Good Old Reviews
Advent Rising - Wasted Beginnings

Stew Shearer | 7 Jun 2014 12:00
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Originally released in 2005. Developed by GlyphX Games. Published by Majesco.

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Richer in ambition than success, Advent Rising was released in 2005 and pits the player against a vicious alien race in an (unfinished) quest to unlock humanity's potential.

I can't remember the publication that first introduced me to Advent Rising, but I can very clearly recall thinking that it looked like the coolest thing I'd ever heard of. The preview promised a sprawling space opera that would play out over the course of a trilogy with player decisions that would affect the story across multiple games. In other words it was Mass Effect released a few years early. Whereas the original Mass Effect would go on to spawn one of the most popular (and infuriating) game series of the last hardware generation however, Advent Rising would fizzle out with its opening salvo. It's sad because as I wrap up my latest playthrough of the game, I'm struck by just how much potential it really had.

Taking place in the far future, the story (co-written by Orson Scott Card) opens with humanity celebrating its first contact with an alien race, the Aurelians. The historic event quickly sours however when the Aurelians warn of an impending invasion by the Seekers, an aggressive and powerful race that intends to wipe out humanity for fear of its psychic potential. This, of course, turns into a fast-paced space opera romp with lots of explosions, multiple planets and plot twists, all of which culminates in a mysterious (and ultimately unresolved) cliffhanger.

And if that sounds nifty, I'm right there with you. In fact, even playing it now for the third time, I found myself being genuinely roped in by the game's sheer spectacle. If it does anything well it's the execution these singular moments that are epic and majestic enough to make the whole thing seem better than it is. Unfortunately, while the game certainly plays host to some spectacular scenes, it's far too interested in speeding the player between same-y action sequences to make them count for much. You never get much of a chance to learn anything interesting about the cast or given much in the way of real motivation to care about them. They're just tossed into roles that were clearly chosen to inspire easy emotions in the player.

For instance, the game's big choice moment is between saving your fiancee or your older brother. When you reach this point, the two characters put together have probably less than 10 minutes of combined cutscene time, all of which adds up to very little in terms of actual character development. And once the choice is actually made, the game does next to nothing with it. The protagonist, Gideon Wyeth, spends all of two seconds mourning, after which the subject of his loved one's death doesn't come up nearly as often as it realistically should. Granted, the story's end definitely suggests that the developers were planning to do more with this in the planned sequels. Without those, however, it all feels just a bit rushed and wastes a lot of good opportunities to take the story deeper and make its characters more than simplistic caricatures. Put shortly, it treats the story like little more than an action delivery service.

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This wouldn't have to be bad thing if the action itself delivered something a tad more consistently entertaining. Granted, the shooting combat isn't bad necessarily. It's just very basic. You have your guns. You have your space aliens. Shoot, rinse and repeat until the next cutscene. And while I'm always a fan of explosions, lasers and aliens going boom, even I got a little tired of it in Advent Rising which, with the exception of a few boss fights, tosses you into largely the same firefights over and over again. Add in the teeniest bit of overarching clunk (aiming never feels perfectly smooth) and you have a game whose baseline combat is average at best.

Of course, the shooting isn't really the game's focus. Those aforementioned psychic abilities the big baddies are so scared of? One of the selling points of Advent Rising is that you get to wield them yourself and develop them to your liking. Unfortunately, the execution of this is somewhat fumbled. While I'll grant the game some credit for providing a diverse catalog of abilities to experiment with, a lot of them start off too way to weak and, in turn, wind up being a bit less than useful for the bulk of the game's run time.

Take your earliest power: the Lift ability. When you first unlock it, it sucks. You can levitate a single object or enemy and fling it with a mouse flick which, unless you're standing next to an insta-death drop, deals damage so insignificant that you're almost better off just shooting things. With patience this does get more powerful and a lot more fun to use, but the game on the whole is so short (6-7 hours in my case) that by the time you're strong enough to put it to its coolest effect, the credits are already almost rolling.

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It's a shame because your powers are actually a blast to play with once they reach their peak potential. In fact, some of them are so powerful that they lean toward game breaking. That pitiful Lift ability I complained about? It grows substantially sharper teeth after you level it up, giving you the power to pretty much pull the world around you off its hinges with the press of a few buttons. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that these final hours are what have kept me coming back to Advent Rising multiple times. I've played other games with super powers and some damned fine ones at that. None of them, however, have ever achieved the playable near omnipotence that Advent Rising does at its climax.

Of course, this awesome endgame is also completely unbalanced and would likely become just as humdrum as the shooting sections if it actually went on long enough. That said, the fact that the game can be as fun as it eventually winds up being is emblematic to me of its ultimate problem. Advent Rising has all the components needed to be something fantastic. The pieces just never quite align into the well-paced and fully entertaining whole that it needed to be.

In spite of all that, I'm still tempted to recommend Advent Rising. For all the potential it squanders with its mistakes, it's still a game that I ultimately enjoy. When I think about it, it's not the lackluster portions I remember but rather its majestic opening and the power of its fully orchestrated score. I remember leaping into the middle of a Seeker squad and using my powers to slow time so I can punch my foes to death before they can even react. Most of all, I think of the disappointment I feel when the credits roll and I remember that its sequels are never going to happen. A game can't be all bad if it leaves you wanting more and, as long as you know what you're getting into, it's worth GOG's $5.99 asking price.


Come back next week to catch my review of the NES classic Faxanadu. Also feel free to PM me comments and suggestions for future Good Old Reviews!

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categories: fantasy