Reviewed: November 19, 2004
Released: November 1, 2004
It’s that time of year again, the time all parents of young children dread: Christmas shopping season. What’s good? What’s bad? What’s “in,” and is it worth the astronomical price? It’s not on the list of Dangerous Toys, is it? Will she choke on its breakable parts? What’s so great about a semi-nude sponge with eyes, anyhow?
One of the most popular films this holiday season is The Polar Express, a computer-generated spectacle of light and sound (apologies to Strong Bad) based on the beloved holiday book of the same name. While I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film, I know a good game from a bad one any day of the week, and I am here to help. THQ’s, The Polar Express is a game with a sensible premise and solid presentation - and one big failing….
The Polar Express, in a nutshell, is a collection of mini-games strung together by goodly amounts of storyline. As a title targeted at children, this formula works very well, never presenting quite the same challenge more than once or twice throughout the course of the game.
Games range from simplified takes on the rhythm play of titles like Dance Dance Revolution and the Parappa series, in which players will push a series of buttons to a precise beat in order to get things done, to more standard arcade-style play such as a skiing mini game and a sequence that lets players fly a zeppelin through the crowded alleys of the North Pole.
All of the games are decently well designed, and it is obvious THQ kept in mind that many of the game’s players would be in the six- to ten-year-old set. The Polar Express strikes a delicate balance between being easy enough for most kids to handle, while still being challenging enough that they’ll keep an eye on the number of continues they have left. Occasional shoddy balance is offset by the overall low difficulty level of the title, and nothing ever really became frustrating. Only once or twice did I find that ambiguous instructions led to a roadblock during play, and a bit of experimentation or a quick glance at the helpful instruction booklet always rectified the situation.
Just as important as the quality of play in a movie-based game such as this is the effectiveness with which it tells its story. The Polar Express uses an awful lot of dialogue and plenty of near-movie-quality scenes to good effect so that pretty much everything makes sense. I was always aware of why the main character was doing what he was doing, as well as getting a sense of the bigger things at work around him. My main complaint with the storyline of The Polar Express is that, near the end, it seems to become more fractured and less clearly told (we writers pick up on these sorts of things).
For instance, I didn’t see the children receive the First Gift of Christmas, like it claims in the instruction booklet, nor did I hear any mention of the term during the course of gameplay. If they wanted to make the point that the experience itself, or a new understanding of the holiday, was the First Gift, it could have been done easily.
In the game’s defense, I grew up without the famed book (the pictures upset me when I was small) and obviously have not seen the movie, either, as a result. So perhaps I’m missing something. The fact remains, however, that the story loses some strength as the game progresses, and certain things that I expected to see fleshed out and explained in greater detail were left unexplored instead, which is too bad.
Since The Polar Express is basically a collection of little short games, THQ has obligingly added a way to unlock all of them for individual replay, by collecting pieces of various toys scattered about the game world. By exploring more or performing daring stunts, the hero can collect these pieces. When all the pieces of a toy are assembled, one of the games becomes unlocked to be played at the gamer’s leisure.
There are also two EyeToy games included (the device that lets players see their own likenesses on the game screen via video technology) in which players use their body motions to drive the train and decorate a Christmas tree. Kids like the EyeToy and seeing themselves on TV, and this extra addition certainly doesn’t hurt the game overall.
Although the mini-game format is smartly designed for the “too many presents, attention span overload!” crowd, and the story is (for the most part) well-spun enough to keep them involved, I would like to have seen a more unified vision for this game overall. It’s hard to say how that would have worked, but I think at least some similar elements between play sequences help gamers to become more attached to the characters and story of a game, since continuous elements of play help to define a game as a unique experience and flavor it as much as any story or characterizations.
If it were simply mini-games without the Polar Express story attached, I could let it go as Wario Ware lite for kids. However, because of the strong and pervasive story of the game, I think a bit more streamlining would have helped. Not that the formula THQ used will hurt The Polar Express’ score, but it could have scored a bit higher than it did if it were a different type of game.
Overall, The Polar Express is well-designed for kids and has the storyline to keep them interested as they break ice blocks, throw teddy bears at mean puppets and serve cake and cocoa to the passengers of the Express itself.
I have no complaint with the graphics of The Polar Express, save that they could have been a bit smoother. Alas, I fear this is more of the fault of the PS2 hardware coupled with a multi-platform release. PS2s are generally considered more difficult to program for than either the Xbox or the GameCube, from what I have heard. Though everything is bright, lush and does a decent job of imitating the movie (which, according to many, does a decent job of imitating the book… what a long string of imitations!), jaggies were still very noticeable in many of the game’s screens.
Character models are, by style, simplified, though still quite realistic-looking. The effect is achieved with the use of simpler texturing. The people in this game move quite convincingly (though I’m having a hard time being convinced by the double-jump the main character can perform) and designs remain true to the movie, so that characters like the Conductor are easily recognizable.
