Pitfall: The lost Expedition
Published by: Jeff McCloy on 2004-05-15
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If you're old enough to recognize the word 'Atari' as something more than a brand printed on trendy T-shirts then you almost certainly also remember Activision's classic Pitfall adventure. The title, which debuted in 1982 for the gone, but not forgotten 2600, pioneered the-then-underdeveloped adventure genre and left a whole slew of budding gamers daydreaming about scorpion-filled tunnels and platform-ready crocodiles. Since then, the Pitfall franchise has been reborn again and again in sequels across a wide spectrum of consoles.
Now, Activision has teamed up with developer Edge of Reality (Spider Man and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 on N64) to bring Pitfall to the third-dimension for current-generation consoles. The collaboration has resulted in a sometimes formulaic, but also occasionally inventive game that's just as much platformer as it is adventure. Pitfall: The Lost Expedition is fun and engaging, not to mention humorous and full of franchise trademarks, though it may prove a bit too forgiving for veteran gamers who were raised on the original and have since graduated to more challenging software.
Next-generation Pitfall game for current-generation consoles
Fully 3D adventure-platformer
Features classic Pitfall elements from platformer-crocodiles to land pits and swinging vines
Play as Pitfall Harry, an acrobatic hero on a quest for hidden treasure
Use Harry's knapsack to carry a variety of useful items from ice picks to dynamite
Travel through more than 10 huge levels spanning a mostly-connected world filled with dangers at every turn
Rescue lost explorers and amount hidden treasures to buy ability upgrades and special unlockables
Features cinematic cut-scenes which unfold in real-time
Classic Pitfall and Pitfall II games hidden as unlockable extras
Runs in progressive scan
Supports Dolby Pro Logic II
Activision's new Pitfall shares a lot in common with its ancestors. It once again focuses on the unafraid, adventurous explorer Pitfall Harry, a man who will go anywhere and do just about anything for pricey hidden treasures. In the Lost Expedition, Harry finds himself on a place bound -- through ferocious thunderstorm -- for the Peruvian jungle. He's joined by Dr. Bernard Bittenbinder and Nicole, a smart and sassy archeologist. Unfortunately for the team, the plane is pounded by the storm until it can fly no more, and so it doesn't, leaving all of its passengers to parachute down into the jungle below -- except that there aren't enough parachutes. The story is setup through the use of well-animated, colorful and even humorous real-time cut-scenes.
The game begins at the crash site, where Harry learns that not only have many of his necessary items been scattered about the region, but that several of his companions have gone missing. It's up to him -- or you -- to travel through the lush jungles, the icy terrain, the lava-filled caves, beneath water passages and directly into the enemy's lair, all the while fighting off henchman and spinjas.
The Lost Expedition is an adventure and a platformer in one. Harry moves throughout an expansive connected world, jumping and fighting, exploring and collecting, but as in Metroid Prime he is unable to access specific locations in the area without certain items. For instance, he needs to obtain the ice picks hidden in a far-away part of the land before he can climb an icy wall and enter a cold, harsh level just beyond it. But before he can gain the items, he'll need to get the raft to cross a body of water to a spot on the map that houses them. And so on. There is definitely smart direction here; you'll never feel lost or confused about what to do or where to go next. Some might consider this a drawback -- a means of decreasing challenge, but we view it as a way to keep the action flowing and the frustration caged and sedated. It's linear design hidden under a non-linear exterior.
Harry can access his map at any point to figure out where his next objective is -- it's always marked by a big, red X spot somewhere in the region. The map looks great -- it's gritty, reminiscent of old paper and perfectly themed with the adventure. But it's clumsily built as a navigational tool. Black dots mark each spot on the map that you can travel to and by looking at these dots you can manually figure out which path to take. Unfortunately, it's not so easy or intuitive -- instead, you'll find yourself jumbling through the system, trying to move left or right, up or down to the next dot in an attempt to map it, but with limited success. You'll eventually learn to deal with it, but it still stands as a dent in what is otherwise a very well crafted, not to mention atmospheric menu interface system.
