Thursday, 26 December 2013

crash and burn? Crash of the Titans revisited

In a recent piece in SpawnFirst, Angie Santiago asked what ever had happened to Crash Bandicoot ; the character who was once the mascot of PlayStation, who had starred in a number of best-selling titles and party-favourites (Crash Team Racing, of course), has been silent both on the PS3 and PS4. As Angie suggested in her article, there has been a feeling from within PlayStation and Activision (his "owners") that Crash Bandicoot just isn't going to appear on these platforms, at least not in the foreseeable future.

But there has been noise and movement in the past month. Activision made a public statement that they are still interested in the franchise (here, and yet, there have been rumours about the sale of IPs, removals of Crash references from the Activision website, and ghostly Wumpa fruit bouncing around in their fruit bowl (I made that last one up). You can take all this two ways ; either Activision are just promising, vaguely, while really not committing, or else they are preparing something big for 2014 - a new Crash title. But for now, all we have is the past. But how does that past hold up now, on its dusty consoles and in its ancient clothes?

For many of us, it was Crash Bandicoot Warped that was the last "good" word in the Crash Bandicoot series ; a title that combined the ingenuous (and often infuriating) platform puzzles, anarchic humour, and attractive platform worlds that epitomises the series as a whole. While Crash 1 and 2 were extremely good fun in their own right, Warped added enough new elements to make the game fresh without either ruining it or sending it "off message" altogether.

When an updated Crash was announced for the PS2, XBOX 360 and Wii in 2007, many - like myself - expected something that was really going to be "just like" Warped, though there were many glum predictions. After all, Naughty Dog, the game's original developers, had handed over the job to Traveller's Tales who had produced a couple of unfortunately lacklustre placeholders (The Wrath of Cortex and Twinsanity), which had failed to impress. Cortex was a poorly held together paint gloss of Warped, adding a few extra effects and new gameplay mechanics, but losing out in fundamental areas like character control and mapping. Crash didn't feel like the acrobatic marsupial that we knew and loved, but a sickly shadow of him. I gave up on Cortex after sending Crash plummeting off an easy platform one too many times ; his movement was just too loose and hard to control.

Reading the article got me thinking about the series - the series which, over the years, I have probably sunk more hours in than I've spent with any other gaming mascot (Mario comes in at a not-so close second). Knowing that my PS1 titles were stored away somewhere unreachable (the attic), I had to get my Crash fix somewhere else. This review article has come directly from going back to Crash, not just to nostalgically sing its praises, but to argue that really the last good word is not to be found in Warped at all, but in the now forgotten fun of its PS2 offspring - Crash of the Titans.

opening up the temple :: Crash Bandicoot Warped

One of the first and most obvious things about Crash of the Titans is that it is not a spin off - there is no tiger-riding, carting or jet pack scooting (as fun as they are, I think we've had our fill of them from previous installments). It is a platformer. But it is also more than this, because it has a new and crucial hook ; that Crash can take control of monsters (titans) through the use of his companion mask (Aku Aku), and then ride around on their backs doing damage, both to regular minions and other titans. So, while this was a new path for the series, it was a gamble definitely worth taking ; lolloping around on the back of the titans, swiping and crunching and bashing away at your enemies, is addictive and satisfying fun. But more than that, it is also an essential tool to complete the levels ; each titan has its own abilities, whether because it they are simply large enough to defeat larger "boss" titans, or whether they can freeze overpowering torrents of water or shoot lasers at hard-to-reach enemies. These skills and special attacks mean that the titans have not simply been dumped on the game to make it more interesting, but have been built in to the mechanics and the structure of the game itself.

This is not, then, a typical Crash game ; because of the emphasis on "jacking" titans, the gameplay has been oriented almost entirely to this - to combat. And so, while it is a platform game in one sense, it is no longer purely about solving the spatial puzzles of the original games, where combat was really only important during boss battles (where ordinary enemies could be, for the most part, overstepped or avoided by other means). This means that the levels are very different in terms of their layout. There are wider areas, flatter ground, and the occasional bowl "arena" where larger titan battles take place.

In truth, the original Crash titles were also linear, so nothing here has been lost. And while combat is essential to completing the game, there are still inventive puzzles to solve which require timing, jumping and running (although these become less common as the game progresses). The combat itself is more fun than technically challenging; you will only really lose if you either are not "jacked" or not jacked to an appropriate titan, or if you get outnumbered. Most of the battles are won by furious "punch" button tapping, although you can vary this with each titan's special attack (which recharges over time and the collection of dropped items), and with the acquisition of new skills for the base Crash as you progress through experience "levels". The leveling mechanic is simple enough, adding new and more powerful skills such as a prolonged and more damaging spin, or the ability to chain regular attacks for additional damage. These mean that there is an incentive to "power up" your Crash in order to wreak more damage in the final levels. It also serves to add a bit of much needed variation to the gameplay.

The graphics have also had an overhaul, with smoothly rendered textures and interesting and varied backgrounds, as well as crisply defined character models. The animations for attacks, titans and special moves are colourful and vibrant, which means that when you're in the heat of a large battle it can seem very active and bright without being overpowering or dense. While the developers have drawn away from the early titles' use of standard and unconnected level themes (Egyptian tomb, island paradise, Great Wall of China, Space), these are still referenced by the thoughtful and often very attractive decals and backgrounds, many of which have a Polynesian flavour to them. Because the story line moves from island to space ship, the scenery changes in tandem with the design, which pulls it together nicely. As the story progresses, as well, new and more powerful titans are introduced, which adds an element of anticipation to each of the game's levels.

While the game is too short - I completed the game in under ten hours - there is not the same level of completist fun that the earlier titles had, where you could spend hours and hours searching for relics, gems and 100% wumpa fruit. Because the title is simply not focused on these, they seem less important, and so I rarely found myself bothering to ensure that I made these collections. After all, I was more concerned with gaining the requisite powerups that would improve my attack strength.

Impressions ...

Crash may never appear on a console again (boo!) - and so, we may have to remember him only from a handful of more or less good (or occasionally brilliant) titles on older consoles. Crash of the Titans was actually, despite its largely mediocre reviews, a fun and perhaps unfairly treated addition to the Crash family - sensing how poorly a pure puzzle game like Wrath of Cortex had gone, the developers sided with a new mechanic in a familiar world. Crash of the Titans, while not the defining peak of the Crash range, is not an unworthy addition. It is a game that has not really aged, and which, unlike the failures of Cortex and Twinsanity, has some real staying power.

Playing Crash of the Titans again, and remembering fondly the antics of Warped, I realised there were some positive signs for the future. Namely, that the Crash franchise isn't a dead weight or a mode unsuitable to the new range of consoles. The extremely addictive and satisfying mechanic of Crash of the Titans - its jacked titans amid satisfying level design - is one that suits big environments, lush textures and design, and casual gameplay. If I could do all of this on the XBOX One or PS4, but in a bigger, more varied and tighter game, then I'd definitely be glad to welcome Crash back to the fold. I wonder how long we will have to wait?

No comments:

Post a Comment