Reviewed: November 17, 2008
Released: November 4, 2008
What do a dorky lion; a fast-talking zebra, the New York City Zoo and a ring-tailed lemur with delusions of grandeur have in common? Why, Madagascar of course--the movie that is, a hit family film that focuses on the misadventures of four animal friends from the zoo who escape and end up on the island of Madagascar, in the presence of its self-styled ruler, "King" Julien. The video game that was released to complement that movie was surprisingly decent for a franchise tie-in, and with the sequel in theaters now, it's only natural that a second video game, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, has also been released.
Starting with a ridiculous and ill-conceived plan to get a junk-heap airplane flying again, the adventure moves to the wild blue yonder for just long enough to allow the plane to crash like a winged Ford Pinto into the middle of the African savannah. From there, the bulk of the story begins, as the four relatively sheltered animals and their omnipresent paramilitary penguin companions strike out into uncharted territory.
Escape 2 Africa ricochets from mini-game to mini-game; never content to rest for even a moment--a fitting complement to the frenetic pace of the movie. At the outset, King Julien directs each of the four animals in turn--Alex the lion, Melman the giraffe, Gloria the hippopotamus and Marty the zebra--in a well-designed tutorial stage that allows players to get used to the controls. Despite a bit of blockiness and lackluster texturing here and there, one of the first things players will notice is that the game overall manages to look strikingly similar to the movie, complete with exaggerated facial expressions and lush landscapes such as a savannah watering hole and a fiery volcano. The green jungle of Madagascar is the backdrop for the tutorial stage. Each character gets a chance to help work on the derelict airplane, while cheeky King Julien takes photos of the four performing various feats (many of which he orders by royal decree, even though they have nothing to do with fixing the plane) in order to drum up tourism.
Alex, the lion, is the most straightforward of the playable cast: he can run, double-jump and roar to frighten enemies, as well as collect fruit to throw at the stronger ones. Most of his missions involve platform gaming (running and jumping). Marty the zebra can kick things donkey-style with his back legs, and also gets a chance to run fast (using carrots to boost his speed) in a racing minigame that, like many of the tutorial stages, appears in a more fleshed-out form later on. Gloria the hippo's main use is the ability to swim underwater quickly, but she can also collect fiery red peppers in certain spots to give her a boost of strength, allowing her to stretch elastic vines or break through some boulders.
Melman, the neurotic giraffe, can whack things below him by swinging his head downward like a hammer. He can also perform a full-circle spinning kick to hit nearby enemies, as well as being able to spin while in the air, producing a glide effect that can be used to float between distant perches. Lastly, Melman can also balance on moving boulders at certain points in the game, which makes for one of the most fun types of minigame, a sort of cross between pool and Marble Madness with at least somewhat realistic physics. Melman's powers in particular, though, are somewhat mystifying. True, real giraffes aren't exactly multi-functional creatures--they pretty much walk, and eat, and that's it. But the skills Melman is endowed with (some of which originated in the previous game) don't even have a hint of basis in the real world.
Not that that really makes a difference: in the end, what Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa manages to succeed at is being a pretty fun little game, and that's what counts, realism or no. There is a good amount of variety for a movie tie-in game: although much of the story is told through the eyes of Alex, it's never difficult to find something else to do on the side with one of the others. What's more, although it is important to note that this is a very easy game and will not offer any great challenge for older players, the mini-games are generally all well-made enough to be at least some fun to play. Some are better than others, true (one minigame that deals with curing sick giraffes is too simple to be very interesting), but none are unplayably frustrating or dull. Even a small, partial list of what there is to do in the game shows a lot of variation: dodge ball, fishing, zebra racing, flying a helicopter, going on a monkey scavenger hunt, and participating in a high-octane destruction derby with penguins at the wheel of a semi truck, for example.
Another nice thing is that many of the varied activities are fully integrated into the story line--even if the story line is basically nothing more than a backdrop for the mini-games. This is much better than just going for a "carnival" sort of set-up with a bunch of disjointed mini-games. In most cases, after a game has been successfully completed as a part of the main storyline, a version of it becomes available to be enjoyed at the player's leisure, and there is a free-play mode available from the main menu, but never having to get locked into one style of gameplay for more than about 20 minutes throughout the entire game is a rare treat, especially when it's all decently fun to play for once (a failing of other licensed games such as the Polar Express game from a couple of years back).
