[9 November 2008]
The best thing about blindly picking up a Crash game is that, in a general sense, you know what you’re getting into. As long as the title of the game doesn’t have Kart, or Party, or Racing, or Turbo in the title, you’re going to be picking up a third-person platforming experience with colorful scenery, silly bad guys, and a whole bunch of reasons to replay every level in the game. Some games have been better than others—Crash Bandicoot 2 and Crash Bandicoot: Warped, both on Sony’s original PlayStation, are some of the best platforming experiences out there, while the PlayStation 2’s Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex is one of the worst—but if you’re jonesing for platforming, Crash Bandicoot is one of the most reliable franchises out there.
Unfortunately, more recent entries in the franchise simply haven’t been able to capture any of the magic of the originals. Part of this is the mere fact that platforming simply isn’t as popular as it used to be, and part of it is that new platforming icons have stolen the spotlight (hello, Ratchet & Clank).
Not all of Crash’s woes can be pinned on circumstance, however. The main issue that the Crash Bandicoot series has had since its days as a PlayStation hit is that it simply hasn’t been able to keep up with new technology. Wrath of Cortex was a terribly vivid example of what happens when you try to change as little as possible about a game design other than the enhancement in graphic; namely, you get a game that offers almost no new experiences other than the added “fun” of waiting excruciatingly long times for things to load. While Crash‘s most recent iterations have largely overcome the issue of load times, the fact remains that even with the franchise’s latest release, Crash: Mind Over Mutant, the platforming experience offered simply isn’t up to the standards set by other games on the current generation of systems.
Case in point: The major “innovation” of Crash: Mind Over Mutant is that the gameplay is no longer broken up into “levels”. All of the platforming takes place in one continuously-generated world, with every area eventually accessible from every other area in that world. It’s a fine enough idea, and one that actually does allow for a sense of being able to explore without the fear that you’re going to miss something along the way.
The mutant-riding mechanic of Crash of the Titans returns!
Unfortunately, there are two glaring problems with touting this approach as Mind Over Mutant‘s major selling point. For one, it’s hardly a new idea. Not even counting the entire “sandbox” genre of games, platformers have been employing open world gameplay since at least 2001, when Naughty Dog—the original developers of the Crash series, it should be noted—implemented such a world as part of Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (I’m almost positive that there are earlier examples, but none are presently coming to mind—that’s what the comments are for). One can get over such a lack of innovation, however, if the implementation of the open world is well thought out and put together. In too many cases, the open world of Mind Over Mutant is not. The most egregious examples of open world mishandling happen when the player takes a wrong turn. It is not a truly open world if you cannot walk through a door, realize you’ve gone the wrong way, and simply turn around and go back the way you came. Yet, in Mind Over Mutant, it’s entirely possible—and, in fact, common—that you will go the wrong way and have to travel in a long, winding circle back to wherever the mistake was made.
Granted, I could have reloaded my game. I could have avoided the all-too-convenient save spot that stuck me for good in the wrong place until I jumped and fought my way out. The point is that with an open world design, I shouldn’t have to. Try telling the 10-year-old that this game is targeted at that they’re going to have to plow through a half-hour of game that they’ve already played just to get back to where they started.
Also an egregious violation of platforming standards is the strangely inconsistent sense of control. At turns unresponsive and overly touchy, it’s still difficult, after seven or eight hours with the game, to judge exactly how Crash will respond to a player’s input in the most precise of situations. Compounding the control issues is a camera that simply cannot be controlled. Typically, in a Crash game, a static camera is not a problem; in an open world, however, it means lots of running at the camera barely being able to see what’s in front of Crash, be it a bottomless pit, an enemy, or glorious empty terrain.
And yet, despite this laundry list of problems, some players (such as myself, for instance) will find themselves utterly compelled to play their way through the story. One reason is the way in which the story is told. The story itself is typical “bad guy invents a doodad with which he intends to take over the human race until good guy thwarts his nefarious plans” trope, but the intermittent cinematics are utterly inspired. The idea seems to have been to borrow a cinematic style for each interlude. You may think you’re watching a puppet show put on by Crash regulars Coco and Crunch bandicoot, but you’re actually seeing a brief story-advancing cinematic. As the game progresses, you see these cut-scenes in the style of South Park, anime, and ‘30s black-and-white horror films, among many others. Best of all, they’re actually pretty hilarious, even if the occasional joke will fly right over the heads of the game’s target audience.
Perhaps more important, however, is the mere fact that Crash: Mind Over Mutant is a platformer at all. The Xbox 360 is a machine particularly bereft of platformers (though upcoming Banjo Kazooie and Sonic titles may soon correct that), and to play one that’s not awful and even intermittently entertaining on the system is really kind of nice. But other platforms have Mario games and Ratchet & Clank games, not to mention the huge library of quality platforming on the PS2, therefore stealing much of the appeal of a game like this. Really, if you’re an Xbox gamer starved of your platforming fix, this might just do it for you. Otherwise, it is only merely an average gaming experience. This time of year, you can certainly do better.