Reviewed: November 1, 2003
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Unless you are a huge fan of British claymation or thoroughly explored the bonus features of your Chicken Run DVD a few years ago chances are you have no idea who Wallace & Gromit are. Wallace is an eccentric, mumbling, old inventor and Gromit is his trusty, and silent, and often annoyed pooch. Together, they have starred in several short films, many of which are chronicled on DVD/VHS in The Incredible Adventures of Wallace & Gromit.
Now, thanks to BAM! Entertainment, this unlikely duo’s adventures arrive on all three major next-gen consoles just in time to delight kids for the holidays in Wallace & Gromit in Project Zoo. Combining a lot of standard running, jumping, and climbing with occasional puzzle-solving, Project Zoo delivers a simple platform experience that seems to frustrate more than it challenges. And while Project Zoo does a fine job of blending the artistic visual style and unmistakable yet subtle British humor into a traditional platform game, most gamers might find this latest “buddy game” a bit shallow on the gameplay.
The story is setup in the opening movie with Wallace and Gromit sharing a typical breakfast and making plans for the day. It turns out that they have adopted a polar bear at the local zoo and it’s his birthday. With fresh fish in hand, they head off to the zoo to deliver the present. When they arrive the zoo is closed (even though it should have opened hours ago) and Feathers McGraw is seen lurking around.
Feathers is the ongoing villain in the Wallace and Gromit universe, and this time he has imprisoned all the baby animals in the zoo to force their parents to work for him in some nefarious scheme to make diamonds. It’s up to our unlikely heroes to save the animals and foil Feather’s plan.
Following in the legacy of Banjo Kazooie, Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter and others, Wallace & Gromit is a “buddy” adventure, although you are really only in control of Gromit for most of the game. Wallace is the inventor who sits on the sidelines, offers words of encouragement, and the occasional hint. He will also build you new devices and wacky inventions such as the Banana Gun and the Turnip Launcher.
Levels are fairly massive and generally include a lot of climbing and jumping puzzles along with the traditional item collection. In this case, Gromit collects nuts and bolts that are lying around the level. These can be used at selected workstations that have a number indicating how many nuts are required for Wallace to build some new gadget to assist you. Some devices require merely nuts while other devices require special tools. These are much harder to find and even more challenging to get.
In addition to collecting nuts, bolts, and tools you will also want to find and collect gold coins. Some of these are very obvious and others are hidden in out-of-the-way locations. Others are awarded for completing mini-game challenges such as the checkpoint race or the column jumping puzzle in the very first level. These challenges aren’t terribly difficult, but you might have to try them more than once before winning them.
Controls are simple enough. Gromit has the standard range of movement including a variable analog movement where speed is determined by the range of the stick. He can also jump, grab, climb, and sneak around. There are even a few acrobatic moves you can pull off when you combine some of his normal stuff with certain environmental conditions like doing a back flip off a vertical wall.
Even though the controls are simple, using them can prove to be quite difficult thanks to some quirky delays between the time you input the move and the time Gromit performs the action. This becomes especially annoying in the numerous jumping puzzles (or should I say “jumping levels”) where you hit the jump button and Gromit merely runs off the end of the ledge and plummets into the reload screen. In the end you will eventually learn to hit the jump button just a bit earlier than it “looks” like you should, but it makes for an unnatural play experience since you are forced to adapt to the faulty game engine rather than believing your own eyes.
Even though you will seldom die from combat damage, as indicated by the cracker health icon in the top corner, there are plenty of instant death plunges waiting for one misstep. Thankfully, you have unlimited lives. In fact, the entire game seems to encourage (through lack of penalty) careless gameplay. If you do die you are restarted quite close to the point of death with full ammo. Often, more annoying than death, was taking a non-lethal fall that forced me to repeat a lengthy series of jump or climbs like in the tree house section of the first level.
The designers have done a masterful job of recreating the claymation visual style. The CG character animation is perhaps a bit “too smooth” but certainly not as painstaking as moving a tiny clay model 24 times per second of video. The 3D models are basic by design but perfectly recreate the cast of loveable characters in all their simplistic glory.
The PS2 version suffers from some frequent framerate problems that can get quite annoying. There are also the issues of jaggies and shimmering graphics that run rampant throughout the game. There is a surprising amount of quality lighting and shadow effects. Unfortunately, these are lost on some low-detailed textures that are a bit bland. The PS2 seems ill equipped to handle the game engine when it comes to showing off the true scale of some of the levels. The draw distance is painfully short with a fair share of pop-up.
The camera is semi-manual which means you can control it with the right stick but it has a tendency to move around on its own, usually at the most inopportune times. You will find yourself constantly fighting the camera and dying because of poor angles or last minute camera shifts. The default angle is also a bit too low for many of the jumping puzzles making it hard to see the edge of the ledges. Even though you can tilt the camera up as soon as you let off the stick it lowers right back down to ground level. Sometimes the camera will lock into a fixed location for mini-games, but this isn’t as much of a problem once you get used to the forced perspective.
Wallace and Gromit features the original voice actors which is a big plus in giving this project the authenticity it deserves, even though most people who play this game probably wouldn’t know the real voices if they heard them.
The music has all the charm of the animated series of short stories and lends itself perfectly to platform gaming with delightful tunes that never get annoying or repetitive no matter how many times you restart that infernal bonus level with all the moving and disappearing platforms.
The sound effects are also very nice and range from the realistic sounds of the environment to the hollow “thunk, thunk” of the banana gun shooting its yellow projectiles. There are even some realistic effects thrown in like echoes inside the cave levels and other humorous accent sounds you’d expect to hear in a cartoon. While all of this sounds very nice I was disappointed there was no support for any surround sound. Everything came off sounding just a bit flat.
Six levels and 23 missions will keep adults busy for 8-10 hours and younger kids can expect about twice that long. You can expect to replay many sections of the game until you master the quirky delay in the controls and less-than-helpful camera angles.
For the collectors out there, you will certainly want to find and collect all those gold coins and unlock the meager sampling of bonus video clips. Chances are if you are a big enough fan of the animated series then you have probably seen most of these already. The “behind-the-scenes” video is interesting but hardly a worthy reward for diligent gamers.
At the end of the day Wallace & Gromit just doesn’t bring anything new to the platform table, and when you are going up against huge holiday sequels like Jak II and Ratcher and Clank: Going Commando this loveable canine and his master are probably going to be overlooked by all but the youngest gamers.
That’s not to say that Project Zoo is a bad game, far from it. This delightful duo will charm and delight the younger audience, and parents can rest assured that the kids are enjoying a non-violent platform title that is perfectly suited for the entire family.