Reviewed: May 9, 2006
Released: May 9, 2006
It’s that time of year again…that time when Hollywood is gearing up for their summer line-up of blockbusters hopefuls including what has become the annual tradition; the “animated feature”. In the past Dreamworks and Pixar have alternated years, but in 2006 we are going to get treated to the latest in CG features from both studios. And while Pixar puts the final touches on “Cars” Dreamworks prepares to launch Over the Hedge.
Activision seldom lets the animated feature film license escape their domain as evident by their previous game adaptations of Shark Tale, Madagascar and an entire series of Shrek games. They even pulled off a game inspired by Lemony Snicket that was better than the film. So when they announced Over the Hedge I can’t say I was surprised.
Over the Hedge is a tale of four critters (and a few of their friends and family), loosely based on the upcoming feature film. How loosely, I can’t really say since I haven’t seen the film, but if past experience is any indication, there is going to be a lot more in the game than in the movie. For certain, there are at least ten new locations in the game that are not in the film.
The game opens very abruptly with virtually no setup at all. I can only assume the designers are banking on you having already seen the movie and knowing the setup, or at least reading the few paragraphs of backstory in the manual. In short, animals go to sleep for the winter and wake up with a giant hedge blocking their woods from Rancho Camelot Estates; a newly constructed subdivision.
RJ, the raccoon, is the rogue of the group and somewhat of an outsider. Having lived amongst humans (and their garbage) he is the perfect advisor for Verne and his woodland friends. Verne the turtle is the neurotic leader of his woodland gang and would just as soon ignore the hedge and what lies beyond, but caves into RJ’s demands for food and exploration. The rest of the gang includes Stella the wisecracking skunk and Hammy, the hyperactive squirrel.
Over the Hedge doesn’t stray too far from the tried and true formulas of previous Activision titles. In fact, this seems to be a “greatest hits” compilation of ideas from their past two years of games. We start off with four characters, two of which are playable at anytime. You can switch to either character with a tap of a button or you can have a friend take control for cooperative two-player action.
(Fantastic 4). You have endless combat (Shrek SuperSlam) mixed with exploration, item collection, and a mini-game reward system that can be played outside the main adventure (Madagascar). There is also an amazing collection of art, music, and even some original comic strips (Lemony Snicket) that can be unlocked and viewed in the bonus section.
But even if the concepts in Over the Hedge aren’t terribly original, the eclectic cast of innocent yet mischievous wildlife characters juxtaposed against modern suburbia is a combination that is somewhat irresistible, although one that probably works better as a 90-minute movie rather than a 12-hour video game.
The game starts off with a running tutorial complete with onscreen prompts showing you how to attack, jump, sneak, and do power moves and ranged attacks. It’s all pretty standard stuff for the action genre, and the controls are entirely intuitive. Expect about a 3-5 minute learning curve, even for the younger crowd.
There are 35 levels, each one lasting anywhere from 5-15 minutes and each one outlining numerous primary and secondary objectives. Primary objectives are more like checkpoints while secondary objectives are more goal oriented, and while you can progress the story without completing them all, perfectionists will want to strive to obtain all 135 objectives.
Some levels are tied together, usually through story elements, and when there is a logical break in the story you are returned to the woods where you can examine your loot, try on a variety of hats, or change characters. You can also access previously played missions, the next mission, or any unlocked mini-games. You can return to the woods during normal gameplay but you will lose any progress in that current level.
Having four characters to choose from might sound appealing, and it is at first, but you’ll quickly learn that their attacks and abilities aren’t all that different, mainly because the combat and assortment of enemies is way too repetitive. You’ll be mindlessly tapping the attack button regardless of whether you are playing Stella, Verne, or anyone else. Ultimately, your only reason to switch off characters is when you get tired of hearing their one-liners start to repeat.
Repetition is the curse of death for any game and Over the Hedge starts to wear thin about five levels (or a fifth way) into the game. Sure, the designers manage to throw in the occasional curveball in level design, but prepare for the same old formula of “sneak across yard - infiltrate house – steal food – escort food back to hedge” over and over again. When you finally do get a mission like stealing the satellite dish from Vincent the Bear, you can’t help but sigh with relief.
Gameplay reminded me of Gauntlet in that you have “monster generators” spitting out infinite enemies until you destroy them. In this case, Dwayne the Exterminator has setup special trashcans and igloos that spit out rats, gophers, and rabbits. There are a few other random creature sightings, but plan on killing copious amounts of the “big three”, especially the rats.
Over the Hedge is about 90% combat and 10% exploration. There are a few attempts at putting puzzles into the game, like matching statues to pressure plates, but then the giant hand with finger pointing to where you need to go takes any of the guesswork from this challenge.
The part of the exploration that will test you the most is getting past all the high-tech traps in the yards and homes of the humans. Electrified floors and intricate mazes of lasers and motion sensors will require precise jumping and slow creeping. The only place more secure than Rancho Camelot is CIA headquarters in Langley, VA.
Item collection takes the form of mass quantities of junk food. Defeated enemies turn into nacho chips or individually wrapped candies, and smashed objects reveal cans of chips, slices of pizza, soda, cookies, and other assorted treats. When you collect 20 of any of these items your total health will increase by one. Each item is counted separately, but both playable characters contribute to the same number.
Playing cooperatively with two people might seem like a great alternative to the traditional solo style genre but it can create more conflict than cooperation. At least with having the computer control the other character you don’t have to worry about sharing the pick-ups or having the scrolling levels hang-up when one character lags behind.
It’s pretty hard to fail a level by dying. In fact, to keep things kid-friendly you don’t really die. Instead, you get stunned for about 8-10 seconds and control is turned over to the other character (in solo mode). As long as both characters don’t get “stunned” at the same time the other character will revive and get three points back on their health. If both characters get stunned you return to the last checkpoint.
