Whenever people discover I'm a game reviewer, the result is almost always the same. Their eyes light up and they tend to respond with something along the lines of: "Oh, wow, that's great! You get to sit around and play games for a living." My response to this is usually just to smile and nod in agreement.
What the majority of people don't realize is that most of us don't make much of anything for reviewing games—it's a labor of love. We review games because we love to play them, talk about them, and occasionally help people find something they'd have otherwise missed. The money thing has never really been an issue—yeah, it would be cool to make a ton of dough doing this, but I'm not quitting now just because there's no cash involved.
What bothers me more is the assumption that I get to live the good life, sitting around all day playing games. While I do spend a significant portion of each day playing, I also spend time reading about other games, talking with other gamers, researching stuff for reviews, editing and uploading my reviews, and so forth. It's not just a case of sit down, play, and write. That's not the worst part of it, though. The worst part is everyone assumes that because you're a game reviewer you're sitting around playing really great games. I'd love to put this false notion to bed once and for all. I've been reviewing games for over four years now, and in that time I've played more bad games than good ones. During that span, I've missed out on the opportunity to play things I was really looking forward to when they were released because I had other things that had to be reviewed. This is why I've spent maybe 15 minutes with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, or why I had to set aside games like Legaia: Duel Saga so I could play dreck like Fellowship Of The Ring; it's why there are more than 45 games in my collection still in shrinkwrap
Not only does reviewing occasionally keep the reviewer from playing games he'd enjoy playing, but the average reviewer spends a lot of time playing games that aren't very good. Imagine all the games released in the average month—now imagine how many of those are actually worth playingyet, all of those games are supposed to be reviewed at some point. Even being lucky enough to pick and choose my titles for the most part means I still spend more time than I'd like playing games I have little interest in. Invariably, you have to take one for the team. Besides, playing only games that one likes can lead to both an inflated average score for reviews (making the critic a "yes man" on some level) and allows the reviewer to miss out on vital learning opportunities. Bad games, after all, have almost as much to teach us as good ones.
All of which brings me to Aquaman: Battle For Atlantis. Aquaman is a shining example of why being a game critic can really suck. It's a bad game that needs to be reviewed so other gamers out there can avoid being sucked into the whirlpool of uninspired gameplay, bland graphics, and generalized mediocrity that colors the entirety of the title. Despite doing this public service, I can't help but feel a little bitter toward TDK Mediactive for foisting this game on me—I'd have much rather spent the past few days with something like Disgaea or Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes.
Perhaps the best thing going for Aquaman is that it's rather short. The game is broken up into just over 20 chapters—although, by the time the player has reached chapter 7 they'll have experienced all of the variety the game has to offer in terms of gameplay. The next 14 chapters will be spent essentially re-living the gameplay experiences of the first third of the game. This is not a good thing.
The gameplay can be broken down like this: some levels have Aquaman swimming around beating up a predetermined number of bad guys, some have him trying to complete specific goals in a time limit or before an object is destroyed, and some have him driving around in his little submarine. At some points, the game will create missions that mix in variations of all three game mechanics, meaning Aquaman might have to pilot his sub while trying to save something before the bad guys destroy it. That's about as inspired as it gets in terms of gameplay.
What's most perplexing about the game is Aquaman himself. I'm sure most gamers remember Aquaman as the short-haired, orange-shirt-wearing fishman featured on the old SuperFriends cartoon in the '70s. That Aquaman was always part of the B team of superheroes—he wasn't as cool as Superman or Batman, and instead he had to spend most of his time with those two annoying Wonder Twins, or guys like Hawkman.
Still, there could be at least some camp value in seeing the Aquaman of old return in his own game—which is why the decision to go with the newer Aquaman in this game is so puzzling. Gone is the "classic Aquaman" (although he can be unlocked after beating the game), replaced by some guy who looks like Greg Allman of the Allman Brothers on steroids. The new Aquaman is nothing if not hirsute. Granted, I can't tell if that's a mullet he's sporting or not, but thanks to the graphical engine (which is roughly on par with a first generation Dreamcast game), he's always got a good case of helmet hair happening.
At its core, Aquaman is a beat-'em-up like Final Fight or Double Dragon. Players take control of the king of Atlantis and guide him through a bunch of underwater cityscapes (that are surprisingly devoid of people—I thought Atlantis was a metropolis, not a ghost town). Along the way, you'll encounter the same few groups of enemies—over and over. When this happens, Aquaman engages them in combat-and the game's mediocrity is highlighted once more. While Aquaman may have a plethora of moves he can use involving combinations of the Controller S's face buttons, players will be able to beat the game by simply mashing A repeatedly. The combos are decent looking, but when a player can just do the regular old punch, what's the point with doing the complex finger gymnastics required to pull of the more difficult maneuvers? During the entirety of the game, I was reminded of IGN's Kabuki Warriors review, wherein the reviewer told a tale of a guy winning fights by doing nothing but mashing the buttons against his rear end. I didn't go the scientific route and try it out here, but I've little doubt the stratagem would have worked had I tried it.
When players get tired of mashing the A button, they can employ Aquaman's one super-power—his ability to call undersea animals to aid him in battle. Generally, doing this will call forth either a shark or a dolphin, both of which will grab the enemy and swim off with him before allowing battle to resume. It's sort of cool the first time you do it, but after that it loses its appeal.
As mentioned earlier, the graphics would look right at home on the Dreamcast circa 1999, but that's not the only place this title is failing to "unleash the power of X." In one of the cheapest and most boneheaded design decisions I've seen in a long time, Aquaman presents all of its cutscenes in comic-styled stillscomplete with dialogue bubbles. TDK couldn't even be bothered to make a few cutscenes using the in-game graphics engine—instead, players are forced to look at some ugly artwork complete with uber lame dialogue between each chapter. This is most assuredly not a good thing.
The game features a few extras, mainly the ability to play as classic Aquaman, Tempest, or Black Manta after beating the game. Classic Aquaman is unlocked after beating the game the first time through. I'm not sure what one must do to unlock the other characters, but if it involves playing through this putrid mess two more times, then I doubt many people will ever be playing as these characters. They're hardly incentive to suffer through the numerous deficiencies that plague Aquaman at every turn. Although, to be fair, there's no real extra I can think of that would make Aquaman worth playing through again anyway—not even large sums of money.
In their defense, TDK seems to realize they had a clunker on their hands and as such have released Aquaman: Battle For Atlantis at the discounted price of $20. I'm a fan of this new $20 price point for lesser titles—it made a game like Evil Dead: A Fistful Of Boomstick a lot more worthwhile since it was so much cheaper than a regular game. Aquaman, however, is overpriced at $20. This feels like an unfinished game that got rushed out the door—filled with half-formed ideas, simplistic gameplay mechanics, and graphics that need at least a good polishing if not an outright revamping. Paying $20 for this game might not sting quite as much as shelling out half a C-note, but it's still going to hurt.
See? Being a game critic isn't all wine and roses after all. At least you can avoid the suffering I've already endured.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.