Whatever clever wordplay was intended, subtitling your game with the brutally over-used phrase "killer app" is bound to have gamers the world over sharpening their critical knives. No amount of clever wordplay from them or us can disguise the fact that underneath TRON 2.0's cultish appeal, it's little more than a slightly above average first-person shooter that has some good ideas, a unique visual style that suits the premise perfectly but some teeth grinding design flaws that quickly serve to undermine your will to continue playing it.
Released to critical praise on the PC in autumn 2003, even our Martin in his glowing 9/10 review had to concede it was a "very simple, very harmless FPS at heart". And it is - there's really no getting away from it once the novelty of simplified, featureless environments bedecked in a wireframe neon glow wears off. It's a oddly retro-futurist approach that's on the one hand an abstract vision of what it must be like to be stuck inside a computer, but on the other so intent on being faithful to the early '80s style of the movie that much of the potential artistry is sucked out of it. Think Rez, but nailed to tepid FPS mechanics, and you're somewhere close.
The Kernal wants a word with you
As settings go, being stuck inside a computer was a popular theme of the '80s, and in case you're not aware of TRON in its guise as cult 1982 movie, or the simple but brilliantly addictive arcade shooter of the same name then the allure of a game-based sequel and all its reference points may be slightly lost on you. In which case here's a quick bluffer's guide: you play as Jet Bradley, the precocious son of Alan, the star of the original. Having turned down a programming position ("I'm happy making games, pop"), Jet inexplicably gets sucked into the company's computer system after a virus infects the system and mysteriously gobbles him up with it.
And this is where you come in, progressing through a serious of tight, enclosed environments that in essence follow a very simple key/lock progression system, with the patrolling guards carrying permission programs that you download in order to disable security devices/forcefields, as well as guard respawning points (at least the game's honest about its respawning enemy mechanic, eh?).
Every so often you get to download items/keys from coloured cubes that mysteriously float inside bigger transparent cubes (called 'archive bins') that contain various upgrades that take up a number of your 'memory' slots and spruce up your weapons, armour, jumping abilities, as well as giving you the ability to creep up on others (the "fuzzy signature"). On top of that, you accumulate 'build points' from various locations, which slowly upgrades your abilities RPG-style - but at your own discretion in several key categories, such as health, energy, weapon fire rate and so on. Along the way, various "characters" (or more accurately, "programs") appear to help you out on your journey (such as ma3a or "mathree-ah"), via semi-regular cut-scenesl and the story is supplemented by email notes that you come across, but essentially this is as regular a lock and key FPS as you'll ever come across.
You wouldn't send a Bit in to do a Byte's job
As you'd expect from an FPS, the combat plays a major part too but is disappointingly the limpest component of the game, consisting of enemies (the mainframe's defence programme, called ICPs) that make up for a lack of discernable AI by having an unerring ability to instantly deprive you of a third of your health with an incredibly accurate throw of a disc from fully 40 feet away. Nobody said being trapped inside a computer was going to be fair, and even worse, the ICPs have determined that you're the source of the virus, which is nice. Success against the evil musclebound ICP drones depends solely on your ability to a) not to attract their attention in the first place b) creeping up behind them and bashing them or c) waiting for them to appear around a corner and having your attack ready. Being caught in an open space with two or three of the buggers is a sure route to a load game menu, and plenty of cursing at the unfair odds. We can barely recall a game that arbitrarily reduces your health so dramatically (even when you're running away at full pelt), but as soon as you get used to the save/load necessity, it's not so much of a challenge, but more one of those games that you chip your way through one enemy at a time. Nevertheless, the absence of a fair fight system quickly renders each level into a tiresome save/load slog and the ongoing search for the next pass to get you through the next set of security doors.
Interspersed here and there are the occasional Light Cycle interlude, which is basically Snake in 3D, with concept basically involving driving a bike around a 3D grid-based arena, attempting to pick up power-ups and killing off your opponents by forcing them to crash into your trail. With just left and right-angled turns and accelerate/decelerate available to you it's not exactly the most flexible control system, and, although initially quite appealing, the completely unhelpful camera system gets you into more trouble than you can reasonably stand. Repetition is the key here, but what seemed like a wonderful idea quickly turns into a chore.
And even when you're mercifully dropped back into the computerised world, the "chore" factor continues; small levels, lots of death, lots of slow reloading, and samey mission tasks including rather too much reliance on lock/key/platforming mechanics that smack of a lack of imagination. The unique looks and feel of the environment might keep fans happy for a while, but for anyone else, it's like playing a test level of an unfinished game - entirely missing the point of course, but it's true.
Have a nice micro cycle
One slight saving grace is the Live-supported multiplayer, which, as well as allowing four-player offline split-screen, lets up to 16 players indulge in some rather unusual 16-player online combat across ten maps. As per usual deathmatch and team deathmatch make it into the package (Derez/Team Derez), along with Domination alike "Data Capture" which tasks two teams with controlling three points of the map. Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch is Override, which takes the Light Cycle combat online and combines it with normal FPS action, with the general idea to destroy other Light Cycles either by dismounting and shooting or riding around. A team version of Override throws in objective points to control, but in truth the whole thing feels tacked on with a value added feel, as opposed to being a genuinely integrated part of the package. As with the single-player, you move so sluggishly and cover is so sparse that avoiding attacks is far harder than it ought to be - even at long distance. The chances are, once again, once the novelty of fighting it out in a TRON setting has worn off, you'll quickly want to move onto something better.
We've used the word a few times during the review, but "chore" probably sums up TRON 2.0 if we were to plunge to our most uncharitable. Were it not for the novelty of the unique (but actually quite uninspiring) visuals, we'd be left talking about a first-person shooter that tries to do things differently, has some nice ideas, but evidently doesn't have the combat mechanics to provide the hook to drag you through the game. When Monolith reflects on why TRON 2.0 didn't set the charts on fire, the blame lays squarely at the fact that it just isn't a great deal of fun to play. However cultish its appeal may be to those that fell in love with the movie, it can't disguise the game's flaws. Stood next to any number of FPSs it looks refreshing and promising, but in the final analysis it doesn't even get the basics right making this little more of a curiosity purchase than a killer app.