My single biggest complaint with Over the Hedge is the camera, or rather lack of one. For the entire game you are at the mercy of whatever camera angle the designers have decided is best for the area you are in. Even after four hours I was still trying to rotate a non-existent camera and even after ten hours I was still being forced to restart levels because of camera issues.
I stopped counting after the first 12 levels but during those levels I had to restart a level (in order to get all the objectives) 88 times and 73 of those were directly related to the camera. Combined with the fact that you cannot skip cutscenes (you can accelerate them by skipping dialogue) you’ll end up playing some levels a lot longer than you should. Level 5 stands out in my mind as a 4-5 minute level that took me over an hour of retries to get 100% of the objectives.
Something else that annoyed me, although this could be considered a gameplay nuance that you have to master to overcome, is that melee attacks propel your forward while firing weapons knocks you back. Given that about half your combat takes place in precarious areas (ledges, laser traps, etc.) you really have to watch where you are and where you might be going.
The designers seem to be a bit unsure of their target audience, although these movies typically have a strong adult following, so maybe they are banking on that same crowd when they use phrases like “slave to the bureaucracy” or mimic a popular reference from the movie, “The Warriors”. Parents will smile and kids will blink and forget.
There are three mini-games to be unlocked and each of those has multiple stages. There is “Suburban Mini Golf”, essentially a shooting gallery with two 3-round courses where you target and shoot select items as indicated. “Golf Cart Derby” is your standard destruction derby competition, only in golf carts. There are four arenas to unlock. And finally, you have “RC Car Racing” where you drive miniature cars on four winding tracks with jumps and nitro power-ups.
Over the Hedge is a great looking game that suffers only slightly from being released across all platforms. The Xbox is easily the best looking of the bunch with better lighting, slightly more detailed textures, and anti-aliasing to eliminate the jaggies. The GameCube is smoother than the PS2 but slightly washed out and not as detailed as the Xbox. The PS2 takes a significant step down in quality with some pretty bad jaggies on the edges of characters and environmental objects. Textures are grainy and there is an abundance of shimmering on almost everything.
Character animation is not only charming; it is extremely well done with all sorts of subtle touches. If you look hard enough you can see the pupils of the animals eyes dart around, and by simply not doing anything you are treated to some entertaining idle animations, especially from Stella who seems shocked at the odor coming from her tail.
Level design is excellent considering the limited scope of the story. I’m guessing the ten new levels added to the movie story help break up the monotony. Even so, prepare for a lot of grassy backyards, home interiors, attics, basements, your woodland home base, and some truly creative designs like the train and the shooting gallery.
Of particular note is your home base that is slowly populated with the items you “acquire” during your missions. You can go to the hat tree and try on hats and even wear them into your next mission, or watch clips from Shrek SuperSlam or Shark Tale on the movie projector. Some items like the popcorn machine serve no purpose while the radio should have been used to play the unlocked music but wasn’t.
The cutscenes share a similar CG style as the movie, although not as refined, and are delightful. They blend seamlessly into the action, so the gameplay becomes an extension of the narrative. Also worth mentioning is the quality of the bonus material that ranges from still shots from the movie to pencil sketched animated storyboards, 3D wire frame models that are shaded and textured, and even a series of original black and white comic strips.
The soundtrack is a mix of stealthy spy-theme music as you creep through backyards and tiptoe through homes, or high-energy action pieces to juice up the combat or chase scenes. The music perfectly complements the gameplay and the atmosphere of the game.
There is a great mix for the ambient audio whether its crickets chirping at the moonlight with the occasional dog barking, or the sounds of traffic as you sneak across the road back to the hedge “Frogger”-style. Lasers and other traps all emit a “hum” that makes deactivating them that much more rewarding.
Over the Hedge (the movie) has one of the hottest ensemble casts in animated film history, and none of them contribute to the game, but until I actually read the voice acting credits in the back of the manual I would have bet you money that at least Wanda Sykes did her own voice. I was reasonably sure that Bruce Willis and William Shatner were sound-alikes, but there were times when it was very hard to tell.
Bottom line – this is a phenomenal group of voice actors that can not only act, they all do uncanny impersonations of the original stars. The only minor complaint I had was with fluctuating recording levels where some of the spoken lines were barely audible. Thankfully, the subtitle option defaults to “on”.
Over the Hedge is a bit deceptive when it comes to its replayability. Obviously, if you are playing by yourself you can only play one critter at a time and you can only choose two to go on each mission. But once you realize it doesn’t really matter who you take, there is little incentive to replay the game or any of the levels using other animals.
It took me a solid 14 hours to complete Over the Hedge and get all 135 objectives. Granted, you can zip through this title in about half that time if you aren’t going for a perfect score. The mini-games are entertaining for a while, but they don’t come close to the endless appeal of the mini-games in Madagascar - I still play that silly mini-golf.
The two-player cooperative mode might give you reason to replay with a friend, and the bonus material might have you replaying some levels to find those missing DVD icons, but most gamers will cap their interest at around 12-15 hours. Honestly, the game is so repetitive that it’s best played in shorter bursts, otherwise you might get annoyed or bored and not even finish it.
Over the Hedge is a delightfully entertaining game based on what I expect to be one of the hottest movies of the summer, at least in the animated genre. Edge of Reality isn’t breaking any new ground in game design, instead banking on proven gameplay formulas to carry this merry band of mischievous displaced creatures through an exciting and often repetitive adventure.
It won’t win any awards for originality, but with quality visuals, outstanding voice acting, and challenging gameplay, Over the Hedge is guaranteed to entertain and delight young and old alike, and should make the perfect companion piece to the upcoming film.