"Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
where most it promises."
- William Shakespeare, All's Well that Ends Well
Gaming is a medium that, if pursued with any degree of enthusiasm, inevitably leads to frequent letdowns and unfulfilled expectations. Case in point: Advent Rising, and its disappointing fall from the lofty heights of prerelease hype, to the bargain basement of mediocrity.
Announced in Spring 2003, Advent Rising showed the initial signs of a promising new franchise. The first in a planned trilogy, with a screenplay by celebrated science fiction author Orson Scott Card, the game's early screenshots and concept art hinted at a distinctive visual style. Developer GlyphX Games touted the title as a uniquely cinematic experience, and went so far as to claim that it would "captivate the mind and emotions of the player while pushing the boundaries of gaming to an unprecedented new level."
Despite this almost laughable prerelease hyperbole, I was intrigued, especially by GlyphX's purported emphasis on in-game storytelling. On the games' official website lead designer Donald Mustard wrote, "While [Advent Rising's] story is paramount, it should never have you putting down the controller...we are taking what would normally be cut-scenes and making them playable wherever possible. I want you to be playing through the sequences of a summer blockbuster."
The title's anticipated 2004 release was delayed to 2005, ostensibly to allow it to hit store shelves without having to contend with the onslaught of 2004 holiday releases. At the time, GlyphX whetted gamers' appetites with the pronouncement that "The game as it stands already goes far beyond any other in the realm of storytelling, character development, and evoking the emotions of the player."
As its June 2005 Xbox release date approached, Majesco unleashed some serious marketing firepower, with a full compliment of television, magazine, and comic book advertisements, and even a full-length theater trailer that preceded showings of Star Wars: Episode III. Not content with mere media saturation, Majesco took their promotional tactics a step further, luring gamers to Advent Rising with the promise of cash: The first 500,000 purchasers of the Xbox release would participate in an in-game Xbox-live enabled Easter egg hunt, with a grand prize of a million dollars.
Ultimately, though, the Xbox release was met with the disheartening realization that the emperor, as they say, had no clothes. Advent Rising garnered a lukewarm response, as reviewers panned the title for numerous technical glitches and an awkward, irritating targeting system. As its GameRankings review score average settled at a disappointing 66%, Advent Rising's console release appeared destined for a quick trip to the bargain bins. To add insult to injury, eager gamers seduced by Majesco's million-dollar contest were later informed that as a result of "technical issues," the contest was cancelled, and no awards would be given. (As a sort of consolation prize, Majesco is now providing participants with their choice of two of a handful of select Xbox titles for free).
But all hope was not lost. Not yet, anyway. A PC version was still in the works, and a delay of more than two months since the Xbox release hinted that GlyphX might be taking time to work out some bugs and refine those troubling targeting issues. The step up to PC hardware capabilities and a mouse-and-keyboard control system both seemed to bode well for the title, and gamers such as myself held out for the possibility that Advent Rising might actually redeem itself on the desktop, at least to some degree. Plus, the PC retail price was reduced to $29.99.
The good news is that by most measures, the PC version appears graphically and technically superior to its Xbox predecessor, and the much-maligned Xbox "flick-targeting" system has been supplanted by a fully customizable mouse and keyboard control scheme. Sadly, though, these improvements aren't nearly enough to save Advent Rising from mediocrity.
The game's storyline tells the tale of hotshot space pilot Gideon Wyeth, who unexpectedly finds himself caught up in a battle between two extraterrestrial species: the Seekers, hell-bent on mankind's destruction, and the Aurelians, the purveyors of an ancient religion that reveres humans as deity. The story opens as Gideon is dispatched as part of an ambassadorial party to meet the Aurelians, who have traveled to Earth to warn mankind of the genocidal intentions of the Seekers. Unfortunately, the Aurelians are too late, and shortly after their arrival, the Earth is subjected to a full-scale Seeker attack.
The events that follow take Gideon and friends on an entirely linear, third-person adventure that pits him against droves of angry Seekers as he fights his way across multiple planets and spacecraft. Along the way, he finds himself at the center of an interplanetary political debate, and discovers that he does indeed possess the jedi-like supernatural powers described in Aurelian prophesies.
