When I first learned that Conker's Bad Fur Day was being remade for the Xbox I just about dropped my pants doing the happy dance. One of my all-time favorite games, the N64 version of Conker was an irreverent, foul and hilarious genre-busting extravaganza. Having the single-player campaign and an all-new Xbox Live multiplayer feature seemed to make Live & Reloaded destined for greatness. And yet, after running through the single-player twice and playing a healthy dose of the multiplayer, I'm left somewhat disappointed. This is not the greatest game ever. In fact, the multiplayer, which was Rare's big focus, is a letdown. As Conker might say, "What the f*@&!?"
The Little Squirrel That Could
Meet Conker, a foul-mouthed squirrel who is the definition of a hedonist. His interests focus on finding a good beer, getting some action and pocketing cash. He's a guy's guy, only he's a squirrel. The fact that he's so damn cute plays perfectly against his boorish behavior. This isn't the best friend of all the forest creatures, the cute fuzzy animal you snuggle in bed at night. Conker only cares about himself, everyone else be damned.
Conker's Bad Fur Day, the single-player component of Live & Reloaded, begins with the cantankerous squirrel awakening from a bender and in need of a way home. Pretty much the rest of the story goes into orbit from that point. Unlike most games, which focus on things like a complex plot or a battle against villainy, Conker's journey spawns from stupidity -- both his own and others. See, the Panther King has a problem -- his three-legged table keeps spilling his milk. The solution? Find a red squirrel to fill the gap and keep the table steady, of course.
No, seriously, that's the plot. From there it degenerates into a wondrous madness that seems almost born from free association. Those who hate British humor or, well, humor in general will hate the single-player, but it cracks me up every time I play. There's really no end to the lunacy. Along with a giant mound of poo that sings a scatological parody of a Disney musical, there's a caveman with "size" issues, a devilish vampire, a sexy flower in need of pollination and lots of cursing (bleeped out to make it even funnier).
Not everyone will grasp the raw sense of humor in Conker. There are some who will wonder, why the hell am I rolling this giant ball of poo up a dung hill? But honestly, who cares about those people?
Genres, Prepare to be Busted
At the time of its release five years ago, Conker was revolutionary. Few games had dared to merge multiple genres and certainly not while offering simplistic controls. Live & Reloaded is a shooter, a platformer, a puzzler and a cart racer all wrapped into a ten-hour single-player experience.
That amount of divergence can make a game difficult to sell and, like the humor, can prove a turn-off to some. There aren't many games on Xbox that ignore the majority of buttons on the Controller S, but Conker is made with ease-of-use in mind. If you can find the B Button on your controller, you're well on your way to mastering the controls.
Conker was one of the first games to utilize context-sensitive controls, something that is so commonplace in today's gaming that it's easy to take for granted. Conker plays a lot like a Looney Tunes episode. Get into a situation where you need, say, a slingshot and a light bulb dings over Conker's head. Hit the B Button and Conker pulls one out of his back pocket. The majority of weapons, item switches, and interactions all come down to the B Button. It's simple, but it's fun.
That's not to say you won't have some times where you'll need more than just a B Button to save your ass. The later portions of the single-player campaign are heavily focused on third-person shooting, where you'll need to master the triggers to blast away Nazi Tediz or grotesque zombies. The shooting portions, in fact the last few hours of the game, are much more action-packed and faster paced than the earlier stuff. It's a little odd that Rare didn't think to mix these things up so that the game had better ebb and flow, but as it stands, you begin with little action but end with non-stop firefights.
Go with the Flow or Unzip and Let 'Er Loose
Conker really does hop around genres and there's some out-of-this-world stuff you're required to do in order to beat the game. There's not one but two instances where you need to get drunk and piss on things in order to get past stages. You'll hop on a hoverboard and race against a bunch of caveman hoodlums, jump in a tank and destroy teddy bear monstrosities and fly around as a vampire bat, dropping guano on villagers. Conker has it all.
OK, to be honest, it doesn't have it all. For example, there's no road map, no definitive clues to help you in many of the areas. This may just be the game that forces you to use a guide or a FAQ for the first time, because there are many times where it's unclear what you're supposed to do next. Accomplishing those goals isn't so bad, but the puzzle elements involved can sometimes prove confusing. Confusion leads to frustration, frustration leads to cursing. And we all know cursing leads to controller tossing. If there's one thing Rare could have improved over the original, it would be adding some better guidance. They did not.
The More Things Change, the Worse They Get
Here's the sad news: The Conker single-player experience on Xbox is not as good as on the N64. To its credit, Rare has done some fantastic things to the single-player. First and foremost, the graphics are unbelievable. Running at a generally solid 30fps, Conker is a lush, gorgeous world with some phenomenal textures and effects. It's only ugly aspect comes from some of the character models. A T-Rex, even a baby one, should really make you crap your pants on Xbox. Certainly when it tears someone in half it should be impressive, but many of the more gruesome scenes prove the ugliest, with basic textures and simplistic effects.
The camera, which was a real problem on N64, has seen some slight improvements. In tight spots the camera is very problematic, particularly when Conker is on a ledge against a wall, but overall it performs well. The third-person shooting controls and just some other minor tweaks have also been made to make the game a little more manageable. And yet, the N64 version is better.
Sometimes you can tinker too much and mess up a good thing. That's how my relationship with Martha Stewart disintegrated and that sort of tampering hurts Conker as well. In an attempt to make Conker more accessible, Rare has made the game a little easier and removed a few sections. One missing section that really stood out to me comes in the last third of the game. In the N64 version you need to get a power source turned on. To do this, you need to get a charge going by diving into the water and leading an electric eel through several power circuits. It was a pain on the N64, now it's gone. I'd rather Rare found a way to make sections like this better with tighter swimming control rather than just cutting them out. It's a cheap trick.
