Advent Rising is a fun game with a lot of potential, and it's a shame the planned sequels never materialized.

Given how dependent the video game business is on reliable blockbusters these days, it's unsurprising that so many big-budget titles feel the need to set up sequels, even if their IP is new and unproven. When the sales numbers allow for a follow-up, this can make us eager to experience the next chapter in the story (see Mass Effect 2). When things don't go so well, however, we're often left with incomplete narratives that are begging for a conclusion (as happened with Midway's Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy). Released on the Xbox and PC in 2005, Advent Rising is a definite example of the latter situation. Intended as the first part of a trilogy, this sci-fi epic was a commercial and critical disappointment that caused financial difficulties for its publisher (Majesco, who now only releases budget games) and is, as of 2011, the last game to be developed by GlyphX Games (much of their staff went on to found the successful Epic Games subsidiary Chair Entertainment). Clearly, from a commercial standpoint, there was little reason to invest in a sequel. And that's a shame, because in spite of its many problems, Advent Rising has a lot going for it.

Advent Rising follows Gideon Wyeth, a young pilot who is taking part the first diplomatic meeting between humans and an alien race known as the Aurelians. It seems that many alien prophecies center on the human race, making them an object of worship for some species and a target for others. Soon after the meeting, the arrival of malevolent extraterrestrials called the Seekers threatens humanity's very existence, and Wyeth soon finds himself fighting to save his own people along with all the cultures whose beliefs depend on them. Parts of the story were written by famed sci-fi author Orson Scott Card, and while I'm no fan of Card's politics, Advent Rising's script is able to overcome its cliché elements with some snappy dialogue and engaging plot twists. The idea of humans unwittingly becoming religious figures for other species is interesting, and the game does a fine job developing the aliens' faiths. If you quit the game once the credits roll, you'll be left with a nice, self-contained experience, but the developers couldn't leave well enough alone and tacked on a surprisingly large (and playable) stinger that ends with those dreaded words, "To be continued."

As aspiring as Advent Rising is in regard to storytelling, it's even more ambitious from a gameplay perspective. Combining third and optional first-person shooting, physics bending superpowers and lengthy sequences driving human and alien vehicles, GlyphX was clearly aiming for an experience that would be talked about in the same breath as sci-fi gaming classics like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Deus Ex. Of course, when trying to handle so many things at once, there's always a risk that some of the individual components may suffer, and that's unfortunately true of Advent Rising. It's not that much of the game is bad; there's just a noticeable lack of that polish and refinement that differentiates a truly AAA title from the rest of the pack. The third-person camera is predictably problematic, getting jittery in enclosed spaces and occasionally reorienting itself in an awkward manner (which can be a pain when combined with super-fast speed powers later on). The ability to pull off slow-motion dives (à la Max Payne) is rather clunky, and I found myself ignoring it for most of the game. Also, the decision to tie target selection (which is normally unnecessary on the PC, but is needed to use Wyeth's lift ability) to the mouse's scroll wheel doesn't work well at all, leading to a frustrating battle in which I found myself rapidly scrolling all the time to select the specific objects I needed to damage a boss. The level design in general is a mixed bag, with most missions relying far too heavily on obvious monster closets (making almost every ambush a predictable affair) and many of the driving sections feeling a little barren (the first driving scene, which has you piloting a vehicle that looks and controls a little too similarly to Halo's Warthog for comfort, is a particularly bad offender in this regard). Though the PC version is apparently an improvement over the original Xbox release, Advent Rising is also disappointingly glitchy, with a few scripted events sometimes failing to trigger, tutorials not displaying the correct keys, physics bugs trapping characters in walls and the occasional crash to the desktop. I had to reload the otherwise fun final boss fight multiple times because some necessary rocks weren't rendering correctly, and at one point my character randomly slid right off a horizontal surface and fell to his death.

Obviously, not everything in Advent Rising works as it should. When things do come together, though, it can make for some very cool moments. That tedious scroll wheel-abusing boss fight I mentioned before was made up for by the awesome trip through a volcano with a hover tank that immediately followed it, and that early not-Warthog ride gave way to some impressive scenes of destruction as a city collapsed around our heroes. A massive beach assault that strongly resembles D-Day is an absolute blast, as are the quieter moments that give you some time to explore a large human space station and a sleek alien vessel. The shooting mechanics are basic but satisfying, with the option to dual-wield weapons and an extremely generous auto-aim (to the point that you'll rarely have to use manual targeting or the first-person camera). Several of the less clunky powers are also cool, and I had fun rapidly switching between Wyeth's special abilities and his guns. This made many fights quite dynamic in spite of the formulaic level design, preventing the constant stream of enemies from feeling too monotonous.

Advents Rising's visuals are an interestingly mixed bag. The game's character models have an elongated look to them that reminds me of Free Radical's TimeSplitters and Second Sight titles (albeit without those games' super-smooth animation), and while this is a bit jarring at first, I got used to it quite quickly. I also liked the colorful effects, which made using heavy blasters and the more theatrical superpowers entertaining to watch. The environments also have flashes of vibrant art design, but they're hampered by low polygon counts and some very iffy textures (even by the standards of the day, as this game came out after Resident Evil 4, Far Cry and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory). Some of the trees on the planet Edumea did an extremely poor job disguising their two-dimensional nature, and the gigantic visible pixels on an alien spaceship didn't help the immersion either. At least the frame-rate is smooth (something that wasn't true of the Xbox version). Furthermore, while the game's slick fully pre-rendered cutscenes look nice, the cutscenes that are recorded from the in-game engine are full of flickering textures, clipping and other issues that can make them look quite messy. I played with a fan-made patch (called Advent Revising) that fixed many of the audio bugs, subtitle typos and garbled frames, and while this definitely improved things, the experience was still far from perfect. Aside from a few instances of audio clips stuttering or playing at the wrong volume, however, the sound is a whole different story. Produced by Tommy Tallarico Studios, Advent Rising's score is absolutely terrific, using its orchestra and choir to great effect. In fact, the music is good enough that it almost single-handedly compensates for all the visual deficiencies, making even the most graphically muddy set-pieces feel like something epic. The voice acting and sound effects are also strong, with some particularly fun conversations for you to eavesdrop on in the human space station.

Though I could spot a multitude of issues over the nine hours it took me to complete the Advent Rising, I was never bored with the game. GlyphX and Majesco clearly got a little too ambitious for their own good, but their final product is still an engrossing adventure that left me wanting more. It's not going to replace the Halo or Mass Effect games in your collection, but it makes for a nice alternative to replaying those titles for the tenth time. If you're a sci-fi fan who can deal with some glitches and a cliffhanger that will leave you fantasizing about what might have been, then Advent Rising is certainly worth a try.

+ Colorful weapons and superpowers spice up the on-foot combat
+ Terrific music adds to the epic feel
+ Good storytelling keeps you sucked in
+ Many excellent set-piece battles
- Far, far too many bugs
- Visuals are well behind the curve
- Predictable level design
- Some vehicle sequences and boss fights fall flat

Reviewed on 11/30/2011