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Tron 2.0 Preview

Ben_Silverman By:
GENRE Action 
T Contains Violence

What do these ratings mean?

Upgrading your memories.

Every generation of geeks reveres a different set of idols. Some are set in stone; we all bow to the altars of Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas and Monty Python. But as time wears on and little fat geeks grow up into big fat geeks, so too change the gods of geekery.

Really old-school gamers, the ones who were in their teens when Pong came out, hold 70's gems like Logan's Run and Dr. Who close to their hearts. Contemporary geeks born in the 1980's fondly recall their first meeting with The Matrix or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Tweener geeks, like yours truly, enjoyed the far-out fantasies of Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica…and, of course, the computer-generated brilliance of Tron.

And now we get to enjoy it all over again. The masterpiece about a hacker sucked into a computer network dominated by a ruthless, dictatorial master CPU has spawned several fantastic games, including two memorable coin-ops in Tron and Discs of Tron, the latter being a personal favorite.

The demand for Tron games has dwindled since the movie's release in 1982, a natural byproduct of an industry consumed by technological advances. However, scores of old-school gamers have patiently awaited a revamped adventure through the colorful, digitized world of light cycles and Recognizers.

Well, hoist your solar sails, because Tron 2.0 is on its way.

Developed by Monolith and published by Buena Vista Games (a division of Disney), the game takes the concepts and characters introduced in the original movie and tosses them into a brand new first-person shooter. If the demo I recently received is any indication of the final product, it looks like the franchise should retain its near-flawless gaming track record.

It's come to my attention that, sadly enough, a staggering number of current gamers have no idea what Tron is to begin with. If you're a member of this innocently ignorant group, then do yourself a favor and go rent the movie, pronto. It's at once a significant step in computer-generated imagery, a blueprint for hardcore geekdom and a really neat movie, cheesy dialogue notwithstanding. Jeff Bridges kicking ass in Flynn's arcade is worth the price of admission alone.

Tron 2.0 is not officially based on an upcoming Tron sequel, as no such sequel has 'officially' been announced. Rather, this is an entirely new take on the Tron universe, though the developers have worked in close contact with the folks responsible for the groundbreaking film to ensure that no one steps on any toes.

Set some 20 years after the events in the film (in other words, today), Tron 2.0 drops you into the horn-rimmed glasses of Jet Bradley, son of Alan Bradley, the same guy who invented the Tron program. It seems that Alan has rediscovered the digitization technology that caused the whole debacle in the first place, a fact that the head honchos at evil corporation fCon find most interesting. Soon enough, Alan goes missing, and it's up to you as Jet to hop into the computer, find your dad, and quite possibly save the world.

Which is much easier in theory than in practice, as the system is in a serious state of upheaval. fCon employee J.D. Thorn was digitized while demoing the technology for the brass, but things went awry and his 'file' became corrupted, which is now spreading like any good virus. The system is also swarming with a slew of ICP (Intrusion Countermeasure Programs, the guys in red from the movie) and some very nasty pieces of code called Data Wraiths.

You're not alone, however. You'll get help and feedback from the lab A.I. Ma3a, as well as an upgraded version of Flynn's old buddy Bit in the form of Byte, a roving helper bee. Still, Jet's binary foray is anything but smooth.

The same cannot be said for Tron 2.0's graphics, thanks to an enhanced version of Monolith's Lithtech Triton engine made specifically for the game. Nvidia figured into the mix as well, creating a very convincing proprietary version of Tron's unique backlit glow effect. Weapons, characters and environments emanate with authenticity, managing to capture the look and feel of the film without coming across as dated.

The game simply oozes with computer geekery. Geometric shapes and line art dominate the environments. Odd terminals and monitors represent actual bits and pieces of a system, from numerous ports and processors to the fabled I/O towers. Death animations amount to enemies dissolving into a fading pattern of 1s and 0s. If you fancy yourself a 1337 hax0r, you're in for a tr34t.

Actually, even if you consider yourself just a w3ak gam3r, you'll find Tron 2.0's gameplay to be more enticing than a free RAM upgrade. The core shooter mechanics are all there, featuring an assortment of familiar weapons from the movie (dubbed 'primitives') in a decidedly unfamiliar form. There's your handy Disc, which can be utilized as both an offensive weapon with 3 different functions or as a defensive shield to deflect incoming fire. You'll also acquire the Rod, which starts off as a melee weapon but can be upgraded into a sniper rifle. The Ball weapon set includes three upgraded versions of a grenade, while the Mesh can function as a machine gun, a wicked melee Energy Claw or the Prankster Bit, Tron 2.0's personal BFG. Items are found by searching through Subroutines, essentially the 'crates' of the CPU world.

But where Tron 2.0 really finds its stride is in its surprising RPG depth. You start the game as Tron v.1, and by gaining experience you'll upgrade to new versions and receive certain performance enhancements. There are 5 skill sets to increase, such as jumping and speed. Along the way you'll gain abilities in the form of Procedurals. In a nod to Deus Ex, these include defragmenting programs and even a virus scanner to catch and clean infected programs and items found in the Subroutines. Only a certain number of ports are available, so you have to customize your ability set as you go. This added depth frees Tron 2.0 from its basic shooter origins, leading to the kind of multi-tiered gameplay style we see all too rarely.

The main single-player story takes you through 30 levels across a variety of system locations, from the Lab Server through the Firewall and even into Internet Hub City. And though the bulk of the game is a first-person fragfest, no Tron game would be complete without the wonderful vertigo of light cycle racing.

Original light cycle designer Syd Mead has redesigned the cycle to reflect a more current look, though it still zooms around the arenas like a Razor scooter hopped up on crank. Light cycle racing is built into the main story, but the developers knew that it would be a highlight, so they went ahead and created a light cycle circuit mode playable outside of the campaign. Sixteen races are available and bikes can be upgraded by winning.

However, this isn't just a rehash of the Snafu style gameplay from the Tron coin-op. It's now in full 3D, though the most comfortable way to play is surely as close to a top-down view as you can get. While you'll still try to wall in your opponent, a panoply of power-ups livens up the experience. Grab a Wall Spike and watch as your opponent suddenly rams into a brand new wall spouting out of your trail. A well-timed Turbo Curse will force everyone in the game to suddenly hit top speeds, which can mean certain disaster if headed towards a wall. With over 50 such power-ups included, it's almost a whole game in itself.

As is Tron 2.0's planned multiplayer. I was delighted to see that the weapons and gadgets have been eradicated from online play in favor if a rebuilt version of the indomitable Discs of Tron, pitting you and your disc in one of 5 gladiatorial settings. The strategy of DoT has been retained; you have to plan and time your strikes accordingly, else be stranded without your disc while your opponent gets a clear shot. New to this version is the ability to actually drop some English on your throws, which makes it look even more like the movie.

The folks at Monolith are well aware of the series' solid gaming past, but are equally aware of the obvious pressures. Producer Cliff Kamida echoed this sentiment when I met with him a few weeks ago, noting that living up to the rigorous demands of the dedicated Tron fans is a daunting task. I'm just glad someone had the nerve, and what looks like the skill, to take on the task. With an impressive combination of brilliant visuals, deep gameplay and a truly memorable backdrop, Tron 2.0 should do justice to its storied past when it ships in August 2003. I'll bet my Clash of the Titans action figures on it.

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