Planet 51 Review
Video games based on movies have increased in quality this generation. We’ve actually seen a few pretty decent efforts already; The Bourne Conspiracy and Kung Fu Panda have been solid and worthwhile, which is why I go into such reviews with an open mind. Unfortunately, Planet 51 is a step backwards due to somewhat sluggish controls, a style of gameplay that forces the player to complete trivial and extremely boring “missions,” and an overall lack of immersion. Fans of the animated movie may appreciate the look, though, and the ability to go anywhere at almost any time should appeal to all those who like this GTA-like setting. It’s just unfortunate that Pyro Studios didn’t really bother to add more polish to the cut-scenes and animations, and I found myself yawning over tasks that require little more than a workable understanding of the controller. I understand the target demographic for this game is probably the 7-12 age group but I can’t imagine that mowing a lawn is entertaining for…well, for anyone.
Although we have a fairly large world to explore, the colorful visuals only cover up a less-than-professional palette that lacks clarity and extra detail. The cut-scenes fall especially short, as the moving mouths aren’t even remotely close to matching up to the spoken words, and animations in both non-interactive and interactive portions of the game can be very stiff. There is some appreciated variety to the landscape, though, as you can spend a great deal of time roving around and exploring your surroundings. This may be enough for the younger gamers and the special effects aren’t too bad. We just needed a lot more sharpness because the graphics are bordering on a last-generation look, which really can’t be overlooked. There are also plenty of hitches in the frame rate, a whole lot of pop-in as you drive about with any given vehicle, and objects lose any luster they may have when up close and personal. One would think such an accomplished animated movie could look a lot better in game form on the PS3…
The sound isn’t much better. The soundtrack is repetitive and simply doesn’t play a large enough role in the experience, and the voice acting ranges from average to good but falls well short of expectations. The only real highlight centers on the effects, which aren’t too bad even though there are some serious balancing issues. I liked some of the verbal exclamations you’d hear when driving around the town or when involved in a mission, and smacking into an object reverberates sharply through your speakers. This is where that balancing problem rears its ugly head, though; the effects almost override the music and in general, they’re the loudest sounds in the game. Voices will also duck out early when switching between cut-scene and gameplay and without a prominent soundtrack, much of the adventure feels too quiet and is far from engrossing. For some reason, developers still don’t produce engaging music combined with excellent effects for games based on movies; it’s as if they forget to focus enough on one (or both of them). True next-gen titles don’t underestimate the importance of this category.
As hinted at in the intro, the open-ended format allows players to drive all over the various towns of Planet 51. Like other games that use this setting, you can drive around in various vehicles, find special items and secrets by exploring, and accept new missions by reaching certain points on the map. Once completed, you can continue to do some “missions” – or Tasks – over and over to earn more stuff, but sadly, you likely won’t want to attempt these mini-quests more than once. The game takes a while to really get going; you won’t even stumble across the main plot for at least an hour and a half and before that time, you can only do menial tasks. You mow lawns, deliver newspapers, and race opponents in your car…the latter sounds fun but the speeds feel so slow, you grow tired of the race within seconds. The controls when running around are okay but the jumping mechanic doesn’t work well; the character doesn’t jump high enough and it’s just not reliable. Jumping with one of your hovering vehicles is a little better, but too slow and still a bit erratic.
If the game somehow manages to keep your attention until the story really kicks in, you’ll embark on a quest to assist human astronaut Chuck Baker return to his ship and find his way back home. Obviously, the arrival of a human on Planet 51 throws things into a bit of a tizzy; the police and military are always getting in the way, and by opting to help this guy, you’re not exactly popular with everyone. It’s not a bad premise, but we really don’t care much about the helpful and supposedly sympathetic main character, Lem, and the other characters in the game are mostly faceless. And even when the plot has taken hold, you still find yourself participating in missions that are silly and even absurd rather than interesting and urgent. For the most part, an open world should provide us with plenty of gameplay options and vastly different missions, but just about everything feels very much the same. A few of the missions turned out to be entertaining for a few minutes, but that’s about where the fun factor ends.
The other issue is that exploring your environment doesn’t really grab you. There just isn’t a lot to do. You can find any number of ramps that will toss you into the air long enough to grab a special collector’s item, and you can also find a few shortcuts around the areas, but that’s about where the rewards end. You can always go back and do some older missions if you wish and unlocking new vehicles can be cool, but most of them feel very much the same. Some of the later missions require a bit more of your attention, due to the fact that you must repair your ride if it gets too dinged up and other environmental things can get in your way. You have to be alert at all times in those cases. The colorful world does sport plenty of interesting locales and it doesn’t feel dead, as there are usually plenty of civilians wandering about. But I can’t seem to find much else that will keep a person playing. I guess a young kid who really loved the movie would get a kick out of it, if only because he or she can almost explore at will and hovering vehicles are always cool.
However, in the end, Planet 51 just doesn’t deliver. The entire production feels bare and a little watered down, and the technical hang-ups continue to persist throughout the game. It takes too long to really get going and even then, some of the available missions just feel utterly ridiculous. The mechanics are okay and the graphics are average…“average” is probably the best way to describe the gameplay, although in some ways, “mediocre” might be a more fitting descriptive term.
2/8/2010 Ben Dutka