Conker Live & Reloaded is Rare's last hope of success on the Xbox. Their output since being bought by Microsoft has been minimal at best, with only Grabbed by the Ghoulies coming out of their development studio. Despite being a generally fun game, it did nothing to end the constant Rare bashing that has been present on internet forums for years. Going back to one of the great games from your past must be a good move then. Nothing can go wrong, can it?
Conker's Bad Fur Day was released on the Nintendo 64 well into its retirement. It was the one last hurrah for the Nintendo console and is seen by many as one of the best platformers of that generation. Telling the story of how a squirrel (Conker) became king of his land, the game took you to a number of unique environments and parodied some classic films. Along the way you met some adorable characters who just happened to have some of the foulest mouths ever to be heard in a videogame. Conversations in the game were genuinely funny - albeit in a childish way - and the game's charm has been transferred over to the Xbox remake intact. Sadly, the game also brings with it a number of annoyances that are hard to take in a modern videogame.
Conker is essentially half Mario 64 and half Ratchet & Clank. The game doesn't really know if it's a straight platformer or an action platformer, and this has meant that it doesn't excel at either. The first half of the game is essentially standard platforming, with Conker running, jumping, balancing, pushing and swimming around various locations. Conker has a bat that he can use to batter enemies, but combat in these platformer sections becomes tiresome very quickly. You have to attack every enemy in the same way: hit, retreat, avoid enemy attack, approach, hit and repeat. Enemies are often placed on narrow ledges or in confined spaces, making this attack manoeuvre difficult to pull off and a recipe for death.
While this club is your only standard weapon, various context sensitive areas allow you to use other weapons, such as frying pans, flame throwers, slingshots and bazookas. Most of these weapons require you to remain rooted to the spot and dispatch (the admittedly easy) enemies from a distance. A lot of these platforming sections are fun, but many simply aren't. This is mainly due to a number of irritating problems that crop up over and over again.
'Controlling Conker over narrow ledges and beams isn't as easy as it should be, which often results in you falling to your death'
Controlling Conker over narrow ledges and beams isn't as easy as it should be, which often results in you falling to your death. The camera isn't that smart and needs constant manual control if you want to see what is ahead of you. Falling from a small height results in life (chocolate) being lost and often death, which is annoying as Conker can temporally hover using his tail, but for some reason he can't do this when falling - only after jumping. The swimming controls aren't that well designed and one section in particular has the camera angle changing every few seconds, making for some unwanted direction changes. Load times are also a bit too frequent. Given that games with more expansive environments have managed to hide almost all load times, the pauses found in Conker are a little annoying.
All these problems are bad, but there is one thing that is a constant throughout the game. I've never played a game that is as useless as letting you know what you are meant to be doing. There is essentially a hub that leads to a number of other areas, and you'll find yourself wandering around for lengthy periods, with no real clue what to do. Even when you figure out what to do, actually doing it is often far harder than it should be. Not in a fiendishly difficult way, but an annoyingly clumsy way. You'll leave an area swearing blind that there is nothing left to do, only to discover an hour later that there was, it was just badly signposted.
Even with these problems the game is fun. Coming to the game after only briefly playing the original a few years back, the variety in environments and characters is wonderful. The more action oriented levels that take place in the latter half of the game also provide a nice change of pace. These third-person shooter sections are far easier to play than the straight up platforming sections, but the controls don't feel as tight as they should be, and games like Ratchet & Clank (particularly the third game) do this kind of gameplay a lot better.
What no other platformer does better is visuals. Reports that this Xbox port is nothing more than some new textures couldn't be further from the truth. Rose tinted spectacles may make you believe that the N64 version looked almost as good, but in reality, it really didn't. Conker and a lot of the main characters are all beautifully modelled and the new textures really fly out off the screen. The colours are so bright that the world is simply beautiful. The game also has a wonderful soft glow, with some stunning lighting really bringing the environments to life. It is as far away from realism as you could imagine and it makes a refreshing change from the constant dull, urban environments that many games are now set in. Visuals don't make a good game, but in this case, they certainly help increase your enjoyment.
Conker features an awful lot of voice work, and this is generally well acted and funny. Some characters are more entertaining than others, but most of them have a few amusing lines along the way. The swearing has been bleeped out, but this really isn't a big issue, and, if anything, makes the cutscenes even funnier. The music changes depending on your location and this makes for a lot of diversity. You'll get the full range of musical tastes, from the strong beats of a club, to the lyrical genius that is a giant poo (yes, a poo).