Reviewed: November 14, 2004
Released: November 3, 2004
TRON 2.0: Killer App is a game that has been twenty years in the making; actually 21 if you consider this version is a direct port of the PC version released last year. While movies rarely spawn a decent video game spin-off, the very premise of a “living computer world” just begs for a computer game, and now console technology has finally advanced to the point where this “world” can be fully realized, almost. Prepare to enter the world of TRON on the Xbox.
Just to clear things up for those of you who have played the PC version. Killer App is a direct port of the PC, at least as far as content is concerned. There have been some sacrifices in visuals, interface, and gameplay that I will cover in further detail below, but suffice to say, if you have the option to play this game on the PC then that would be the preferred format. Xbox exclusive gamers will certainly find a lot to like with TRON 2.0: Killer App, and you'll like it a lot better if you never have a chance to compare it with the PC version.
Playing and enjoying TRON 2.0 doesn’t require you to have watched the 1982 movie, but I still recommend you do check out the movie if you haven’t seen it. It is one of those landmark achievements in cinema that has yet to be matched, even with today’s new technology. While the stories are totally independent there are some loose ties that fans of the film will appreciate.
You play as Jethro “Jet” Bradley, son of Alan Bradley (from the movie). Alan is working on perfecting the digitizing technology that was used in the movie to transport Flynn inside the company mainframe. Through a series of events, Jet is digitized into the computer to assist Ma3a, the computer AI, and thus the adventure begins.
This living computer world is represented by some visionary artwork and effects that would put the Vegas strip to shame. The world is highlighted in colorful neon borders and programs, scripts, viral infections, and ICP’s (anti-virus counter measure programs) are represented by humans dressed in glowing suits.
TRON was ahead of its time back in 1982 and the designers have done an incredible job of “keeping up with the times”. Technology has changed a lot in the past 20 years and TRON 2.0 reflects those changes by including levels designed around PDA’s, Firewalls, and even the Internet. The game will toss around techno jargon that computer techs and network engineers will love and everyone else will dismiss much like those fancy terms used in Star Trek.
TRON 2.0 not only offers a truly unique world to explore but the gameplay borders on revolutionary. With TRON 2.0’s RPG and augmentation system I’ve heard comparisons being made to Deus Ex, and while those are valid I would go as far as saying TRON 2.0 implements the concept much better, at least in theory if not in implementation.
To understand the gameplay you first have to understand the premise. Even though you appear to be human throughout the game you have to remember you have been digitized and exist solely as data (energy) inside the company mainframe. This allows you to interact with other programs and travel along circuitry and data streams. Building further upon this concept you are allowed to install subroutines into your “program” that enhance your “physical” abilities like jumping or allow you to summon energy weapons out of thin air.
Jet has a health bar that represents his personal energy and an energy bar that that indicates how much power he has to use for charging weapons or accessing systems. Each time Jet interfaces with a system or data cube it costs a certain amount of energy to download items such as email, video archives, permissions, or new subroutines.
Maintaining the guise of an RPG, Jet also has several abilities that can be upgraded throughout the game. Instead of “experience points” Jet collects “Build Points” for completing objectives or locating the 100 Build Notes scattered about the game. As you collect these points your “version number” increases. Each time this rolls over to a new whole number you get to upgrade attributes like health, energy, download speed, etc. This allows you to tailor Jet, and in a minor way, the gameplay to your personal style of playing.
Where TRON 2.0 really shines is in the augmentation process. Jet’s available memory is limited by the system he is currently in. He may have a dozen memory blocks inside the mainframe, but when he gets transported to a PDA that will be cut drastically. This means you are constantly juggling the various subroutines to best serve your current situation.
Subroutines come in three flavors, Defense, Combat, and Utility, and there are many types of programs that fit into each of these categories. Each program can be upgraded from Alpha to Beta and finally Gold. To upgrade a program you need to locate and use a Code Optimization Ware (C.O.W.), a little device that scurries about the level like a robotic vacuum cleaner. As you upgrade each program it becomes more powerful and takes fewer blocks of your personal memory. You can also download higher versions of programs that you already have and replace them.
One of the major ongoing threats in TRON 2.0 is a nasty computer virus that has infected the mainframe. This virus is represented by green glowing enemies and these creepy wraith-like creatures look like evil wizards with flowing robes. When these creatures hit you there is a good chance you will get infected with the virus and your subroutines will start to malfunction. Fortunately, you have an antiviral procedural available that you can cleanse any infected subroutines. The trick here is that any other program in adjoining blocks can get infected as the virus spreads. This means you may have to temporarily create gaps in your memory to protect non-infected programs. There are also anti-viral subroutines that offer some protection from attacked and corrupted downloads if you have them installed.
There is also a chance your memory can get fragmented during these attacks and you will have to use the defrag procedural to free up the block so you can use it again. The third utility is a Port procedural that allows you to adapt code for your personal use. Often you will encounter “unknown code” and this will identify it for you after you have downloaded it.
