Now that somebody has finally made a game about escaping from an animal testing facility, it seems remarkably apt that it now faces a bunch of figurative guinea pigs like muggins here, all keen to let you know how it turned out. It's a pity though from a marketing perspective, because I could also happily draw parallels between my plight and that of some of the animals scurrying around the tortuous facilities in Whiplash. Actually, playing Crystal Dynamics' latest, I realised I've never felt more like an alligator on a treadmill in my life. Or is it a crocodile?
Spanx the m-- Oh, weasel
Whiplash is the tale of a weasel and a rabbit. Spanx and Redmond are two out of thousands of unwilling participants in the endless experiments of a company called Genron (hur hur), an evil corporation that makes ridiculous products for leisure, housekeeping and other applications, and spends most of its time testing its absurd ideas on hapless animals.
And so it is that Spanx and Redmond wind up chained together and thrust on a conveyor belt in the direction of the "Recombinator", which aims to turn them into one superior animal, and reminds me of that Simpsons gag from "The Thing and I", when Bart's evil twin unveils his newly conjoined beast, the Pigeonrat, the pigeon aspect of which promptly flies off, hits the wall, lands on its rat side and fails to make it through a hole in the skirting board. But I digress.
In the face of this rather unsavoury union, Spanx and Redmond somehow manage to affect an escape from their conveyor belt tube, and, with a little bit of help from the resident gravely-voiced supercomputer (or is it?), they set out to free all their fellow animals and smash up Genron's facilities to an excessive degree - so much so that they can put the entire company out of business in fact, and give its tyrannical president a dose of well-deserved ignominy. With any luck.
Annoyingly though, developer Crystal Dynamics has taken this premise and filtered it into a very middle of the road platformer, where you run around jumping and double-jumping over objects, smashing stuff up to release animals and generally working your way through linear platform sections. It doesn't really try anything new, but also doesn't really get that much horrifically wrong (unless you're some sort of government official playing opportunistic moralist in front of a sensationalist national press, that is). However what it does do quite well, particularly at the beginning, is bind it all together with a consistently sarcastic and politically incorrect sense of humour.
In gameplay terms, Spanx and Redmond's being chained together is used exactly as you'd expect and rarely any more. Redmond is basically invincible, and, by hammering some of the face buttons, Spanx the weasel whom you control can drag him around, smash Genron employees and robotic security droids with him, dangle from aerial grapple points, spin him quickly around his head to perform a helicopter floating move, use him to slide along zip lines, and basically use him to perform lots of conventional platform moves 'borrowed' from games like Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, Mario, Sonic and more besides. You can even scurry along a winding rail like Sly bloody Raccoon.
The developer aims to freshen the impact of all this familiarity in several ways. Firstly there's the experience system, which is akin to the one in Ratchet & Clank 2. By collecting "Hypersnacks", extracted from fallen human enemies by bouncing up and down on them to shake out all the treats, Spanx and Redmond gradually gather more health points, which enable them to play through an area repeatedly for much longer without being caught (well, dying) and subsequently being forced to rely on one of a selection of poorly hidden "keys" to break out again and resume progress. And with each conquered level section, a bit of extra effort in eking out treats and smashing objects often yields new moves to add to your repertoire.
Then there's the meter on the bottom of the screen, which counts down the company's cash resources as you endlessly smash up its facilities - computer consoles, pipes, seats, machines, anything really. The amount of financial damage you do is ultimately geared towards bankrupting Genron, although with the exception of the occasional switch on a computer bank, you do have the option of just trotting through the entire game without bothering to destroy much of the facility that imprisons you.
You can also use Redmond in various other more specialised ways, like throwing him in an ionisation machine so he can activate particular overhead grapple points, filling him full of helium so you can float up to higher areas, or most often by shoving him in door mechanisms and other cog-based machines to override them (by yanking the stick left or right to steady the struggling Spanx).
You wanted to call it Redmond & Spanx, didn't you?
The problem is... Well, there are lots of problems. For a start it's not very challenging. You rarely ever fail because something is difficult by design. Mostly you wind up repeating your last few steps because you couldn't switch to "scurry along pipe mode" while falling towards a suitable looking object, or because you didn't grab onto a platform while falling, or most likely because of something unhelpful the camera did. Progress is steady nonetheless thanks to well-placed checkpoints, but because it's so basic, and the actual design is so mundane and the graphics so unadventurous, you rarely feel any particular sense of achievement about anything. At one quite pivotal stage in the game just after a boss encounter, a massive revelatory cut sequence kicked in, and part of me was really hoping for an end sequence. I was that bored.
Ah, but what of that celebrated sense of humour? Indeed. Well, it's there. At the start of the game, most of everything raises a broad grin, and perhaps even a chuckle. The sight of a weasel waving a rabbit around on the end of a chain, coupled with Spanx's well-chosen one-liners ("You do realise I'm a rabbit and not some sort of asbestos plush toy, don't you?), and the endless procession of Genron sight and audio gags (mostly its products, like the home surgery kit, and signs with slogans like "We hurt animals so you don't have to"), is more than enough to keep you toiling away - even though all you're doing is running along a huge number of repetitive corridor sections, climbing over basic platform courses and completing objectives that you've completed hundreds of times before in plenty of other games that were much better than Whiplash.
