Alan Bradley has finally perfected the technology to digitize people, which allows humans to enter the internal world of a computer. His program, "Ma3a," has AI sophisticated enough to store the entire gene code of a person and the mathematical equations necessary to transfer people back and forth between the physical and digital world.
However, fCon -- Future Control Industries -- has learned of Alan's research and is moving to take over the company. When Alan disappears mysteriously, finding him is up to Jet, his son. Jet uses his father's technology to enter the computer world and, while investigating his father's disappearance, discovers a sinister plot.
Four "primitive" weapons -- disk, rod, ball, and mesh -- are encountered in the computer world, though the disk is the only weapon that can be used both offensively and defensively. Jet will also ride light-cycles, both the classic cycle from the 1982 film and a new "experimental" update from designer Syd Mead (also responsible for the original light-cycle design). Up to 16 people can participate in team-based multiplayer mayhem.
TRON 2.0 is a spiritual sequel to the Disney movie released 20 years ago, which centered on hacker Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges) being digitized and abducted into the computer world to do -- what else? -- fight in a series of real-life video games. Assisted by a friendly program named TRON, Flynn managed to free the system from the clutches of the evil Master Control Program, and in doing so, he and his buddies reclaimed control of the software company they helped build. Cheesy? Sure, but what the movie lacked in plot it made up for in style, bringing the videogame world to life in spectacular fashion using groundbreaking CGI animation, making it an instant cult classic.
The backstory is important, because TRON 2.0 constantly refers back to the film and updates us on what's happened to the characters over the past 20 years. You play Jet Bradley, son of Alan Bradley -- the programmer who created the TRON program in the first place. Alan is still working at ENCOM, and is close to recreating the digitizing technology lost long ago when the MCP was destroyed. It appears a rival company called fCon wants the technology for more nefarious purposes, so when Alan mysteriously vanishes and viruses begin spreading throughout the system, Alan's "pet" AI named Ma3a (pronounced "ma-THREE-uh") digitizes Jet and brings him into the computer world to help. Jet suddenly finds himself an "unauthorized program" running around the system, trying to protect it from corruption and make it back to the real world in one piece while also unlocking the mysteries surrounding ENCOM.
TRON 2.0's gameplay is heavy on exploration, with a good dose of combat and a few puzzles thrown in for good measure. The levels are an inspired lot, as Jet jumps from one computer location to another, from the ENCOM servers to Alan Bradley's personal PC, a PDA, an Internet hub and other modern computing settings. The exploration bits of the game are great, as many of the puzzles are well conceived, and Jet has plenty of help throughout his journey, from Ma3a to a small sidekick name "Byte" (a nod to TRON's "Bit") and a light cycle champion/cyberbabe named Mercury. Jet also comes across numerous emails that TRON fans will simply eat up: Flynn has long since left ENCOM; Alan married Lora, but she was later lost in an accident; ENCOM was being sold, etc. I won't give away much more, but TRON 2.0 contains an amount of depth in its backstory that puts both the original film and most videogames to shame.
While TRON 2.0 looks like a first-person shooter, it's safe to say it's unlike any shooter you've ever played which is both good and bad. In many ways, it's almost an RPG; playing through the tutorial and reading the in-game help files is time well spent, as they teach the basics of interacting with the computer world, managing your inventory, and upgrading your digitized Jet. As you play, you'll acquire "build points," which allow you to "upgrade" yourself in a style similar to No One Lives Forever 2, allowing you to increase your base health, processing speed and other abilities.
Additionally, while most shooters allow you to run around picking up weapons, armor and items at will, TRON 2.0 contains an interesting system that weaves all of these elements together. There are four base weapons (including TRON's iconic disc), and upgrades for these weapons -- as well as armor and special abilities -- can be found throughout the world in the form of "subroutines", which are stored in your personal library until you choose to activate them. Even then, Jet has limited memory space for these subroutines, so you're constantly forced to make decisions: should you run around fully armed, or should you go with just one or two weapons and save the rest of your inventory for armor and other gadgets? Subroutines can be "optimized" from alpha to beta to gold status to reduce the space they take up in memory (as well as to increase their effectiveness), so that's yet another decision you're forced to make as you play.
As if this wasn't enough, TRON 2.0 also contains a number of light cycle races, in what's essentially a completely separate mini-game. What was perhaps the most memorable moment of the film has been faithfully recreated on the PC, as Jet is forced to prove himself on a number of occasions on the grid. The settings are amazing to look at, and the cycles control well, with the ability to lock the camera behind your cycle or control it freely with the mouse. It's amazing to see how far computer graphics have come in twenty years, as was what once considered beyond state-of-the-art for movies can now be rendered instantaneously on a run-of-the-mill home computer as part of a video game.
It's safe to say there's a lot going on in TRON 2.0, and in the hands of a less capable developer, such ambitious plans could easily have fallen flat. (You've read the reviews for Enter the Matrix, right?) For the most part, however, Monolith pulls it off, with only a few exceptions.
The upshot of all the inventory management and related tweaks is that TRON 2.0 contains a level of strategy and depth rarely seen in a first-person shooter. You're constantly making decisions about what to upgrade, how much armor you should be wearing, which weapons to carry, etc. Overall, I really liked the system, although I suspect casual gamers may find it a bit intimidating, and hardcore FPSers may find it too cumbersome. My only complaint is that the developers could have been a little more generous with inventory space and code optimizers -- there were many moments where I wished I had more weapons loaded up but couldn't, because all my slots were taken with core abilities. (For those of you who might be wondering, I went through the game at a deliberately slow pace, with the intent of finding every build point I could.)