If all of this sounds complicated you’re wrong. The clever ring menu interface is totally intuitive and allows you to drag and drop subroutines from storage and place them in active memory. The Xbox replaces the graphical point-and-click interface of the PC with a menu of subroutines that you pick then choose an operation with a face button. Defragging, identifying, and virus scanning are now one-button operations rather than having to drag and drop to the activation areas. While I can see the need for simplifying the control scheme for the Xbox, I did find it cumbersome at times and not nearly as fluid as the PC.
So now that you know the rules of the TRON universe let’s talk about the actual gameplay. You being your cyber-adventure with a bit of training that teaches you how to interact with the world and how to fight. Your initial weapon is your disc that can be tossed like a Frisbee and will return to you. You have limited steering ability over the disc and you can even get creative and ricochet off walls and ceilings – a tactic that proves most useful when the ICP’s break out the riot shields.
Later on you will acquire new and more powerful weapons via downloads, and these can be further upgraded into some devastating energy weapons. The trick here lies in the fact that the more damaging a weapon is the more energy it consumes and the fewer times you can use it. Plus any energy you use for weapons is energy that is unavailable to you for downloads until you recharge. Thankfully, health and energy ports are quite abundant and strategically placed where the designers anticipated you would need them.
One of the coolest concepts in TRON 2.0 is also one of the oldest in gaming – locks and the keys that open them. In TRON things are locked down with security protocols and you unlock them with “permissions”. A lock is comprised of a ring divided into eight slices (or permissions). Scattered about the level in either data cubes or core dumps left behind by defeated enemies, you can collect permissions numbered one through eight. As you collect these slices your ring slowly fills in. Locks vary in complexity usually proportional to the importance of the data or system they are protecting. You might need Permission 2 to access a data cube but a Com I/O might require Permissions 1, 3, 5, and 6. Usually, if you are thorough in exploring a level finding these permissions will simply flow with the game and not require any dedicated searching.
To mix-up the FPS portions of the game the designers have thrown in some light cycle racing. This is a great homage to the original movie and offers a completely unique challenge as you race these supersonic bikes around the grid trying to trap your opponents with the light walls of your own bike or send them crashing into a wall. The light cycle sections actually play better on the Xbox thanks to some precise controls. The dual sticks give you simultaneous control over both the bike and the camera and a radar screen has been added to the HUD to help you locate the opposition.
I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you about the jumping puzzles. Yes, there are jumping puzzles and some are quite challenging, but TRON 2.0 is one of the few games that puts valuable rewards at the end of these challenges like weapon upgrades or valuable permissions. TRON allows you to save anytime and anywhere and the process is instantaneous so there is no excuse for having to replay too much of the game due to an untimely death.
The opening movie does little to setup the plot for TRON 2.0 but rather the underlying conspiracy and story is slowly revealed through a seemingly endless stream of emails and video archives that you will download during your travels inside the system. These emails are short and quite informative and presented in such a way that they don’t get annoying like those other games that rely on lengthy journals, books, and letters to fill in the plot. One interesting twist is when you travel to the old mainframe from the original movie and read some 20-year old email - one even mentions the birth of Jet.
TRON 2.0 is a game that is heavily scripted and for that reason could be considered a bit linear. You are lead around on your quests and corralled through a series of locked doors and I/O ports, but you are never really aware of it until the game is over. You get so caught up in the moment, and that’s what TRON 2.0 is about – “moments”. There are so many action segments that intersperse the standard FPS that you are literally caught up in the narrative.
One of the most thrilling of these moments is when you must escape a system-wide reformat. This was such a horrific experience that I will probably feel sorry for the programs on my hard drive the next time I have to format my system. Picture if you will a giant translucent red wall that slowly advances through the level erasing everything in its path including your pursuing enemies. Then you get trapped against a force field and the red wall is inching closer and closer…
TRON 2.0 was easily one of the best looking games of 2003 and the designers have done an admirable job of porting this over to the Xbox in all its neon glory. I guarantee you have never seen a game this colorful or bright. TRON 2.0 is built on the Jupiter graphics engine developed by Monolith and enhanced by the video gurus at nVidia. Thankfully, the Xbox uses an nVidia chipset so the custom neon glow routines used on the PC ported to the Xbox flawlessly. These custom neon glow effects combined with 480 progressive scan support makes this version look as close to the original PC version as you can get with the Xbox.
At first glance the levels look deceptively simple with lots of black and flat shaded areas. Polygons are all highlighted with brightly lit neon borders that pulse with vibrant colors and the characters all emit red, blue, yellow, purple, and sickly green glows. The level of texture detail cleverly mirrors the technology of the environment you are currently in. Inside the mainframe the walls are ablaze with cycling lights and flowing data, and the Internet City is simply beyond words. If the inside of the Internet really looks like this then please digitize me now. When you port back to the 20-year old mainframe the graphics take on a purposely dated look with lots of simple flat-shaded polygons.
