Version tested: Xbox 360
Almost a year ago I remarked that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was "a bit like an entirely brainless Prince of Persia without the subtlety or design genius".
Worse was to follow, in the assessment of it being "one of the most crushingly generic gaming experiences ever designed. As in, in the history of gaming." And, predictably, the public lapped it up despite the dire 2/10 warning.
Buoyed by last year's Top 5 success, Disney has gone all Activision-EA-THQ on us and released this year's PotC title on a gazillion formats to ensure that every living soul (and probably a few undead ones, too) gets the chance to play the game of the summer blockbuster movie, At World's End. Eternally optimistic, we plumped for the 360 version on the off chance that it wouldn't make us want to rake the eyeballs out of our own face in despair. But, as usual, such misplaced positivity only made the process of playing through this rancid mug of grog all the more intensely torturous.
Pieces of hate
Developed by movie license stalwarts Eurocom (of Batman Begins, James Bond Nightfire and Ice Age 2 'fame'), we weren't exactly expecting it to realign our opinions on loveless, bloodless movie tie-in fodder, but you never know. In fact, for about ten seconds you might even be fooled into thinking that there's evidence of rich potential in the game, largely thanks to the respectable degree of effort that's gone into the artwork. Glancing at any of the 11 levels in At World's End you'll want to admire the rather lovely game engine, with detailed environments, lovely rain effects and consistently uncanny likenesses for all the key characters.
But the very moment you get your hands on the game, you know that any chance the game had of being good has been crushed by whoever designed the truly execrable combat system. At some point during the game's development, someone very deliberately wanted to make the game 'accessible'. Not an unreasonable decision to make given its target audience and the fact that it's a mass market summer movie, but you can go too far with making games 'accessible' when it takes any challenge or enjoyment out of the damned thing. A dog with a twitch could finish this game if you cellotaped a joypad to his paws, but even Fido might get tetchy after level 3.
Rather like last year's PSP abomination, for most of the game, all you have to do is repeatedly hammer the A button and point in the direction of whose swash you want to buckle. The process of dispatching endless identical AI-free goons not only lacks any vague semblance of wit or skill, but feels so dispiritingly flimsy that it beggars belief that Disney would want its good name attached to this utter filth. You literally slash your brain-dead opponent two, three, four times in quick succession, and at no stage does this army of the dead look capable of teaming up or fighting back. Then, bizarrely, after taking a few blows, they turn their back on you and stand there swaying gormlessly. You then apply the finishing blow and set about clearing the next obliging zombie in the rabble, one after the other, thousands of times in this tragic comedy of a game. The farcical scene of being surrounded by four or five enemies, and each one waiting their turn to face you just about sums up why this game should be roundly slaughtered by the critics. In this day and age, games that make no effort to even engage the player deserve to be held up and made an example of what not to do when you design a game.
Now and then the game throws in enemies that you can't simply bash to death with the A button, but even they can be dispatched with barely any effort if you pay attention to the on-screen prompts. Essentially, the game's main respawning identikit enemies serve as a means to charge up your Swordsmanship meter. Once a quarter full, you can pull off a finishing move, which involves hitting the left trigger when the prompt appears, followed by one of the face buttons that appears briefly on screen. But rather than use finishing moves on goons (there's literally no need), you're advised to save them for these 'special' enemies. Once dispatched, the respawning idiots stop appearing and you can move onto the next super-exciting section.
Typically, such super excitement will involve predictable levels of sub-Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia-esque frolics, including death defying leaps, shimmying across precarious ledges and beams, and even, gasp, some lever pulling and box shifting as some sort of concession to variety. Pardon the sarcasm, but all of it is so painfully dull, unchallenging and therefore uninvolving that we can only imagine the tears of doom that the testers had to endure while playing through this repeatedly.
But the pain doesn't end there. Around 17 times during the game you'll have to engage in one-on-one duels with the key enemies that you face over the course of both Dead Man's Chest and the events of At World's End. At best you can nod in appreciation at the generally spot-on likenesses, but very quickly you'll lose the will to live once it becomes apparent what you have to do in order to progress through these immensely tedious sections. In basic terms, you're either defending or attacking, and the idea is to try and block all your opponent's blows, and then attempt to land a hit on them once the contest switches over. Rather than, you know, actually building a combat engine worth a damn, all that's involved is holding up when your opponent is aiming high, low when they're aiming low, and backwards away from them when they attempt a lunge.
The least fun you can have with your clothes on.
To make it easy to tell what they're going to do, a little green indicator lights up a split second in advance to give you time to prepare. In theory it's easy enough, but the reality is the controls feel sluggish and often don't react quick enough, making you vulnerable to enemy attacks. When attacking, the same process plays out, except you have to decide whether to aim high, low, lunge or whether to perform a spin attack once your special move bar is full (but it's hardly ever required). To compound the overall sense of mind numbing mediocrity, you even have an opportunity to pummel RB and LB at predetermined intervals, just in case we wanted the duels to be any less fun. In truth, the duels might look like fun when cut together in trailers and screenshots, but playing them repeatedly is about the least fun you'll have while playing a videogame. It's a bottom of the barrel exercise in cynical brand extension, and quite harrowing to play if you've got cells in your brain.
On occasion, the game switches between all the movie's main characters, with the bulk focusing on the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow - but it needn't have bothered. All the characters have the same abilities, the same weapons, and control in the exact same way, so even when you're able to cycle between three characters at once, it makes absolutely no difference. The only reason you'd do so is to stop one of them dying prematurely so that you don't have to replay that particular section from the start. In terms of imaginatively using the brand and its characters, this would get 'nil points' from the Eurovision judges. If you really want to spread the pain, then you can always replay any of the levels in split screen multiplayer (co-op or competitive, where the most kills wins). But really. Why would you do such a thing to a friend? What did they do to deserve such heartless cruelty?
It probably goes without saying that a fair bit of At World's End also involves tedious fetch quests, and achievement point-scalping collectathons. Throughout, none of this involves any more than being overly thorough and wandering around mindlessly until you've poked into every corner and opened every chest you can find. At no point does it feel like actual skill is involved. It's just a terrifyingly dull war of attrition to scoop another easy 25 points here and there. Woo, and indeed, hoo.
So, let's recap: the combat's inexcusably awful. The duelling is absolutely mind-numbingly uninspired. The platforming and exploration feel tacked-on, overly basic and adds little variety, and the fetch quests plumb new depths in their tedious pointlessness (collect seven dice? Find five mugs? Why?). And yet, despite all this, if you were to glance at the game running on a demo pod you'd swear it was fairly inoffensive and polished. At World's End has the games market to itself right now, in a quiet early summer period where most publishers are holding back the big guns for the pre-Christmas onslaught - but what we're served up with is one of the most dreadfully vacuous and uninspired movie tie-ins in recent memory. If this sounds like a recipe for a chart topping game, then you know what to do. Here's a tip, Disney: if you want to make any pirate-based games in the future, call Ron Gilbert, for the love of all that is good.
3 / 10