This being a family publication, we can't really address the dark, deeply unhygienic things most of you would like to do with Sarah Michelle Gellar, but suffice to say for some of you, her absence from this game - both in voice and in spirit - will be enough to put you off your stake. But whether or not you like the show and whether or not you lust after the carefully constructed 25-year-old, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is very nearly one of the best Xbox exclusive titles we've seen.
The third person Buffy is built around a very simple combat mechanic - punch and kick repeatedly, in tandem, in combination with other functions, or with stake in hand. Vampires come at you with a similarly effective arsenal of moves, and you have to work through their blocks and empty their energy meter enough to leave them susceptible to a staking, whether they be on the floor, walking wounded, lunging for your throat or leaping at you from above. The first time you stake a vamp you'll grin maniacally, and the sight of a despised vamp receiving a heartfelt blow and dissipating into ash, whilst screaming in agony of course, is... well, worryingly and consistently satisfying.
Vamps of all shapes and sizes stock the various levels, but as you progress you run into the much tougher hellhounds, relentless zombie women, skeletal warriors whose limbs need severing, and specially imported vamps with much more to say for themselves.
The good news is that The Collective has created a selection of Slayer Moves and Super Slayer Moves; one-time attacks which feed off your Slayer Power. Slayer Power accumulates as you collect the orbs left behind by former vamps and other creatures, and with a few grunts out of the way you can unleash everything from powerful jab cross combos to jumping back fist attacks and bicycle kicks. Combos, slayer moves and super slayer moves are all easily performed and rely on Street Fighter-style analogue stick and action button combinations, which your friendly watcher Giles will inform you about between missions.
The structure of the game is thus; Buffy goes to a location in Sunnydale, purges it of vamps and other nasties whilst jumping and climbing through various obstacles they've set out, learns some more about the grand plot and then takes on a boss, before retiring to the library for a conference with Giles, Xander, Cordelia and Willow. As she goes about her business, she collects various potions and stakes to keep her going, and even the odd single-use item like a shovel or mop. Later on she gets her mits on hellfire and holy water launchers to complement her zoomable crossbow, but these play a lesser role than her flailing limbs.
To start the game, Buffy takes on a training course to introduce her to the controls and combat. It's at this very early stage that the darkness becomes a problem - even jumping between supposedly verdant grassy ledges is impeded by an almost jet blackness which haunts you throughout. Falling from ledges, ladders and worse is your fate unless you find the brightness option and turn it right up. Sadly, this leaves the visuals quite washed out and PC-like - not a good start.
Fight on through the training course though, and you'll see what the game is really about - it's a glorified obstacle course with the odd vaguely mind-warming puzzle and carefully cordoned off vampire encounters. It's the strength of the combat which keeps you coming back - certainly not the level design, which is often fairly pedestrian at best. Take the first real level after the training section, Sunnydale High, as an example. Some discourteous peeping Toms interrupt Buffy's cheerleading practice, and so she has to trawl the halls dispatching them. As she wanders around school, she can only open doors lit up by a green sign, and she has to kill the vamps before most of the doors will open anyway.
The whole level literally revolves around the school hall, which is regularly visible through internal windows, and there is little or no variation in design. At one point our heroine runs into Willow and the others in a classroom and learns some more about the menace, but otherwise it's simple kill, door, kill, door gameplay until she gets to the boss fight.
The deeply formulaic nature of the single player game is almost shameless by the time you get to Angel's mansion, which is under siege. Enter a room and a green force field pops up over both entrance and exit - defeat the enemies, move on and the next room will behave in the same way. Even the most obscure locations manage this - in a particular graveyard section, Buffy is surrounded by decomposing skeletal attackers, and the whole group is surrounded by a white, mystical force field, which shoehorns Buffy into a claustrophobic and quite unmanageable encounter, eventually emerging only to do much the same again.
Your reward for defeating a section is a chat with the gang back at HQ. Each character in Buffy has been designed as a cartoonish, but very representative approximation of their TV counterpart, and with only a few exceptions they work. Buffy looks very much like Buffy, even if the voice actress behind her squawks is having difficulty, and Willow, Xander and Cordelia all look and dress appropriately. Giles and Angel are a bit of a problem though - Giles' shoulders look as though they're trying to escape, and his nose clearly wants out, while Angel looks sheepish and far from the ravenous, beast of a man he really should be.
The best character in the game (and arguably the series) though is Spike. His affected English accent with a Northern lilt provides a delightful contrast, and his role as deputy badguy, answering only to The Master, means he's one of the most charismatic and mysterious enemies in the game - after all, he can't die, or can he? He gets all the best lines too - a particular favourite being "put her down you wanker," which had me chuckling away for a few seconds. It's just not what you expect at the time!
A stake in the business
In bringing Buffy to the Xbox, The Collective has produced what they describe as a lost episode of season three. If you know where all the characters were at that point, then good, but if you don't it doesn't really matter. Events elsewhere are borne out in the dialogue between characters and events on-screen. Voice acting is generally very good, and the script is also good, although there are some aspects which fall short. The sexual innuendo is childish but neat, but Buffy's one-liners are un-Gellarly and perhaps even a bit stupid.
The graphics on the whole match the mayhem, as do the sound effects and soundtrack. The game never looks like it'll give the Halos and Gothams of this world a scare, but the level interiors are nicely textured, and the animation is very dynamic and cleverly engineered. Plus, there's a sufficient amount of detail that you can look at your positioning, take a swing at a vamp and send him backwards onto that outstretched table leg you spotted earlier. The only problem from our point of view is the camera, which, despite direct control mapped to the right analogue stick, is not very helpful at all and often causes problems. Fortunately, you can lock onto and cycle through targets using the right trigger - without this, Buffy would be really frustrating.
In audio terms, the screams, thumps and thwacks are all top notch, and the soundtrack is mostly ambient and quite fitting. You'll be pleased to know that the intro sequence (a must-watch) is a gamed up version of the opening credits, complete with TV theme tune, and if you make it through the 10 or so hours of this you'll... no, we won't tell you. You should find out for yourself. However, you should know that finishing the game unlocks a neat bonus aspect.
So, however surprisingly, Buffy is mostly very good and mostly worth having. The combat is quite repetitive, but it's always rewarding, and the only criticisms we have of the game at large are the way you're shoehorned into battles and the placing of save points. Often with only a bit of health and a single stake, you'll have to retry a section multiple times to get anywhere, and this can become deeply frustrating before you know it. Like the vamps though, having your health bar knocked the whole way down isn't the kiss of death - they still need to take a chunk out of your neck. And you can always pick the game up from various save points prior to that - each catalogued and remembered by the Xbox hard disk.
Do I recommend Buffy? In a word, yes. In several more, it's without doubt the best game of a TV show to date, and despite a few niggles, the absence of Sarah Michelle Gellar and the feel of a PC title, it captures the essence of combat, characters and quests which runs through the series, and it's easily worth sinking your teeth into.