So I heard they were doing a movie adaptation of "Beowulf," the epic poem written by an anonymous author that many of us read in school. At first, I was a touch concerned, especially considering there really wasn't much to that story besides a very straightforward plot- hero arrives, kills monster, boasts about it, kills the monster's mother, boasts again, and leaves. Written in medieval times (15th, 16th century, something like that), it's not all that surprising. But how could they make this into a feature film? Well, they made it entirely CG and 3D, added a whole new dimension - pun intended - to the storyline, and turned Grendel's mother into a beautiful water demon. It wasn't a fantastic movie, but it was certainly entertaining, and I'm glad I saw it. However, I am most certainly not enthusiastic about the interactive Beowulf I just had to suffer through. If I have to play another poor game-based-on-a-movie one more flippin' time, I'm going to stick a shrimp fork in my eye. ‘sigh' Anyway, onwards.
The graphics are probably the best part of this title, but that isn't saying much. There's some decent character design and certain portions of the environment stand out nicely, but there's really nothing to get excited over. It's certainly not one of the best-looking next-generation games available today, as some washed-out color and a lack of detail in the backdrops plagues the overall visual presentation. We get treated to a lot of sweet blood spatters and other battle animations, but the imperfections run rampant sometimes. Enemies getting stuck in walls - and flashing like something out of Tron when they get hung up - is a common occurrence, and the whole palette is just too dark. Ubisoft skimped on much of the enemy design, which means battles often boil down to a chaotic mess where it can become frustrating to differentiate friend from foe. The game starts off with a visual bang as Beowulf battles the sea serpents, but unfortunately, that battle turns out to be one of the few graphical highlights. Oh, and none of that amazing CG from the film is here; standard, unimpressive cut-scenes are the order of the day. Yay.
It seems they got a few of the actors from the movie into the game, but not everyone (that's not John Malkovich in the game, for example) is here. This means we have to listen to a very uneven vocal performance; Beowulf sounds great, but many of the smaller roles are handled by average to mediocre voice actors. The soundtrack isn't bad, though. There's a goodly assortment of rousing, driving classical pieces, which tend to complement our ass-kicking relatively well, and thankfully, the battle effects never drown out the music. Well, they do when you're in Carnal Rage mode, which is where the effects really shine. Bone-crunching hits and gut-wrenching slashes resonate cruelly in this mode, but we don't get the same level of brutal clarity during normal battle. When it comes to blending the sound with the gameplay, the implementation is often atrocious, with terrible voice synchronizing and a significant lack of balance throughout. One minute, the sound is great, and the next, you're looking for the volume control...and you don't want to turn it up. It's just painfully inconsistent.
Beowulf follows along relatively closely with the movie, and even includes many of the same lines. They have to throw in some generic barbarians early on and believe it or not, there's actually far more fighting in the game than there is in the film. But that's not good news. It sounds like good news, but it's really not. From the first moment you touch the controller to do battle - against a bunch of giant crabs, oddly enough - you'll know you're in for a slow, clunky experience. Responsiveness is a major problem regardless of the combat maneuver you attempt to execute (how many times do we have to press the X button to roll?), and the platforming controls are often frustrating. It helps that Beowulf can pick up a variety of different weapons and shields, and there is an upgrade system, but fighting is always repetitive and not nearly invigorating enough. Keeping your fellow Thanes alive can be a colossal pain in the ass, and issuing team commands occasionally seems to have little to no difference in the outcome of a battle. Actually, this is a recurring theme in the game- the upgrades, the Legacy system, the squad-based orders...they just don't change much of anything.
