Reviewed: November 1, 2003
Reviewed by: Cliff O'Neill
If you have no idea who these Wallace and Gromit fellows are, immediately head down to your local video store and check out The Incredible Adventures of Wallace & Gromit (available on VHS and DVD). It’s full of laughs and serves as a great introduction to the duo, containing three of their wacky adventures.
In brief, the Wallace & Gromit short films (created by Nick Park) consist of superb clay animation, bizarre characters, and amusing storylines. Two of the shorts have won Oscars, among other awards, and the studio behind Wallace & Gromit, Aardman, is the same one responsible for Chicken Run. There’s even a Wallace & Gromit feature-length film in the works for 2005.
The fact that Wallace and Gromit have made the leap to video games is not too surprising. What is surprising is how long it has taken them to transition from clay to polygons. The release of Wallace & Gromit in Project Zoo should appease those who have been anxiously waiting to interact with the eccentric inventor, Wallace, and his lovable dog, Gromit, as the pair attempts to foil the latest diabolical scheme of the malicious penguin, Feathers McGraw. A closer inspection of the game, however, reveals decidedly uneventful gameplay that won’t hold the attention of hardened gamers.
A trip to the zoo turns unpleasant for Wallace and Gromit when they discover Feathers McGraw has taken over operations, enslaving the animals and imprisoning their young in cages – all in an evil attempt to make diamonds. As Gromit, your job is to rescue the animals and put an end to Feathers’ reign of terror. Of course, you won’t be going at it alone, as Wallace will assist you through the game’s six levels.
Luckily, you have plenty of moves with which to traverse the perilous environments and take out Feathers’ minions (mostly robotic penguins). You move around with the Control Stick and use the A button to jump. The B button dishes out attacks, including short combos, while the Y button performs general actions (like pressing switches or whistling for Wallace). You access your inventory by holding down the X button and choose from available items with the Control Stick.
Additional control functions are mapped to the L and R buttons. The R button handles crouching, rolling, and sneaking, and the L button centers the camera and enables a first-person view. Although most of the action unfolds through a third-person perspective, you will often need to aim weapons via the L button for greater accuracy, since the lock-on targeting doesn’t always cut it.
Another thing that doesn’t always cut it is the camera. You can adjust it with the C Stick, but it still has a nasty habit of misbehaving, particularly when you least want (or expect) it to. Having to constantly fight the camera only serves to detract from the gameplay experience.
Besides the faulty camera, there are other problems. Character movement sometimes feels slippery, controls are not always responsive, and certain maneuvers and control functions are unintuitive. Furthermore, the game’s inventory interface is poorly designed. You are vulnerable to attacks when accessing the inventory, and there is no quick way to switch between your available weapons.
As for the actual gameplay, Project Zoo involves various styles of play and borrows elements from several popular games. That said, the core gameplay consists of straightforward platform-style action. Your adventure will take your from lush jungle-like environments to treacherous caverns, with each area presenting a different set of challenges. Among other things, you’ll be jumping across platforms, swinging on ropes, sneaking in a cardboard box (à la Metal Gear Solid), riding in a gyrocopter, battling bosses, and solving simple puzzles.
To progress through the game, you will need to rely heavily on teamwork. While you don’t actually get to control Wallace, he will assist you by building weapons (including a banana gun and turnip launcher), repairing and operating machines, and creating contraptions. Before Wallace can build or repair something, you must find him a specific number of tools or a set amount of nuts and bolts. Nuts and bolts are easy to come by, since they are littered throughout the environments and relinquished by fallen foes. Finding tools, however, usually requires a thorough search.
While the teamwork element is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the gameplay, it was not implemented well enough. Wallace tends to be a nuisance: He takes a long time to catch up to Gromit, occasionally obstructs your view or path, and sometimes becomes entrapped in the environment. A closer level of interaction between the characters would have added a great deal, and a few Wallace-specific levels wouldn’t have hurt, either.
Project Zoo is not a very difficult game, but some of the trickier sections demand finesse and quick reflexes. Gromit’s health is represented by a cracker; each hit of damage crumbles a piece of it (you can find cracker bits to restore health). None of this matters much, though, because you are armed with infinite lives, which conveniently eliminates the need for continues.
In fact, the game seems to encourage players to cruise through the levels recklessly. If you die, you respawn close to the area where you perished and receive a fresh supply of ammo for your weapons. And you don’t have to worry about passing checkpoints, because there aren’t any. Further simplifying matters is the fact that you can save anywhere and at anytime during gameplay.
In the end, Project Zoo’s gameplay lacks excitement, freshness, and challenge, and it probably won’t appeal to those used to playing high-quality platformers and action games.
Naturally, the characters in Project Zoo are composed of polygons instead of lumps of clay, but they still resemble their clay counterparts and are nicely modeled and quirkily animated. The visual uniqueness and nuances of Claymation have not made the full transition, but that’s to be expected. Nevertheless, most will be pleased with the look of the characters.
Although Project Zoo takes place in the Wallace & Gromit universe, the environments will seem a bit unfamiliar to fans of Nick Park’s peculiar world. As with the character models, the appearances of the levels do not fully conform to the styling of the films. Most levels are dark and gritty – unlike Wallace and Gromit’s cheery neighborhood – though they do teem with activity.
Unfortunately, textures and colors are mostly flat, the frame rate occasionally stutters, and the camera, as previously stated, behaves erratically. The lighting and special effects are solid, however, and the game supports widescreen display. All in all, Project Zoo is a decent-looking multi-platform game that does not particularly tap into the power of the ’Cube.
Project Zoo’s audio presentation is fairly standard, for the most part. The sound effects are similar to what you would hear in a typical platform game, while the environments emit a decent amount of ambient sounds. Sadly, the audio is not encoded in Pro Logic II surround sound, making for a limited soundstage. You often need to listen for special sounds to pinpoint important objects within the environments, so the inclusion of surround sound would have better directed players’ ears to such sounds, as well as greatly expanded the sound field.
Things fare somewhat better musically, with well-composed instrumentals highlighting the action (Wallace & Gromit fans may recognize the opening jingle). However, the music does not always suit the onscreen happenings, and it often becomes repetitious. There are instances, though, when the music alters to reflect a particular situation, such as when Gromit must use stealth.
In terms of speech, Project Zoo is pretty quiet. Only Wallace does any talking, as Wallace & Gromit fans would expect. Fortunately, Peter Sallis reprises his role as Wallace in the game and does a wonderful job. Gromit and Feathers are silent characters, letting their body language do the talking (Gromit does yelp upon taking damage, though).
Project Zoo will take the average gamer 10 or so hours to complete, supplying, at most, a weekend’s worth of entertainment. Novices and completists, on the other hand, may require more time to play through. Regardless, once the main adventure is completed, there is little left to see and do. The collectibles, mini-games, and bonus levels scattered about the game may provide some replay incentive, but the flawed, routine gameplay will not inspire a repeat visit through the entire game.
Worst of all, the rewards are few, with a series of short clips from the Wallace & Gromit films to unlock, as well as a behind-the-scenes video. The film clips will not be anything new to Wallace & Gromit lovers, and they are much too brief to satisfy those who have not seen the films.
Unless you are a huge fan of Wallace & Gromit or obsessed with platformers, your time and money would be better spent on a different game. There simply isn’t anything terribly new or exciting in Project Zoo to interest longtime fans of platform games for very long. Younger players or those relatively new to gaming may find more to like, but even so, there’s too little here to justify a $50 purchase.