TRON 2.0's combat also tends to suffer from what could be referred to as "Jedi Outcast Syndrome," which is to say that nearly all the weapons pale in comparison to Jet's disc -- essentially TRON's lightsaber. Almost everything costs energy in TRON 2.0, from firing a sniper rifle to searching archive bins for subroutines, so it's much easier to stick to the disc, which is a great all-purpose weapon and offers near-unlimited use. As in 2002's Jedi Outcast, weapons like the shotgun and the machinegun (yes, they have different names but they're essentially the same) simply aren't that useful in TRON 2.0, so you'll likely use the disc throughout most of the game. The disc is in itself an amazing weapon, with the ability to do power blocks and steer the disc in flight, but if you don't like using the disc for some reason, you'll likely find yourself less than satisfied with the rest of the weapons.
There are a few other portions of TRON 2.0 that might leave gamers cold. Although there are only a few necessary to completing the game, TRON 2.0 contains a lot of jumping puzzles, especially when you're trying to locate every email or hidden build point. Enemies often appear out of thin air when you're least expecting it, usually due to alarms that provide a convenient excuse to respawn enemies, often right behind you. The difficulty level jumps way up on occasion, which will no doubt cause problems for more casual gamers attracted to the title by the license. And, above all else, you WILL need the quicksave key in TRON 2.0 -- in fact, the game encourages it in the tutorial. It didn't take long before I got into the habit of quicksaving every 30 seconds, as I never knew when I might turn a corner and get blindsided or fall off a ledge. You might say this is a design flaw, but once you get on board with the idea of quicksaves and quickloads as part of the package, it just kind of blends into the background.
It's easy to overlook these shortcomings, because the world of TRON 2.0 is simply too enjoyable to sink into. I never minded taking the slow-and-deliberate pace, and as a fan of the film (yes, I admit it), I got a kick out of the many in-jokes within the game. Stand-up TRON arcade machines can be seen in several areas; an email refers to ENCOM developing "Space Paranoids 3D"; people at ENCOM are still asking to borrow some of Alan's popcorn. There's also a great deal of the offbeat humor Monolith injected into the No One Lives Forever games, as you can overhear all sorts of wacky conversations between enemies, now upgraded with techno-puns. "You'd lose your header if it wasn't compiled on" and "Have a nice microcycle" are the type of one-liners that seem to lurk around every corner.
It's also amazing how Monolith and Disney have managed to bring TRON into the modern age with so many unique environments without losing the feel of the movie. The world of TRON 2.0 is far, far more detailed than the one depicted in the original film, using lots of bright colors and that same eerie glow, and I often found myself just staring in various directions, admiring the countless details from recognizers running outside windows to transports flying overhead. (Even seemingly random bits of text that flit across the screen throughout the game are interesting to keep an eye on during slower moments.) TRON 2.0 is nothing short of breathtaking to look at, say what you want about the Lithtech engine -- Monolith knows how to use it and it looks fantastic here.
TRON 2.0's audio is also top-notch and well polished. That includes the stellar soundtrack, which is clearly inspired by Wendy Carlos' original movie soundtrack but never sinks to rehashing it, as well as the voice acting, featuring Bruce Boxleitner reprising his role as Alan Bradley, Cindy Morgan as Ma3a (she played Lora/Yori in the original film), and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Mercury. The music is intertwined with the enemy AI, kicking into high gear during heavy combat, and dying down when you're quietly exploring. It's the same implementation that was used in No One Lives Forever 2 (which won our 2002 award for Best Music), and it's highly effective.
Like everything else in the game, TRON 2.0's multiplayer offerings refuse to conform to the same-old-same-old seen in similar games. Using the discs exclusively, TRON 2.0's main multiplayer mode pits players against each other in small gladitorial areas in a Rocket Arena-like format. Each of the maps has its own special twists, such as floor panels that can be knocked out, sending enemies falling to their death. The mode also highlights the depth of the disc -- you'll want to master power blocks, skip shots, rebound shots and curving the disc in mid-flight if you want to succeed.
TRON 2.0 also allows the light cycles to be played apart from the single-player game in a solo circuit, Gran Turismo-style, or with up to 8 players on a LAN. Internet play is possible but unsupported, which isn't surprising because even the LAN play seems to lag a bit at times. Overall, the multiplayer is a nice addition, although hardly a reason to justify a download on its own -- the single-player is where it's at for TRON 2.0.
The Final Word
There's an argument to be made that TRON 2.0 is in many ways No One Lives Forever 2 reskinned for the TRON universe. The mini-RPG system, the offbeat humor, the dynamic music system -- there are certainly plenty of similarities between the two, which is no surprise, as a few members of the NOLF 2 team were reportedly brought over to help polish up TRON 2.0 when Disney pushed back the release from March to August. This should be taken as a compliment, however: you could do much worse than to emulate a game like NOLF 2, one of the best (and sadly, most overlooked) PC games of the past few years.
Hopefully, the TRON license will attract enough new fans so that this game doesn't suffer the same fate. TRON 2.0 is a stellar game, one that dares to venture beyond the standard shooter formula and pulls it off with style. TRON fans will undoubtedly get the most out of it, but even if you're just a fan of action games, or heck, just games in general -- you should run out to the store and jack in to TRON 2.0 as soon as possible. Just remember to keep one finger on the quicksave key.
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TRON: Light Cycles, Starship Troopers, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Star Wars Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast, Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, Star Trek: Elite Force 2, Star Wars Jedi Knight 3: Jedi Academy, Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force
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