But the problem is that while the Genron gags and cut sequences continue to raise a smile throughout, these snippets of entertainment are few and far between, while the basic elements that had you giggling like a school kid at the start - bouncing up and down on fallen enemies like Tigger on crack, Redmond going into a frenzied state when he's been smashed around too much, etc - are still the same. After an initial flood of comedy, the game slows down to more of a trickle.
I was blind, but now I see!
Aaand of course when it stops making you laugh, you have more time to dwell on stupid crap like the following: a hub-based level system with objectives that are often left unclear and unrepeated, despite the game spamming you with pointlessly obvious instructions most of the rest of the time; a camera system that kills you excessively, doesn't look in the right direction when you're floating upward, and generally behaves like all the other rubbish third-person cameras we whinge about on a weekly basis; a main character who lurches rather than breaking into movement gradually; enemies who aren't killed, but temporarily stunned, and pop back up after a short break, or when you wander back into the same room; a combat system full of moves that you simply don't have to use because the basic "mash square" technique deals with virtually every enemy in the game; a map system that is pointlessly hard to control with an equally pointless "TV fuzz" effect that obscures rather than complements; stupid little issues like getting caught in scenery, Redmond clearly being dragged through security beams without triggering them when you double-jump over the top, or horizontal axis inversion only applying to general control and not to the occasional stationary gun emplacement; and of course the effing corridors. Oh God, the corridors.
As I've grown older and faintly wiser, I've started to feel a lot more awkward picking on hardworking developers with "Clearly what they've done here is..." style commentary. Games developers work hard, even on the worst games, and I respect and sympathise with that. But the way the endless corridor sections in Whiplash are applied can only really be interpreted in one way: Crystal Dynamics knew this was a short game, and decided to pad it out excessively. So what they've done - sigh - is separate every encounter of any note from its neighbour with a long and boring gauntlet consisting variously of: lasers that move up and down, side to side and diagonally; robotic enemies who can be destroyed and Genron employees like scientists, hazmat cleaners and Barney-style security guards; and ventilation shaft sections that sometimes have enemies or fire ducts in them to avoid. After a while, it looks like they gave up trying to make it all snake together, too, so they threw in little warp points that send you to the other end of the facility.
It doesn't stop there either - this ludicrous volume of repetition can't help but spill over into the bigger tasks of the game too, so you'll regularly have to repeat the same action until you've subconsciously reconfigured your entire belief structure to focus on it. Forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump, forward, jump. Bored yet? Yeah? Try playing this shit for five hours in a row...
Technically speaking, just like the rest of it, Whiplash isn't exactly abysmal; it just isn't anything remarkable either. Crystal Dynamics probably deserves some praise for managing to design a game set throughout an animal testing facility without descending into the realms of utter visual tedium, but still, by the time you hit the pits of toxic sludge underneath the main science facility areas, you're pretty sick of the sight of it anyway. There are only a certain number of stock enemies, and it's so bloody repetitive in every sense that it can't help but look boring. Even the environments manage to crumble in the same way throughout - and start to feel like the car or barrel crunching sub-games from Street Fighter II - until you lose any passion for actually smashing them up altogether.
Whiplash does occasionally pull out a bit of distance to stare into, but there's rarely anything interesting out there to look at, and on the PS2 at least you suffer quite a frame rate hit at times for your troubles. Eidos didn't manage to send us an Xbox copy, incidentally, but I've seen the Xbox version in action and it looks the same with more vibrant texturing and less jagged edges and slowdown.
One thing the two do have in common is the utterly tedious soundtrack. Whiplash makes the mistake of hiding some load sequences in elevators, complete with genuine elevator music, and the fact that this aural atrocity could quite happily be a tune playing over any other section in the game kind of stands out. I've seen some reviews that actually celebrate the sound in Whiplash as one of its finest elements, which seems worth mentioning, but I feel sure they must be referring to Redmond's one-liners, the scientists' ramblings and whatnot. Fortunately though these are just as repetitive as the rest of it, so you can at least give up, mute the game and whack on a CD once they start to cycle.
Whipped and shamed
Really what Whiplash boils down to is a platform game seemingly developed and certainly played on autopilot, with no manner of invention, challenge or vexing puzzles to worry about. There's nothing especially wrong with that, you understand - it's unexciting, but it's solid, and you could just as happily play through it as any other mediocre platformer released in the last few years (Dr. Muto for example). The game's single biggest problem is not that. The game's single biggest problem is that while it starts off by making you laugh most of the time, it's not long before it slips into a formulaic procession of irregular gags and the same basic gameplay elements cut and pasted from start to stop. When it dawns on you that you're not laughing any more, the chances are you'll give up and go play something else. I would.