With every big-budget animated movie comes a loveless low-budget piece of gaming merchandise to cling onto the coat tails of the brand phenomenon. That's the theory, anyway, with recent attempts like Cars, Happy Feet and Flushed Away proving to be the kind of crushing, soulless cash-in exercises that ride high in the charts and do nothing but drive people away from gaming in the long run. So few of these games ever come vaguely close to delivering anything even approaching genuinely admirable gaming experiences, and as such you can't help but feel that they're a really bad introduction to gaming for those that don't know any better.
But whenever these games sell by the truckload (which is all the time), the reasoning seems to be that they must be doing something right. After all, they're 100 per cent 'for kids'. Old, cynical adults shouldn't be so quick to judge what's good enough for kids, right? What nonsense.
As much as these officially licensed animated movie games sate that want, need, must HAVE urge you get as a young kid, they're often so poorly designed on a fundamental level that it's hard to just pat it on the head and let it go. So often, you're wrestling with awful controls, bad camera systems and the most tired and generic level designs imaginable. The problem with kids games in the main isn't that they're too easy and lead gamers by the hand, or that they reward too often and never frustrate, it's just that absolutely no love seemed to go into making them, and it shows.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. Hand a young kid a copy of New Super Mario Bros. or a Pokemon title and they get it with alarming ease - often to a degree of proficiency that leaves hardened adult gamers agog. And even among licensed games, there have been some really solid efforts that demonstrate that certain developers really know what they're doing. Games like Over The Hedge, Finding Nemo and Shark Tale managed to get away with that extra user-friendly kiddie edge and still be entertaining enough for adults to join in as well. It doesn't always follow that kid's games have to insult the intelligence of anyone over the age of six to be accessible.
So what of Open Season? Admittedly it's not a game we've been in a rush to review, but, hey, it has been in the charts for ages, and now's as good a time as any to see whether Ubisoft can be as good at making kids games as it is doing everything else.
The story puts you in control of a docile pet grizzly bear called Boog, who's perfectly content being a domestic pet with a cuddly toy and a warm garage to sleep in. But when he frees a hapless mule deer called Elliot from certain death, he finds himself having to survive in the wilds of Timberline Forest at the start of the hunter's 'Open Season'. With the goofy one-horned Elliot in tow, you have to make friends with all the various animals you encounter, and hatch a plan to see off Shaw, the pantomime villain hunter, and return the forest to nature.
Just ADD kids
The game itself is constructed as a series of 25 short vignettes that prove to be some of the most unchallenging tasks ever encountered in the modern history of videogames. Each section switches rapidly from basic collecting tasks to straightforward on-rails sequences and on to simple shooting with such velocity that even really young players will have absolutely no problems romping through the first half of the game in one two-hour sitting. It's polished, but, good lord, it's easy. It's like it's been specifically designed to appeal to attention deficit types whose concentration wavers at the first sign of a challenge.
For example, the majority of the game's levels are over in less than five minutes, which even by kiddy game standards is lightweight. One entire level involves nothing more than collecting ten packs of a candy bar in a small shop within a time limit. Another involves guiding a rolling snowball (containing our heroes, natch) down a hill while jumping from one precipice to another. Another has you shooting 20 hunters as they run haplessly onto the screen. Another demands you ride along in a mine cart, switching tracks and jumping across broken ones. And so on.
The more 'demanding' ones (using the term very loosely) allow for a modicum of (incredibly linear) exploration, wandering around scaring hunters, lobbing skunks into chimneys and throwing hunters into traps. Boog can sneak up on hunters, holding RB to remain stationary, camouflaged and undetected, and once in range can engage his 'wild roar' to scare them witless by holding down A until the meter enters the red zone. Elsewhere, you can grab Elliot and lob him at targets (or just throw him around for your own mild amusement), but with no jump ability you're extremely limited in what you can actually do. Along the way you will befriend squirrels, hares, beavers, ducks and the aforementioned skunks, and in some cases you can pick them up and lob them. For example, squirrels can climb tress and lob nuts at enemies on your behalf, while hares can be aimed at the heads of hunters to send them fleeing in terror. A chainsaw wielding beaver might even cut down trees for you when required.
Failure not an option
On a few occasions you switch control to Elliot, which does give you the ability to jump, not to mention the ability to taunt hunters and lure them into man traps or camp fires. Regardless, ridding the forests of hunters is an incredibly easy process, devoid of any semblance of skill. Stealth is encouraged, but rarely ever necessary thanks to the fact that you can't die. Even if you run out of energy through general carelessness, you merely have to hammer the button to revive yourself, while various bushes contain berries that will fully restore your energy if you need it. It's a game where the concept of failure was written out of the design doc.
Technically, it's pleasingly close to the source material, making the 360 version easily the best choice if that matters to you, but also at by far the highest price. The cartoon style is pretty much perfectly replicated, and in terms of capturing the 'feel' of the movie, you really can't complain. The character models and environments are well observed, and although the game (apparently) doesn't use the 'real' movie voice-overs, it's chock full of goofy stereotypes that are mildly amusing and offensive in equal measures - as is the case with every me-too animated movie these days. The occasional giddy boy-rock song in the soundtrack gives it a feel-good factor, and despite the shockingly unchallenging nature of the game, it's a high gloss, mildly enjoyable affair while it lasts.
If you're really committed, though, and fancy some quick and easy gamerscore points, you can studiously collect all the various ranger badges that are hidden around each level, as well as notch up as many 'wild' points as possible and cream hundreds of achievement points in the process. This all adds a couple of hours of pointless completist replay value, and confirms that, indeed, this is the easiest, shortest game on the block.
Butt of the jokes
Aside from all that, there are also a bunch of equally easy and silly multiplayer mini-games, such as 'shake that butt', where the first person to fill their Shake Bar wins (by wiggling the left stick repeatedly). Elsewhere, the Simon Says-style Duck Chorus or the throw-based Rabbits Everywhere provide minimal interest - it's not going to be a game to slap on at a party, put it that way.
Overall, Open Season is a fairly inoffensive attempt at piggybacking the movie, despite its insulting lack of challenge, though it's disappointing that Ubisoft's first crack at a licensed kids movie title isn't a little more engaging for those above the age of six. The humour's warm enough to keep you going, there's plenty of variety, it's technically ok, and for ADD kids it's the kind of thing you can put on and not be pestered every time they get stuck. Put it this way: if your kid gets stuck on a game like Open Season, you know something's amiss. Consider it a good test of whether videogames really are for them...