Reviewed: July 30, 2003
Released: July 8, 2003
Okay, so it's been a while since I played a beat‘em-up. The last brush I had with this genre was the iffy State of Emergency for PS2. Before that, it was Double Dragon 2: The Revenge for NES. I avoided The Bouncer when it came out to dismal reviews, as well as the Fighting Force games, which I have only played demos of. However, despite this thin record in the genre, I understand that any type of game generally gets better and deeper with time. So when I opened up Charlie's Angels for the Nintendo GameCube and popped it in, I was expecting to see environment interaction, a complex fighting system and expansive, semi-open ended levels. I was also hoping for some puzzles or maybe a little of the stealth element present in modern games from Metal Gear Solid 2 to The Wind Walker. And of course, I was excited to get a chance to make Cameron Diaz's skeletal physique send thugs twice her size flying with a flick of her animated wrist.
I guess one out of three will have to do. Diaz and co-stars Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu are indeed all playable characters in Charlie's Angels, the new game from Ubisoft and Neko Entertainment. The story is simple and campy: some mysterious person has (somehow) been stealing artifacts from across the world... really, really big ones. Think the Statue of Liberty, the Arc de Triomph and so forth. As usual, the mysterious figure "Charlie" contacts his three favorite girls via intercom with missions to complete in order to solve the mystery.
There's a lot of fan service and flavor to this game, which is a good thing-- it makes the game much better than it might otherwise have been. In classic Angels style, the very first mission involves the femme fatales "disguising" themselves as swimsuit models for a beachfront beauty competition, giving you an excuse to control a scantily clad Cameron Diaz as she runs all over the beach knocking out bad guys with flying kicks. Charlie (or at least a poor facsimile for his voice) makes an appearance, and the actual movie Angels do their own voice work. However, once I got past the game's charm, I had to look long and hard at the things that really make any game tick, like gameplay, depth and variety. Is Charlie's Angels up to snuff? You'll have to read on.
Gameplay is a term that refers to the "meat" of any game, and the central issue I had with Charlie's Angels was that there really isn't much there. To be fair, I found the controls to be smooth and intuitive. Menus are simple to navigate and the in-game buttons are easy to get the hang of. Unfortunately, it's pretty much all downhill from this point.
Combat is simple and repetitive. There are punch, kick and jump buttons, plus a grapple (or block or something) button that I just couldn't get the hang of. Supposedly I could throw my enemies by utilizing this button, but I never got it to work. After the first mission, combo attacks are unlocked. This is actually kind of cool until you find out there are only two combos. Though punching and kicking legions of baddies had me enjoying myself more than I expected, I wanted more and more moves to be unlocked as I went along. Also, the enemy AI falls into two classes: cheap and stupid. This game has three difficulty settings, but set the game on difficult and all that changes about the enemies is that there are more who fall into the "cheap" category.
One aspect of the game I feel I have to touch on is the "Angel Time" mode discussed in the instruction booklet. From the sound of it, I was expecting basically a Matrix ripoff with cool time-bending graphics and whatnot. Instead, filling your "Angel Meter" and releasing it only very slightly slows down your enemies. There is not enough of a difference to change the dynamics of a melee. The net result is that thugs who hit you do so in slightly more painstaking detail.
As far as the structure of the game itself, missions are divided into two maddeningly linear levels. Once you've walked a certain distance you can't go back! An invisible wall stops you from returning to where you recently were. Also, environmental interaction is at a bare minimum. You can't even jump up onto ledges most of the time! That's ridiculous in this day and age. I thought we'd advanced beyond this sort of thing with games like Super Mario Bros. 2, but I guess Neko still has some catching up to do.
Character interaction is almost nonexistent within the playable parts of the game, unless you count face-to-fist communication. Since your missions entail switching control between all three Angels at various points in the "story," there is a little inter-Angel banter beyond one calling the next one on her phone and yelling, "You go, Nat," or something to that effect. The Angels will also occasionally make a snide remark to a defeated foe. On the whole, however, NPC interaction and even main-character interaction were lacking. This game really feels like an old 2D side scroller, and it plays with the same minimal amount of depth.
The graphics in Charlie's Angels are one of the title's better points. Of particular enjoyment to me were the pretty and atmospheric locales. The level in Beijing's Forbidden City, for example, really felt like a cinematic set for a Chinese epic. The in-game graphics are decently sharp and detailed. The character models were disappointing at times, though. There was a lot of using the same character model with a different 'skin' among the ranks of bad guys, which made the game begin to look as repetitive as it felt after the first hour or two.