Beowulf, a hero that supposedly has the strength of 30 warriors, can also fight barehanded, driving back enemies with nothing but his fists. No matter what he has equipped, he can execute light and heavy attacks, a dodge roll, strafe (and dodge while strafing) and grab. After successfully grabbing an enemy you can either toss him away or slam him to the ground, and if you're in Carnal Fury mode, you can do some really nasty stuff. If your Carnal meter is full, you can hold down the R2 button to unleash your Carnal Fury, which makes your attacks far more powerful. You also appear to be invincible, but once the meter is drained, you will be vulnerable for a few seconds. It's not a bad inclusion in the combat mechanic, but the consequences of using it usually aren't anywhere near bad enough to consider. There just isn't a whole lot of strategy no matter what; even the team commands you issue to your comrades don't always seem all that important. And thanks to the unresponsive and erratic controls, battle tends to be an exercise in annoyance.
Now, we're going to find a nice way to say this- Ubisoft has taken a couple gameplay mechanics from other games and implemented them into Beowulf. We don't want to say this is "stealing" because, let's face it, just about everyone is using gameplay styles that have proven popular in the past few years. Here, we find the real-time interaction scheme that has us press face buttons when prompted, and the character on screen will automatically execute the action. We've seen this in titles like God of War, Resident Evil, Heavenly Sword, and even in the first-person Clive Barker's Jericho. Normally, you can't screw this up, but Ubisoft comes close. Too many times the flashing button gets lost amid the action on screen; it's just difficult to see every now and then. When fighting Grendel, for instance, it took us several tries because the flashing circle blended into Grendel's body...would it really have been too much to ask to put the diagram somewhere else? It's not a crippling issue, but we did have to mention it.
The other mechanic that's definitely overused is something that's similar to the likes of Gitaroo-Man or a few other rhythm/music titles. A circular graph appears on screen, and you have to press either the Square or Triangle button when yellow markers roll by. You press the Square for single notes and the Triangle for extended ones; this is typically done in time with a war chant or battle cry of some kind. It's quite easy to do, but we do this far too much throughout the course of our adventure. Everything else consists of minor interaction during storyline cut-scenes (you can look around the room and talk to everyone), and loads of battles fused with a few basic platforming segments. As we hinted at earlier, platforming is a little frustrating just because you use the same button to climb up and fall down. The circle button can make Beowulf clamber up on a ledge or let him slide down the wall; only the direction of the left analog stick will dictate whether he climbs or slides. This got a little silly after a while, and we just couldn't figure out why they couldn't simply assign a couple different buttons in this case.
It isn't long before you begin unlocking more of Beowulf's abilities, and within the first couple of hours, you will open up the Legacy System. The concept sounds great: depending on your actions, you will be remembered in a certain light. In other words, if you overuse the Carnal Fury and rip everything you see to shreds, your legacy will be different than if you took a more Heroic approach to combat. Furthermore, you can upgrade your skills to increase the range, duration and power of many of the main character's special abilities. But like we said before, none of this has much of an impact on the gameplay itself. In fact, we basically did the same thing throughout most of the game, over and over, without much in the way of diversity. The repetitive nature of the battles, the abuse of that musical circular graph mechanic, the shoddy controls, and the completely linear progression makes the entire quest wholly uninteresting. On top of which, if you've seen the movie, you won't see much of anything new in the game. It's basically the same storyline with a few added twists, but even those twists aren't exactly intriguing.
Beowulf does very little right and fails to capture the stylish action and mysticism of the film. The cut-scenes and sound are often way off, there's a great deal of choppiness when the game tries to shift between non-interactive and interactive play, and the inconsistency of the sound is unsettling. At first, Beowulf's powerful cries of "I am Beowulf!" helped to enhance the atmosphere, but after about the six thousandth time, they became tiresome. While we would recommend the movie to just about anybody, there's nobody who should be dropping $60 on the game. Yes, even a CG version of Angelina Jolie is outrageously hot, but if you're thinking you'll get more Angelina in the game, you'll be disappointed. Just buy a $5 poster, or something. As for the rest, there's really nothing here that's even remotely impressive, and sadly, Beowulf is yet another movie-turned-game that's not worth anybody's time. It doesn't help that it came out when so many awesome titles hit store shelves, either. Hmm...Assassin's Creed or Beowulf...decisions, decisions.
12/18/2007 Ben Dutka