The curse of the movie license.
Games based off of movies are funny beasts. You’d think that taking an established setting with cool elements and building a game off of those elements would make it easy for developers to get straight to the meat of game design, and generate some fun games. This is never really the case, though, and it's especially true with The Golden Compass. Probably un-enjoyable by even the most rabid fans of the movie – fans of the book shouldn’t give this product a moment’s thought.
[image1]The essential problem with The Golden Compass is that there are tons of little gameplay mechanisms involved and none feel like they were ever completed. The developers came up with a dozen and one mini-games, many of them kiddie-pool shallow. I imagine, when the men responsible for the game were sitting around a conference table staring at a white board, the list of ideas looked pretty cool. Having a balancing game, some light puzzles, a rhythm-game-esque button mashing sequence for a couple interactions, some light combat, tag games, acrobatics tidbits right out of Prince of Persia – it’s a great list.
Unfortunately, nothing quite works the way it should. Swinging from conveniently placed flagstaff to conveniently placed flagstaff is clunky, and the camera angles can make judging distances rough. Some button lag and the occasional failed read make the Simon Says mini-games vary from merely annoying to intolerable. The combat is simplistic and lacks any challenge – which is especially a pity given how amusing it is to swing people around as a gigantic armored bear. The loose controls can make for some very annoying deaths. In general, playing the game is a sinusoidal process of momentary elation as you uncover a new element, quickly followed by deep disappointment as you discover it’s a piece of crap.
The most painful aspect of the gameplay, however, is the level design. There are vast sequences of the game where all you do is wander around looking for the arbitrary trigger forward, broken up by bits and pieces of the aforementioned mini-games. Any level where the highlight is mopping should be cut, and I shouldn’t have to lecture you on this, game designers! It’s better to have a short but sweet game than it is to have a long and boring game. Think of it like circumcision, folks; hacking off the excess material will actually make your game more enjoyable and look bigger!
The game’s music is a trifle dull – it’s pretty, but rarely suitable to gameplay. Voice acting is campy in the worst way, suitable to the B-film cut. Many of the young-sounding characters can be hard to differentiate, especially when they speak one after another without any indication of who’s talking. You’re left wondering if that voice that sounds exactly the same as lead lady Lyra’s is another child, or if Lyra is just schizophrenic.
[image2]The game’s visuals are pretty poor for this day and age. Laughably bad animations coupled with low visual fidelity across the board, probably due to the game’s cross-platform nature, makes for a worthless visual experience. Worse, the game has some distinct visual errors, such as geometry edges and the occasional chunk of flashing polygon.
For folks concerned about the atheistic undercurrent in the books, it doesn’t translate to the game at all. Much of the punch of the books has been cut to make this game (and I assume the movie as well) more palatable for the average, easily offended American. It’s hard to extract something even approaching a theme from the game, as the narrative is a jumble of events told in a strange series of leaps and jumps. Vast swaths of what made the novel enjoyable and, well, understandable are simply missing from the game. The setting is introduced with such bombastic aplomb as to suggest some kind of literary terrorism had occurred. Many of the details that made the books interesting – such as the revision of some key aspects of religious history – have been blown clear of the game in the blast.
[image3]The writing is so inelegant that I suspect Philip Pullman was never involved in the book -to-film-to-game conversion. The person who put down the money for the license must have also had the author kidnapped and stuffed in a closet, as all the nuance and witty dialogue have been stripped to make room for a generic sampling of British children’s speech. The writers behind this game clearly wanted nothing more of their characters than for them to sound approximately like Harry Potter. Damn it, stop saying "trific"! I swear on Newton’s ghost that I’ll beat the teeth out of the next person who says that to me.
In only one respect does The Golden Compass deserve any praise; it was an ambitious chunk of game design. Unfortunately, it fails on every aspect of that design. So much of the game feels close to what it should have been that it’s all the more infuriating. The parade of different wonky gameplay elements – introduced and removed within moments of each other – makes the gameplay feel directionless, even arbitrary. Don’t mix sour cream into my coffee in the name of adding flavor!
If you haven’t read the book (or watched the movie, I suppose) you definitely can’t understand the story. Without a mountain of patience the gameplay will just upset you. Absent music on your 360, the game’s tunes will just bore you. The voice acting will confuse and infuriate you no matter what. It’s the sort of game you should be payed to play, not the other way around - there’s simply no tangible reason to buy The Golden Compass.