Advent Rising is a sci-fi shooter with a storyline penned by author Orson Scott Card, whose video game credits include The Dig and the Monkey Island series of adventure games. Advent Rising tells the story of a supposedly peaceful race called the Seekers. The setting takes place in a universe where planets have banded together to shape future policy and promote goodwill throughout the galaxy. It is a universe where members of an intergalactic council have appointed the Seekers as overseers in the development of new civilizations before these planets are permitted to join the esteemed council. Yet the Seekers are not as diplomatic as they seem. Another species has learned of a sinister plot by the Seekers to eliminate the human race.
A small band of human freedom fighters, led by a man named Gideon Wyeth, plans to stop this form of genocide at all costs. Players assume the role of Gideon while exploring the 3D worlds from a third-person perspective. Advent Rising offers a variety of weapons with which to thwart the armies of Seekers, and players will also be able to commandeer vehicles and channel special mind powers for protection as well as offense. The first of a planned trilogy of titles, Advent Rising uses Epic Games' Unreal technology to create the worlds in which players must battle. Orson Scott Card has also written a companion novel to expand upon the ideas found in the game, which can be purchased at the time of Advent Rising's release.
I've been watching the development of Advent Rising on the console side for a while. When it was first announced that Orson Scott Card, the author of science fiction classics like Ender's Game and the tales of Alvin Maker series would be involved, I thought the potential of this game was unlimited. Card is a guy who really gets gaming -- Ender's Game after all, was a novel about games. Even if, for some reason, the actual game elements were only so-so, surely the storyline, written by Card, would make the game worth playing, right?
Wrong. Instead, what you get in Advent Rising is a muddled mess of a game that manages to take some relatively good ideas and completely mangle them. Even though it's a third-person game, everything from the gameplay to vehicles and art design feels like an attempt to mimic the Halo franchise, but despite a few notable tries, never manages to achieve the sense of awe and wonder that's par for the course almost anywhere in that game. Even worse is how the developers managed to completely destroy Advent Rising's much vaunted cinematic storyline, turning it into something that, if Card has any concern for his professional credibility, he needs to disavow as loudly, publicly, and as often as possible.
The majority of the gameplay is taken up with standard third-person run-and-gun. As main character Gideon Wyeth, players have the ability to single or dual-wield a large collection of futuristic machine guns, pistols, shotguns, and rocket launchers. Gideon can only carry two weapons at a time (see: Halo) and they can be assigned to either his left or right hand which is then mapped to the left and right mouse buttons. The game also sports a fairly novel "experience" system that allows Gideon to gain access to alternate fire modes and abilities as he grows more adept at using a particular weapon.
In many ways this basic gameplay stands out as Advent Rising strongest feature simply because it's not actually awful. The early sections of the game, in particular, are the most enjoyable as Gideon fights his way off a doomed space station and then battles his way through a ground assault to find transport off his homeworld. These sections of the game tend to cover the awful enemy AI by throwing lots of opponents and allied units in combat with each other on the screen and giving the player mission goals that stress movement, not combat. I actually enjoyed the tactical decisions of which enemies to fight and which could be safely ignored in order to reach the next area of semi-shelter.
The game also controls fairly well, which is worth noting for a console-to-PC port. GlyphX, the game's developer, clearly took the time to translate the game's console-specific controls scheme to a more standard PC keyboard-and-mouse setup. They also threw out most of the "Flick Targeting" system that drew praise on the Xbox. "Flick Targeting" allowed the player to select targets by flicking a joypad analog stick, which left the buttons free to control other aspects of Gideon's movement and targeting. Wisely recognizing that such a system was superfluous on the PC, the only element left is moving the middle mouse wheel, which will target enemies on screen. Every once in a while, this feature comes in handy (certain psychic powers require it), but it's kind of a vestigial element most players will ignore. (There was also a persistent problem with the collision-detection system that made jumping harder than it had to be; fortunately, precise jumping is such a minor part of the game that it's not a major complaint.
The player will be introduced to the game's two vehicles in early levels, an alien tank and a human transport vehicle. The tank was the most fun (in that "mindlessly blow everything up" kind of way), and levels in which the player will have to fight in one are some of the game's highlights. The human vehicle, on the other hand, looks, feels and drives so much like a Halo 2 Warthog that, if I was Bungie, I'd be in my lawyer's office right now. Worse than the blatant rip-off, though, is the fact that the game doesn't even bother to do anything with it. The few times the player gets to drive it is through levels that are short, fairly easy, badly designed, and incredibly pointless.
