The Golden Compass Review
One of the biggest movies of last year was The Golden Compass, which featured plenty of beautiful CGI and a compelling, magical story. It wasn't another Lord of the Rings and critics didn't exactly gush about it, but for fans of the fantasy/action genre, it fit the bill nicely. Of course, there just had to be a video game adaptation, and of course, we were immediately worried. By now, it's a well known fact that games based on movies are generally terrible, even when the premise is a solid one. The Golden Compass features awesome creatures and portrays a sweeping, epic atmosphere, so it's easy to have high aspirations for the game; the concept should translate extremely well! Unfortunately, just about nothing "translates" well, and we're left with that same ol' feeling of annoyed disappointment. There are several interesting gameplay mechanics and a decent amount of diversity, but the entire production comes across as muddled, plodding, and unrefined.
Most who saw the movie will tell you there were plenty of breathless views generated by brilliant CGI, but those who played the game will say something very different. The game clearly isn't optimized to the PS3's next-generation hardware, the visual presentation is flawed and clunky (just like the gameplay), and it lacks any semblance of that epic feeling. The character design is mediocre at best, and despite some minor highlights in certain environments - the ice is appropriately shiny, for example - The Golden Compass fails to put its best graphical foot forward. There's a decent level of detail, but because the visual palette is limited to begin with, that sprinkling of semi-impressive detail is erratic. One minute, you're saying, "hey, that looks pretty sweet," and the next, you're moaning, "geez, what happened?" It just feels as if very little effort was put forth in this area, and it's almost like Shiny Entertainment didn't care enough to iron out the technical shortcomings. Simply put, with all the majesty the movie conveyed, we had expected something far more appealing.
Thankfully, due to some surprisingly fantastic music, the sound is much better. This is the only aspect of the movie that made a faithful leap to the interactive adaptation, and while that sounds depressing (it is, kinda), it's still a big positive. The wonderfully orchestrated tracks really help to bolster the audio, although it can't override the horrendously lame battle effects and understated voice acting. There's also a major balance problem, because the effects and music are often sparring with one another; they never blend together correctly. We're not really sure why the sound balancing seems to be sporadic with next-gen hardware - could it really be a hardware issue? - but The Golden Compass is only one of many recent titles that suffer from the same drawback. The voice acting in the movie was excellent, but the actors just don't seem to put forth the same level of professionalism for the game. When attacking with Iorek, for example, one would anticipate a certain amount of gut-wrenching slashes and thuds, but all we hear is an uber-generic impact effect. The great music just can't eliminate all the negatives, but at least it's worth mentioning.
It's worth mentioning because it's a positive, and we don't have a lot of those in this game. The gameplay consists of three separate mechanics, and not a one of them is interesting or entertaining. Perhaps it's not fair to say the combat is always boring, because we did have some fun for a while, but in the end, the entire production feels both forced and unpolished. The player starts off on the strong back of the polar bear protector, Iorek, and you will proceed to follow a linear path through a harsh world os snow and ice. You get to beat on some pesky wolves, leap dangerous chasms, and even participate in a few simple "Strength Test" mini-games that are very similar to the Context Sensitive mechanic found in the God of War titles. All that being said, you're probably thinking the gameplay sounds invigorating, but nothing seems to work the way it should. Later, when controlling Lyra, basic platforming elements and more mini-games is on tap for the player, and that doesn't help matters. If there is a silver lining, it centers on the nicely paced storyline and the moderate variety we encounter when playing through each section.
Beyond that, though, there are plenty of errors that make the foundation of The Golden Compass shaky at best. First of all, we realize a polar bear shouldn't respond the same way as if we were controlling a bobcat, but does he really need to feel like an '88 Buick? His attacks are fast enough and being able to grab enemies and toss them is very cool, but the developers didn't think we would want a jump option. Instead, we just press the triangle button when prompted so Iorek can leap those aforementioned chasms, and it's basically impossible to screw that up. Factor in a fixed camera that really doesn't work very well at all - a fixed camera when the character must run facing you is stupid - and you've got a flawed, unchallenging and mostly unentertaining adventuring system. Things get a little better when you're in control of the girl, Lyra, but her limitations means we start to lose interest very quickly. She can jump, clamber up ledges and occasionally toss objects (via an aiming system that...'yawn'), but beyond picking up items, there's not much else to do.
She does have access to Pan, who can change forms, and each form has its own unique ability. The Ermine, for instance, allows you to hone in on your environment and glean some necessary clues. The Sloth lets you use a whip to grab and swing ala Prince of Persia, the hawk lets you glide (thereby increasing your jump distance), etc. This is all very well and good, but it's never a puzzle as to which form you should use, and none of the abilities are used to their full potential. Shiny also decided to eliminate any semblance of a real combat mechanic with Lyra, which does seem very realistic. After all, she is just a little girl, so it wouldn't make much sense for her to fight a full grown hunter. Even so, simply dodging the enemy (again, it's a mini-game with pressing the prompted button) is never difficult, and what that foe does when he misses is downright comical. Honestly, we really didn't even need it in there, although I'm sure that, on the surface, this little feature may have seemed like a good idea. In reality, it just feels tacked on and completely unnecessary.
The other major gameplay mechanic centers on mini-games, which you use when attempting to "Deceive" an individual. You can talk to many different characters in the game, and in order to get the reply you want, you can take advantage of a slick tongue. You will actually pick up items that will assist in this deception process; Yellow Oil will slow the timer on the games, for example. The games vary but generally involve fast reactions and fast thinking; grabbing or avoiding colored balls is one set of games, while another has you matching complex symbols as quickly as possible. If you win, the "deception" will be a success. If you lose...it won't be. We just never really saw a major consequence from failing, and the rewards for success aren't exactly earth-shattering, so this whole mechanic seems nigh-on futile. The only gameplay system we actually liked a little was the balance mechanic, which comes into play when Lyra is working her way across a beam or other narrow walkway. Basically, you see a little picture of a ball rolling back and forth on a level platform, which tips back and forth. You have to keep the ball as close to the center as you can, using the left analog, so Lyra doesn't fall.
Yeah, it's a great idea, but it can really slow things down a lot. In fact, a lot of this game feels slow and cumbersome, even when we're not running around with that big bear. The story is pretty involving but we have to struggle through too many less-than-involving gameplay sequences, the control flounders considerably, the fixed camera gets extremely frustrating, and they just don't do enough with some decent ideas. As we said before, the only good part of the movie that found its way into the game is the music, and beyond that, we've got a poorly constructed game. We can't make it any simpler than that. You'll probably be able to make it through the first few hours, but when you realize not much is going to change, you'll stop playing. And we're only talking about big fans of the movie; anybody else will stop playing even sooner due to the crucially flawed gameplay, bad graphics and depth that never comes to fruition. The Golden Compass really isn't anything more than yet another game based on a movie that falls well shy of "quality." ‘sigh' The trend may never die.
1/29/2008 Ben Dutka