The War of the Worlds Review

By Mark Delaney,
It would be a long time before I could get past that checkpoint I had already struggled to overcome so many times before. Learned helplessness began to seep through my mind and invade my thoughts as I wondered if anyone out there had the will to continue. The martians were relentless, and I was nearly powerless to their devilish heat rays, suffocating black smoke, and a broken control scheme.The previous passage wasn't taken out of the game, The War of the Worlds, but it easily could have been. My playthrough of The War of the Worlds was a strikingly beautiful test of will where the gameplay flaws were sometimes more dangerous than the extraterrestrial overlords. So how does it all stack up? Should gamers embrace this alien invasion? Let's begin.

The first thing you'll notice about The War of the Worlds (WotW) is the commitment to its presentation. The publisher and developer logos appear at the start screen in a retro, 1950's style and act as an introduction to what is WotW's greatest attribute. The game is a 2D platformer with retro-gaming inspirations in that if you are wounded once, most of the time, you are dead immediately. There is no HUD, no health bar, no upgrades, and no hints scrolling across the screen. There is only you, the aliens, and the destruction around you. The game will never tell you what to do or how to do it. It's up to you to find your way. Of course, since it's a side-scrolling game, your "way" is always to the right, but how to traverse it can be very difficult.

The story immediately thrusts you into the panicked environment found in the book. You play as Arthur, a London resident and Everyman looking for his wife and brother amid the chaos of an alien invasion. The story runs parallel to the H.G. Wells novel and utilizes the same themes of despair and technological inferiority. These themes are accented very well due to the monochromatic and bleak color palette, only allowing color into the world to represent danger, like the unforgiving weapons at the aliens' arsenal.

The look of the game - the old-fashioned cars burning in the streets, the sole record player playing an innocent tune among debris, the attire of the other frantic survivors - it all creates a world very accurate in its depiction, and intriguing in its delivery. Tanks and fleeing civilians run across the foreground, and the background is alive and dynamic with the destruction of the city and other environments you traverse.

Further enhancing the presentation is the brilliant, poetic narration done by Patrick Stewart. When I was not running for my life from the heat rays, I'd often stop and listen to his words as I surveyed the world around me. Stewart offers a voice to your character Arthur. Everything he is thinking and feeling is heard in this way. On presentation and story alone, the game is among the very best on XBLA.

Unfortunately, no game can be judged by just those two aspects. Where WotW falters isn't in the gameplay as a whole. The platforming is fun, the 'order of operations' style puzzles are challenging. The outdoor levels are made up of chase sequences and hide-and-seek moments. The interior levels, like the shelled apartments you often traverse, are labyrinthine. There are enough varied set pieces to keep the game worthwhile, and the enemies are as varied as you'd expect for an arcade game. However, where the game is sadly and severely flawed is in its control scheme.

Just like in LIMBO (Xbox 360), your character moves at an excruciatingly slow pace. There is a sprint button, but you will essentially have it pressed the entire game. There are few moments where walking is needed and sprinting is not, so it seems poorly done to scheme it this way. It would have worked better if the sprint button were a trigger or bumper, or better yet based on the stick sensitivity, but it's the X button, and while you're infinitely holding down X, you will also have to use A to jump, as well as maneuver the left stick in ways that just don't seem natural. In the beginning, the controls seemed broken and at the end of the game, though you do get a little used to it, they were still a constant source of frustration.

This game is extremely difficult - I cannot stress that enough. Even if the controls were better mapped, it would still be one of the hardest games I think I have ever played. The checkpoints are rarely generous to you, causing you to revert back to sequences that you wish you'd never see again after finally surviving them. This is especially frustrating on the chase sequences. They require trial and error when finding your way to the end. Make one wrong move and often times you are sent back to the start to retry, and determine which move is the right one, until finally you've choreographed the whole frantic scene to completion. The artful narration and dramatic soundtrack that was before so well-received may eventually become an annoyance, and then maddening, as you restart over and over again. Another unfortunate flaw is that the game only works on an autosave feature and the game only autosaves at the beginning of each level. So if you make significant progress, only to be met by a (sometimes literal) brick wall of platforming frustration and quit out of the game (which I did often in my playthrough), you will lose all progress and find yourself back at the beginning of the level next time you play.

The achievements are mostly tied into the story; 10G here or there for levels across the whole game. A few of them are situational too. Laughably, two of the achievements are probably impossible, and if many more people played this game, I'd bet they would have some of the highest TA ratios ever. The first one is to beat the game without ever dying. In my playthrough, I'd estimate I died about 300 times. That number is probably conservative. The other achievement I find impossible is to beat the whole game without dying in one sitting, similar to the Limbo achievement, except Limbo had much more fluid, responsive controls. You felt like it was attainable if you just memorized the steps and maybe used a guide. With The War of the Worlds, I can't see anyone ever getting these. Is it an inside joke among the developers? I would be amazed if anyone legitimately completes this game.

I wouldn't fault the game for its intense difficulty, if it weren't for the bad controls. There's nothing wrong with a challenge. The story is more engaging than most XBLA titles and, because of its difficulty, it takes a while to finish. However, just as the story artfully juxtaposes the somberness of your spirit with the chaos of the crumbling world around you, the gameplay does the same. It makes you fall in love with the idea of it, but crushes you every chance you get.

There are reasons this game was priced at 800 MSP rather than 1200, but if you can find the will to keep pushing, to keep fighting, you will survive this game and be damn proud of it.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.