All that said, there are a few control issues that might frustrate gamers. First off, anyone with a bit of gaming skill could find the game's spot-on auto-targeting system annoying when throwing fruit at Alex's enemies. There's no way for players to take direct control of where Alex throws his squishy weapons; the game automatically targets the enemy nearest Alex's line of sight, and it basically never misses. While the feature is a lifesaver during the later stages of the dodge ball minigame, overall it may feel like a cop-out to older and more experienced gamers. (Then again, that crowd shouldn't be playing this kid-friendly title anyway--it's too easy to be a real challenge for them.)
Another problem is controlling Gloria while she is underwater. She tends to overcompensate when turning, and so manages to look as though she is darting about at a frantic pace while simultaneously making very little progress towards her goal. The other animals play smoothly enough, but unfortunately, during games that require players to constantly reposition the camera (like Alex's platforming levels and Melman's stone-rolling areas), the weakness of the camera controls also comes through. The Wii Remote's D-pad controls camera movement, and that's it. There is no snap-to button to swing the camera around behind the character, and the automatic camera tracking is lacking, to put it kindly. This means that the game's low level of difficulty becomes almost a necessity, as players will be forced to stand still and manually turn the camera until it slowly moves to a more advantageous position.
This brings me to another complaint: the lack of motion-sensitive elements in Escape 2 Africa. Most developers of multi-platform releases at least try to make it look as though they care that the Wii is not an Xbox 360 with a cute sideways stand; not so with the Wii release of this title. About the only motion-sensitive part of the game that players will regularly be able to use is being able to make Alex throw fruit by making an overhand pitching motion with the Remote, which is kind of silly since as previously noted, the game aims throws automatically, and a simple button push accomplishes the same feat. All other instances of motion sensitivity show up in the occasional minigame (like that one about curing giraffes), but generally speaking this game is empty in the "wave your Wiimote" department. A natural fix would have been to tie movement of the Wii Remote to camera movement. I say this because I kept trying to do it that way. At any rate, whatever use they could have found for it, they by and large didn't, which means a lot of missed opportunities for greater interactivity and a lower rating overall than it might otherwise have received.
Of course, even with the aforementioned issues, the game is more fun than licensed tie-ins have any real right to be, especially for the younger set. Aside from the varied gameplay, one of the best parts of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is simply the music and (especially) voice acting. The music throughout this game is top-notch, most of it heavily influenced by various African styles. The first time it's really noticeable is during an oddly exciting game of musical chairs, which features several catchy, energetic tracks. However, the high quality of the music persists everywhere else in the game as well. Taking a moment to stop and listen to the music can often be a rewarding experience, even if it means losing a round of a minigame.
On top of that is the awesome voice acting, which fills out the characters' personalities in a way that graphics alone could never do. In fact, I am of the personal opinion that the single best reason to play this game is simply to listen to King Julien ramble on and on about how delightful he is, and how delightful everything around him is because it reflects well upon his own delightfulness. Whether or not the voices belong to the same star-studded cast of the films (I'm inclined to think that they don't), they're still spot-on, and Julien's (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in the film) is the best. Imagine Apu from The Simpsons as a skinny little lemur who thinks that the entire world revolves around his magnificence, and you'll have just about the right idea of what he sounds like--brilliant. Alex is suitably white and nerdy, Gloria is full of attitude, Marty manages to sound like the sort of zebra who keeps getting into mischief without really meaning to, and Melman's nervous, tremulous whine manages to be endearing rather than obnoxious. The penguins, Moto Moto and the rest have similarly high-quality voice acting, and the result is a game with a surprising amount of personality.
In the end, whether or not gamers decide to spring for Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa should really come down to one question: how big a fan are you (or your Christmas-present-hint-dropping children) of the new movie? Yes, this game is fun to play, but it's hardly the only collection of mini-games out there. The graphics and sound are good, but it's not alone in that respect either. While it is a more solid offering than many movie tie-in games, it's not quite up to the caliber of the Wii's first-party titles, or a good-sized chunk of the third-party games on the market, either. For people who balk at paying $49.99 for a collection of mini-games, waiting until the price drops by $10 or even $15 might be a wise choice.
Either way, this game is good, relaxing fun, and has high production values--some may be entirely satisfied with a purchase even at full MSRP. If you suspect you might be one in that group, by all means go ahead and buy it. And certainly if your children want it, rest assured they will get more fun from it than most of the tie-in products they have. Many of the mini-games have a multiplayer mode (accessible from the main menu), which means that up to four can play it at once provided there are enough Wii Remotes with Nunchuks attached--that's even more replay value. On the other hand, if you just thought you "might poke around and check out what people are saying about the game because it looks like it might be sort of fun," you're probably better off waiting for a price drop.