There are few stories that are as iconic as H.G. Wells classic tale of alien invasion and the human response to it. There have been many adaptations and updates over the years, including a major movie production. In this most recent adaptation, Other Ocean Interactive decided to go with a 2D platformer angle, borrowing its graphical style from the popular XBLA game Limbo. The dark, ominous setting fits right in with the desperation of a Martian invasion where there is very little hope of survival. Add in Patrick Stewart as the narrator of the story and you have seemingly all the makings of a great game. Unfortunately, shoddy controls and other strange gameplay issues destroy what could be a very interesting an immersive experience.
The story of War of the Worlds is told from the perspective of Arthur, the story’s protagonist. On his way home, Arthur’s train is attacked by the invading Martians and now he must make his way back to his family while avoiding the many obstacles the aliens put in his path. And make no mistake, there will be plenty of obstacles that will lead to your untimely death. Heat rays, explosive cylinders that track your movement, and spider creatures are just a few of the ways for poor Arthur to have his day go from bad to a lot worse. All of the enemies do a great job of giving you a sense of tension and force you to examine your surroundings for ways to avoid being seen and able to continue on. However, this tension only lasts through the first few encounters, then the game’s flaws begin to show.
While having to avoid the aliens does add to a sense of urgency, there are times where you are given no indication that a particular alien will attack or even show up. The heat rays are an excellent example of this, as while there is an on-screen indicator the attack is coming, there is very little time to actually react to it. What this means is that unless you’ve played the game before, you will spend most of your time replaying sections in a trial-and-error situation. Of course, there are other instances where you will know exactly what to do, but the game will still kill you anyway. One instance in particular has Arthur hiding from a spotlight underneath some ledges. After clearing the initial area, the Martian will double back and almost instantly catch you in its spotlight. From here you either run back to the initial point and start over, get killed, or frantically try to outrun the much faster enemy.
Speaking of outrunning the enemies, there are some sequences where you are doing just that, and it is during these sequences where the next flaw of the game will arise–the game’s controls. While the control scheme is very similar to Limbo and other 2D platformers, War of the Worlds seems to adapt it’s controls more to the original Prince of Persia game. And not the 2003 version Sands of Time either, but the original 1989 version. Where games of this genre have smoothed the controls so the characters feel very natural jumping from obstacle to obstacle, War of the Worlds feels very clunky and requires exact precision in order to navigate around the environment. As an example of this, there was a particular area in which Arthur has to avoid an incoming heat ray attack. With no available cover immediately around, he has to run forward and then climb into a safe area. While the usual response to this is to jump while running, this will only serve to crash Arthur into the environment, and ultimately delay him enough to be caught in the beam. The solution therefore, is to run up directly to the wall, then jump straight up and hope the movement was performed fast enough.
It is unfortunate that these breakdowns in gameplay are so prevailent because the atmosphere Other Ocean has created is amazing. From seeing the tripod machines in the background, to the other humans running for their lives, the overall feel of a Martian invasion is extremely immersive. The narration by Patrick Stewart is also top notch, but that is to be expected from an actor of his caliber. There was definitely some time and care put into making the environment as good as it can be, and it is just a shame that it appears the same thought and consideration was not applied to how the actual game plays. Overall, there are plenty of other games on XBLA that you could be spending your 800 points on, and it would probably be best to avoid this one.
A copy of The War of the Worlds for Xbox Live Arcade was provided to us by Paramount Digital Entertainment for this review.