Reviewed: August 8, 2006
Released: July 24, 2006
Ants. I hate ‘em!
Those creepy, crawly, hexapodic armies of bugdom are only slightly less yucky than poo-hopping houseflies and itch-inducing mosquitoes. Whether hunting down sticky-sweet morsels left about, burrowing through my house’s substructure, or simply gnawing at my ankles with their fiery stings – ants are one of the biggest little pests I know.
So you can imagine that I really don’t get all too upset when my two little sons lay their mighty wrath on an anthill or two in the backyard. But according to the new CG animated movie The Ant Bully, the ants see things a bit differently.
The Ant Bully tells the story of Lucas Nickle – a young boy who finds a sick pleasure in upsetting ant colonies by destroying their ant hills. After a particularly bad incident – involving a garden hose and a couple gallons of water – the ant colony somehow uses its magical ant powers to shrink Lucas down to their own infinitesimal size, and then forces him to live as an ant before he can return home.
And whenever a kids CG movie released, a game is sure to follow – giving us Midway’s The Ant Bully for the PS2.
Let me begin by saying that The Ant Bully starts off incredibly strong, but goes really wrong, really quick. Which is disappointing considering that early into the game, The Ant Bully teases the gamer with many of the trappings that make niche adventure classics like Beyond Good and Evil so great.
The game begins with a very strong interactive cutscene that features highly polished visuals, top-notch voice acting, Hollywood-quality script writing and a general feel of excellence.
Even the first mission – which is nothing more than a collect-a-thon training mission – introduces the gamer to the delicate and simple control scheme that makes use of the same context-sensitive commands and auto jumping found in the aforementioned Beyond Good and Evil.
The game even makes an attempt to offer at least the guise of an open-ended experience, allowing Lucas to explore the nooks and crannies of the ants’ cavernous home, collecting the various crystals and orbs before accepting missions from an array of strategically placed inhabitants.
But once the game gets underway, The Ant Bully’s numerous shortcomings quickly come into view, and all of the cool stuff that those few opening minutes led us to expect simply disappear and the game quickly becomes an exercise in boredom.
The first bummer has to do with the mission structure, which foregoes any real adventure elements and simply tasks the gamer with performing menial fetch quests, escort missions, and extermination campaigns. I know the developers tried to connect these objectives to the unique “jobs” that ants hold in real colonies – workers, warriors, nurses, etc.. While I do appreciate the educational values, the last thing I wanted to do was spend twenty minutes collecting yet another set of pupas or seeds or whatever, or having to protect some idiot-AI caterpillar cow.
The actual combat mechanic itself was not so bad – again, very similar to the staff-based combat in Beyond Good and Evil. Still, how many never-ending swarms of absolutely identical invaders do we have to fend off in the very same dull way? I mean first it is the pill bugs (roley-poleys for you Midwesterners) then the spiders, the earwigs, the wasps.
The Ant Bully becomes enough of a hackfest – slaughtering pretty much any other bug species that roams into the ants’ territory – you begin to wonder if this whole cute little defenseless ant act is just a cover to force their poor little slave boy Lucas into carrying out the ants secret and sinister biddings to rule the world. I mean, they make it quite obvious that ants have magical telekinetic powers…think about it, people.
Seriously though, The Ant Bully just gives you the same basic recycled material over and over – and it quickly becomes overplayed.
And as for the freedom? The open-ended gameplay? Forget it. Once Lucas has fully explored the colony, the only freedom that The Ant Bully gives him is the freedom to trudge what seems like a mile to get from the spawn spot to the meeting room, where he has to go ant by ant looking for the next open mission amongst the dozen or so locked missions. Considering that the mission you do get will most likely be some crappy rehash of an earlier mission, making the long walk-and-search is pure misery.
And even the simplified controls scheme that uses context-sensitive actions causes a problem, as Lucas has to be standing on just the right spot, pointing at just the right direction, for him to perform any of the actions successfully. I don’t know how many time I circled rocks trying (to no avail) to hit the sweet spot.
Like everything else in the game, the graphics start off well, but loose their luster in short order. The initial levels look detailed and polished, while the later levels seem to become sparse, boring, and frankly; unfinished.
There are some nice touches here and there; the glow on the crystals, the transparency of the pupa sacs with baby inside. The game also features a nice sense of 3D size and scope, reflecting the drastic contrast of the tiny ants against the outside world. Finally, the characters look very much like their CG counterparts from the film.
But the rest just falls apart – with some fairly noticeable clipping and seam issues.
Of all the aspects of failure in the game, the sound is by far the quickest and most noticeable – as the impeccable voice recordings of the opening scene suddenly become stilted and jumbled – or worse yet, nonexistent.
Actually, maybe “nonexistent” would have been better than the in-game script work – which attempts to dole out an overly dramatic pull on our heart strings, but only ends up making the little pests even more irritating. How did the opening movie start out so funny, but the actual gameplay so dull?
I was hoping that the Beyond Good and Evil feel I was sensing in the beginning was going to pan out into a sleeper summer hit. Sadly, because of a number of nagging issues, The Ant Bully just does not cut the mustard as anything more than possibly a weekend rental for the younger crowd.
The rehashed play mechanics and ultimately poor production values (regardless of how the opening sequences play out) render The Ant Bully as just another movie tie-in with little or no substance.
Sure I keep harping on this Beyond Good and Evil subject, but I would have been pleased if The Ant Bully was even just a little more like Midway’s underappreciated platformer Dr. Muto. As it stands, The Ant Bully is just another movie tie-in that might keep the children happy for a night, but the more seasoned gamers may want to look elsewhere.
And as for those ants in my back yard; The Ant Bully has not changed me nor my boys’ minds one bit…
Kill them all, sons! Before they take over the world!