Review: Tron – Evolution

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Tron: Evolution is the “prequel” to Tron: Legacy, Disney’s big sequel to the eighties movie that stunned crowds with its stylized idea of a world within your computer.

Evolution preps fans for the film by explaining a little of what happened since the eighties in the Tronverse making it something of a spoiler for what it reveals, but not so much that it lessens your enjoyment of the film. I still got a kick out of it and as a fan, the extra lore was great stuff.

Evolution’s biggest selling point lies squarely on its ties to Tron and the world it translates into a playable field filled with programs that look like people and techy terminology that passes for everyday language there. All of the glowing effects and futuristic glamour have been meticulously crafted by Propaganda Games’ artists doing the original film and its sequel justice.

To those that aren’t familiar with the history, Tron’s world imagines what life is like inside your PC for the programs that live in there. Thanks to a high-tech laser that can scan a living person into digital format, it’s like jacking into cyberspace without a jack and seeing things from the other side of the monitor.

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The hotshot programmer, Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who discovers this world also found evidence proving that he was the genius behind many of the most successful games of the time – something that he was screwed out of thanks to an evil corporate type played by David Warner who had him fired. Now that he’s in the driver’s seat at Encom, the company that was once his enemy, it quickly branched out to dominate the world. Imagine Nintendo creating things like their own version of Windows and you’ll get the idea of how big Encom was becoming. But he never gave up his experiences inside the world of Tron and was working to explore it when, well, things don’t go exactly as well as he’d hoped.

Players are put into the third-person coded boots of a “System Monitor”, a program that is sort of like a supercop created to troubleshoot problems inside the “Grid”. Flynn created him as a sort of insurance play and before you know it, are swept up in a conspiracy against him and the Grid.

The game lays out the basic plot for what the film finishes off on the silver screen, so from a Tron fan’s perspective, it’s worth seeing it through for that alone. On the other hand, its gameplay can leave controllers mangled and frustrated from the rough handling that its camera and its basic play can burden players with.

Let’s start with the simplest stuff first: getting around. You can run along and up walls, parkour over obstacles with grace, and grapple hook your way across vast chasms. The problem is that none of this feels particularly polished leaving me to believe that the fast loading times are due to the number of repeated deaths that the game’s designers expect out of you.

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Grappling is particularly troublesome because you can’t really adjust your swing direction as you otherwise could in games like the recent Tomb Raiders, leaving the initial leap of your hurling body the only way to go. So, if you leap off of a wall at an odd angle and have to grapple your way to the next platform, you’d better hope that you blindly hit it right since the camera doesn’t help you plan ahead. One jump that was set up like this early on made me almost want to jack out.

Blindly leaping backwards off of walls or at certain angles thanks to a jerky camera was also an act of faith in several instances. The somewhat dodgy design placement of certain obstacles and scripted events can also trip up the player on occasion by simply killing them first so that they know there’s something there. Healing up by running along energy strips built into walls doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it does feel forced in that the designers want to show off how cool it can look every time they can get away with it.

The relatively linear design of pushing the player to jump off of specific points or certain routes also feels as if it stifles some of the open ended feel that Evolution’s world wants to present. A lot of this is even worse if you’ve just come from a game with a far better parkour experience, such as Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, magnifying its issues.

The action is a bit more straightforward, though it’s not as exciting as it looks onscreen. RPG elements built into the gameplay make it so that every time you take out the bad guys, you earn some points that you can use to upgrade certain abilities – such as your Disc weapon. And then the game takes that away from you if you kill too many bad guys in an area!

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More than once, I stopped earning experience because I probably hit an invisible limit to how much I could earn from the endless foes flooding into an area. It just closes the spigot, nevermind that you can repeat unlocked areas to grind up for more experience, anyway. Combat is spiced up with a few tougher bad guys to fight against, but for the most part, it’s a lot of button mashing and running around. Rinse and repeat throughout the experience, and that’s what you have to look forward to outside of its more interesting story.

There are also certain times when you’ll be on a lightcycle and have to run a gauntlet of exploding bombs, enemy cycles, and crumbling highways. These tend to be a bit more challenging, although you can also expect to die often and be quizzed the next time through on what had killed you in order to avoid it – or jump over it.

Through all of this, I couldn’t help but think of Tron 2.0 which came out years earlier. Though the story wasn’t as interesting, the gameplay it wrapped around its first-person perspective went a long way in making it feel as if it were a side chapter to a film that no one had expected to come around. One of the best levels in any game, a formatting hard drive, really brought home the fear of being erased from a program’s point of view.

From a level design standpoint, Evolution’s world exists solely to jump and run through with the occasional tank battle to blow up bad guys. So much could have been done with this material in the same way that Tron 2.0 had played with, but sadly like the gameplay, becomes stale rather quickly. It’s also a pretty short game – dedicated players can tear through the main campaign over a weekend leaving only hidden extras and grinding up abilities as reasons to head back in.

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Multiplayer is also offered up allowing players to take their disk battles online with or without bots to back them up in team matches along with lightcycles. Levels and earned bonuses are also incentives to stay on the Grid, though whether it’s unique play is enough to pull enough players away from FPS heavyweights depends on how much you like Tron. Or achievements.

Evolution isn’t the worst movie-tie in game out there. Blasting through neophyte programs, upgrading my abilities, listening to the Daft Punk soundtrack, and doing “Tronnish” stuff like deflecting disks back at their users reveal some of the promise it started out with. But gaping at the environment can only do so much, even with 80′s nostalgia tugging at me every step of way, when an extended stay can feel more like a chore than as an experience that should be archived into memory.

Tron: Evolution
Disney Interactive Studios / Propaganda Games
Xbox 360 / PS3 / PSP / Microsoft Windows (reviewed on the Xbox 360)
Rated: T for Teens