Planet 51: The Game
I haven’t seen Planet 51, but judging by the trailer it looks like an inoffensive take on E.T’s story, except here it’s an astronaut by the name of Chuck that crash-lands on an alien’s planet (in which case the human is the real alien, even though the inhabitants of Planet 51 are green-skinned mutants who look a lot like, well, ‘conventional’ aliens). In a nod to the rich-vein of science fiction of the era, everything looks as though it’s straight out of 50s America: all suburban streets, comic book stores and Space Race excitement. There’s even a robot dog who looks and acts suspiciously like a certain WALL-E, another CG animation character influenced by Spielberg’s 80s classic. By taking so liberally and charmlessly from such recognisable – and obvious – cultural touchstones Planet 51 appears to be an appropriate precursor to its inevitable marketing prop, Planet 51: The Game.
It all begins with the first example of what are quite probably the worst cut-scenes of 2009. The animation has barely any frames, the edits are nonsensical, there are loading screens in-between dialogue…this would all be bad even if it wasn’t for the baffling fact that Planet 51’s source material is a COMPUTER GENERATED ANIMATION, so surely the one thing it should get right is the cartoon narrative that propels the game forward. A few occasional clips from the film do serve as respites from the ineptitude elsewhere, and thankfully they highlight a film that, although unoriginal, looks as efficiently made as anything that comes out of the studios currently working in the shadow of the mighty Pixar.
Get beyond the cut-scenes and Planet 51 improves – not significantly, but at least enough to prove diverting for its slim four hours running time. For a start it’s clear that the developers are informed gamers, despite making a title that only those with children or a strange fascination with utterly average movie tie-ins would want to buy. From the availability of mini-games to the mission designs themselves, the average gamer will spend more time smiling at nods to various icons of gaming’s past then actually enjoying themselves with what they’re playing at the time. There’s a bit of Crazy Taxi, a smidgen of Destruction Derby, a lot of Grand Theft Auto (although in truth that’s the laziest comparison, Planet 51’s idea of an open-world is closer to a glorified menu screen) and – best of all – a direct steal of the first Halo’s finale for the climatic chase to reach the astronaut’s ship.
To call it a sandbox would be completely undeserved. Although there is the impression of being able to drive around everywhere without concern for the story, there is so little to actually do in Planet 51 – save for entering a few houses, collecting strewn comic book pages and, in another nod to recent classic, smashing through the various billboards – that boredom will quickly set in. The only available missions only ever seem to be the next one in the story, which is why you’ll be in the third and final area of the game within one sitting. Thankfully the gameplay is generally competent – it’s all just so incredibly bland.
The bulk of the game takes place in one of two rudimentary vehicle models, a bicycle or car. Their handling is broad, albeit fiddly if attempting anything more complicated than a standard turn, but otherwise they are responsive and smooth enough not to compound the design faults elsewhere. These negatives are mostly concerned with a grinding repetition that sees your player chasing, racing or collecting in missions that, at the very most, last about 5 minutes each. It’s telling that the majority of the game is spent behind the wheel; when levels do take place on foot they’re almost comical in their disregard for logic and feedback. In Chuck’s first mission for example, you can jump into a dustbin to hide from a chasing cop while he’s standing right next to you. Metal Gear Solid this ain’t.
One area in which Planet 51 bizarrely trumps Grand Theft Auto is in the ability to select and replay any previously completed mission. Such a device would of course fracture Rockstar’s carefully chiselled way with a narrative – something Planet 51 patently doesn’t care for – but it’s a nice touch nevertheless. After all, there are a few fun missions in amongst all the shrug-inducing filler, like the robot surveillance sections which play out as simple obstacle courses, or the tribute to Paperboy. Overall though Planet 51 will be played with the same level of apathy as with which it was probably made. Deathly dull and completely without purpose, it’s an alien piece of software that appears to have crash-landed in from another, entirely more forgiving era.
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