The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, or TCONTLTWATW as we'll call if for short [perhaps 'Narnia' might be snappier -Ed], is hotly tipped to top the gaming charts this Christmas. That isn't surprising, since it's a movie tie-in for a blockbuster film that promises to offer fun for all the family.
Billions of people are bound to go and see it, and billions of Mums and Dads are bound to buy a copy of the game for their kiddies this festive season, confident that it won't feature any guns, blood or mission objectives that involve murdering prostitutes.
All right, so it might be based on a rather dark biblical allegory that was penned by a man who has since been accused of being a racist and a misogynist, but we didn't notice all that stuff when we were eight. And besides, we have a theory he nicked the whole idea off George Lucas (Edmund is Judas, you say? Lando, more like).
Anyway, what is surprising is that come Christmas day, Mums and Dads are unlikely to find the game shoved under the sofa by the time the Queen's speech is on. Which, let's face it, is where most movie tie-ins belong, since far too many of them are shonkily put together and rushed out in time for the movie's release.
Narnia, however, is a cut above the average. With its varied mission objectives, well designed co-operative gameplay and highly impressive graphics, it's a joy to play - most of the time.
But more of the game's shortcomings later - let's start with the plus points. Narnia benefits from a superb storyline, for which of course we have good old CS to thank rather than the developer, Traveler's Tales. But TT must be commended for doing such a good job of translating that storyline into a game that you'll often find yourself swept up in the excitement of it all, and eager to find out what happens next.
For those who are too young or forgetful to be familiar with the story, here's a synopsis: four brothers and sisters - Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter - are sent to stay in a big country house until the Germans have finished bombing up London. Lucy discovers a magical land called Narnia that can only be entered through a wardrobe, and meets a lion and a witch. Edmund betrays them all and the lion dies only he doesn't really die and then there's a big fight. The end.
The game follows the same storyline, and as you progress throughout the game you'll need to take on the roles of all four different characters - each with their own unique abilities. Lucy can heal people and crawl through small spaces, while Susan uses ranged weapons (snowballs, tennis balls and later a bow and arrows). Peter is best at hand-to-hand combat, and Edmund is, er, sort of like Peter only a bit rubbish, and therefore not much use.
You can switch between characters by pressing R1 at any time, and they can also team up to perform special moves. Peter can carry Susan on his shoulders, for example, protecting her from close-up attacks as she unleashes a volley of arrows at far away enemies. Edmund, in a rather more hilarious fashion, can take Lucy by the hand and whirl her around like a sledgehammer. Useful for breaking down barriers, but it does look a bit silly and is reminiscent of Crash Twinsanity, in which Crash whirls Cortex around in a similar manner (Crash Twinsanity, incidentally, was developed by Traveler's Tales...).
The point of all this is that you're frequently required to work out which character is suited to which task, and how best to make use of their co-operative abilities. Another player can join in and give you a hand at any time, so all of the levels are meant to be suitable for both single and co-op play. And most of the time they are, but every now and again you'll come across a level which is extremely tough to complete if you're playing on your own.
Take the Beaver Dam mission, for example. Here you're responsible for protecting Mrs Beaver from a pack of wolves, whilst stopping a troll from carrying off Mr Beaver and preventing two more trolls from knocking over a boulder to form a bridge.
The moment you've seen off the trolls, a cutscene (the same one each time, irritatingly) informs you that yet another pack of wolves is at the door. Once you've dealt with them, the kidnapping troll is off again, and then the boulder-rolling trolls are back, and then there are some more wolves...
Dealing with all this is made even harder thanks to the fact that your team-mates aren't particularly bright. They're slow to keep up as you dash about the place, and only do a half-arsed job of defending you most of the time. It took us loads of attempts to complete the level, and many times we wished we had a chum around to give us a hand.
Unfortunately, there are several missions in the game where difficulty level suddenly shoots up like this, making them a lot more frustrating than they are fun. The other downside is that although kids will enjoy Narnia, it isn't the type of game you can just plonk them in front of while you nip off into the kitchen to finish off the turkey and tequila.
It's certainly not a game which younger children will be able to play on their own, and older ones are likely to require your help every now and again. But there's loads of fun to be had if you're looking for a game that you could play through with a child - which, as everyone knows, beats reading them a boring old book and is a lot easier to do whilst drunk.
Into the wardrobe
Right from the first level, where you have to guide Lucy, Edmund etc through a burning building in the middle of the Blitz, the action is fast-paced and thrilling. But as you might expect, things really kick off when you enter Narnia and embark on your adventure proper.
Although much of your time will be spent hacking and slashing your way through waves of enemies, there's a decent amount of variation between missions - you can expect a fair bit of puzzle solving, levels involving a bobsleigh ride and rafting down an icy river, and even a stealth mission where Lucy and Susan have to follow Aslan without getting spotted by guards. It's a shame all the levels are so linear, though - there's never a sense that you're actually exploring Narnia, as impressive as the environments are.
But back to the combat. For the most part you can get by with simple button bashing, but you can also acquire special attacks by purchasing them with coins you've collected. Peter and Edmund can learn a move which takes out minotaurs with one hit, for example, or a special combo called Lion's Leap that burns nearby enemies with a ring of fire.
Susan can use her pan pipes to put enemies to sleep (all pan pipes have this effect on us, funnily enough), which involves pressing a series of buttons in the sequence they're displayed on screen. Lucy's healing abilities improve as the game progresses and she can ride wolves and the like, which is fun.
But it is combat which makes up the bulk of the gameplay, and occasionally the game gets repetitive as you find yourself facing off with yet another wave of the same species of enemy. There are some great moments though, such as the level where you're fighting a group of minotaurs atop a hill in a forest. Suddenly a huge army of monsters carrying flaming torches swarms out of the trees and begins marching past you, and every now and again one will leave the troop and climb up the hill to take you on. It's highly impressive.
The visuals in general are excellent, too. Snow and rain fall realistically, backdrops are detailed and often sweepingly dramatic, and characters are well animated. Plus, despite the fact that there's often a huge amount of stuff happening on screen, not so much as a single frame is dropped.
Which brings us to one of the best things about this particular movie tie-in: the basic elements work. The camera behaves itself, there are checkpoints at sensible intervals, there's plenty to do in each level and the graphics are impressive. Yes, these are fundamental requirements for every game, but we've played so many without all or indeed any of these things in place that Narnia comes as a downright relief.
There are some problems, however. It mainly boils down to the difficulty level - there are too many frustratingly hard bits, and also too many stupidly easy bits to keep hardened gamers entertained. Mission objectives aren't always made clear enough, either, and there isn't quite enough variation to stop all the hacking and slashing becoming tiresome from time to time.
That said, there are lots of good gameplay ideas here, and the game is certainly pretty to look at - Narnia fans won't be disappointed. It's all polished off with some lengthy clips from the movie, voice acting from the film's stars and music from the soundtrack, which helps to create a powerful atmosphere of magic and menace.
All in all, Narnia isn't for the type of older gamer whose idea of a good time is playing Ninja Gaiden Black on the hardest setting with one hand whilst blindfolded, and nor is it for young children who have only just worked out that fire is hot. But if you're looking for a game that will please older kids and don't mind helping out with the frustrating bits, this could well be it.