12 years ago, back in 1996, Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot exploded onto the original PlayStation with one hell of a bang. Here, we thought, was the console's first quality platform game. And here, we thought, was a character that would go on to become a Sony icon. Like Mario for Nintendo. Or Sonic for SEGA. Unfortunately, the crate smashing Crash never really realised that potential.
Now, in 2008, Crash's bonkers exploits are in the hands of Radical Entertainment, the developer behind upcoming sandbox action game Prototype. Yes, Crash's star shines less brightly than it did in the mid to late nineties, but he's still making enough noise to catch our attention.
Which is a feeling shared by newly formed publisher Activision Blizzard. It held on to the Crash IP following the high-profile reassessment of Vivendi and Sierra's line-up. Where 50 Cent and Ghostbusters have fallen by the wayside, Crash has survived, and Mind over Mutant, his 15th (wow, has it been that long?) game, is due out this Christmas. We got our hands-on with a preview build and found out that Activision Blizzard's decision is looking like a good one.
The game is classic Crash, with all the colourful platforming action we've come to expect from the kids title. There's tons to collect, thousands of crates to break open, and more unlockables, including lovely looking art and cut scene animations, than any Crash obsessive could possibly hope for.
The game begins innocently enough inside Crash's house on Wumpa Island, which acts as an explorable hub from which you'll be able to access the main story missions as well as the many side missions. Crash himself has a number of moves and abilities with which he can get get about and defeat his enemies. He's got the normal jump and double jump, as well as a normal attack and a charged up heavy attack, used to break the guard of more powerful enemies. He can cling on to ledges too, and certain areas will require him to slide and climb and wall jump Altair style.
In the version we played (Xbox 360), his classic spin attack is performed by moving either the left or right thumb stick in a circular motion repeatedly. From there, pressing the X button allows him to keep on spinning, and attacking, until he gets dizzy. He can also jump a lot higher from a spin, as well as burrow underground, which switches the camera to a bird's eye view and allows exploration beneath the floor. Crash will level up throughout the game as you collect more and more pick ups, improving his abilities no end. His first level up allows him to spin for a longer period of time before getting dizzy. The second gives him more hit points.
The hook this time is that Crash is able to harness the power of powerful mutants, hence the title. Once Crash has defeated a mutant - usually by pressing the counter button (Y) just before a powerful attack, he can ride their backs and use their unique abilities to manipulate the game world. The first one you'll encounter is an ice mutant, which, with its sneeze attack, can freeze water into ice, allowing access to areas Crash wouldn't normally be able to get to. You'll be able to level them up too, adding new abilities and upgrades, as well as store them in Crash's pocket as you defeat them, so that you can return to areas that required their abilities and progress.
The story is a typically wacky affair that sees a rejuvenated Neo Cortex attempt to take over Wumpa Island via a stupor-inducing text-message receiving helmet - it's told through excellent animated cut scenes that are as good, if not better, than the kind of stuff kids are watching on Nickelodeon these days. The voice acting is superb, and some of the jokes are genuinely funny, and often adult in nature (the whole game is a snipe at consumerism). One early cut scene, where Crash and floating Voodoo head Aku Aku confront Igor-esque N-Gin in his lab rekindles memories of The Ren and Stimpy Show.
Perhaps the biggest innovation is the ability to play cooperatively on the same console, with one player taking control of Crash and the other as Crash's sister, Coco. Here both players can play in normal mode, jumping, controlling mutants and defeating enemies, or one player can become a floating head which stays close to the other, and fire exploding sheep using a moveable targeting reticule. There's guaranteed fun to be had in this mode, especially if you're an older gamer wanting to play with a younger relative.
We're not saying Mind over Mutant is the game to return Crash to his mid nineties glory, but it's shaping up to be a quality game for kids, and something older gamers will glean some enjoyment from. The graphics are good for a kids game, the collision detection solid, the levels varied and the combat effortless.
Crash Bandicoot: Mind over Mutant is scheduled for release this autumn for Wii, Xbox 360, PS2, Nintendo DS and PSP.