Version tested: PlayStation 3
It can't be that hard to put together a decent movie tie-in, surely. The characters have been created already, you've got an existing story to adapt or develop from and there are probably several action set-pieces you can build entire levels around. OK, so the deadline is written in stone and you'll probably get six months to knock the game out, if you're lucky. But since nobody is expecting anything particularly original it should be simple enough to produce a game that's pretty good, at least. Right?
Thor has all of these advantages, coupled with the ability to dip into Norse mythology as well as Marvel's rich comic-book universe. So why does it fail so badly at the most basic elements of gameplay? How do you take the concept of "Big Man Smash Monsters With Hammer" and make it so dull?
In essence, this is the God of Thunder offering his take on God of War. Thor enters an area, enemies rush out, and you start mashing the buttons to smash them all into a fine paste with your magical hammer. And, sad to say, button-mashing is really all that's required. There is a ridiculously long-winded combo system in place, augmented with four elemental powers, but as with most melee fighting games that are put together in a hurry, there's rarely any need to learn more than a handful of useful attacks to get you through each encounter.
In fact, this game has a very convoluted control scheme for what is an incredibly simple genre. There are a multitude of commands, with most face buttons pulling double or even triple duty depending on the context, the selected power and whether the button is tapped or held down. As an example of how hectic the controls are, Thor has one button to jump, a shoulder button to swoosh forward while jumping and a completely different button to jump long distances when looking at a glowing symbol. Wherever actions could be streamlined, they've been allowed to sprawl across the joypad like a lazy house guest.
This might be forgivable if the game had the sort of fluid dynamism that repaid the time taken to master the depths of the combo system. But Thor is no Bayonetta, and instead every action feels lumpy and thick. Judging combos is harder than it needs to be, thanks to noticeable lag that leaves Thor's hammer swinging slightly out of sync with your inputs.
Combos take the form of a set number of normal attacks punctuated at the end by a strong attack, but counting out the numbers required is a dark art. It's not uncommon to attempt a space-clearing hammer strike only to end up with a directional wind blast. The block move is particularly sluggish to respond, and breaking out of a combo to defend yourself is a waste of time. There's no sense that your strikes are connecting with the enemies, and no obvious correlation between what's happening on screen and the damage you receive. Player feedback is inevitably diminished, and it's easy to be booted back to a checkpoint without understanding why.
It's this, more than anything, that ensures the experience is incapable of rising above even the most basic level of mediocrity. This is a genre populated by lithe, agile warriors – Ryu, Kratos and friends – and Thor's lumbering approach to fighting makes him a hopelessly poor substitute.
Even the presentation feels half-finished. The graphics probably wouldn't trouble the PS2, with all the effort clearly directed at the whizz-bang eye candy of the various thunder and lightning special attacks. Even then, the repeated animations soon take the shine off that small pleasure, and all you're left with are woeful character models stiffly shambling through predictable locations. The game may delve into Norse realms untouched by the movie, but when they're used to bring us such fresh environments as a fire world, it's hardly worth getting excited.
Thor himself looks and moves like a stop-motion movie made with action figures. His hair is an unmoving yellow helmet surrounding his expressionless face, while his cape sticks down behind him like somebody left it on the washing line in winter. His nemesis, Loki, fares even worse. He looks for all the world like Data from Star Trek on his way to a chintzy medieval fayre. Both are voiced by the movie actors, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleton, but neither seems very engaged with the process. Hemsworth, swaggering and fun on the cinema screen, sounds like he's being forced to read his lines at gunpoint.
And what does the game have to offer the hardy soul who sticks with it to the end? Nothing more than the usual array of pointless collectable trinkets hovering conspicuously in the corners of each area. Inevitably, grabbing these ekes out a few more pixels on Thor's health and power bars, though the effect is too small and the levels too cramped and linear to warrant any real searching. That said, some pick-ups do allow you to change the colour of Thor's lightning, a reward so pointless and random it's either a cunning commentary on the futility of such lazy fetch-quests, or is simply evidence of a weary designer saying, "Sod it, colourful lightning will have to do."
The tragedy, of course, is that Thor, the character, has all the ingredients required to make an acceptable action game. With a little more time, creative freedom and imaginative design it could even be a very good game. But that's not what happens with games like this. They get squeezed into restrictive schedules, smothered by fussy studio approval and shoved out into the world, half-baked and unloved, in the vain hope that enough people will like the movie to pick up a game with the same name on a whim.
It's a throwback to the licensed games of old; the identical parade of 8-bit platformers churned out by Ocean, the identikit cartoon side-scrollers of the SNES years. Maybe in 20 years time someone will look back on Thor with ironic fondness, a cheesy childhood memory from a more innocent time. For those of us living in the now, it's joyless tat and should be smashed with hammers. Big ones.
3 / 10