Waste management Imagineering.
A few months ago, we got to take a tour of the Pixar offices in Emeryvillle—a fun, eye-opening (and ludicrously security-intensive) tour that included a then-exclusive screening of a handful of sequences from the then-forthcoming WALL-E motion picture. If Pixar movies can be said to follow a ‘formula’, they’ve more or less stuck to it with their most recent theatrical outing. It’s a visually-stunning, surface-cute tale with deeper emotional underpinnings, highly-anthropomorphized nonhuman protagonists, some genuine, hearty laughs, and an angle of approach that exactly, perfectly bisects the kid audience and the adult audience.
The games industry falls back on several formulas as well. One of the more common but unfortunate ones can be expressed as : (Good Movie) + (Game Development Man-Hours) – (Time Remaining Until Theatrical Release) x (Bloody-minded Insistence Upon Simultaneous Movie-Game Release No Matter What) = Meh. (Please ignore order of operations ~Ed.) Wall-E has a dynamite story, eye-goggling worlds, two wonderful heroes, and, alas, not nearly enough for any of them to amount to much of anything.
In settings, progression, cinematics, and sound, WALL-E follows the Disney-Pixar movie well enough, though the cut-scenes - even as a direct translation of the film - are a somewhat leaky telling of the story. Players start out controlling WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-class), the lovable, lonely, and last trash-compacting robot on a garbage dump of an Earth already abandoned for 700 years by humanity. Right away, players learn the basics of packing trash into handy cubes, schlepping said cubes around to be used as batteries and tools, ‘healing’ with solar energy recharge stations, and searching out various nooks and crannies for collectables (which unlock concept art, multiplayer skins, renders, and a video or two).
That all changes once players take control of EVE—a sleek white modern-art sculpture of a vegetation analysis robot from the stars who is as cool, sexy-lined, and new-iPod pristine as WALL-E is boxy, robo-nerdy and bulldozer-grimy. As soon as she makes planetfall, the game switches up the tank-tread-based, trash-compacting platforming with some simple, breezy flight mechanics and actual energy-cannon firepower (EVE’s right airfoil-fin is her ‘gun arm’). The two can and must work together as a team through the fairly straightforward action platforming, performing so-called “Stork Jumps” wherein EVE can make short airborne jaunts with WALL-E in tow like so much palette-cargo. The potentially-awkward, two-character scheme actually works better than you might expect, once you get the hang of it.
Still new elements are introduced once this unlikely lover-duo make it out to deep space, where the fat-assed, consumer-brainwashed, and perpetually-barcaloungered remnants of humanity live aboard the massive spaceship Axiom, bombarded by the constant advertising of the Buy-N-Large megacorporation.
The majority of the robotic life aboard Axiom is far less innocent than the likes of our two heroes. When EVE isn't zipping through cavernous service-shafts and WALL-E isn't using compacted-crap cubes to bypass passive security systems, they’ll both fight off waves of trigger-happy but-not-terribly-well-programmed ‘Steward’ ‘bots and other mechanical belligerents. Even lovable, dorky WALL-E gets to go agro, by making off with EVE’s gun arm, which he wears slung across his back when he’s not blowing away scores of bad guys in order to rescue his lady-love. This sounds like it’s turning into a live-action Japanese shock film, doesn’t it?
The good news is that, at its best points, WALL-E really does capture some of the film’s environment and charm. The opening segments on Garbage Pile Earth neatly evoke the stark, unreal loneliness so powerfully driven home in the movie (and the rotating-obstacle ‘tumbler’ sections are very well-designed; you’ll know when you get there). EVE is a blast to fly around and, well, blast with. The character- and story-shaping cinematics are fun to watch, and do a magnificent job of conveying the little mannerisms of both WALL-E and EVE. And the Mall-Zombie-Theater-3000 stylings of the Axiom, complete with audiovisual walls of Buy-N-Large advertising everywhere you look and listen are priceless. And even as out of place and at-odds with the movie as it all seems, even the bits with WALL-E rolling around and blowing the hell out of anything with circuits is fun for a while.
Plus, scarce as they are, it’s neat finding hidden Collectables like Buzz Lightyear action figures. Or even that (*shudder...*) cockroach that WALL-E feeds Twinkies in the first third of the film. But alas—as with film-protagonist WALL-E’s eclectic curio collection—there’s a lot of refuse to wade through, at almost every turn, while you’re getting to the good stuff:
As compelling as the worlds themselves can be, the overall visual quality is surprisingly low-grade, with glitches and stutters at times and in places where you wouldn’t even think they’d be an issue at all. The sound is arguably excellent, but the sheer repetition is enough to make you want to stick your head into the nearest compactor, or out the nearest airlock in the blissful, silent, explosive-decompression vacuum of space.
Later in the game, robotic enemies are numerous, but half of them are kinda retarded, sitting there and taking their massacre beatings as you snipe at them from beyond their alert-range. The camera, while not ‘broken’, does have its moments of uncooperative weirdness, and the multiplayer is so tacked-on that you might end up pricking your fingertips if you grip the game-casing too hard. Seriously, just forget about the multiplayer—at least, once you’ve seen those character-appearance upgrades you may have found.
I guess the unkindest kick in the, uh, waste cubes is the lack of extras. Sure, there’s unlockable concept art, cheats, any cinematics you’ve already seen, and some short Pixar videos (an early movie trailer and a quick one-off on the traditional Pixar Lamp opening, featuring WALL-E). But any Pixar-Disney venture is, or should be, all about the attention to detail, and the experience of the ‘guest’ (I’m not entirely sure on Pixar, but some of the folks at Disney don’t even like to use the word “customer”). A little more in the Goodies department would have given this game some replay-legs. Treads. Thrusters. Whatever.
This movie-license game isn’t one of those so-flat-or-broken-the-designers-should-be-lined-up-against-a-wall-and-shot kind of ripoffs. It’s not even a case of “too kiddie, no gameplay”. It’s just a bit of, well, a waste. It begs for something more, some more substance to the charm that’s already here in spades—more under-the-hood play for those precocious kiddies, more behind-the-scenes goodies for those older kiddies-at-heart who, let’s face it, probably bought WALL-E for their own kids to play. Even as they themselves looked forward to re-living a little of the movie’s magic.