The War of the Worlds Review (PS3)

War of the Worlds is one of my favourite books, the archetypal alien invasion story, and it takes a brave soul to retell such a well-known tale when even Steven Spielberg failed (seriously, the son survived?). Despite not really being done in videogames before, with the exception of an RTS, Other Ocean has taken a crack at adapting the story as an Another World-style puzzle-platformer.

Is htis my house? I can't tell under all the death and destruction...
If you don’t know the general story it’s simple: aliens invade, we die, something stops them. This adaptation returns the setting to the city of London but sets it in 1953, round about the same time as the first movie version. You play as Arthur, a different protagonist to other adaptations in that he doesn’t encounter the first Martian cylinder landing on Horsell Common, and instead the game starts on a train bound for London.

After a really cool atmospheric opening the train crashes and Arthur finds himself in the centre of London in the middle of the Martian invasion. Tripod War Machines march down the streets, ripping up buildings, herding people or exterminating them with their Heat Ray, all the while with Arthur trying to stay out of sight. It’s all pretty excellently done, very atmospheric and filled with tension, with much of the gameplay built around puzzle-solving rather than twitch platforming. Sadly though, Other Ocean spoil things simply because they don’t know the difference between “difficult” and “frustrating”.

Difficult games are challenging but never unfair, such as Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls. Games like these may be tough but they give the players everything they need to win. The games that wander into frustration, however, present some sort of barrier for the player. When the player knows what to do and can’t do it because of some problem with the game, they get angry and frustrated.

I did with War of the Worlds on several occasions, as my girlfriend and neighbours down the street will attest. The chief cause of this frustration is the controls, which simply aren’t designed with quick reactions in mind. Unfortunately, a high percentage of the game requires just that. Sometimes main character Arthur just won’t turn around, he sometimes won’t grab a ledge or ladder, and when he’s pushing up against something like a crate he won’t jump.

Since the Martians don’t have any such problems you end up with a lot of restarts, and there will be very few that you’ll actually feel was your fault. It genuinely feels like the people who scripted Arthur’s movements were kept completely separate from the level designers, so that levels were designed with a Mario-like protagonist in mind rather than a guy who struggles to face a different direction when a Martian death-drone is bearing down on him. You can’t even look down, so there are frequent deaths by falling just because you couldn’t see what you were leaping into.
Martians love free-range humans!
The frustrations aren’t limited to controls either. There aren’t any tutorials, on-screen button prompts, or any explanation of how to play the game whatsoever. This isn’t always a problem, but then something new will be introduced and you’ll be flailing around trying to work out it. The only reason I knew that ‘Y’ was the Axe was because I checked the Controls page, I only discovered I could (and needed to) close doors because of a tip on the loading screen, and I only found out how to move lifts by fiddling with my Xbox pad for five minutes. Thanks Other Ocean, just assume I know how to play your game, don’t bother to tell me or anything.

Sometimes, particularly in the early stages, there’s just so much crap happening on-screen that you can’t focus on Arthur and the things that could kill him. For example, one Martian structure Arthur volunteers to destroy has gas, flashes, and a bright shield blinding you to the Drones and moving laser scanners that you need precise timing to get through. Other times fleeing people literally just run in front of the screen – it looks cool, but not when you’ve replayed the same section twenty times because you couldn’t see the jump you needed to make.

Then there’s the save system. The game’s divided up into levels of varying length, from ultra-short to some that could take over an hour depending on how tricky they were. Thankfully for my sanity there are multiple checkpoints during the level, but unhappily they are slightly botched. For starters if you exit the game you’ll have to start the level again, so if you’ve spent an hour trying to get past a difficult section and are struggling to do the next bit whatever you do don’t turn your Xbox off. No, not even if your Dad’s told you off for swearing so much. Furthermore the checkpoints save location rather than progress, so if you miss something vital and the game saves if you die you’ll have to go back and do it before continuing – and nothing frustrates more than frequent deaths followed by lots of backtracking before the difficult bit.

All of which is a shame, because the rest of the game is actually really good. The story is very well told, getting into the spirit of the HG Wells novel without following it word for word. Patrick Stewart’s narration really brings the monologue to life and suits the classic tale well. It’s worth playing just to hear him honestly. Other Ocean happily never use cutscenes to tell the story and instead rely on atmosphere and tension in their set-pieces to carry the game. You rarely lose control of Arthur and are always in the thick of the action. The soundtrack’s wonderful too, although it does repeat a bit.

War of the Worlds is also excellent in terms of variety. You wouldn’t think that a game where the only enemies are giant mechanical tripods with no weapons to face them barring an axe could stay fresh for hours, but it does. Other Ocean constantly bring in new challenges to face and I was absolutely never bored. A panicking mob, a battle-scarred Hyde Park patrolled by Martian Drones, jumping from rooftop to rooftop as a War Machine pursues you, all moments that will have you on the edge of your seat. Familiar elements of the story are given wonderful twists too, like the suffocating Black Smoke and the crawling Red Weed.

All of which makes the game’s one big huge flaw all the more disappointing. It is honestly just too damn frustrating to recommend. It’s often challenging you with puzzles instead and that’s when the game shines, but almost always if you die it will be down to something unbearably unfair. The controls are sluggish and are in no way designed for the kind of shenanigans Arthur gets up to, but while that’s possibly defensible not being able to jump while pushing up against a wall or regularly failing to grab ledges are not.
EXTERMINA- oh wait, wrong aliens...

I want to recommend War of the Worlds to everyone, I want to slap a high score on it and call it a classic, but I can’t because it made me too damn angry. When it works it’s a wonderful and challenging experience, hence the still reasonable score, but it too often doesn’t. If you’ve got a high threshold for pain give it a go, otherwise stay the hell away from it. You know, like if it had a cold or something.

Top Game Moment: The rather emotional moment and frustration-free scene where Arthur returns home searching for his wife. No spoilers, but it’s lovely.