I should admit up front that I am a huge fan of Wallace & Gromit. Ever since the first frames of The Wrong Trousers aired over my PBS station in the early Nineties, I've been smitten. Nick Park, working out of Britain's Aardman Studios, is the Charlie Chaplin of clay. And now Park and Aardman have teamed up with another admirable enterprise, Telltale Games, to present four episodes of a brand new W&G adventure under the umbrella title of Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures. The first episode, Fright of the Bumblebees, came out in April and subsequent episodes (The Last Resort, Muzzled!, The Bogey Man) will debut posthaste on a one-per-month basis. Best of all, these are, to my knowledge, the first true adventure W&G games. A game version of Curse of the Were-Rabbit came out to accompany the feature film not long ago, but that was largely a platformer; you know, shoot all the rabbits with mint jelly or something. There are even a couple of free fun Flash minigames available on the W&G webpage, butGrand Adventures is a no-bones-about-it, honest-to-God adventure game, made by a company to which the adventure game community is still indebted for rescuing the Sam & Max franchise from the jaws of certain death.
So, am I happy? Well, yes, of course. I'm especially happy that Park and Aardman have embraced the adventure game. I mean, they could probably have even gotten away with making a W&G FPS, so popular is the franchise at this point. Or a W&G RPG, or a W&G board game, or a W&G iPhone app, with Gromit swatting attacking digital bees while Wallace answers your phone calls for you. That anybody continues to make adventure games in the face of all the rampant competition makes me happy, and to have so valuable a commodity as W&G in the adventure camp is particularly gratifying. Now I know how the Democrats feel about Senator Specter.
I'm also happy to report that, aside from a few minor if troubling glitches, which I'll get to below, Telltale's done a stellar job transmogrifying the W&G "ethos" to . . . .well, not CD, or DVD, but to PC. And, later kids, to other popular platforms. At least Wii and Xbox. As of last report Bees is only available as a digital download from Telltale. The setup file clocks in at just under 350 megs, which is pushing it if you're still on dial up. Pricing of the game is intriguing. The official sticker price is $34.95 for all four episodes. That is, you can't purchase individual episodes. Presumably a lot of thought went into this in Telltale's CFO's office. Personally, I don't understand what would have been the extra hassle of letting people fork out $10 per episode if they so preferred. Also, thirty-five smackeroos for a digital download game strikes me as being a tad pricey. Maybe it's the recession. Maybe I'm just cheap. But that's my gut reaction. (You can get a game disk for the cost of postage after you've downloaded all the episodes. Not really sure why you'd want one then, but there you have it.)
In my case, the game downloaded smoothly and set up smoothly. Moreover, the game engine sports most of my favorite game options. Subtitles on/off, generous supply of screen resolutions (including the elusive 1280x720 widescreen that I treasure so), and a 1-9 scale that essentially tailors the game to your hardware. Got a monster monitor and one of those graphic cards that looks like a Sixties hotrod turbocharger? Crank 'er up to 9. Got a basic word processor and otherwise play a lot of Freecell? Dial it down to 1. I ran the game on 5 and probably should have had it on 4 or 3. I learned this the hard way. When I played the Bees demo I had no idea about this option and played pretty much the whole thing like wading through Jello.
As far as I could see, there's no game manual. You're supposed to pay attention during the fun but somewhat patronizing Tutorial. This didn't quite answer all my gameplay questions, though. I think the whole Telltale philosophy about this is that you're essentially playing a web game. You have to log in with your username and password when you set the game up. I suspect Telltale expects you to visit one of their several game forums for any questions you may have, technical or otherwise. Maybe I'm simply old-fashioned about this, but I still like to imagine I'm playing an adventure game by myself. I'm grateful that Telltale did not go so far as to have a "chat board" up and running alongside the game. No doubt, many folks like to play a game this way. It's probably especially fun if you're still an adolescent. Alas, not all of us still are. I do like reading the forums after I've completed the game, but not during. The likelihood of accidentally stumbling over a spoiler is too great. And I hate spoilers. Hate, hate, hate.
Which brings me to one of the small, well-gnawed bones I do have to pick with Telltale about their otherwise wonderful new W&G game. Another welcome option in the Settings panel is a dial that allows you to customize the in-game hints you receive. These run from "Often" to "Never." Depending on your selection, the game's characters themselves will nudge you along with a helpful comment. In theory, I applaud this system. However, I couldn't help noticing that with the dial on "Never" I was still getting some hints. I checked back to the Settings panel several times to make sure I hadn't accidentally bumped it up to "Rarely" or "Sometimes." But no. Do the folks at Telltale think I'm joking when I set the dial at "Never"? Apparently. It's particularly annoying because the "hints" come at you depending on how long you take to figure things out. This gives you the same feeling you get in popular restaurants at peak hours when you know that every waiter and busboy in sight is shooting daggers in your back as you dawdle over your coffee and cake. Look, I realize that this is the definite trend in adventure games. Most people, apparently, can't get enough help. My favorite is the folks in the forums looking for help in understanding the walkthrough. "But, I tried that and it still doesn't work!" Yes, I am all for bringing as many players as possible into the adventure game community, but what I'm complaining about isn't the help, it's the unrequested help.
