Reviewed: February 9, 2003
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Raise your hand if you saw Reign of Fire at the theater or purchased the DVD. One…two…three… Okay, now raise your hand if you were terribly disappointed. If you were like me then you probably went to this movie expecting some huge epic battle scenes between dragons and modern technology. After all, with our massive military forces, what chance could a mythological beast, or even a few thousand of them; actually have in taking over the planet. What little technology humans did have; a couple of tanks, a few jeeps, and a chopper, were all quickly dismissed by a few well-aimed belches from our scaly villains reducing the film into a “human drama”. Blech!
Even as I sat in the theater and tolerated this dismal and depressing movie somewhere in the back of my mind was the idea that this concept would make a great video game – actually, I do that with just about every movie or TV show I watch these days. So when I learned that BAM! was releasing a video game version of Reign of Fire I was pretty excited, and rightly so.
Kuju Entertainmaint has managed to find all of the action and “fun” missing from the movie and put it into a pretty innovative videogame. Now you can join the human resistance and try to wrestle control of your ash-covered planet back from the dragon, or even play the game from the dragon’s point of view. How cool is that?
For those who managed to avoid the movie, here is a brief synopsis of the story. In the year 2001, construction workers accidentally breach an ancient underground passage and release a hibernating dragon, apparently a momma dragon, and over the next 24 years they managed to multiply and defeat all of our global defenses and burn up the entire planet. A few scattered groups of dirty survivors are all that remain of the human race, and our game picks up with a group of these survivors staked out in a castle in the burned-out countryside of England.
The opening movie of the game does an excellent job of using video elements from the film combined with new images and narration to twist the story ever so slightly to fit the game. What you end up with is a story driven more by action than by people; something the movie failed to do. The mercenary group of dragon slayers that arrive at the castle in the opening movie is considerably larger and better equipped than the convoy in the movie, but you’ll be doing a lot more fighting than they did in the film…a LOT!
Reign of Fire features:
For those of you who have played HALO (yes, I know that’s an Xbox game), then you will feel right at home during the training and first few missions where you find yourself driving around the landscape in a Jeep with a turret mounted in the back. Later on you will move on to more advanced vehicles like the fire truck and the tank, but your objective is always the same, kill dragons and protect humans.
Control is pretty decent with the X used for accelerating and the square for braking. R1 fires the machine gun and L1 and L2 are primary and secondary fire for rockets and missiles. My only complaint with the controls is that you simply don’t have enough control over your speed. Even though the game uses the pressure sensitive functions of the Dual Shock, it is impossible to maintain a constant speed anywhere between a dead stop and full throttle. You can opt for the advanced controls, which lets you accelerate the vehicle with the left stick and aim the turret with the right. This effectively lets you move in one direction and fire in another although you won’t know where you are driving. I ended up putting my Jeep in the lake on more than one occasion.
In several missions you are part of a convoy where you need to keep up. Regardless of whether you use the basic or advanced control scheme, you will find yourself moving forward in awkward spurts. I would have preferred a sliding scale throttle that would let me set a speed and keep the vehicle moving so I could concentrate on combat. As it was, I found myself almost always stopping when it came time to target a dragon, and a stationary target is a dead target.
The layout of Reign of Fire is much like your typical military-action game, consisting of escort, protect, and attack missions. You are introduced to the mechanics of the game with a decent tutorial, but once the action starts the difficulty ramps up significantly. Some of the missions become rather lengthy and without checkpoints you will find yourself dying often and replay missions several times. I don’t mind replaying short sections of a mission or even an entire mission if I made a stupid mistake, but there were several times when I was just seconds from completing a 15-minute mission only to take a lucky shot from a dragon and burst into flames.
There were a few bugs I encountered, even in the very first mission where I had to escort a group of engineers up to a power-generator that was foolishly installed on a hilltop and an easy target of dragon attacks. I escorted the truck and fought off several waves of dragons but the generator wouldn’t repair and the mission wouldn’t end. I investigated and found the only surviving engineer was outside the broken wall surround the generator and couldn’t find the “programmed path” to get close and conduct repairs. I had to blast several stacked barrels of fuel to alter the “AI pathfinding” of the engineer before he could complete his task and end my mission.
The missions are very linear in nature to the point of becoming painfully restrictive. Since you will be replaying many of these missions multiple times you will instinctively want to experiment and test the boundaries of the game, but this is not allowed. The missions are heavily scripted and if you move “too far” away from the escort, target, or objective you are given repeated verbal warnings. This scripting is both good and bad – bad in that you will soon learn when and where all the dragons appear, and good in that you will soon learn when and where the dragons appear…what? Yes, after your 12th attempt at trying to rescue the downed chopper in the third mission you will appreciate the predictability of the enemy and know which hilltop to park your Jeep for the best angle of attack.
