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Advent Rising

(Majesco; US: Jun 2007)

Underdeveloped

While I had not been looking forward to Advent Rising with bated breath, nevertheless, I have been interested in the creation of the first part of the Advent Trilogy largely due to the fact that I knew science fiction writer, Orson Scott Card, was involved with writing its plot. The mention of such an auspicious SF writer being involved with a game brought back fond memories of time spent with games similarly helmed by experienced writers, such as Roger Zelazny’s semi-posthumous SF PC adventure Chronomaster. Bringing talented writers to the video game genre has generally been a boon, and it seemed like a stroke of luck that GlyphX had wrangled one of SF’s best and most sophisticated scribes.


Advent Rising begins well as it familiarizes the player with his in-game persona, Gideon Wyeth, a hotshot military pilot sent as an escort for a first contact diplomatic mission with a peaceful alien race. Gideon is accompanied by his brother as well as his fiancée, a scientist, but, while humanity’s new found friends, the Aurelians, have nothing but good intentions for the meeting, the meeting is interrupted by an attack by another less friendly race called the Seekers. Both the Aurelians and the Seekers seem to view the humans as a mythological race important to the universe as a whole. However, while the Aurelians seem to view the humans as godlike entities central to their religion, the Seekers seem to be looking for some sort of power to tap from our potential divinity at the expense of our very lives.


Thus, a potentially epic space opera is set in motion with Gideon serving as humanity’s best defense against the Seekers and a new pupil for the Aurelians to teach some very Jedi-esque abilities.


Card’s novels almost always revolve around thorny ethical issues (most notable among the Card canon and the one dealing most obviously with the relationship between war and games is the classic Ender’s Game, in which a young boy becomes humanity’s savior while at the same time perpetrating an unbelievable genocide through what he perceives to be a video game-like training simulation), and it seemed to me that such issues would make for interesting fodder in an interactive narrative rather than the more passive narrative stylings of a novel. What Card has been able to present to readers is an “objective” fashion of storytelling (by allowing us to read and evaluate his characters’ behaviors through his novels) in order to challenge them with ethical conundrums; having to resolve them yourself, rather than simply reading about them seems to be a potentially fascinating experience.


As Advent Rising kicks off, just such a less than clear cut ethical decision appears to become the center of the plot. Wielding whatever weapons he can find, the player makes his way through Seeker forces to an escape pod onboard the human ship. Prior to the launch of the pod, the player is forced to decide who he will escape with and whose fate he will seal. One must decide whether blood binds or marriage vows obviate such obligation as laser blasts scream overhead. Very promising stuff.


Alas, if only the rest of the game were so promising, or if only the rest of the rapid-fire plotting between equally rapid-fire shooting sequences helped to develop any of the characters as much as a typical Card novel would in order for us to care about such decisions.


Advent Rising‘s third-person gameplay is reminiscent of Halo‘s first-person combat. Gideon advances through the first half of the game with two fisted gunplay, scavenging weapons and ammo from fallen foes, with whichever character he chose to save as his AI-driven squadmate. I chose to save Gideon’s bride-to-be on my first run through of the game (I figured that’s what my brother would want), but quickly found that my decision had no seeming relevance to the narrative as a whole. As a matter of fact, my fiancée’s character remained flat and underdeveloped as long as she was with me. While the decision has a vague kind of relevance to the game’s concluding chapter, due to the way in which characterization seems to devolve into simple AI sidekicking, the force of the emotional sacrifice made earlier is greatly diminished.


If the game’s plotting and characterization seem underdeveloped so too does Advent Rising‘s gameplay. As noted, the gameplay in the first half is less than innovative in its similarity to Halo and is a bit underwhelming as it grows increasingly redundant. In the second half, when Gideon develops his “divine” psychic prowess, the game gets a bit of a kickstart with telekinetic combat and some nifty energy barriers and such, yet it still remains the same redundant run-and-gun gameplay of the first half.


To make matters worse, Advent Rising seems to not have been fully developed at its most basic levels—the design itself. It is easily the buggiest console game I have ever played with a camera that occasionally locks itself into place, not allowing you to see what is ahead. Some events and cut scenes fail to trigger, resulting in resetting to earlier checkpoints, and the targeting system works intermittently.


What this body of underdeveloped plot and gameplay results in is a story and game that I found myself forcing to get through, rather than feeling immersed in. My hope that Card’s ideas could be translated into an immersive experience was not lost in the epic drama and grandeur of a space opera, but in the melodrama of cursing a frequently frustrating, boring game. I wish Card had just written the novel for us, rather than letting GlyphX turn this into a lackluster experience.

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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