Version tested: Xbox 360
What do the programs on your computer get up to in their idle moments? Parkour, apparently, at least according to this prequel to the sequel to the 1982 movie about what happens when Jeff Bridges has a fight with Atari.
While the image of Microsoft Word scurrying about atop digital skyscrapers is rather ludicrous, it's part and parcel of a slightly muddled reimagining of the stark pixel realm from the original movie; where once there were minimalistic worlds drawn only from glowing neon lines, there's now a sprawling city riddled with curious anomalies.
Programs mill about aimlessly in its streets, illuminated by street lamps (computer programs have poor night vision, it seems). There's a computer nightclub, with a bartender serving digital booze, which at least explains why Firefox keeps crashing. There are even vents in the pavement, spewing steam. Steam? In a computer? But, hey, it's difficult to take the physics too seriously when there's a rainstorm later on. By the end of the game I was left feeling a lot like Futurama's bewildered Hermes, faced with Bender's undersea cigar. "This just raises further questions!"
Such inexplicable additions are relevant only because they tug the distinctive imagery of the 1982 film into a more generic sci-fi setting, the concept that this is all taking place on a hard drive becoming increasingly abstract as the story unfurls.
It's a story that casts you as the aptly named Anon, a security program dropped into TRON's world by creator Flynn to investigate weird occurrences. Rogue self-aware programs called ISOs have started appearing, apparently exhibiting free will. This leads to a schism between the traditional programs – Basics – and their new individualistic neighbours. You can tell the ISOs are digital outcasts because they have emo haircuts and wear long leather coats with bare tattooed chests. There's also a virus infection on the loose, spread by the mysterious Abraxas.
It all leads to a fairly standard power struggle in which every sacrifice and betrayal announces itself in advance while you try to remember who is who and why you should care. Thankfully, everyone is colour-coded, which makes keeping score a lot easier.
Sandwiched in between these lumpy expositional blurts are seven fairly brief levels, comprising lots of Prince of Persia-style platforming, plenty of light disc combat and sporadic light cycle dashes or tank battles. It's a familiar stew, made using predictable ingredients, but there's something to be said for the unfussy nourishment it provides.
Exploration is standard fare, using strings of acrobatic moves to navigate linear paths to the next cut-scene. You can wall-run across gaps, cling and shimmy up sheer surfaces and use a magnetic upgrade to your disc to catapult yourself off digital sky hooks. Every now and then you'll enter a room where switches must be hit to open the path onwards.
Surprise, clearly, is not on the agenda. Still, it's fluid and satisfying, even if it's hard to shake the sense that the game is never really stretching itself or taking full advantage of its computerised setting.
Combat is similarly solid yet uninspired. You enter an area, innocent civilian programs run screaming as waves of enemies pile in to fight you. Once defeated, you can continue on to the next chunk of platforming.
You can throw your light disc at enemies, locking on to the nearest target automatically, or melee them up close. Attacks can be blocked, or rebounded with a well-timed button press.
As the game progresses, your disc gains additional powers. Heavy Disc is handy for pulverising armoured foes. The cryptically titled Explosive Disc explodes on impact. Stasis puts enemies in a state of slow motion, while Corrosive powers deal damage over time and siphon a little health from your enemies to yourself. All are augmented with radial and slam options, pulled off by using the left or right triggers to modify the attack.
These moves use up your energy reserves, which are topped up by vaulting over illuminated nodes in the game world. Health is refilled in a similar way, by wall-running along (or up) glowing strips on the walls. It's a novel idea, one of the few that TRON can call its own, and it introduces the one sliver of strategy into an otherwise by-the-numbers action experience, as awareness of your environment plays a vital role.
There's an undeniable grace to the way the characters move around each other, and it's satisfying to propel yourself off a digital bench (you know, in case the computer programs need a sit down) and de-rez an enemy with a well aimed throw. But like the platforming – and somewhat ironically, given the title of the game – the combat hits an invisible ceiling fairly early on and refuses to evolve beyond that point.
Different enemy types are vulnerable to different disc powers, but that's as far as the depth goes. Sprint, dodge, throw, sprint, dodge, slam. Repeat until done. By the time the final level starts throwing dozens of respawning foes in your direction, there's a good chance you'll be finishing them off on autopilot rather than from the edge of your seat.
Breaking up the adequate meat of the game are some rather half-hearted vehicle stages. Occasionally you get to pilot a Light Tank along digital highways, blasting other tanks and those hovering Space Invader things as you go. It's a change of pace, but not a particularly compelling standalone gameplay mechanic. Control is wobbly and the challenge is weak.
The Light Cycles, those iconic modes of digital transport, fare slightly better. There's no denying that they're fast, but anyone hoping to relive childhood memories of the game grid might come away disappointed. At no point in the story do you get to actually play Light Cycles in the way you'd expect, instead hurtling through obstacle courses to reach the next platforming section. The Cycles now handle exactly like normal human motorbikes, their lightning-fast right angle turns now only of use in multiplayer games. Once you've blasted through one trial-and-error Light Cycle section, you've seen everything they have to offer.
It all looks fantastic, though. The bold neon-striped visuals are particularly well suited to the crispness of HD, and you'll probably spend a few seconds just revolving the camera to see how the glowing gameworld reflects off your shiny black and blue armour. Likenesses of the movie cast are above average, and are supported by good voice work. There's no Jeff Bridges, sadly, but his impersonator does such a good job that it was only at the end credits I realised it wasn't the Dude himself.
Much like the story mode, the multiplayer follows a well-worn path, taking in the expected deathmatch, flag capture and king of the hill variants. The game engine isn't ideal for such things, but nor is it terribly unsuited. On some maps you can roar around on your Light Cycle, though the heavy motorbike handling persists, while cluttered ramps and debris make the traditional "box 'em in" gameplay a frustrating fiddle. The two things that TRON fans will surely want to relive the most – one-on-one Light Disc duels and pure top-down Light Cycle action – are off the menu.
XP (reimagined here as megabytes of data) is earned whenever you level up to the next version of your software, and can be cashed in for upgrades, which are then installed or archived. There are no additional powers for multiplayer, but you can buy better Light Cycles or opt for different loadout combinations.
Again, it's all functional to the point of predictability. There is one small innovation that bears mentioning: you carry the same character stats and powers across both story and online play, and can switch between the two without leaving the game. It's neat, but inessential.
The story mode will last you a few evenings, at most, perhaps more if you feel compelled to replay levels to unearth pointless "TRON files" and "Abraxas shards", which fill in backstory but offer no tangible gameplay benefit. The multiplayer is a decent distraction, but its standard thrills are unlikely to retain full lobbies for very long.
The sum total, therefore, is a game that entertains without inspiring, doing enough to settle comfortably into the realms of "good" while never exerting the additional effort required to raise expectations any higher. You'll come to the end of each level and struggle to remember what you just did to get there. There's nothing terribly wrong with such a safe ,formulaic approach, and the end result is undeniably superior to most movie tie-ins. But for a property so steeped in videogame lore, it's a shame this so-called evolution clings so tenaciously to the same old templates.
7 / 10