, Crash’s theme song makes a return, bolstered by additional scores and refrains that are matched with the stage. For example, the jungle levels have a more tribal beat to them, while the Chinatown stages have an Asian-influenced score. Sound effects from previous Crash titles make a return as well, with the familiar whistles, crunches and cartoonish sounds making a comeback. While they may not seem re-mastered, The Wrath of Cortex supports Dolby Digital sound. Hollywood talent like Clancy Brown, Mark Hamill and R. Lee Ermy provide the voices for the game characters, which adds a richer experience to gameplay.
The length of the gameplay, which is very short, even with the modes designed to lengthen the title, only diminishes the strength of the vocal talent. At most, there are about 10 hours of gameplay involved within the game itself, including running through the time trial modes to acquire the best totem. After playing the game for about three or four hours, I had completed more than seventy percent of the game with most of the rewards in tow. The length of play is not the only problem. The title suffers from bad camera control, one that often zooms in and out on its own at predetermined times. This would be ok if the zoom didn’t affect your perspective on certain jumps or movement that can easily get you killed during a level. The environmental dangers like chasms or water pits are the worst enemies that you will face within the game, as the enemies do not exhibit any intelligence whatsoever.
The levels within the game itself are not particularly original either. I counted a few levels that had almost been copied section for section from other non-Crash titles. While I placed faith that the addition of vehicles within this game would potentially break the mold of the gameplay, they seem to be more of an afterthought than a specific addition. For example, I understand that leaping into a jeep to escape a stampede is much more practical that trying to outrun it on foot, but I would hope that the entire level would consist of the driving as opposed to the last quarter of it. It would’ve also made sense if you could take the vehicles and use them to explore previous levels. Additionally, why are vehicles like the jeep just lying around in the middle of nowhere? It would’ve made more sense if Aku Aku or Coco were copiloting the vehicles, or physically placed them in front of Crash for his use, as opposed to just finding them.
The largest reason why I say placed in front of Crash and not Coco is also one of the largest gripes that I have with the title. There is never a specific reason given as to why you play as Coco, why her levels automatically take place in the Asian-influenced levels (save her love for martial arts movies in her bio provided in the instruction manual), or what playing as her adds to the entire game. If it was possible to select your bandicoot, each with their own specific strengths and weaknesses for a level, and tailor your experience that way, there might be more of a justification as to why she’s in the game. As it stands now, it comes across more as a gimmick.
It’s nice to see Crash return on a next-generation platform, even with his leap over to the Xbox. Unfortunately it feels like the originality that the franchise once had has run a little stale. While an old adage is “don’t fix what isn’t broken,” the other side of the coin is substantially improving and innovating upon the features that work. Crash fans will probably love his latest adventure, but other gamers will most likely pass on this one.