So, do you want a nice drink or do you just want to get drunk?
Picking up the controls and stepping into the sci-fi universe of Advent Rising, you'll be asking yourself a similar question within the first ten minutes. All the ingredients are here, but can you put up with the overall taste?
Advent Rising has been constructed with top class production values in mind, but the glue that binds the elements together is soggy. The back story, sound, voice acting, presentation and gloss that coats the game is impressive, and goes a long way to charm the player. Being written by acclaimed sci-fi author Orson Scott Card didn't mean a lot to us to be honest, so if you want a point of reference think of the confidence found in Joss Whedon's story-telling in Serenity and Fray. It's that convincing sci-fi world which feels familiar without being clichéd, smart without being smart-arse. And for once, the story actually does a good job of holding the game together.
Players take on the role of rookie space pilot Gideon, battling the Seekers, a race of evil aliens intent on eradicating the human race. Gideon's brother and girlfriend are also thrown into the plot to help raise it above lone-hero-against-the-world standard fair, even if the action itself doesn't go far beyond exchanging lots of gunfire with creatures from another planet. A careful blend of cut-scenes, incidental dialogue and action rolls along from the very beginning - a beautifully tranquil space cruise segues into a bar-room brawl, a little soap opera tug-of-love sets up characters in time to give the player a reason to fight. And then the balls-out action begins.
When we say 'action' we mean 'gunplay'. You'll be familiar with dual-wielding by now, but the variety of weapons on hand is enough to keep players grinning like a hillbilly with fresh buckshot. A meaty combination of sci-fi lasers and more traditional chrome and bullets ensure there's plenty of two-trigger thrills to be had, and the smoke and particle effects, flying bodies and exploding walls mean there's never a dull gunfight. Throw in a few pounds of explosives and the occasional knuckle sandwich and your palms will sweat from the heat of the battle.
Enemies come big and chunky, and they move far faster than appearances would have you believe. They may not be the brightest stars in the galaxy but they can crawl across any flat surface, pounce and attack with an aggression that makes up for a lack of strategic AI. The rule that states our hero can pick up any weapons that litter the environment also means the Seekers are just as well-armed, and they're not averse to leaping right into your face when you're not expecting it to serve up a tasty backhander.
The more Gideon uses weapons the more his abilities automatically upgrade. It's a good enough push to convince the player to try all the firepower on offer, but you'll probably settle into carrying a few favourites and sticking with them. Once the game introduces psychic powers fighting becomes a little easier but no less hectic or entertaining. Add in a few vehicles and the game has always got something around the next corner to keep the action moving at a good pace.
Out of control
So, combat is booming and brutal. But you won't always feel in complete control of the situation during those gritted-teeth showdowns. There are moments when you'll clamp the rapid-firing triggers down and spit death blindly until the scene is calm enough to fall back on skill. Not just because of the sheer weight of enemies, but because of the technical hiccups that interrupt the flow of the game. There are two main problems and they'll be familiar to anyone who's played a third-person action game of any kind: camera and control.
The right analogue stick is used for two functions - to 'flick' onto and between multiple targets, and to control the camera. This targeting system works well and the camera is easy enough to manipulate, but combine the two when you're being attacked from all sides and multiple tiers, and your control is likely to go haywire. Add a frame-rate that causes the animation to fart and cough its way through a couple of seconds of action and it can be enough to shatter the illusion and fluidity of the game.
There's a really impressive orchestral score throughout Advent Rising, but again clumsy implementation means it can cut out unexpectedly, as is the case with some dialogue and other sound effects. So not only do the visuals stutter, but the sound is liable to stammer during play and chop into the illusion of the game too. It's like the jerk of parking a car when it's still in gear.
These technical failings aren't a complete disaster but they can't be ignored because they throw a branch into the bicycle spokes of the gameplay. At some point you will take far too much damage because of the drop in frame-rate and the resulting confusion. You'll lose your sense of direction and become trapped in a corner before receiving a kicking from an eight-foot reptilian. It's an ambitious game that isn't afraid to try lots of different elements but it stumbles because the basics aren't locked down tight enough. In reaching for the stars Advent Rising pulls a lot of muscles.
If you have zero tolerance for stuttering frame rates and occasional fumbled controls then don't go near Advent Rising. It's a good science-fiction action game that suffers from technical problems. There's a nice surprise here for those that are forgiving enough to sample it, but you need to be aware it's clumsy in places. So pick up the glass and swill it down, but expect to dribble on your chin and stain your nice clean shirt.