Conceptually, Advent Rising's storyline rises above standard gaming fare, but for a variety of reasons, it never lives up to its potential. First of all, the dialogue is terrible. The game takes itself extremely seriously, which is fine, except that its characters can't seem to refrain from making tired action-hero wisecracks, even in the face of great personal tragedy. The counterpoint to these ill-conceived attempts at witty banter are dull diatribes on interstellar politics and tired pontificating about the fate of mankind and the universe.
In addition, GlyphX's promise of playable, in-game blockbuster events isn't realized in the slightest. Nearly every dramatic action scene, turn of events, or bit of storyline is played out in cutscenes. The gameplay is almost entirely without any memorable scripted events, and consists simply of Gideon fighting his way through waves of enemies, stopping only to activate the occasional elevator or door. For their part, the cutscenes are well-paced and interesting, from a storytelling perspective. Unfortunately, they're of inconsistent quality, with many suffering from choppy animation and other graphical problems.
Advent Rising's most polished and entertaining feature is its combat system. As the story unfolds, Gideon gains access to an increasing variety of handheld weaponry, to include a total of eleven different human and alien firearms, two of which can be carried at a time. For the most part, they mimic typical sci-fi video game weaponry, but given that they all feature alternate firing modes and can be dual-wielded, there's plenty of fun to be had in experimenting with different weapon combinations.
Gideon also develops an assortment of metaphysical combat powers, which can be mixed and matched with handheld weapons via an intuitive interface that allows quick, on-the-fly assignment of different guns or powers to Gideon's left and right hands. Both his weapon proficiencies and supernatural powers increase over time, and eventually, he learns to throw plasma-like projectiles, levitate objects, generate blasts of psychic energy, and more. There's also a slow-motion jump/dodge effect that acts as a sort of low-rent bullet time.
In the game's early levels, the combat almost verges on exhilarating, despite the bland level design and sloppy enemy AI. Unfortunately, just past the game's halfway point, Gideon simply becomes too powerful for the player's own good, and it becomes all too easy to just run through the game, relying on a single overpowered ability to blast through waves of enemies. Several scenes feature friendly NPCs that were probably designed to fight along side Gideon, but they usually have trouble keeping up, and as they don't seem to contribute in any real way to the battles, they're easy to simply ignore or forget.
Advent Rising borrows liberally from Halo at seemingly every turn. While most science fiction titles display influences from other games, it's rare that one is so exclusively (and shamelessly) inspired by a single previous title. This isn't to say that Advent Rising is completely without fresh ideas; in fact, when it's not imitating Bungie's venerable sci-fi epic, it exhibits a number of novel design concepts. The game's human characters, for example, are elongated and stylized, and Gideon's combat maneuvers, some of which are fairly sophisticated, are smoothly and stylishly animated.
Though a few of the combat-related special effects are quite impressive, Advent Rising is graphically inferior to most modern PC titles. It's capable of maintaining a smooth framerate even on modest hardware at the highest detail settings, but the game's environments are typically pieced together from big, clunky polygons covered in dull, unimpressive textures. And while it doesn't seem to be broken to the degree of the Xbox version, there's still an odd and varied assortment of distracting unrefined elements and minor glitches.
Advent Rising's musical score, performed by a 70-piece orchestra and an operatic choir, is fantastic. Unfortunately, its impact is undercut slightly by occasional poor editing and its pairing with the previously mentioned low-quality cutscenes. The sound effects are good, though not necessarily all that original - here again, Halo influences stick out like a sore thumb.
Advent Rising's almost-saving grace is the fact that it keeps the story and gameplay moving at a brisk, varied pace, seldom dwelling for any length of time in a particular setting or area. There are a number of unremarkable driving or turret-shooting sequences that serve to break up the increasingly routine on-foot combat, and there's a liberally spaced checkpoint save system, so you'll rarely replay the same scenes twice. With the exception of a few tedious boss battles, Advent Rising's story propels the player forward fairly quickly, and most players will probably finish the game in ten to twelve hours.
Though the plot's central conflict is drawn to a satisfying conclusion, there's a tacked-on, nonsensical epilogue that apparently paves the way for the series' next installment. Whether that installment will ever see the light of day is doubtful, given the game's uneven craftsmanship, poor sales, and unenthusiastic critical reception. Unfortunately, Advent Rising isn't one of those franchises that gamers are likely to give a second chance.