Apart from being some of this summer's biggest movie box office hits, the likes of Miami Vice, Monster House, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Cars have also done rather well for the respective publishers responsible for the inevitable videogame adaptations. Check out Cars: Three weeks at the top spot, and no sign of flagging as THQ clocks up another Pixar-fuelled success to rival the vast-selling Finding Nemo. But looking elsewhere down the best-seller's list we couldn't help but notice that we'd overlooked Over The Hedge, and fancied seeing whether it could buck the trend of awful games-of-the-movie. Call us suckers for punishment, but that's what we're here for - and while publishers continue their unofficial summer strike, we're not exactly overloaded with games to review at the moment.
It's hardly surprising that our pals at Activision were hardly rushing to send us a copy, either. We're not exactly well-known for our benevolence towards digital merchandising of hit movies, but we do give them a fair crack and try to consider the audience for which they're intended to serve before dispatching the size nine to their backsides. And besides, any game that's lurked in and around the Top 10 all summer deserves to be investigated eventually - if only to give the parents among you an idea of whether it'd make a decent purchase for a nipper not skilled enough to play a 'proper' grown-up videogame yet.
Reviewing Over The Hedge in its own little kids' movie license bubble (as we'll try to throughout), it's easily one of the better attempts to hit the shelves this year. Compared to the shamefully short Monster House or Pirates of the Caribbean it wins hands down. As unchallenging as it'll be to the average gamer (who really should know better than to buy a kids' game anyway), it's got bags of variety, warm humour, a decent amount of longevity and is technically pretty slick too. Boasting 35 levels, three mini-games (each with four levels to unlock), and the usual array of unlockables (movie clips, comics, concept art and the like) there's even a semblance of value for money. Put it this way, a young 'un won't just blitz through it in an evening. A weekend, maybe, but that's a whole lot better than the other offerings we've come across lately.
The general gist is that a bunch of animals (RJ the raccoon, Verne the turtle, Hammy the squirrel and Stella the skunk) are having a bit of a hard time in the suburbs. Their friends keep getting captured by their unsympathetic human neighbours, and so much of the game involves busting them out and stealing food - not to mention smashing up furniture and so on. Frankly, seeing what RJ and co. get up to with their golf clubs, it's no wonder the humans are pissed off and determined to set up laser tripwires all over their house and garden.
Ropey premise aside, many of the levels are based around fairly perfunctory videogaming mechanics, such as avoiding laser grid security systems (nurse!) and motion detection devices (mercy!) by double jumping (ye gods!) around, smashing up everything (read: lots of crates) along the way, while also duking it out with crazed brainwashed rats, fire-spewing flying barbecue sets, blade-emitting barrels, and other contrivances that wear thin after about a nanosecond.
During each and every level you go out in pairs - either as RJ and Verne, or as Hammy and Stella, but it matters little. You can switch between the characters on the fly, but all their abilities essentially amount to the same thing. Most of the action involves hammering the square button as much as possible to swing a club, pressing triangle for a special attack, or firing a projectile by tapping circle (or hold down to charge one up) to dispatch the brainless enemies. The rest is a simple case of jumping around, collecting all manner of random tat to tick off the list of objectives doled out for every level. Much of it is designed purely as a device to unlock the innumerable aforementioned 'extras', others to bolster your max health level, while others fulfil the 'collect X of Y' task list you'd expect from a game designed to be as easy to understand as possible. It's hellishly boring for those of us who've seen it 1000 times before, but on the other hand you have to grudgingly admit it serves its purpose for a very young audience. Yes, it holds the players hands with purposefully linear level design and simple bash n' collect mechanics, but you can't argue with a game that simplifies things for a reason and does so with a degree of success.
Sorry, what review is this again?
The uncharacteristic forgiveness we found for Over The Hedge comes from the fact that the game keeps things short and sweet, freshening up the task at hand with pleasing regularity and doing so with a dash of humour. One minute you're running through the innards of a train blatting dozens of rats with a ping pong ball gun, the next running down a suburban street dodging traffic or running away from a rabid dog. All the while, the game takes care of the camera angle, so - again - it's a kid's game that takes care of the main issues that frustrate very wee sproglets. Namely, short attention spans, inability to move and control the camera, and makes it all very straightforward to understand. With two-player co-op thrown in for good measure, you can see why parents would feel comfortable with the idea of it. In practise it's certainly better than imagining your five year-old being let loose with the San Andreas co-op and doing drive-bys, put it that way.
Meanwhile, the mini-games that you unlock along the way are mildly diverting as well, giving them something else to do during the lengthy campaign. The RC racing game's a bit on the clunky side, with terrible, floaty handling, but the bumper cars effort is the sort of thing kids absolutely love. Of course, it's utterly mindless and involves nothing more than boosting around trying to whack three other vehicles in the side, but that's precisely the point of it. Finally, the shooting gallery's good fun too, involving shooting the suggested target as they appear. The old cynics among you just need to keep reminding themselves "this isn't for us" and move politely onwards, muttering.
Technically it's not going to win any awards, but it's pleasantly in line with the colourful, jolly look and feel of the Dreamworks movie. Casual passers by will giggle at the nice touches with amusing quips and endearing character animation, crisp environments, spangly effects and a good selection of between-mission cut scenes that aren't too far removed from the real thing. As an added bonus, the (generally quite funny) voice-overs are passable impersonations of Shatner, Willis et al, and as a package it does the job. Did we mention really young kids will love it? Really. This'll keep them quiet for days, and not a dismembered head or a bloodied prostitute in sight.
Merely 'doing the job' might offend the proud sensibilities of the gaming purist, but Over The Hedge is quite obviously a decent attempt to make the most of the license, and isn't the bloodless exercise that we feared it would be. Rated next to proper, real life combat platform games like Jak & Daxter and Sly Raccoon it's evidently a pale shadow of what else is out there, but next to other kids' games it's a massive improvement over what we've seen this year - little Shannon or Justin will be over the moon to be able to play as their favourite movie characters. Right or wrong, that's the point.