Dog end or the Dog's bollocks?
We like to think that age doesn't really come into it when we're playing videogames. In the mixed up muddled up shook up world of the gamer, one minute you're burning around the cuddly cartoon landscapes of Mario Kart: Double Dash, the next you're engaged in the stark horrors of World War II, ducking Nazi lead in the retaking of Red Square. So should you really care that Dog's Life is a kid's game? Surely we're all big kids anyway? Move over Rover and let Jake take over. We've got bumholes to sniff.
Drawing heavy inspiration from all those 'hilarious' animal talkie movies such as Babe, 101 Dalmatians, as well as the various Pixar movies, Dog's Life is a typically feel-good tale of Jake and Daisy, who one day find their idyllic Mid-Western lives of country smells and leg cocking antics shattered when they're bundled into the back of van by a couple of dog-napping grunts, intent on taking them to the pooch-hating Miss Peaches.
The quest begins when Jake's cage falls off the back of the van, leaving the dazed hound with a vow to rescue his best friend/love interest and literally follow the scent to the lair of Peaches and her dog-napping henchmen.
Give a dog a bone
Although Dog's Life comes replete with some fairly amusing canine innovations (more of which in a moment), it's immediately apparent that Frontier Developments has followed the third-person collectathon rule book, with plenty of jump and run elements to boot. Guiding Jake (or his many four legged friends) around the environment follows much the same formula as any other videogame character; left stick to move, right to tweak the camera, X to jump, circle to pick up, square to bark (wuff!) and triangle to enter a first-person 'dog's eye' view.
From the 'Smellovision' view, you're effectively able to 'see' different coloured scents that emanate from all manner of sources and any kind of progression hinges around the 'collection' of these stenches (odd - we thought dogs couldn't see in colour). Gathering of all the nasty niffs ultimately rewards you with a bone, but most require the successful negotiation of numerous mini-games first, be it a Tug O' War, a race, Sheep herding or even a peeing game that involves marking your territory quicker than your opponent. Often the game requires you to swap control over to one of the many other dogs, which might be able to reach previously inaccessible areas due to their smaller or larger size, while interaction with humans is essential in order to get all the juicy bones in return for performing one of the many 'go-and-get-me-X-number-of-these-random-objects' type tasks.
To an experienced gamer, it's plainly 'not for us' and Sony makes no bones about it [groan], delivering an inordinately simple experience in a targeted attempt to snare the impressionable young (and when we say young, we mean under 10s) gamer who's just been given a PS2 for their birthday. But Dog's Life is rescued largely by its warm sense of humour, cute visuals and the fact that, well, controlling a dog around is actually quite cool.
Elite with dogs?
Although Brit developer Frontier (yes, as in Elite) has set the game in Mid-West USA, it doesn't alienate its home audience with too much obvious humor, and the likeable hound Jake is full of self-depreciating wisecracks, quips about bodily functions, and a generally endearing obsession with foul smells (he'd love the EG office). If Frontier had taken the concept a stage further and strapped it to a more substantial game then this could have been one of the better PS2 titles of the year, but instead it's the kind of game that any parent would be happy to let their kid loose with, safe in the knowledge that the content is targeted precisely at them and with a pick up and play premise that won't have them whining (too much) about being stuck.
With more fart gags than Viz, it's bound to have parp-tastic kids in stitches, and rarely makes a concerted attempt to be especially challenging, presumably in the name of keeping the nippers entertained from the word go. The only difficulty you're likely to encounter is in the less than polished camera system, which finds all manner of curious ways to trip up on the scenery. Combined with a really quite rubbish jumping mechanic, an otherwise simple-as-breathing task can require a frustrating number of repeat attempts before you finally work around the stupidly imprecise system employed.
The problem appears to be exacerbated by some unfinished-looking animations which result in the furry fiend going from a standing position to a lurching leap with no apparent inertia or transitional movement required. Not only does it look extremely odd, but it feels sluggish and causes all sorts of problems when you attempt to do the most basic things such as leaping onto a bloody great platform. Combine this with some rubbish camera work, and you've got a recipe for frustration where none should exist; it's just bad design and sloppy programming, and kids will accept it even less than hardened grown ups who are used to this kind of incompetence. And they were doing so well.
Don't lick me, I know where you've been
If you don't let such things worry you, then there's a lot to be admired. The structure of each area is pleasingly freeform, allowing you to wander around and tackle the various tasks in the order of your choosing, and the standard of the visuals is well above par for what we expect from kids games - in particular the dogs, which are full of detail and will have animal lovers everywhere cooing in admiration as they bound eagerly around the landscape, tail-a-wagging. Apart from the ludicrous jumping nonsense we've highlighted elsewhere, the animation is excellent, and goes a long way to capturing all the endearing cuteness of man's best friend.
Knowing what some of our dog-owning friends are like when it comes to seeing dogs in action, and given the £29.99 price point, Sony's probably pulled off a masterstroke of EyeToy proportions by releasing this. The end result, though, is that by aiming low, Frontier has soiled on its own doorstep by making a fairly innocuous curiosity rather than the great game it could have so easily been. Still, it's an interesting experiment, and one that could eventually build into something special if they took a leaf out of Pixar's book and made something for everyone.