Retro Review: Advent Rising (Xbox)

I knew relatively little about Advent Rising prior to playing it other than that it was a sci-fi action/adventure game, it was written by Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card, and that it was planned to be a trilogy but never went past the first game thanks to poor sales and lukewarm critical reception. It was still with a fair amount of excitement that I booted it up for the first time, as it just seemed like the type of game I would enjoy.

After a CG intro, the introductory game playsequence was quite impressive and grand in scale, with the player having to guide a spacecraft into the docking bay of a space station. Its purpose was primarily that of a slightly interactive opening credits sequence, but it still left a great first impression of the possibilities in store for me on this journey.

The visuals of this game are expectedly dated, and while I wouldn’t put them in the top tier of Xbox titles in terms of pure technical prowess they are still impressive, especially in the large scale of many of the environments. I was never entirely sold on the artistic choice of the long, lanky character models, but that is more a conflict in my own personal taste than a legitimate critique. As you walk around the space station, you definitely get a sense of the love and care that was put into building this world, as the station feels like a living, breathing environment full of NPCs going about their business and monitors broadcasting live news feeds. The designers really went the extra mile to add little immersive visual visual touches throughout the game, including characters who not only have completely different outfits from one scene to the next but even change hairstyles – women for instance may be wearing their hair in a casual ponytail when they are working, but then have their hair up and styled in scenes where they are dressed up for a fancy event – details that even many modern games don’t bother with. The environments themselves offer a pretty impressive amount of destructibility, with columns breaking apart from stray gunfire and crates flying every which way when something explodes near them. This collateral damage seems to become progressively more noticeable as the game goes on, and whether it is a result of the structures and objects reacting naturally to the increasing amount of pyrotechnics on display or simply a clever trick played by the developers to just make the later environments easier to break down so you can see the result of your ever-increasing power, it works.

So I walked around the space station for a while, meeting the characters and getting the beginning bits of the story. The protagonist is Gideon Wyeth, a soldier who is tasked with escorting a group of ambassadors to their meeting with representatives of an alien race called the Auerlians. His brother, Ethan, is a famous war hero with a hunger for adventure, even if it means having a dust-up with some loudmouths at the station’s bar. Which, coincidentally, brought me to my first action sequence of the game, a barroom brawl with my brother and me punching out a few sots who had too many and said too much. That is, I was supposed to be punching them out, but apparently I can’t fight worth a damn. What should’ve just been a quick little fight scene turned into a battle I had to retry six or seven times before I finally won, thanks to a hand-to-hand combat system that I had no previous introduction to and didn’t seem to involve any strategic element whatsoever beyond spamming the punch button and hoping my enemies went down before I did. Maybe I was supposed to just be a rookie who had to go on my forthcoming adventure before I learned to be a competent hero, but surely a trained military officer should be able to make quick work of some drunken idiots. My feelings on the game soured very quickly after this clunky encounter, but I hoped that things would improve once I could use my fists to hold and shoot guns rather than throw ineffectual punches.

Sure enough, I soon found myself in that classic of video game tropes, the token “combat training simulator” where I learned the basics of weapons-based combat. Advent Rising leans heavily on a dual-wielding system where each shoulder button controls the weapon you are holding in the corresponding hand. Sounds simple enough, but as this is a third-person game, you need some sort of targeting system, and this is where the game takes another major stumble. In order to target an enemy, you “flick” the analog stick in the direction of said enemy, and once the reticule appears over them you are locked on and can begin laying into them. Not surprisingly, this is about as unwieldy and unpredictable as it sounds. It often took more than one flick to get an enemy targeted, even when they were the only one anywhere near me. When there was more that one in the area…oh boy. Holding down the fire buttons and constantly flicking my analog stick wildly in every direction that I thought an enemy might be until either the incoming gunfire ceased or my own life did was the gist of most of the gun battles in this game. Of course, a lot of other irritations arise with a system like this, from targeting enemies behind walls and/or way across the room instead of the guy 10 feet in front of me to getting stuck targeting an enemy when I was really just trying to adjust the camera. You can imagine the confusion that arises when your camera control is mapped to the same analog stick that you use to lock onto enemies. I lost count of how often I found myself walking off of platforms and plummeting to my doom because I literally just couldn’t see where I was going, since I was stuck targeting an enemy a mile away instead of looking at the small walkway I was trying to cross. I should not have died as many times as I did simply walking off of ledges and cliffs in this game. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t designed to be a platformer.

