The Golden Compass Review
Posted by Damien McFerran
Shape-changing sprites, death-dealing polar bears and lots of snow. Shiny Entertainment attempts to transform one of this year's biggest films into a half-decent videogame. Has the company succeeded? Read on...
Where would videogame developers be without the humble Christmas Hollywood blockbuster? At the end of each year we witness a raft of kiddy-friendly cinematic hits, each fighting for the attention of the youngsters. With an almost depressing inevitably these are usually followed by a flood of videogame tie-ins, which unsurprisingly often turn out to be sub-par rush jobs programmed as fast as possible so they can cash in on the hype generated by the release of whatever movie they’re based on. Sadly, despite the almost uniform crapness of these games, they continue to sell like hotcakes.
The Wii version of The Golden Compass will undoubtedly shift a fair few copies. The movie on which it’s based, for those of you that care, is in turn inspired by a children’s fantasy novel penned by Philip Pullman; it’s the usual hokum that we’ve slowly grown accustomed to over the past few years - although to be honest after the excesses of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter we’re growing a little tired of this kind of caper. Sadly, we don’t even slightly resemble the target audience so our opinion of this popcorn event is pretty much useless.
But anyway, we’re not here to give an in-depth critique of the movie, but rather dissect the ominously subtitled ‘official videogame’, which has been developed by Earthworm Jim creator Shiny Entertainment. The studio has been stuck in something of a rut for a while now, and we’re rather sad to comment that The Golden Compass isn’t going to change that.
From the outset it’s painfully obvious that the Wii version is based on the graphically humble PS2 edition. The use of the Wii’s motion-sensing controls is workmanlike, but unimpressive. It’s fairly clear that this is another developer simply attempting to shoehorn a traditional ‘pad and buttons’ control system into the Wii interface. The visuals are insipid and uninspiring, with low-poly character models and tiresomely bland environments. Animation is also stilted and unnatural. If this were a first generation Gamecube title you’d be offended, yet here it is, masquerading as a ‘next generation’ release. It’s quite frankly shocking that developers think they can get away with releasing pieces of software that look this bad, but we’re inclined to go easy on the chaps at Shiny as it’s highly likely that they weren’t given too much time to get this game to retail – at least, I hope that’s their excuse.
The depressing feeling generated by the sub-par visuals is accentuated by the unexciting and ill-conceived gameplay. To put it bluntly, playing as the main character Lyra is incredibly boring. The combination of platforming, exploration and puzzle solving is abysmally handled, and while Lyra’s shape-changing companion Pan offers some much need variety to proceedings, the actual conundrums she faces are so simple you’d have to be a complete dunce not to figure out the solution within the space of a few seconds.
A far more challenging aspect of Lyra’s quest is the bizarre mini games that occur during conversations with other characters. To progress successfully Lyra must fool the other party into believing that she is telling the truth. While it’s certainly an original concept, the execution is poor and what should be vital chunks of storytelling that drive the game forward are regretfully undermined by the constant interruption of the aforementioned mini challenges.
Fans of aging Laserdisc coin-op Dragon’s Lair will no doubt be overjoyed to learn that The Golden Compass also incorporates ham-fisted ‘quick time event’ sections. These are usually triggered when Lyra finds herself in a tricky spot and could have given the game a boost had they been implemented properly. Sadly, they descend into button mashing and quickly overstay their welcome.
Lyra’s sections are notable for a complete lack of combat, which may be in keeping with the source material but doesn’t make for a particularly arresting videogame. Thankfully you later control the massive polar bear Iorek, who has no such hang ups about smashing some skulls. The game certainly gets a bit more entertaining when this cuddly fellow appears, but (you knew that but was coming) things quickly become repetitive and represent little in the way of challenge; you simply move from one hostile encounter to the next, happily mashing the attack button as you go.
There are a few small positives to be found here. Fans of the book will certainly get a fair degree of enjoyment because the game is fairly faithful to the text, and fans of the film will be pleased by the use of actual movie footage in-between levels and the voice-talents of Dakota Blue Richards (who plays heroine Lyra in the actual film). The music is also lifted directly from the film’s score and is suitably epic, setting the scene quite effectively.
Ultimately this is a shoddy product rushed out in order to cash in on the Christmas rush. As we’ve already pointed out, the quality of this game is largely irrelevant. The association with the film should ensure it reaches the upper echelons of the retail charts, but that is the only accolade it can reasonably expect. Young children – unarguably the game’s target demographic – will find it easier to look past the limp graphics, tame challenge and poorly constructed game world. The Golden Compass is faithful enough to the film (and book) for the most avid fan to forgive at least a small percentage off its considerable shortcomings, but those of you that have successfully avoided the phenomena of Pullman’s books are strongly advised to follow the same procedure with this game.