Before we get started, let me say one thing: it was not by design that I review three Rare games in a row. Here at GameCritics, we sort of pick and choose what we cover, but there are a number of varying factors that determine whether or not one actually gets to review a certain title or not. As fate would have it, I won the Rare lottery. That being said, rest assured this is the last Rare game I'm covering for awhile—those expecting my candid observations about Grabbed by the Ghoulies will just have to be disappointed.
Of all the Rare titles to come along since Microsoft bought the developer, the one that interested me most has always been Conker: Live & Reloaded. I never got around to owning a Nintendo 64, so I missed out on the hilarious adventures of the foul-mouthed squirrel when he first took the gaming world by storm several years back. There's always been a list of games that were N64 exclusive that I wanted to play—and Conker (along with Ogre Battle 64) was always at the top of the list. It couldn't convince me to plunk down the cash for the system, though.
So, when it was announced that Rare would be making an updated version of Conker for the Xbox, I was pretty excited—another hole in my game-playing career would soon be filled in. Now, after having spent roughly ten hours beating the single-player campaign and a few more goofing around with multiplayer, I can say I'm glad I finally got to experience Conker. I can also say that I'm glad I didn't buy an N64 just for the privilege.
Conker: Live & Reloaded is a retelling of the first tale's game, with an added emphasis on online multiplayer modes. The game has received a major graphical upgrade since it first appeared on the N64, but other problems from the original version (most notably, a wonky camera system and terrible swimming mechanics) made it through the remaking unchanged. Because of this, Live & Reloaded is something of a schizophrenic experience—it looks modern and shiny, but there are lots of places where archaic design and gameplay conventions rear their ugly heads.
The title's greatest strength is its humor. Despite the fact that Conker the Squirrel is a cute and cuddly looking little forest creature, he's really a foul-mouthed alcoholic on a never-ending quest for booze, babes, and loot. The story revolves around Conker's attempts to get home after a night of binge drinking, and the Panther King's need for a red squirrel to perfectly balance out the missing leg on his throne-side table (his milk keeps spilling). From this absurd premise, ever more bizarre gameplay elements spring. During the course of his adventure, Conker will have to pollinate a voluptuous flower (so he can use her breasts as trampolines), give cows explosive diarrhea, push around a ball of dung, fight a giant turd, and more. The game flits from one absurd set-piece to the next like a crack addict on a three day binge—each one more bizarre and hilarious than the last. Throw in some funny cutscenes, enough profanity to make Lenny Bruce blush (the more hardcore words bleeped out for added effect), and some brilliant parodies of popular films, and well, Conker should manage to make even the most sour gamer smile at some point.
The game's other strength lies in the multifaceted gameplay. It would be easy (and wrong) to label Conker as a platformer. A lot of the gameplay revolves around platforming elements, but the game also incorporates shooting, driving, flying, peeing on things, collecting, and about a dozen other different gaming conventions and mixes them almost seamlessly into a whole that's always greater than the sum of the parts. If the gameplay has any one flaw, it's that the title starts out too slow—early on, Conker feels an awful lot like a simple platformer with some combat elements thrown into the mix. Later levels, which are wall-to-wall third person shooting (with a ramped up level of difficulty to boot) come on too late. Mixing these stages up would have given the whole experience a more frenetic feeling instead of starting off slowly then walloping gamers with balls-out action in the last few hours.
The gameplay's other flaw is that the title has a genuine penchant for plopping players into an area and giving them no real idea as to what they need to do to advance. The game has no map, no list of objectives, no checklists of items to find in an area…nothing at all. The game puts Conker in a region and just turns him loose. This leads to some frustration at various points in the narrative as players will have no clue what to do next or how to beat a particular enemy.
My favorite element of the whole Conker experience has to be the controls. Conker does something really amazing in this day and age—it takes what could have been a complicated control scheme and distills it down into something much simpler. If players can find the B button on the Xbox controller, they can handle most of this game. Rather than map tons of actions to face buttons, black and white buttons, and triggers, Rare has kept things simple—and the game is a lot more accessible because of it.
Taking that even a step further are the context sensitive control areas. At certain points in an area, Conker will find a large button on the ground marked with a B. Standing there will cause a little light bulb to go off over the squirrel's head—and pushing the B button will cause him to use something specifically designed for that particular portion of the game. In some areas, it's a slingshot; in others it's a blowtorch. Context sensitive controls have become a staple of modern gaming, but this is one of those titles that really implements it in an effective manner. The only place where the controls feel "wrong" are in the game's various swimming segments. Conker doesn't move through the water naturally and most of that's because the controls for swimming seem almost counter-intuitive the majority of the time.
If the game has one flaw (and it actually has several, more on those in a bit), it's the camera system. Friends who've played both versions of Conker tell me the Xbox version's camera is better, but it's still temperamental and has a tendency to make some of the game's platforming segments frustrating to the point of controller throwing. The camera has a tendency to get caught on objects in the environment, not center behind the character, and worst of all, crowd into Conker anytime he's on a ledge with his back to a wall. Climbing to the top of one particular tower was so aggravating that I nearly quit the game in frustration before finally succeeding. Making it inspired nothing but relief—not a feeling of accomplishment. The platforming segment itself is not hard—the camera just makes it harder than it should be.
That being said, the single-player campaign is a lot of fun. The humor and action in the later stages are excellent and the overall experience still holds up, even years after it was originally conceived and released.
However, the real selling point of the remake was the online and multiplayer modes. These modes are very hard to rate—partially because I could never find a lot of folks to play with online (everyone's moved on to other titles by this point) and partially because the multiplayer element has such a steep learning curve that most people will quit before they ever master the nuances. People expecting a "pick-up-and-play" multiplayer experience (like those found in a standard first person shooter) are in for a bit of a surprise. The game tends to throw players into the multiplayer arenas with no guidance other than a heads-up display packed with information that makes little sense. Couple this with the fact that even headshots take two or three hits to kill enemies, and the frustration factor only rises.
Up to 16 players can play online (I never got to try a game that big, but apparently there are some lag issues in those high number games). Players can choose what sort of soldier they want to be—and if they don't like it, they can switch mid-match. Great idea, but it's not implemented well. To change, the player will have to sit idle while a timer counts down—and they're vulnerable to attack while this happens. This means every spawn camping ten-year-old homophobe with an Xbox Live account will sit there and kill you every time you show up. The real kicker is that when you respawn the second time, the idle counter starts over again. Enjoy the vicious cycle…
Ultimately, the multiplayer and online modes have a lot of issues that could have been dealt with prior to release. These don't particularly bother me though, since I have very little interest in ever playing online or multiplayer. If single player is your thing, Conker: Live & Reloaded will give you around ten hours of hilariously bizarre and vulgar gameplay. Multiplayer online can be fun—provided the player has the patience to learn the subtleties of how to play and can actually find other people to play with.