Movie games, you used to be so dependably awful. GoldenEye aside, when it came to wonky storytelling, witless level design and insipid mechanics, you always came through for me. It was perversely comforting really – like being mugged by a duvet. So what happened?
It's a personal theory, but I suspect that Terminator Salvation happened. With a tiny campaign, a horrible suite of weapons and character design sufficiently weak to suggest that key battles in mankind's war against Skynet were prosecuted by Pete Sampras, Grin's wretched tie-in set an intimidatingly high bar for terrible games of the future. The developer did give me some nice socks at a press event once, however.
In the face of the Terminator, then, licensed games have had nowhere to go but up. Sure enough, they've quietly been getting better for a few years now. That Wolverine brawler had a couple of lovely combo moves tucked into it. Toy Story 3 has a brilliant sandbox mode. And now Tron: Evolution bears distinct hallmarks of having been made by people who care about what they're doing.
The singleplayer campaign continues to look decent. Filling in story between the first Tron film and Legacy, the forthcoming sequel, Propaganda Games has built a promising, if familiar, blend of parkour traversal and balletic combat, with some Light Cycle racing thrown in to keep things moving. None of these elements look earth-shattering on their own, but they are mixed together in a brisk and entertaining manner.
The closer you look, the more you see clever ideas emerging. Disc Stations, for example, seem to be an eminently nickable piece of design. Scattered about the solo campaign, these access points give players an excuse to duck out of the story mode momentarily to experience a stripped-back range of multiplayer activities.
In other words, aware that Tron's movie audience might be intimidated by online lobbies and load-outs, Propaganda wants to give more casual gamers the chance to have a go at basic death matches against human opponents, in the hope of tempting them to click through the actual multiplayer menu one day.
Persistent character progression is another nice touch. Any perks or abilities you unlock in multiplayer come straight back with you to the single-player campaign, and vice versa. The generous XP system of both modes intertwines.
While balancing all of this out has presumably been a bit of a headache for the design team, the developers seem pretty confident that you won't be able to break your single-player adventure by over-levelling yourself in online arenas.
A recent chance to play through a few of the game's multiplayer modes provided a welcome opportunity to see whether all this cleverness is being put to good use. Propaganda's unveiled four different game types so far.
Disintegration and Team Disintegration are deathmatch variations. Power Monger is a Domination-style mode that has you capturing and linking together energy nodes to score. Bit Runner is a mean-spirited reworking of Oddball, with the Bit Carrier steadily losing health as they collect points and avoid everybody else.
They're standards, then, but all are given their own spin, not least by the fact you can choose to play them in a suite of maps that support vehicles. Standard on-foot arenas tend to be snug yet fairly complex spaces, by current multiplayer standards, with a focus on verticality to incorporate players' gymnastic range of hand springs and jumps.
Vehicle environments, as expected, are much more roomy, allowing for zippy Road-Rash battles between Light Cycles and Light Tanks. In another smart little design twist, health and energy top-ups are built into the game's geometry itself in the form of glowing strips placed around the map.
If you're almost dead, in other words, you're probably going to have to pull off a skilful chain of wall-runs to top yourself up rather than simply grabbing the nearest pick-up.
While all multiplayer arenas are built with traversal in mind, the combat system takes centre stage; luckily, Tron Evolution's Disc-based fighting seems like fairly thoughtful stuff.
Standard Light Discs provide you with a basic melee, block and ranged attack. As you level up you'll also be able to unlock Special Discs which you can shuffle into load-outs depending on how you want to play.
Ranging from Heavy Discs, which are slow to recharge but extremely powerful (filling the sniper rifle role), to Bomb Discs, Statis Discs – which slow enemies down – and Corruption Discs that act like a combination of EMP grenade and health drain, they offer a range of different tactical options for players.
They're contextual too, so if you run while triggering a Bomb Disc, for example, you'll get a spread shot. Blocking and triggering gives you a kind of ground-pound instead.
In essence, Propaganda's offering players a very flexible class system they can opt in and out of on the fly, and it's using the iconic elements of the license to make the whole thing seem less intimidating.
At its heart, then, the Disc system is yet another elegant way of making a casual movie-game audience feel at home - while hopefully satisfying more experienced deathmatchers at the same time.
Does it work? For the moment, at least, multiplayer seems very promising. Combat can be frantic to the point of being rather button-mashy on the tighter maps, but if you're playing with a smaller group of players the spaces become home to some surprisingly tense stand-offs.
Elsewhere, in the larger arenas, chopping someone in half with your Light Cycle trail is every bit as appealing as it should be. The no-fuss transition from running to racing is accomplished with the press of a bumper.
It will be interesting to see whether Propaganda's bright idea to offer a kind of multiplayer tasting menu strung throughout the story campaign will give Tron a foothold in the brutally Darwinian online space. With its sharp neon design, clever twists and rangy maps, it would certainly be good to see this game flourish.
Tron: Evolution is released on 19th November for PC, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360. DS and PSP versions will also be available.