The War of the Worlds game was a bit of a surprise to me. Not that I’d been living under a videogame-deprived rock, but its release onto the XBLA confines caught me off guard. Sight unseen, I made a hasty guess, fully expecting to find some kind of arcade-y shoot-em-up with cel-shaded graphics or something, a cash-in game riding the coattails of a well-known name and sullying that good name in the process. And while that type of game might turn out to be fun, ultimately to the eyes of originality, it would have been just another palateless title soon lost to the A-Z listings on each respective platform.
I was glad to be proved wrong.
The War of the Worlds is thankfully nothing like what I mentioned above. In fact, the game prides itself on being inspired more so by the original H.G. Wells source material and Orson Welles’ radio play that put a good scare into our grandparents, rather than the recent Spielberg / Cruise outing. Instead of donning a modern 3D coat, WotW goes back to the 2D adventure age of gaming, bringing to mind the original Prince of Persia and the hallowed Out of This World, the latter of which I have not played, but I see the connection. Visually, the game looks and moves like a beautifully-animated Old World painting, drawing on its own unique style as what was successfully done in the similarly-monochrome Limbo. But while it bases itself on the above, developer Other Ocean has opted for an original storyline and characters within the familiar invasion plot.
Our protagonist is Arthur Clarke, aboard a train bound for London after visiting a friend, when a long-time-coming but previously-undeclared war between worlds erupts, forcing him to abandon the chaos of a train wreck and immediate need of those around him, to ignore the seeming extermination of mankind, and simply try to get home, to see what’s left standing. You’re welcome to form a one-man resistance, but you’ll find that resistance is futile, quickly vaporized once spotted. The game relies less on attacking the Martians directly and more on skillfully avoiding a fight (you find an ax early on, but your best weapons throughout will be stealth and quick thinking), instead using the impetus of finding your scattered family to keep the player focused on the path ahead.
It’s worth noting that voicing the main character is a well-known actor. Even the most jaded gamer has to think playing as and having his / her adventure narrated by none other than Sir Patrick Stewart is pretty damn cool. I mean, if I had the money, I’d buy and launch a missile into a nearby star so I could alter the path of that energy ribbon and return to the ‘Nexus’, where my life would be similar, except Mr. Stewart would comment on my everyday routine, reminding me to floss or fill up my tank with gas, sort of like a live-action, mundane-tasks Bastion. Sure it wouldn’t be real, but I’d be happy. Is that weird?
Anyway, I digress. Like Limbo, WotW is mostly grays and blacks, with color (besides Arthur) used sparingly to emphasize enemies or environmental scenes, like a tree engulfed in bright orange flame, or a verdant field overlooking the ruined city. There’s a lot to pay attention to, with details abound in the fore and backgrounds that bring to light the destroyed beauty of a 1950s London. Sound is also an important indicator of mood, from the rising orchestral soundtrack during frantic scenes, to a lonely radio playing its softer tune as you navigate a rubble-strewn building. Combine these aspects together, such as in joining a terrified throng of people on Edgware Road in running for your life, watching others thrown and trampled to death, and it’s simultaneously one of the most epic (and frustrating) sequences in a videogame I’ve yet experienced.
You’ll run into many types of Martians, from the obligatory tripods to the spidery, to the flying drones that patrol their routes diligently. Also black smoke, a strangely-cognizant poisonous gas that ‘chases’ and slowly fills up the room you occupy. Later, you’ll come across Red Weed, the also-cognizant, blood-harvesting tentacles that latch onto and kill you if you don’t break the connection. This enemy is sensitive to light, which hardens and eventually disintegrates, and makes for some nifty traversal puzzles.
Yet other puzzles seem to be there only to extend your tour, and feel (pardon the easy pun) alien in the world (avoiding electric currents assembly line-style, crate pushing, opening floor panels). And the controls for solving those puzzles and nailing jumps, while serviceable, are not as responsive as you need them to be for this kind of precision work. The animations are pretty, but I’d have sacrificed them for quicker moves any day. Not having immediately receptive control also leads to my next criticism…
Be forewarned, you are going to die. Plenty. While part of the reward comes from completion, the getting there will try your patience. This game’s challenges makes Limbo look like a walk in Hyde Park, before the invasion. I can’t help but think the Other Ocean guys could have backed it off a bit on the difficulty (and with two achievements devoted to no-death runs, ha!, good luck). The hardcore nature of it may appeal to some, but for those weaned on the current, casual-friendly console cycle or those short on persistence, it will be a shock to the system.
Mercifully, the numerous mid-level save points make the drudgery of multiple retries bearable, but even they can’t fix some of the odd / unfair deaths I encountered, like being vaporized by drones’ rays despite being behind or under cover, supposedly choking on black smoke regardless of the fact that Arthur kept right on running and jumping, even an auto-save point mid-level where I died upon reaching it, left to die over and over again upon respawn until I was forced to restart the level.
These gripes are certainly valid, but I never once considered giving up on the game. The thrill of exploration, facing the unknown, outsmarting / outmaneuvering the Martians, and yes, even the repetition leading to victory in the more death-inducing sections of the game, all outweigh the negatives. It’s definitely for those seeking a challenge, but just as adept at being a cinematic platformer, with a welcomed literary feel that is sorely missing from most games.
Evidence you should never judge a book by its cover or surmise its content from chapter titles, by the end of the Arthur’s journey, The War of the Worlds has earned the right to bear its title.