Pitfall does not reinvent the platformer or the adventure game, but it is a fun and in many ways ambitious offering all the same. The game successfully handshakes platforming and adventuring elements. It also includes and updates many of the trademarks of the classic games. In one moment you'll be swinging from vines or hopping across the backs of hungry crocs and in another you'll be diving over land pits, now complete with hungry spiked mouths, trying to solve an environmental puzzle or participating in a mini-game. These additions are welcomed. Edge of Reality has likewise done a commendable job of mixing in different play styles and on many occasions lacing them with humor. You'll be transformed into a howling monkey, a ceiling-crawler scorpion and a whiny penguin and you'll have to do battle with yourself. You'll be chased by menacing apes. You'll fight against funny-tongued natives who look and sound like something out of a B version of Indiana Jones. The game doesn't take itself seriously, but pokes fun at both the franchise and the cliches of the genres.
Control is tight and Harry's options open. The character moves quickly and responsively, easily and acrobatically scaling platforms, hanging from ledges and more. The platforming elements are entertaining and satisfying as a result of the precise control. Swinging from vine to vine, which plays an important part in the adventure, is somewhat trickier and can be occasionally frustrating because you have to center Harry's direction with the shoulder buttons instead of the analog stick. But after a bit of practice this, too, is easily overcome. The character gains abilities -- a super run, a jump stomp, a straightforward dive, and a super kick, for starters. Most of these are easily performed. For instance, a two-button combo will cause Harry to leap high into the air and grab onto hard-to-reach ledges. On the other hand, at least one button combination is unintuitive; you'll have to simultaneously press two awkward buttons to kick out and knock over enemies and this just doesn't feel very good, especially when you need to do it in high-action situations.
You be able to equip items to Harry's hand and then control them with the analog stick, an intriguing and ultimately satisfying addition that enables a slew of precision play possibilities. Harry gains items such a sling, torch, shield, gasmask, raft, pick, and dynamite, and any four of these can be assigned to the different directions on the D-Pad at any given time. Just tap the D-pad and he'll arm his torch and then you can control it with the camera stick. It sounds gimmicky, but these movements are actually useful. You can move Harry's arm around to light oncoming bats afire, for example. You can raise the gasmask to your face, or accurately aim dynamite blasts, or even slingshot projectiles at foes and objects. It feels solid. We especially like using the ice picks, which enable Harry to use both his hands -- the main analog stick and the camera one -- to go up and down or left and right.
The downside to all of this control freedom is that limitations have as a result been placed upon the camera system. Whereas normally you'd manually pilot the camera with the C-stick, you're left instead to do it with the R and L shoulder buttons. This means that you can't control vertical camera movements on the fly. But it also hinders quick camera control in fast-paced situations. Later in the game when Harry is transformed into a penguin, you'll need to be able to move the camera quickly in order to fight against yourself, but because the pace of the fight moves so speedily it can be troublesome to manipulate both your character and the angle of the action at the same time. This is not a frequent problem, but a complaint all the same.
The title features its share of platformer clichÃ©s and it borrows abilities and elements from competing software, too. There is a great amount of jump-and-run gameplay mechanics in place. There's a slight chance that you will grow tired of trekking around in search of items. But we're betting that -- copied, unoriginal or not -- because these elements are well implemented, you won't.
You can unlock the classic Pitfall and Pitfall II by finding special bonuses within the game. These are unabridged emulations of the older titles and they look great. In addition, you'll be able to unlock and play in a number of native games which help extend the replay value. Even so, Pitfall is not an epic game. It won't last you 25 hours. But it should keep you busy for a good eight to 10, and possibly a few more if you're not a platformer pro. Some will call it too short and too easy and sure enough this might be a valid complaint. If you coasted through Super Mario Sunshine or Tak and the Power of Juju, you'll likely do the same here. All said and done, though, it comes down to how much fun you'll have with it and if you'll ultimately be satisfied. There were some frustrations along the way, but whether we were exploring huge mountaintops, swimming away from crocs, or knocking natives on their rear ends, we were entertained throughout the bulk of the adventure and when the credits rolled we found ourselves satisfied.
