In 1898, H.G. Wells published a tale of invaders from another world, descending upon Earth's cities with a terrible force. The War of the Worlds has been adapted into every form of media since that time, including a couple of videogames. The latest attempt to tell the story has arrived on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, bringing tripods and heat rays with it.
The War of the Worlds [PS3, Xbox 360 (reviewed)]
The War of the Worlds tells a similar story to the one found in H.G. Wells' classic novel, though with different characters and set in the mid-twentieth century. Our narrator, Arthur Clark, must make his way across the burning city of London as a martian invasion fleet is attacking. Throughout the game, the plot advances with past-tense narration from Arthur, expertly voiced by Patrick Stewart (who lends considerable weight and dignity to a decent script), and radio broadcasts discovered in stages.
Presented as a 2D side-scrolling game, Arthur runs, jumps and clambors across debris, over and through buildings and even one of the martian towers. The faded, largely black and white visual design is effective at being a bit on the creepy side. Shadowy tripods, barely visible through fog, march in the backgrounds and look really cool. Some foreground elements don't really hold up their end of the bargain, though. Arthur's movements, for example, are serviceable but seem unnatural and most of the already alien invaders look really out of place against the environments. It does help in the sense that your eye is drawn towards active elements in the game but that's merely a silver lining.
Arthur is a common man and not the sort of super-powered figure we're often accustomed to playing in games. He can run, jump, crouch and roll but that's about it for his repertoire until acquiring an axe mid-game (and even then, he's no warrior). He's frail to the point where falling more than twice his height could mean death and is no match whatsoever for the advanced weapons of the martians. About half the game is spent hiding from spotlights or running from them when stealth isn't an option and the timing on these sequences is nice and tight.
Maybe it's a bit too tight at times. There are a few parts where the timing can be so exact that death can happen dozens of times before you get it right, the margin for error so low that it's hard to believe you haven't made it. The War of the Worlds provides checkpoints within levels where you'll return when Arthur bites it and they're very frequent but it can be frustrating for those without patience for this kind of action/platform game.
When you aren't running or hiding under a piece of rubble in the hopes that a flying saucer will pass you by, there are some light puzzle sections featuring the deadly black smoke choking the city. It seeps into buildings and you must be quick to use switches that open and close doors and vents to escape. Occasionally, you'll have to explore a bit to find your way through a structure, usually riddled with some sort of nastiness or another. Bloodsucking ivy and spiders hide in these places, the only two enemies in the game that give you reasonable opportunity to defeat, and provide challenging obstacles.
There's another, altogether weirder puzzle in this game which is rather interesting because it actually does force you to think outside of "switch A opens door B." I don't want to spoil anything about this particular moment, as I find it to be the highlight of the game and much of its charm lies in the discovery. The reason the puzzle is interesting is that it's wholly different from anything else in the game and all the pieces are there for you to discover. You can figure out what needs to be done based on several clues but it won't hold your hand and just point out the way.
That one puzzle is very refreshing. The rest are pretty basic, with environmental hazards likely to be a greater impediment to success than figuring out what the correct course of action is. The martians are doggedly persistent in their objective to exterminate all human life. Tentacles with sweeping laser beams will pop through walls to clean out rooms where they think you might be hiding. Being seen by a spotlight from a saucer means you have little time to move, though it is possible to escape them. Some of the best thrills from this game come from areas where you're being pursued.
It's decidedly from the old school and some of the stickier problems of classic platformers it pays homage to (such as Out of this World or Flashback) are present here. Arthur moves stiffly until you can get him going and has a hitbox that does not always seem clearly defined. The War of the Worlds is thankfully forgiving when it comes to grabbing ledges, which is a step in the right direction.
The War of the Worlds winds up being a competent action/platform game in the end, and a fun one for fans of the genre. The debatably antiquated gameplay style and mechanics might be a turn-off for some, but those who enjoy those trappings should be satisfied.
THE VERDICT - The War of the Worlds
Reviewed by Conrad Zimmerman