There are usually two ways that an adult reviewer will approach a kids game. One is to scoff at the reduced gameplay and juvenile aesthetic, and make no effort to put it in the context of its intended audience. The other is to play it for ten minutes, lose interest and assume that it's probably pretty good if you like that sort of thing. Both result in a safe score of around 5/10 and the overused qualifier "but kids will probably like it".
It's only when you have a child of your own that you realise how useless such reviews are, because it's only then that you discover the truth. Far from being easily amused sponges, kids are some of the fussiest consumers around. While adults will often tolerate all manner of ropey gameplay mechanics, either through habit or masochism, if you fail to keep the average seven-year-old entertained, they'll simply wander off to do something less boring instead. Kids are more demanding than you think.
For cluck's sake
This parentally themed preamble brings me neatly (if belatedly) to Disney's second Chicken Little game, the first being precisely the sort of half-arsed that fosters the sort of reviews mentioned earlier. Bland, generic, hastily programmed but just amusing enough to make adults believe it's what kids want, the prospect of a sequel barely even registered on my "in development" radar. With original developer Avalanche back once again, my anticipation was hardly at fever pitch when it plopped unannounced through my door.
That's probably why it came as such a pleasant surprise to discover that Ace in Action is actually - whisper it - a damn fine game.
For the multitude of Eurogamer readers who weren't dragged to the cinema to see the 2005 movie, Chicken Little reworked the famous fable into a shrill CGI sensory assault in which the traditional "sky is falling" motif turned out to be the precursor to an alien invasion. Well, sort of. I don't want to spoil the astonishing twist for those who have yet to see it. The important thing is that the movie ended with Chicken Little and his misfit pals settling down to watch a movie based on their adventure, in which the puny Little had been turned into the barrel chested Ace, a super-rooster spin on Captain Kirk's swaggering bravado.
Thus, in this game, you play as Chicken Little playing himself as Ace in the in-game videogame of the movie within the movie. This isn't the first time Disney has bent reality into post-modern origami shapes in order to extend a franchise - Buzz Lightyear had a game based on the animated series from the Toy Story movies which then became a real animated series - but it's still a smarter than usual way of shaking up the series while retaining the characters the kids want to see.
Feather your nest
The obligatory scene-setting animation out of the way, there are three main gameplay types to be found, spread across four planets with six missions apiece. When playing as Ace you get third-person action levels, blasting robots and scenery, unlocking doors and tackling enormous bosses. Ratchet and Clank is the obvious inspiration and while this offering doesn't come close in terms of weaponry and variety, it's a slickly constructed facsimile that doesn't skimp on explosions and action. Ace comes equipped with a blaster, shields and grenades - all of which can be upgraded threefold by collecting and spending "acornium" - and he also has a jetpack with which to glide across large gaps.
Other levels find you playing as Runt the fat pig, in his futuristic tank, and Abby the ugly duckling, in a hovership. Controls for both could benefit from a little tightening - especially the hovership's counter-intuitive use of the shoulder buttons to move up and down - but they carry the general sense of polish throughout the game. As with Ace, the vehicles can be beefed up with faster, more powerful weapons and stronger shields. Throughout, the game walks the fine line between progress and challenge with admirable success. The difficulty curve is pitched just about right for the Under 10 crowd, starting at ridiculously easy but it soon throws more and more enemies into the mix, to the point where it can even catch complacent adults off guard.
Health packs are plentiful, and respawn in the same places, so it's unlikely that any single section will prove an insurmountable obstacle for long, but that's as it should be for this age group. Progression is earned, but the game never lets frustration set in so that most players will be able to see all the levels and feel the warm glow of achievement come the end.
It's no Lego Star Wars but there's even some replay value, with hidden bonuses and unlockable content that rely on you returning to levels to hone your speed or accuracy, or simply exploring the hidden nooks and crannies a little more thoroughly. The more you find, the more acornium you amass, and the more powerful you become. The upgrade system works well enough, and actually requires some strategy as to how you'll spend your acornium loot. The final boss fight of the first planet, for instance, will prove surprisingly tough if you haven't enhanced Runt's tank and mastered strafing. As tactics go, this is basic stuff for adults, but just about right for younger players. You can also unlock two-player split screen games in which you compete for points in either the tank or hovership, with three maps for each vehicles. Nothing too challenging but, again, it's a perfectly acceptable My First Multiplayer experience.
I've run out of bird puns
The graphics are surprisingly solid, presenting a bright and tangible cartoon world that holds together commendably well when the action kicks off. For example, if you destroy a large structure with your grenades it gives off an effective (if obvious) rolling smoke effect. These keep on billowing even after you move on and, come the end of the level, you can turn around and see these columns of smoke stretching into the distance. It's about this time that you realise that far from being some cheap cash-in sequel, some genuine thought and care has been put into this project.
Perhaps the most obvious sign that this isn't just a Christmas cash grab is that the voice cast from the movie have all reprised their roles. Zach Braff, Steve Zahn and Joan Cusack all return as Chicken Little, Runt and Abby respectively. As well as appearing in the cutscenes before each level, they pop up in voice form during play, squabbling over the controller or commenting on the action, cleverly maintaining the illusion that they're playing the game alongside you. Best of all, the voice of Ace is supplied by Adam West, in full ironic flow as yet another square-jawed superhero stereotype. Sure, he may be a little bit too Zapp Brannigan at times, but it's still good for a giggle. In fact, for long stretches it's easy to forget that you're playing a Chicken Little game at all and just enjoy the curious sight of a decent sci-fi cartoon shooter starring the campest Batman ever as a muscular space fowl.
If you've got young ‘uns then you can buy this, safe in the knowledge that they'll get your money's worth. But more than just providing a blessed distraction, it's also a title that will give them a solid grounding in what makes gaming fun. It's not the most spectacular entry in its niche, and there's no denying there are better kid's games out there, but against all odds Chicken Little's second game outing is a respectable and often charming experience. This time it's definitely true - kids really will like this game, but you won't resent helping them past the tricky bits either.