THQ has also included plenty of high-quality CG cinematics. These may be drawn directly from the movie, or they might have been made especially for this game. It’s hard to tell - they really do look that good. These are definitely the most graphically entertaining parts of the title and quite a treat to watch. They really help set the tone and mood of the game, whereas the graphics in play are more of a shadow of these spectacular sequences.
Tying into my complaints about the storyline that seemed to peter out and die near the end, most of the segues and pivotal events in the game are told through these sequences, which means that, plot-wise, either the game is missing something, or I am missing something. However, this does not detract from the raw level of quality the cinematics have been rendered with. Overall, the cut scenes serve as the support beams with which the game suspends the rest of its graphics. They are all very good quality, but the cinematic sequences simply put the rest of the package to shame.
The best thing about The Polar Express, hands down, is Tom Hanks’ voice work. There are few greater treats than voiceovers by one of Hollywood’s scant truly gifted actors, doubly so in a video game setting. Most games have voice acting of inconsistent quality at best, with very few ever rising into the “really solid” category and even fewer acted with the same care and quality one finds in a nationally syndicated weekly cartoon, let alone a movie.
Although movie actors’ voices always prove to be a bright spot in movie-based games these days, Hanks (as usual) rises above the rest, with spot-on delivery. His voice carries a subtlety of inflection and an attention to character so complete that it is difficult to tell that he voices more than one character in the game, even though the tone of his voice does not noticeably shift between these voices. It’s been said time and again, but it’s no less true now than it ever was: Hanks is quite frankly the best of the best (along with Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr. and a few others), and it shows as much here as in any of his movies.
As far as the other voices in the game go, all fall into that second category I listed above: solid overall. There are no really awkward deliveries, though more than one character seems to have simply found one convincing rhythm and cadence and applied it to every line they uttered, with disconcertingly robotic results over a prolonged period of play.
Music is good - from the symphonic sound I imagine that the movie uses the same music as the game, which is to be expected, after all. However, the music is hardly one of those great movie themes that sticks in your head long after you’ve heard it. It’s simply par for the course. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not spectacular either.
Interestingly, one of the most entertaining aspects of the game are the sound effects. They are all high quality and few of them sounded like stock effects. The “holiday” details are evident in the effects, as selecting or scrolling through menu options and such produces various jingle bell jingles. Others are just plain amusing, like the cartoony thuds and “oof, ugh” noises the main character makes when he moves through the off-screen segments of a conveyor belt mini-game.
Though there isn’t a lot of detail to the game’s effects, THQ obviously spent time thinking of sounds that would be entertaining, charming and “Christmas-y,” to good effect.
Looking at this game’s overall score, you just knew The Polar Express had to fall short somewhere along the line, and this is that place. The time it takes to beat the entire game is a miniscule 90-120 minutes, and that last number is really on the outside of the estimate. That’s shorter than the film’s running time.
I am amazed at how little there was to this game. Nothing is wrong with it, really. The mini-games are simple, but varied. The graphics were nice. The sound was unusually potent for a franchise game (especially the voice acting). Yet the entire game is over almost as soon as it’s popped in.
True, there is a clever subsystem whereby kids can collect toy pieces to unlock all of The Polar Express’ games for individual play, as I mentioned above. EyeToy games tend to be mildly replayable, from what I’ve seen, so a couple of them don’t hurt. It’s also a very charming game, in its own odd way, and certainly enjoyable enough to play through two or three times.
However, the bottom line is that the only way this game will not be gathering dust by New Year’s Day is if it is put into a dust jacket before then. Its only hope for maintaining any relative long-term value is that a dearth of other, more distracting presents will delay its completion for a while. As a Christmas present, parents should be aware that thirty bucks (though not a bad price for new video games, in general) could probably be better spent on other goodies. Not that it’s at all a bad game. It’s just a poor investment, so to speak.
The Polar Express is one of those games that gets almost everything right, at least enough to warrant saying it is a good game. However, it has one glaring flaw that keeps me from truly being able to recommend it as a purchase, and that is the astronomical price-to-play ratio. $10-30 per hour is probably the worst deal I have ever seen in a high-profile video game, and I amazed that THQ put it out with so little substance.
The Polar Express is a nice kids’ game, the kind of varied, simple, at times frenetic gameplay that should mean every kid will find at least something to like about it. The fact that it is largely nonviolent (unless you count throwing stuffed animals at puppets) and almost completely noncompetitive should make it attractive to the parents who will more likely actually be shopping for a game this holiday season.
It has good graphics, and good sound, each with occasional moments of brilliance. At $29.99, it’s relatively budget-priced, too. But bare in mind that it may get old for your children very quickly once they’ve beaten the game. Or who knows? They may find that helping some very silly-looking waiters serve cake is something they can do every weekend for a year with gusto. I just wouldn’t bank on it.