This isn't the Harry you thought it would be. You were expecting someone more serious. Instead you got the exaggerated, comic-styled treasure hunter. We have to admit that we weren't initially captivated by the character design employed in Activision's title. It just didn't stand out as anything special and as a matter of fact seemed to weigh on the generic side. But the more we played, the more Harry grew on us. His quick and goofy movements, his Jim Carrey-inspired facial expressions and his fluid animation overcame his floppy hair and uniform outfit.
If you can get past the main character and some of his friends and enemies, there's a lot to see in Pitfall. You'll take in very large worlds complete with little details like foliage and cracks, icy reflections and transparencies. You'll see beautifully animated characters. Pitfall himself moves throughout the environments with silky smooth fluidity and his interaction with objects and characters is very impressive. He summersaults up ledges, dives onto vines, speeds along with a super run, flips into the air and smashes back down with a punch and more, and it all looks great. These movements can also be downright funny. When a crocodile viciously bites at Harry, you can't help but giggle as it's so triumphantly mean looking. Even better, to get out Harry must pry its jaws open and then jettison himself forward -- another smooth and funny animation. The game is filled with these little motion extras and nowhere is this more evident than in the over-the-top, but well done cut-scenes.
The game's particle system is advanced. The lighting system is pretty. When Harry carries a torch through a dark tunnel, the item casts an ambient light onto the immediate area and also illuminates the character's face, flickering and swaying. It looks great. Underwater rays shine down into dark liquid and brighten it.
While the worlds are large, the textures could sometimes be crisper. The game's water effects are particularly unimpressive. They feature no transparencies. Instead, ponds and lakes are made up of visibly tiled textures which are set into motion to mimic liquid. The same can be said of the lava in the game. It could be worse, but we've seen far better. Some of the other textures in the game can be blurry up close, which is disappointing.
But overall the display is impressive. The game runs at a near constant 60 frames per second and in progressive scan. It is colorful, bright and stylized, and filled with variety. You'll see green forests, monkey-filled jungles, icicle-dripped caves, bat-filled passages, underwater tunnels, lava-surrounded huts, native-infested mountaintops and much more. It's all drawn on a grand scale so that you can see a great distance with very little draw-in or pop-up.
The collision detection issues in the preview builds of Pitfall have been cleared up entirely. The camera successfully avoids clipping, turning foreground objects transparent and sliding around background walls and other obstacles. We can't help but notice the polish. There's a certain amount of technical prowess that went into this game's graphic engine and it shows, even if there are some unimpressive elements.
Very well done. Everything runs in Dolby Pro Logic II for setups that support the format and you'll be able to hear the difference. Bird chirps are separated to the rear speakers in surround sound. Monkeys howl and whine from all angles. You'll feel as if you're running through a lunatic jungle. The voice work is crisp and well-acted, not to mention quirky and sometimes funny. We found some of the trapped explorer one-liners especially humorous. As Harry makes his way through dark caverns in search of these poor souls, you'll occasionally hear weeping and gibbering from your speakers and the closer you get to the source the more distinct it becomes. Finally, you can hear these prisoners spit out clearly insane likes like: "Killmekillmekillmekillme..." over and over. The delivery is definitely comical. The audio experience is topped off with clean, fitting music. Some of the one-liners fall short, but overall Edge of Reality did spot-on work with the soundtrack.
This is a worthy sequel to the classic franchise in every way. Tight control, innovative single-arm abilities, and huge, ambient, varied environments to explore; classic play elements reborn in 3D such as the abilities to run on crocs, swing on vines, jump across pits, and battle scorpions; and it looks pretty good, too. This is an overall fun, engaging title that successfully mixes the platformer and adventure genres.
So what's not to like? Well, some of the character designs feel a bit generic, for starters. The game itself borrows some gameplay cliches (but at least they are well implemented). The map system is flawed. The manual camera and the combo (B+Y) button controls are unintuitive. And the overall adventure might be a bit too short for some.
Still, these drawbacks in mind, I was entertained with the game from its opening cut-scene to its end credits. And with that in mind I can't help but recommend it to Pitfall and platformer/adventure fans alike. It's not going to reinvent any genres, but I think you'll enjoy it all the same.
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