Admittedly, the Xbox is unable to render out the same exquisite detail that a high-end PC can deliver. Much of the background art is now much simpler and where the PC used multi-layers of animated textures, the Xbox might be using one or two or possibly even static artwork. Again, if you've never seen the PC version you won't know what you are missing, and this is still by far one of the most unique and visually stunning FPS games on the Xbox, even if it seldom breaks the 30fps barrier.
The weapons are a bit on the extreme side, but then again, so is the entire concept of TRON. Weapons magically materialize on your arm when you select them from the menu and some (like the Drunken Dims) are crazy but incredibly cool. Like the levels and everything in them, weapons pulse with an inherent energy that is shared with everything in TRON.
The movies are very well done featuring the crisp graphics of the game engine and using excellent character models with detailed facial features. The opening credit sequence is one of the few (if not only) opening credits I will watch every time I start a new game – it’s just that cool! One of my favorite movies takes place later in the game and shows the human world through the POV of the TRON universe – as an electrical schematic with humans being represented as boxes on a 3D floor plan.
It’s hard to single out special effects since this game is one giant special effect. I guess I could point out the subtleties like damage being shown as binary 1’s and 0’s spiraling off the enemy as you hit them or even simple things like when you die the screen blanks out like the power was cut. Some stuff is really subtle like the random messages or data that streams over your HUD. Walking through the Internet City my “spam filter” shutdown and I started getting annoying banner ads. If your Profile subroutine gets infected the normal target data is all corrupted with random text and graphic garbage.
TRON 2.0 features a kickin' soundtrack with techno and electronic synth tunes that fit this game perfectly. If a game ever had a cinematic score this is it. Good guys, bad guys, really bad guys, they all have their own theme music and subtle chorus that blends in to stir the appropriate and desired emotions. Kudos for including several familiar bars from the original movie soundtrack – those few notes bring back instant childhood memories.
I’m not sure what the inside of a computer sounds like. All I can hear are my five cooling fans humming in chorus, but I doubt if I could journey inside my motherboard it would sound nearly as cool as all the hums, beeps, and synthesized electrical noises that the designers have used to bring this cyber world to life. In as much as TRON 2.0 pushes the current graphics technology, it also makes excellent use of Dolby Digital 5.1 surround with some of the deepest bass of any Xbox game to date. I literally had to turn down my sub-woofer two notches and that was just from the humming of the walls.
Speech is excellent thanks to some professional voice acting, both by the stars and the supporting cast. Bruce Boxleitner (original TRON), and Cindy Morgan (also from the movie) lend their voices, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos takes a break from X-Men to join the voice cast. All of the voices have been given suitable electronic enhancement when necessary. Much of the dialog is quite humorous, especially the idle chatter you can hear if you eavesdrop on the ICP’s. Lines like, “You’d lose your header if it wasn’t compiled on” will have you laughing aloud.
TRON 2.0 is a fairly lengthy game. There were times when it started to drag but just when I would start to think that one of those “moments” would occur or I would move to a new system and the world around me would change to something totally fresh. Expect about 20 hours to finish the single-player story mode on Normal difficulty. There are no diverging paths or alternate endings and while the RPG elements and complex array of subroutines allow you to play the game differently, it might not be enough of an incentive to replay the entire game over again anytime soon. The real staying power of TRON is in its new and improved multiplayer component.
TRON 2.0: Killer App definitely improves upon the multiplayer aspects of the PC version by adding support for four-player split-screen, System Link support for up to 16 players and full online support using all the advanced features of Xbox Live 3.0 for hooking up with your friends. You can play in classic deathmatch and team deathmatch modes known as Derez, Data Capture is the standard domination mode, and for those of you who saw the movie, you will appreciate the Disc Arena that supports up to 8 players in disc combat on vanishing platforms.
There is even a tournament version of Disc Arena presented in a ladder structure. No TRON game would be complete without Light Cycle racing, both by itself and combined with Derez for the overRIDE mode, massive deathmatch games in levels so huge you will need a bike to get around.
I really enjoyed a second trip through the world of TRON, and even though the PC version was slightly better to look at and control there is no denying the much improved multiplayer aspects that will definitely appeal to both FPS gamers and anyone looking for a great online game. This has to be one of the most original Xbox games I’ve played in a long time, not only because of the visionary graphics, but the clever intertwining of FPS action and RPG elements and more online modes than any two other games combined.
If you enjoyed the movie then you are going love this game and if you’ve never seen the movie chances are you will be headed to your local video store after a few hours with TRON 2.0: Killer App. This is one of the few move-inspired games that actually manages to pull off the crossover, and both the film and the game complement each other in a way that could only be accomplished by the cooperation and careful attention to detail of both the studio and the game designers. As much as TRON broke new cinematic ground in 1982, TRON 2.0: Killer App proves to be just as innovative more than 20 years later.