Otherwise, how is the Bees gameplay? It's fine. Navigation around the 3D environment is accomplished with the arrow keys or WASD. You move your mouse around to find hotspots, which are marked off with superimposed brackets. The inventory slides in and out from the right side at the touch of the shift key. It's a little awkward having to switch back and forth from the mouse to the keyboard. I suppose, if you wanted, you could play the whole thing from the keyboard, except the navigation was a bit too hit-and-miss for that. I found even the mouse movement a little loosey-goosey. (This might have been because I had the speed setting too high for my system.) I had to remind myself to wait until the hotspot I wanted actually was listed in the upper right hand corner, as there was a lag between the actual location of the pointer and the item highlighted. A minor annoyance though.
Fright of the Bumblebees is, not surprisingly, a short game. It took me about a half dozen hours to complete, and I tend to be methodical. As part one of four, the game should be short. Actually, I found it to be a good length, short but not unsatisfying. No complaints there. More disturbing, I did run into a couple of glitches. Again, this may be a game speed issue, but several times the game screen essentially locked up on me. I couldn't quit and I couldn't move the characters. I had to switch to the Windows desktop and close the game. I also lost an inventory item on a couple of occasions and had to resort to a saved game. This is a bit more alarming, because one loses confidence in the game. One starts to play gingerly, and to keep close watch on one's inventory, neither of which is much fun.
At first I didn't think there was a save game option. The game automatically saves during gameplay as you make progress (a little notice slides onscreen to alert you). And it autosaves wherever you quit. In the game settings panel, however, is a listing called "Your Game" which allows you to set "bookmarks" during gameplay. There are four slots visible. I only used three, so I don't know if there are more if you need them. Given the sometime quirkiness of the game engine, I'd recommend you bookmark your game every time you make significant progress (and are sure you've still got all your inventory items).
Though the game does have a few technical issues, Telltale and Aardman have nonetheless done a fantastic job turning W&G into an adventure game. The graphics and 3D world are not only gorgeous, but they've clearly gone to a lot of trouble to make the characters still look like they're made of clay. Whether or not they needed to do this is debatable, but they certainly did a beautiful job of it. They even added the occasional human thumbprint in the clay to extend the illusion. There has been some comment in the forums that Peter Sallis, the official voice of Wallace, skipped this project, but his understudy Ben Whitehead does, to my ear, an excellent job. Gromit, of course, is the last of the great silent film comedians.
I don't want to give away too much of the plot of Fright of the Bumblebees. The title pretty much tells all you need to know. Wallace finds himself strapped for cash at the start and then gets a perhaps too tempting business offer for his new enterprise ‘From Bee to You.’ Matters, as you might guess, only get stickier from there. The episode is replete with a gaggle of colorful characters, almost all (the humans at least) inhabitants of the environs of 62 West Wallaby Street. The writing is spot-on true to the Wallace & Gromit film work. I didn't find the game as outright funny as the shorts and feature films, but that may simply be the difference in mediums.
The actual adventuring is for the most part traditional inventory-based and conversation-based. You play about half the game as Wallace and half as Gromit, switching back and forth as is the game engine's wont. The puzzling, while appropriately zany, is not terribly difficult, and the game at times nears "interactive story" levels. There are, however, just enough true brain ticklers to keep you, Wallace and Gromit on your toes. There's also an occasional action sequence, but not to worry. They're really a sort of action-adventure hybrid. What is being tested is your wits not your trigger finger. In fact, I found these sequences to be the most original and interesting in the game and I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing Telltale develop them more. The soundtrack has a jaunty British music hall feel. Just right.
What complaints I have with Grand Adventures have entirely to do with the game engine and the help system. None are tragic. The marriage of Telltale Games and Aardman is truly a cause for celebration in the adventure game world, as was the earlier hookup of Telltale with Steve Purcell. I, for one, am looking forward to the subsequent episodes in the series, and, hopefully, beyond. I award "Fright of the Bumblebees" an overall Bee plus, with the expectation that, as Park and Telltale get the kinks worked out, future episodes will attain even greater heights. Hey, maybe Wallace would be willing to pitch in with a few inventive ideas for the gameplay?
Final Grade: Bee+