Few movies lend themselves to multiplayer modes as well as Tron. When it was time for Tron: Evolution's development team to devise a multiplayer concept, there was presumably a short meeting that began and ended with writing "light discs" and "light cycles" on the whiteboard. And, so we find the multiplayer in this tie-in game: four modes across four maps, with two focused on arena combat with light discs and two focused on cutting up other cyclists with the glowing trails of your light cycle. It's a modest multiplayer offering, though the gamemakers promise two more maps will be available for free download at launch.
The tie-in game, a third-person action adventure, will be a prequel to the movie Tron: Legacy coming out in December, which is itself a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi flick. Tron: Evolution links the plot of the original movie to the sequel as you--in the single-player mode--take on the role of a monitor program written by Flynn to resolve a conflict in the Tron universe. We're told to expect a story that sheds a little light on how the newly liberated electronic world at the end of the 1982 film became the digital dystopia glimpsed in this year's trailers.
Within multiplayer, there's the de rigueur persistent character progression, with levels to attain and upgrades to unlock, but that progress is also brought back into the single-player campaign. The developer, Vancouver-based Propaganda games, reckons unifying the single-player and multiplayer avatar will persuade more Tron: Evolution buyers--more likely to be casual gamers who enjoyed the film than Modern Warfare aficionados--to sample the online experience. Gaining levels in multiplayer can increase an avatar's health reserve or damage resistance, for instance, or grant access to more powerful types of light disc weapons.
The game supports up to 10-person online multiplayer. The four modes comprise Disintegration, a deathmatch mode; Team Disintegration; Power Monger, a domination-style mode in which teams capture energy nodes; and Bit Runner, in which teams fight to capture and hold an elusive single "bit." We played the first two modes across the Hard Disk and Heat Sink maps, which were both smaller, enclosed spaces with walls and platforms for clambering on, rendered in the familiar neon Tron style. These maps don't allow light cycles, focusing instead on hand-to-hand and light-disc gladiatorial combat.
A hurled light disc isn't as deadly as the movie would have you believe. It took a few direct (heavily aim-assisted) hits, coupled with impressively gymnastic (if repetitively animated) leaping attacks to drain an opponent's health. There are some subtleties to the combat system that reward chaining attacks, dodging, and parrying, but in practice--at least for low-level newcomers--it amounts to a leaping, disc-hurling free-for-all rather than artful duelling. Being derezzed--killed, that is--puts you on a short respawn timer before sending you back into the fray.
The other two maps, Defrag and Circuit Board, are larger "outdoor" maps designed for light cycle action. The cycles can be steered conventionally or turned through instant right angles; it's the latter you'll use to dodge through the path of opponents, creating a barrier with your light trail. These aren't instantly lethal but do create obstructions and cause damage to enemy riders. There are three light cycle types, with marginally varied handling: one based on the 1982 movie, one from the new film, and one original design. In addition to light cycles, you can take control of a map's tank vehicle if you're the first to reach it--these are slow and powerful though not indestructible.
Of the modes Bit Runner and Power Monger, Bit Runner most encouraged racing and outmanoeuvring the opposing team's light cyclists. It also seemed most likely to replicate the high-speed games of chicken promised by the film. Power Monger, on the other hand, requires you to dismount and capture bases (energy nodes) on foot. It's the most strategic of the four modes as well; to win points, teams have to gain and control energy nodes that are linked by the circuitry of the map.
As a movie and now a movie franchise, Tron should spawn games more naturally than most--being about and inside games. In December, alongside Tron: Legacy's cinematic release, we'll know for sure whether we're getting a by-the-numbers spin-off or something worthwhile in the shape of Tron: Evolution.