My real issue, however, is with every little thing still wrong with the game. The pacing in the beginning is too slow, all of the great movie parodies come in the second half and swimming is still a pain in the ass. These things weren't fixed. Some things that seem so obvious are still broken and it's been five years. What is the holdup?
While I still love the single-player, it's shorter and easier on Xbox. What I considered a 9.9 experience on N64 is more like a 9.2 on Xbox -- still great, just not as great.
As a bonus, Rare has added a merger between the single-player and multiplayer. Chapter X is a single-player mission that is played with bots. In this way you can still have some fun playing alone, but can also learn the ins-and-outs of the complex multiplayer. Chapter X has some damn hard parts and is a nice little addition that turns out to be a bit more fun than the actual multiplayer.
Don't Play Alone
Rare's focus for Live & Reloaded was the online multiplayer (and yes, there's also system link and offline two-player split-screen support). Apparently the focus wasn't balancing. There are some really great ideas in Live & Reloaded, but there are also some shortcomings that can make for a sometimes frustrating (and worse, boring) experience.
The options are a little limited online and boil down to either deathmatch or objective-based missions. Along with selecting which team to be on, either the SHC (furry animals) or the Tediz, you get to choose your class. No matter which side you choose, the classes remain the same. It's merely your objectives that will alter (either to infiltrate or to defend).
The class-based system is more complex than Return to Castle Wolfenstein, but also allow for a lot more variety. It's actually a very admirable set up. Each of the classes has its own set of unique weapons, abilities and piloting skills. You can be a Sneeker and turn invisible or be a Demolisher and do some real damage with the bazooka. Each class alters the way you must play and further each weapon you use will change your strategy as well.
Deathmatch is pretty standard in terms of application, but it's damned hectic. Hop into a live game of Conker and things are exploding left and right, warble and heat effects fill the screen, gunfire echoes from everywhere. It's a madhouse, which is great. That's if you have a full room. The fewer people you have, the faster Conker drops off the excitement level. Forget about playing with a small group, even in one of the small maps (of which there's basically one), it's just no fun at all with less than eight people.
All of that frenetic action can be exciting, but it's going to take some time before you're ready for it -- At least for Mission play. Everyone who's played Live & Reloaded has offered the same comment: It's God damn confusing at first. The HUD is overcrowded, the controls are anything but intuitive and mission objectives are a little obscure. Over time, with more and more play, things snap into place and gameplay becomes no problem, but pick-up-and-play this is not.
The missions are varied and success is rewarded with some hot cut-scenes. All of the standards are there, including variations on capture the flag and domination. There are also some really clever instruments for mayhem, including moveable teleportation nodes and ordinance terminals for upgrading weapons and refilling grenades. The vehicles can also be a blast, but it is a little frustrating that vehicles are tied to specific classes.
When you first start a fracas, more often than not you are going to suck. The reason doesn't have anything to do with skill, it's that your weapons and specialty items require in-the-field upgrades. Dead enemies drop upgrades and these are vital, because without some upgrades you just aren't going to get the job done often enough.
All of this makes for a very complex game. Perhaps even too complex and too smart for its own good. Rare has put in tons of clever tricks and a very in-depth system of upgrades and weapons, but it just isn't that much fun. This isn't just my declaration, but the feelings of everyone who's played in the office. Where is the f@&$ing fun?
There are just too many frustrating aspects to Conker that hold the multiplayer back. It's often impossible to tell when a hit registers and sometimes attacks are completely meaningless anyway. Even right out of the gate a sniper needs to be able to kill with headshots -- that's just a given for any game. Not in Conker. For fun, I took some direct headshots at standing targets and it would take two, three once even four bullets to kill the person. You need to hold and power up your shot (creating an easy-to-see laser that can be avoided by most). Conversely, any a$$hole with a bazooka can kill indiscriminately with shots that merely get close to the target. I can't possibly express the frustrations of trying to play with other classes only to see myself and others continually smoked by bazookas.
Fortunately, you can change classes at any spawn point -- but at a price. Changing your class requires some idle time. The kicker is that your character is immobile but vulnerable to attack. So a spawn-camper can kill you while you wait on the idle countdown. You respawn but must begin the countdown from the top again. At least the camper can keep shooting you with those instant-kill bazookas so you can never move again. Now I know why Conker curses so damn much.
Further adding to my gray hairs is the weapon-swapping system. Conker uses a system similar to Rainbow Six, where you hold down a button and a four-option menu appears. Just move the cursor to the weapon or item you want. But it's not just one menu, there are different menus for everything. It's weapons, specialties, even different types of weapon fire. It's too much, especially in a game that moves fast. This is a twitch shooter trying to be a tactical shooter.
While I have my frustrations with Conker's multiplayer, I will say that those who stick with it will be rewarded. Stats are kept for everything, including the number and types of kills with each class. As you gain kills and campaign points, your character earns different upgrades. These upgrades greatly improve game enjoyment, because they cut down on some of the nagging issues. The crappy rate of fire increases, you can hold more grenades, you gain cooler skills. But you have to invest the time. I imagine many won't.
My guess is that about half the people who play this will love it. They'll write in angry letters about what an idiot I am (and admittedly, I am an idiot). The other half will find it boring, slow and no fun at all. I'm actually excited to give Conker a second go once it's out in the mass market, just to see if a massive pool of gamers makes the experience any better. But for now I have to maintain that the multiplayer isn't much fun. Clever, yes. Fun, no.
Click here to see more Microsoft Xbox Video Game Reviews