Now that I’ve got a little ranting out of the way, I can talk about the positives that helped me push through despite those irritations. The gun play does get a little more entertaining as you learn to live with its quirks, especially once you start leveling up your weapons and unlocking their secondary fire options (all of which is done just through regular use). Thankfully, though, awkwardly shooting at aliens and occasionally hitting them isn’t all this game has to offer. In an interesting twist on the usual sci-fi cliché that seems to makes every race that we humans encounter far more powerful than us, in Advent Rising, humans are actually beings of extreme power – maybe the most powerful in the universe – we just don’t know it or know how to use it. This may just play a role in why there is a hostile alien race headed our way hellbent on our destruction, but in the unlikely event that someone reading this is still planning to play the game one day I won’t divulge too much of the story. Nonetheless, you do have super powers in this game, which is where it gets a bit more interesting than your standard “shoot the aliens with your underpowered earth weaponry but somehow still find a way to come out ahead” fare that plagues much sci-fi fiction.

The first power you learn is the ability to levitate objects and enemies and fling them. More powers slowly come into play – energy bullets, force fields, a Nightcrawler-like teleport attack, and more – and each power has a secondary fire option that you eventually unlock the more you use it, just like with normal weapons. For me, this is where the game began to shine. At first, the powers are meager in strength and take way too much of your energy meter – which does refill automatically – to use effectively, so you still have to rely on a mix of powers and regular firearms. As you get more powerful, though, and the full extent of your powers begin to open up, you’ll start to feel like Neo from The Matrix, or an entire X-Men team rolled into a single guy. You’ll toss enemies every which way, blast them hundreds of feet back, zip around the stage at light speed (or in slow motion when you are evading attacks), and make quick work of giant mechs and armored vehicles that you had to have 10-minute shootouts with earlier in the game, all while windows shatter, plaster chunks fly, and anything that isn’t bolted down goes careening off in every direction. It’s a little more random and chaotic than it should be thanks to the faulty targeting system, but it does seem to become a less of a problem the more powerful you get.

Orson Scott Card penning the game’s story definitely had expectations running high in that department, and even the game’s harshest critics seemed to at least give props to the story, dialogue, and characters. As such, I may have gone into the game with my hype meter a little too high on that front as I found the story to be merely “pretty good.” Of course, video game storytelling has improved a lot in the nine years since this game’s release so it may not be fair to judge it to today’s standards, famous author or not. Don’t get me wrong, the story and characters were certainly above average for a sci-fi video game, but this isn’t the game that was going to win over doubters of the medium’s storytelling potential. Perhaps the biggest roadblock I hit on the path to full enjoyment of the story was that I simply couldn’t understand all of the dialogue. The aliens’ voices had a strange filter that made it hard to pick up all of their words, and since their was no subtitle option – absolutely inexcusable for any game with spoken dialogue – I simply had to completely miss words or entire sentences. I was usually still able to get the gist of conversations, but even so it was distracting and pulled me out of the experience to have to really concentrate extra hard to comprehend every word that they were saying. Worst of all, during the game’s big climax there is a monologue that should’ve carried some real emotional heft, but as it was spoken by a being that had an even more garbled voice than the regular aliens I couldn’t pick up a single word that he said and had to go online afterward to find out what just happened – not really the ideal way to experience the dramatic peak of a story. Another big disappointment was a surprisingly heartrending choice that you have to make early on in the game as to which of two key characters to save and which to let die – which, as I found out later, doesn’t really make all that much difference in the rest of the game. Minor possible spoilers here, but essentially, no matter which character lives, they play basically the same role and have almost identical dialogue for the rest of the game, just with a different voice and character model. You wouldn’t know that unless you researched it after the fact (like I did), so technically I still felt the impact of the choice at the time and spent much of the game wondering if I’d made the right one, but they still dropped the ball on what could’ve been a great replay opportunity to experience the game a significantly different way if you played it again and made the other choice. This particular complaint is probably a little on the nitpicky side, but I still felt it warranted mentioning.

All in all, despite the mixed tone of this review, I actually had more fun than not while playing through Advent Rising. Things didn’t always work like they were supposed to, but between the frustrating moments was a thrilling overall experience. There were a half dozen spectacular set pieces that would’ve been the single climax of another game, and the build from weeny little brother to godlike badass unfurled at a steady, satisfying pace. It really is too bad that this series wasn’t able to fulfill its potential; with the creative and financial support and marketing muscle of a more capable publisher (read: not Majesco), I’m confident that Advent Rising’s sequels(s) could’ve been in the same class as games like Mass Effect, Halo, and Assassin’s Creed as one of this modern gaming’s defining science fiction action/adventures. Instead, its ultimate fate was a game fast-tracked to the bargain bin with a cliffhanger ending that’ll never be resolved. Maybe we can get an HD remake to drum up some interest in the series. Although, it’d probably be best not to include Orson Scott Card, seeing as how he’s since revealed himself to be a bigoted douchebag.