Unfortunately, once Gideon acquires his psychic powers, what once played like a low-rent Halo quickly takes a dumpster dive. It isn't that the psychic powers aren't a good idea. They are, and they even manage to be fun for a while. As the player progresses, Gideon will eventually be able to lift and throw enemies, slow down time, fire ice and energy missiles from his hands and do all sorts of other cool stuff. In fact, I actually had a blast during one outer space level picking up enemy soldiers via telekinesis and throwing them into the endless void. The problem is that the game's psychic powers are badly overpowered. Once the player acquires even the first of them, what might have been interesting level challenges using weapons becomes a matter of spamming particular abilities until everything on the screen is dead. In my case, once I had acquired the ice missiles, I breezed through the levels so easily I found myself bored.
Graphically, Advent Rising is just OK. From a technical standpoint, the Xbox's 3D graphics, explosions, and other pyrotechnics have translated over to the PC fairly well, although video playback is somewhat muddy. The poly counts on characters are fairly high and the character's animations occasionally show flashes of inspiration. I particularly enjoyed the way the four-footed Seeker would drop from an upright "diplomatic" stance to a low-slung, galloping, "combat stance." Human forms have been elongated and widened at the bottom which makes their movements seem more fluid and almost balletic. It won't appeal to everyone, but I liked it.
From an art design standpoint, though, the game is just uninspired even where it's not blatantly derivative. The short summary of Advent Rising's art style: imagine fighting through every level of Halo 2, but everything's been splashed with a large dollop of Tron 2.0's glowy neon lighting -- including the enemies. The good news is the Xbox's framerate problem's been fixed -- so players will at least have no problem seeing the game's pedestrian artwork on the PC.
The game's soundtrack has a different problem. Unlike the artwork, it is an inspired piece of work. While I'm somewhat skeptical of Tommy Tallarico's arguably overinflated reputation, he's done himself credit here. The game's operatic soundtrack, created using a 70-piece orchestra, is absolutely gorgeous. The problem is that the game's sound mix is atrocious. First, the music never seems properly matched to the action. All too often the music would do bad jumps to dramatic sections while nothing was going on and then fade out during big battle scenes. The volume also went up and down at random, explosions are drowned out by a warbling chorus and important lines of dialogue are overridden by laser fire or musical stings.
If the problems with gameplay could stand on their own, Advent Rising's would easily fade from memory as just another mediocre action title. What adds that extra layer of awfulness, though, is what the developers did to Orson Scott Card's storyline. The game's story is brilliant when you examine the "high concept" version. The player plays as Gideon Wyeth, a talented, but otherwise ordinary space pilot who works with his brother and is engaged to a hottie scientist. His life gets turned upside down when humanity is contacted by two different alien species. One race, the Aurelians, tells Gideon that to most of the races in the galaxy, humanity is a myth -- something to be worshiped as intermediaries with God. For the Seekers, though, humanity is something to be exterminated, and they're on their way. Gideon eventually becomes humanity's last hope for getting off the endangered species list and taking its rightful place as God's prophets.
Such a rich premise could easily have become the launch point for an epic story worthy of Card's own abilities as a storyteller and the videogame's inherent ability to get the player involved with a particular character. The problem is that the game's actual storyline is so badly botched I would not be surprised if Card had been murdered in the middle of development and GlyphX just filled in the blanks with whatever clichéd story elements they could pull from Star Wars, David Brin's Uplift series, and Halo 2. Advent Rising breaks nearly every rule for decent drama. Storylines are started and never completed; characters we've never met before are introduced just as they do incredibly important things for the plot and then disappear; there's no character development to speak of; the dialogue is atrocious, and the story's editing and pace are so messed up it's a wonder anyone can even bother to follow the plot, much less get involved with the much deeper themes that Card was obviously working with.
In one particularly egregious example (*spoiler alert*), the player as Gideon eventually makes his way back to the Aurelian homeworld where they're confronted by a rebel ambassador within the Aurelian government who's obviously taken sides with the Seekers. The Seekers, it seems, hold the Aurelians in a form of 10,000-year indentured servitude. This Ambassador protests against introducing the humans to the Galactic Senate for mostly incomprehensible reasons. While watching this, I found myself thinking "Wait a minute. Galactic Senate? The Aurelians are the Seeker's slaves? Who the Hell is that Ambassador and why do I care?" None of this information was even hinted at earlier in the game and some of contradicts what was already established. An even worse example is the game's final boss fight, which brings in a character the player thought was dead and introduces about 62 new plot complications and pieces of back story some five minutes before the game ends.
While Advent Rising could easily be labeled a mediocre-to-poor Halo 2 knock-off, that really misses the big picture. If videogames are ever to truly emerge into a full-fledged "art form," it's going to take attracting talents like Orson Scott Card into designing games. That's why, while it's hard to fault the good intentions that underlie the creation of Advent Rising, a game of this quality does more than just eventually stink up some EB bargain bin; it misses a huge opportunity to put the medium forward.
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