That's not Angelina's face. Looks nothing like her. That might be her body, and her breasts... maybe. But that's not her face. Either the developers were using a pirated version of the fully CG film as source material or Ms Jolie banned the use of her likeness as well as her voice in the game. Sigh. I was looking forward to that.
That was the conversation we had when we came to the bit in Beowulf, the super violent hack and slash videogame tie-in with the film of the same name, where Grendal's mother seduces our hero with all sorts of depraved weirdness. We'll admit it: that's all we were interested in. And what a let down. Yes that looks like Beowulf, well, a video game version of the CG version of Beowulf at least. And that's certainly Ray Winstone's East End gangster drawl. But there's no way that's Angelina. That's not her face, or her voice. Ah well.
As I trudged through Beowulf like a snail through treacle I kept thinking of the three Ws: why, where and what the hell? I thought, why am I going to Denmark to slay the monster Grendal? The game doesn't make an effort to explain it. While some of you might have studied the 3183 lines of the ancient heroic poem on which the movie is based and will therefore have a heads up on the story, I haven't. And so I thought to myself: why am I on this ship? What am I doing here? The game chucks you blindfolded into this pre-Viking era mythological hero's sandals and expects you to roll with it.
I can handle that I suppose. There have been plenty of games where I've been confused to the point of mental break down. So on to the where? I spent a lot of my time aimlessly running around generic environments (rocks and cliffs and boulders, then more rocks and cliffs and boulders) trying to work out which way to go and what to do. There's little guidance in the game, and there's no map to speak of. This is fine, I'm happy to explore a game environment if it's a fun experience. But wandering around Beowulf's Denmark feels like the great man himself is slowly crushing your skull with a vice-grip of doom.
'Controlling Beowulf is a bit like forcing a body builder to dance on ice - it just looks silly.'
Controlling Beowulf is a bit like forcing a body builder to dance on ice - it just looks silly. Beowulf's climbing abilities are a case in point - he can swing from handles built into rock faces, haul himself up to ledges and traverse cliff faces with his fingertips, but when he does so he looks like a rubber spider. It's pretty funny really, and not in keeping with the "strength of 30 men" muscle man feel of his character design. When Beowulf trudges through a swamp he slows right down, which is probably realistic, but is actually pretty frustrating when you've spent the last half hour desperately trying to find a way to open a door.
The camera doesn't help. It's up close and personal, which is fine. It's supposed to add impact to an already brutal-looking game. And sometimes it works quite well - Beowulf and his Thanes feel larger-than-life and are impressively detailed. But it makes working out the location of hidden ledges difficult and reduces your view of the battlefield, especially frustrating when you're ambushed by scores of evil skeletons.
So if working out where to go is a problem, on to the what the hell?. The combat is button bashing supreme. Beowulf auto targets whatever enemy he is facing, so most encounters can be beaten by simply mashing the game's unsophisticated combos (X; X,Y; X,X,Y; X,X,X,Y etc) While these combos can be powered up they never change, and the ability to dodge and then counter attack is never really needed, despite later levels that pit you against waves of enemies that block. The combat provides occasional moments of enjoyment, but there's just no real depth or skill to it all.
The ability to decide whether to use Heroic attacks (combos and counters) or Carnal Fury attacks (brutal grapple-based attacks) and as a result determine Beowulf's legacy, isn't fleshed out properly. Some enemies, like Lord of the Rings type trolls and Grendal himself pretty much demand that you use Carnal Fury if you want to win. So the choice isn't always yours. While this may be deliberate, I never felt that the way I dealt with foes meant much in the grand scheme of things.
Another what the hell moment was in the game's curious rhythm action mini-game. By bringing up your Thane command wheel you can set them to work on, for example, moving a giant boulder, or rowing your ship away from rocks. You then need to press buttons to the rhythm of a heroic drum beat. This doesn't feel cool, it just feels weird, and sometimes hilarious. Just before the fight with Grendal you have to use the mini-game to lead your Thanes in song and draw him out of hiding. My reaction was a bit like laughing out loud in a packed cinema when the scene is blatantly trying to be serious.
I'm more disappointed in Beowulf than annoyed by it. The game's production values are decent and the graphics occasionally raise themselves above average fare. As I said, Beowulf himself looks great, when he's standing still. As do his Thanes. But all that character design is undone by the generic, uninspiring enemies you have to wade through - crabs upon skeletons upon barbarians.
There are moments when the environments look good enough for you to stop and stare, but the levels look so samey that you can never be bothered for long. Some of the brutal Carnal Fury moves look blood-splatteringly impressive, especially when you're taking down a mini-boss type enemy. But the insane button bashing required to do so is too frustrating to make it worth your while.
Should we be surprised that Beowulf is a disappointment? It's a movie licensed game after all, and we know what that means. I suppose we shouldn't. There is no video game development curse causing movie game tie-ins to be poor. It's just run-of-the-mill game design. Bar the occasionally impressive combat, Beowulf doesn't have enough to make it stand out.