Reviewed: April 4, 2004
Released: February 17, 2004
Anyone who cries about the “high costs” of gaming consoles these days should count themselves lucky that they didn’t have to plunk down $200 for the original ATARI 2600. Sure, it was state-of-the-art back in 1982 and sure, there are thousands still in operation today, and you can be sure that anyone who has a working 2600 has a copy of the original Pitfall either in it or nearby.
Pitfall came at a time when console games were only just starting to mimic their arcade cousins. Despite the graphical limitations of Atari’s dinosaur, this action-adventure game broke new ground in addictive gameplay. Putting you on a strict timer, Pitfall was not only a race against the “clock”, but also tested your skills of memorization and arcade reflexes. It was also one of the first games that encouraged you to take a snapshot of the final victory screen and mail it in for a “prize”.
There have been plenty of sequels to the legendary Pitfall and Pitfall Harry even joined the world of 3D back in the 90’s on the original PlayStation, but now, after 22 years it’s time for Harry to make his triumphant return in a blazing next-gen sequel courtesy of Edge of Reality and Activision.
Pitfall: The Lost Expedition takes all of those classic core elements from the original game and blends them with some more contemporary platform staples to create a fun, humorous, and often quite challenging expedition into the dangerous jungle full of angry natives and deadly creatures.
Back in the 2600-days games weren’t much about story, other than a few token paragraphs in a manual. The Lost Expedition opens with an exciting narrative told through stunning CG as Harry and his partners, Dr. Bittenbinder and the obligatory damsel in distress, Nicole find themselves in a turbulent plane ride over the Peruvian jungle that ultimate ends in our team getting separated as some parachute from the doomed plane and others are forced to ride the plane to the ground.
The opening crash cleverly sets up the premise that you have nothing, and all the items necessary to completing your quest are scattered across the jungle as are the rest of the people in your party. What lies ahead is a fiendishly clever action game that borders on traditional platform gameplay across ten massive levels.
Taking a cue from modern-day platform games, much of Harry’s world is available to explore from the very beginning but specific locations are locked out until you find a certain object or reach a certain milestone. While this gives you some perceived freedom to explore it also mandates that you will be forced to backtrack through previously traveled levels, often repeating difficult environmental puzzles like jumping or swinging.
There is some obvious platform collection going on here. You will collect idols and other treasures that you can use for currency with the local medicine man who acts as your roving shopkeeper. You can buy useful tools, treasures, or even upgrade your maximum health or canteen water storage capacity.
The jungle is massive and you will find yourself referring back to the map that shows all available locations plus your current objective, clearly marked with a big red X. The map, along with the entire interface is cleverly designed as a diary, with aged parchment pages that slowly unfurl as you flip through them.
Pitfall veterans will instantly recognize the opening and closing pits that require a perfectly timed running jump, only now instead of tar pits these deadly holes are lined with teeth and appear to be some kind of mystic creature like a Sarlak. I almost expected to see Boba Fett’s jetpack lying around. Also back are those famous vine-swinging action sequences and everyone’s favorite snapping crocodiles.
Control is surprisingly good once you get a grasp on the funky camera control, or rather lack thereof. Rather than having a free-floating camera that you control with the right stick you can simply rotate the camera using the triggers leaving the right stick free to work your right hand in one of the most innovative multi-purpose control schemes to date. Basically, you can equip most any inventory item in your right hand then by using various directions on the right stick you can perform specific actions.
For instance, if you equip the canteen then pushing up on the stick will have you take a drink while pushing down will have you refill the container provided you are near a water source. When you have a weapon in your hand this analog control gives you unparalleled flexibility in the methods of your attack. You can execute sweeping slashes or overhead strikes. For ranged weapons, you now have excellent precision in your targeting and attacks.
It’s hard to criticize the artistic direction the designers chose for this latest incarnation of Harry considering he started off as nothing more than a stick figure. Harry is one of those characters you are either going to love or hate. His larger-than-life head and bulbous hands and feet are cartoonish in nature but charming nonetheless.
Even if you don’t like his looks you have to appreciate all the subtle animations that gives Harry his own unique personality, and this quality animation carries over into all the supporting cast whether they are human or animal. Harry himself bounces through the jungle, surprisingly light on his feet considering the size of those boots, and when he’s swinging, jumping or prying himself from the jaws of a powerful croc, you can appreciate every frame of animation that goes into the process.
The levels themselves are wondrous and while they never pretend to represent real-life locales, they do offer some surprisingly convincing locales with fiery volcanoes, icy glaciers, and jungles thick with trees and other foliage. These worlds are multi-layered and heavily detailed with no pop-up. Despite the camera control issues, the game does a great job of turning foreground objects transparent so your view is never blocked by a tree or rock.
The game also makes great use of the Xbox’s power to render excellent lighting effects with shadows and gorgeous particle effects. All of this is delivered in an unfaltering 60fps, and if you have the TV, progressive scan support is also provided. Some of the textures lose their crispness when you get your nose right up to them, but considering the complexity of these levels, it’s understandable and forgivable.
The first time I heard Harry speak with his sardonic and overly macho attitude I couldn’t help but think that Bruce Campbell would have made the perfect voice actor for this character. As it is, the guy they got makes a valiant effort to emulate Bruce’s style of narrative and all of the voice work is excellent, both in humorous content and professional delivery.
Sound effects are wonderful, with crisp detailed jungle noises that literally surround you on a Dolby Digital equipped game system. Some of the sound separation is just downright creepy; especially when you are exploring the dark caves and random sounds are thrown out at you on various speakers.
The music is also perfectly suited to the Indiana Jones-style of B-movie adventure. Various levels and sections of the game have their own unique themes and it all blends together in an almost-cinematic quality.
The Lost Expedition is a substantial game that will take casual gamers about 15 hours while platform aficionados will master this jungle environment in 8-10 hours. There were a few troublesome spots, frustrating encounters, and minor issues relating to the quirky camera control, but once you settle into the game and its interface you’ll feel right at home.
There is a lot of explorative fun in this title, and for those with the patience to find some cleverly hidden bonuses you can unlock the full versions of both Pitfall and Pitfall II, both exactly as I remembered them, un-enhanced and still charming in that “retro” kind of way. There are also plenty of mini-games that are built into the main adventure that can be singled out and played after the fact for a small diversion.
Pitfall: The Lost Expedition makes a solid effort at distinguishing itself from the rest of the platform genre, and for the most part it succeeds. There were times when I really wished for direct 3D camera control instead of a multifunctional hand, but then there were times when the creative use of that right hand was so clever I forgot all about the camera.
Overall, the game was nicely balanced and with the exception of some gratuitous backtracking, has a solid design and creative gameplay. If you enjoy platform games, action games, or even adventure games, then Pitfall: The Lost Expedition does a fantastic job of blurring these genres into a hearty adventure that will delight both young and old alike.