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. 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).
Conker's adventure is a flawed, but enjoyable single-player experience, but that isn't all this Xbox remake offers. In fact, it could be said that the main focus of the game is its third-person shooter multiplayer mode. The class based action plays like a cut-down version of Battlefield, with the Teddiz and the SHC (selection of furry animals) going at each other over large maps, using a variety of weaponry and vehicles.
To get you into the spirit of this online team-based gameplay, Rare have included something called Chapter X. This is a single-player semi-campaign that uses the multiplayer levels and gameplay. You are playing with bots, against bots, but there are objectives and CGI to make more of a game out of it. While not essential to play, it will get you ready to play online.
Online (or via system link) you have two basic game types to choose from: Objective based or deathmatch. Whichever you choose, your choice of class is very important. Each class has its own set of weapons and skills and finding which one works best for you is an important step to enjoying the game. Some classes are best at running and gunning down the enemy, while others move slowly and pack more force, allowing for far more destruction. Certain vehicles are also restricted to a certain class type, which is a little annoying, but something you get used to.
It's worth pointing out that despite its simple look, the multiplayer mode Rare have created is pretty complex, and not something that is easy to get into. Early impressions won't be good, as you'll die far too often for your liking and won't be able to inflict the damage you want to. This will probably be down to your underpowered weapons. In order to do more damage you need to upgrade your firepower by picking up upgrades that are dropped by dead enemies, or by using the ordinance terminals scattered around the levels. Once you learn how to play using your chosen character class and start to upgrade your weapons, things become a lot more fun.
Sadly, there are still problems that prevent the multiplayer action being as fun as it could be. The character classes seem rather unbalanced, with a distinct advantage going to the Demolishers. While you are trying to carefully pick off enemies, a bazooka shot in your general vicinity will take you down, often making playing as other classes pretty pointless. The Sniper class also seems hampered, with headshots not being enough to take down enemies. In order to achieve a one hit kill you need to bring up a laser sight, making your intent visible to all. You can change your class during a match, but you're left on the map, spawned, open to attack, but immobile. While the counter counts down, kind souls can take you out even before you have got back into the game. I'm sure Rare will sort this out in future updates, but for now it's very annoying.
As mentioned earlier, Conker's online play isn't as simple as it seems, and the weapon selection and related options is another example. You have different menus for everything from your weapon fire type, to your specialities. It just isn't as simple as you want it to be, and adds another level of complexity to the already complex game.
I expect that most people simply won't be expecting the kind of experience that Conker's online mode actually delivers. It really isn't something you can hop in and out of. To get anything out of it you need to keep at it. Doing so will improve you character stats, giving you better skills, an improved rate of fire and the ability to hold more grenades. If you enter the game knowing what you are getting in to, and like the sound of it, you are far more likely to enjoy it. It would have been nice for Rare to include a more appealing, simplistic online game mode that people could simply pick up and play, as well as the more advanced game for those who wanted to get stuck into it, but they haven't. I still expect a strong community to build up for the game as a lot of people will appreciate the depth of the experience.
Conker is a game with a lot to offer. The single-player campaign will take up to ten hours (more if you are often confused about what to do) to complete and is a genuinely enjoyable experience, despite the number of problems that raise their ugly heads throughout. It is just a shame that the core game wasn't ported to this generation in the same way that the visuals have been. Online play will be loved by some and hated by others, with only the dedicated really getting anything out of it. If you don't like the look of the online play, and have already played the original game, it will be hard to get much from this new version, but newcomers to Conker will find a fun game that could have been so much better.