Targeting is pretty easy with a crosshair that turns to red when you are over the target, and if you are using a lock-on weapons such as a heat-seeker you will get a lock-on box that tracks the target until dead or until you lock-on to another target. Despite being realistic, I didn’t like the limited vertical range of my turret weapon, since most of the dragons tend to fly high and out of your angle of attack.
Dragons come in flying and non-flying forms with the land-base dragons running around and ramming your trucks like rhinos and eating your people like Raptors. A few bursts of your machinegun will take them down, but it will take lots of heavy firepower to bring down the winged beasts and even then they tend to angle their final crash into your vehicle.
Once you make it through the human missions you are rewarded with a series of dragon missions that are easier and considerably more fun to play. Learning the controls for flying is slightly more difficult than the vehicles but you are rewarded with a much more maneuverable “fighting machine” that delivers plenty of devastating fire power…get it…”fire” power. Dragon’s can spout fireballs at huge distances or deliver sustained napalm attacks at closer range, but if you want to make the combat more personal you can swoop in and pick up vehicles and drop them like bombs.
Visually, Reign of Fire mirrors the movie almost perfectly. Everything is dark, dirty, and extremely depressing, which serves the story but doesn’t make for a visually pleasing game. The 3D landscape is created with large and complicated polygon topo-maps and painted with rather bland and repetitive textures. After you’ve seen one stretch of burned-out hillside you’ve seen them all. If you like the colors brown, black, tan, and gray then you will feel right at home in this post-apocalyptic world.
Vehicles and buildings are very nice. The castle and supporting structures are modeled very well with excellent textures and details. The Jeeps, trucks, and buggies have brightly lit roll bars and headlights that create a nice lens flare effect making them stand out in the barren landscapes. Of course, the Dragons steal the show with some stunning design and texture work that bring these mythical creatures to life. The first time one of the larger dragons swoops in over your Jeep blocking out the entire sky, I’ll guarantee you will instinctively duck your head and utter some form of exclamation.
Special effects are rather limited and consist mainly of smoke and fire; fire balls, liquid fire, burning fire, whether it be patches of burning ground or the Jeep you are riding in. Fireballs streak through the sky with billowing smoke trails and impact the ground with a convincing explosion.
The music in Reign of Fire is adequate. The opening theme uses bits and pieces from the movie score and the in-game music is energetic and more than enough to accompany the action in the game. The DVD features the music video for Mad At Gravity’s “Walk Away”.
The voice work again is merely adequate. There is a definite southern (redneck) charm to the commander, at least during training. All of the mission briefings and updates are delivered via radio, so there is plenty of chatter going on and it all “works”.
The sound effects are minimal and consist mainly of engine noises, collision noises when you run into something or a dragon ram you, and various weapon noises that range from traditional machine gun sounds to the whooshing of rockets and missiles. I was hoping for more in the dragon department; something like the thumping of wings or the Doppler effect of screeching dragons as they flew overhead. The dragon side of the sound was strangely subdued.
Dedicated gamers will finish this game in 15-20 hours. The missions are graded so there is some incentive to replay and better your score, but if you are like me you will just be glad to get through some of the more difficult levels and never look back.
The ability to play half the game from the Dragon-side of things is excellent and actually a bit more polished than the human missions. It’s a shame that you can’t choose which side to play from the get go, but at least you have a valid incentive for struggling through the first set of human missions.
The DVD offers some movie-style extras like cutscenes from the movie, bonus footage, behind the scenes making of the movie, and even some interviews with the director. I didn’t pick up the actual DVD movie, but I’m guess a lot of this stuff is probably on that DVD as well.
Games based on movies traditionally have a bad rap, and games based on poor movies have a tougher time of becoming successful. As average as it is, Reign of Fire is one of the few games that actually surpasses the movie that inspired it. Apparently, securing a movie license doesn’t necessarily net you the star, as Matthew McConaughey's fails to appear in video or voice form. No matter – I didn’t find his character all that clever or likeable in the film.
While I did enjoy being able to fight the dragons, then turning the tables and fighting the humans, the controls were frustrating and the linear nature of the gameplay became repetitive long before the game was over. Reign of Fire will probably have a limited appeal to those who either really liked the movie or those starved for a good combat-action game. There’s really nothing available that is quite like this game, and for that reason alone you may want to give it a rental.