H.G. Wells was a genius ahead of his time. He created the original The War of the Worlds novel in freaking 1898, and we’re talking about a story involving an alien invasion, chemical weapons, heat rays, and goddamn battle walkers. That shit must have blown minds back then. Then Orson Welles produced the radio drama version that blew so many minds people actually thought it was real and lost their damn sanity, roving the countryside and shooting at shadows. Then minds were blown when the first movie version came, and then special effects budgets were blown when Stephen Spielberg created a modern version. The War of the Worlds, which released on XBLA today, doesn’t blow minds… it just kind of blows.
Above: It's funny when the other guys get fried
Which is really too bad because we were ready to love this game. We love the novel, we love the cheesy 50s movie, and we even love (parts of) the Spielberg version. We did love the game when it first began, what with the moody 50s London stylings, the fantastic and ominous music, and Patrick Stewart’s warmly inviting narration (man that guy makes everything better). We also dug the immense difficulty and instant deaths at every turn… at first. The game beautifully captures what makes every version of this story so compelling – it’s the sense of helplessness before an alien force so powerful and advanced, they seem invincible and all you can do is run and hide, like a global-scale nightmare.
The War of the Worlds is a side-scrolling platformer with controls out of the original Prince of Persia from so long ago. Younger gamers may see it as similar to Limbo, and it is, but the real inspiration is much older, and that’s where the problems begin. Your character controls like a ninety-year-old man with brain damage – you run at a sad pace, you can’t climb a ledge unless you get exactly the right pixels lines up, you can somersault but only if the game’s feeling friendly, and if you want to run up some stairs, you have you press Up, but then your guy will just stop dead in his tracks and tilt his head up as if to ponder the existence of God, waiting for you to press Right. Think about that for a second: a mechanic as simple as stairs in a side-scroller, which worked perfectly in freaking the original Castlevania, doesn’t work properly here. It’s a tiny indicator of how you may end up screaming at your guy to do what you want while he stares at walls, ceilings, and enemies, before dying a dumbly as possible.
Above: This setpiece where a humongous walker chases you is great
Now hold up. Clunky controls aren’t the death knell for a game, especially when the hero is meant to be an average shmoe and the pacing is meant to be methodical. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is when the game also demands continuous, flawless, down-to-the-tenth-of-a-second timing where the punishment for a single miscalculation of a pixel length is instant death, followed by an utterly broken checkpoint system. During the second level, we had to run from a giant walker. The setup for this is awesome, and the sequence would be super tense and exciting, except the checkpoint was so spaced apart that we had to re-run the same several minutes of play perhaps twenty times in a row. Yet we discovered after restarting the level that it wasn’t meant to be that way. See, the next time we played that sequence there was a checkpoint halfway through. The first time, the checkpoint just refused to load.
The next time we got to a checkpoint, we just barely got fried by a heat ray and died. When the game re-loaded… we were already on fire and dying. A hilariously embarrassing loop commenced where the game would load, we’d already be dying, and then it would load again and again. We had to restart the level. Oh, and did we mention the game doesn’t save your progress at checkpoints? So you’d better beat an entire level in one sitting or it’s back to the beginning you go.
At one point our coworkers gathered around to watch us play because they heard us cursing so much. Everyone laughed and cheered us on as we repeatedly attempted a puzzle involving moving bolts of electricity. That is, they were entertained until the tenth inexplicable death and then they got bored and wandered off. Later on, we reached the game’s absolute pinnacle of frustration: there’s a puzzle where you must flip switches to begin a timer, and you must run through doors before the timer runs out and they close. After repeated attempts, we realized that the only way to move quickly enough was to hop repeatedly like a crazed bunny rabbit, but remember that your character is clumsy and can stagger or bump into things and stop at any second. After what seemed a million tries, we finally did it! We then worked our way back to where the solution of the puzzle had caused a trap door to open so we could drop a crate through and… what? The crate didn’t fall. We had pushed it against a bookcase to make our timed run easier, and now it was impossible to move. We had to do the entire puzzle again to close the trapdoor, backtrack, slide the box a few inches, do the puzzle again, and make it back to the crate. Finally, we did it! Again!
Above: You'll see this about two hundred times
Then all we had to do was work our way back out by navigating more of those moving electrical bolts and… crap. We died at the last second. Whew, good thing there was a checkpoint! When the game loaded, it somehow rewound to the previous state, and that goddamn crate was back against the bookshelf. Even though we had painstakingly moved the crate, the game erased our progress with one of its many broken checkpoints. Which would mean we’d have to do that entire puzzle backwards and forwards, twice now, over and over until we got it perfectly. Our other choice was to start the entire level over, and it happened to be the longest, deadliest level of the game yet.
We wish it didn’t have to be this way. In style, class, and atmosphere, The War of the Worlds nails it. There are exciting setpieces where you run from gigantic walkers as buildings collapse and heat rays vaporize civilians around you, and strangely those sections usually aren’t difficult or plagued with control and checkpoint problems. It’s sad to say that those sections make up the minority of the game. The rest is composed of dying repeatedly due to poor controls, poor visibility, cheap enemy ambushes, and ambiguous clues as to where you can hide safely, and then randomly getting screwed by checkpoints. If you absolutely love everything War of the Worlds, you will get some kicks out of the game’s bright moments, but don’t expect to have the patience to ever finish the thing, and it’s only a few hours long. Anyone who demands a semblance of responsiveness in their controls, this is a war that can’t be won.