Character animations on the whole were smooth and natural looking. If you leave your angel sitting still for a moment, she'll do one of two silly little actions. I appreciated that little extra. However, making your Angel jump produces one of the most unrealistic (and inadvertently hilarious) animations I've ever seen. I got used to it after a while, but honestly, Neko should have taken a cue from almost every other game I can think of and tried to make it as passable as the rest of their work.
Of more importance is the fact that Drew, Lucy and Cameron look very little like Drew, Lucy and Cameron. In other words, these Angels are hard to recognize as the same ones from the hit movies. This was particularly noticeable during play, but even in CG cut scenes, poor mapping took the faces of the actual actresses and wrapped them in an unrealistic manner onto the character models. At least during these segments the faces can be recognized, but they just look so... unnatural. The one person they got right here was Bosley, who looks comfortably realistic compared to the other three.
As far as the cutscenes themselves go, they were well made, though nowhere near as detailed as one would expect from a true A-list title. I was a little disappointed to find that there was no live action footage during the game. I want a movie tie-in to have more movie elements! However, the amount of CG and the lengths of the cutscenes were just right for the game. These scenes were well-made and fun to watch.
The Sound category is where Charlie's Angels scores its biggest win. Overall, I was very happy with the soundtrack, effects and voice acting in the game.
Music in the game is sadly limited. However, they did score The Vines' hit "Get Free" for the menu screen, which is totally cool! During gameplay, there's only one basic song. It's one of the better songs I've heard in gaming, though, a retro-cool spy movie-sounding number. Depending on which level you're playing, this basic theme changes subtly to fit the location. This song was actually so good that I couldn't help but think it detracted from the game by contrasting with the glaring lack of good gameplay. It deserved a better game than this.
Sound effects were well-fit and suitably over the top, a la any summer action movie. Some more cartoonish sound effects would have been nice, though, especially when using weapons in combat. I also wanted there to be ambient noise, but I suppose that's too much to expect from a low-budget title like this.
Voice acting is the best and worst part of Charlie's Angels' sound system. First of all, there is great, AAA-list voice acting in this game: the actresses from the movie do their own voices but there is an obvious and disturbing lack of Bernie Mac and John Forsyth. Charlie has one of the most recognized voices next to James Earl Jones and there can be no substitute for this signature character.
Sound mixing is so poor that half the time you can't make out what it is they're saying! This happened even during cutscenes. In the game you can fiddle with the options and try to bring the voices out more, but true clarity comes only at the expense of the soundtrack and effects, which is no good.
Overall, the sound on Charlie's Angels is the game's strongest point. It's got a more realistic feel to it than most of the whimsy-dominated GameCube software market, and the music and voice acting compliment the game almost too well considering its gameplay issues.
If sound was the high point, value is where Charlie's Angels strikes rock bottom. First of all, the average player starting on the Easy level will have no difficulty beating the game within four or five hours. The Difficult level is indeed more difficult, but it offers even less fun than Easy and Intermediate levels, since it simply ups the cheapness level of the baddies. All in all, even if a gamer were to endure all three levels of difficulty, she could probably finish this game off within two or three solid days of play.
This brings us to the bigger problem: where to go next? There are a handful of unlockable extras (a small picture gallery, a cutscene archive and a movie teaser) that get old really fast, and that's about it. No two-player cooperative mode, no competitive mode, no time trials, endurance mode or mini-games await you. Adding some two-player options- ANY two-player options- would have made this game a hell of a lot more fun. I'd love to face off with a friend and have Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore battle it out! There's just nothing else to with this game beyond the regular mode, which makes it, despite being quite entertaining at times, a very poor value overall - even at the $29 budget price.
Charlie's Angels is simple and has enough fan service to keep your average moviegoing fan satisfied for a while. On the other hand, it's flat, short and repetitive. In a phrase, "this game is Double Dragon, in 3D with gratuitous boobs"". Sound like your cup of tea? Then by all means, try it out. But even for the most rabid Charlie's Angels buffs, I have to recommend renting it first. If you're dead set on buying, try to find a used copy. This game just isn't worth thirty bucks.
There are some things (the jumping, the ultra-linear, can't-go-back levels) that are inexcusable. All the polish in the world can't hide the lack of satisfying substance here. Charlie's Angels balances itself out to a solidly in-the-middle game, but if you take away the inherent charm of playing as the Angels, it's an utter bomb.