Movie tie-ins may be the laughing stock of the gaming world, but Pacific Rim seemed uniquely poised to succeed where so many dozens of others had failed. At heart, the film is little more than an excuse to see massive robots clobbering monsters in the style of Voltron, and therefore the game had no need to bog itself down in convoluted plots or even, thanks to Guillermo del Toro, bother itself with memorable character design. All it needed to do was get the clobbering right. Unfortunately, the gameplay always feels as though it's sitting on the rim of something better, although in the multiplayer matches, it's sometimes possible to catch a glimpse of what might have been.
Pacific Rim wisely avoids any attempt to follow the film's storyline to the letter, but the repetition of playing as the same three Jaegers (or robots) and two Kaiju (or monsters) throughout its mere 12 stages sours the experience. Without explanation, it soon pits you against other Jaegers instead of the monsters threatening human existence as we know it, and to make matters worse, each of the five combatants in the core release cling to patterns so predictable that it's not too much of a challenge to score a gold ranking after but one failed attempt. That's less true of the harder Survival mode, but even mastering its additional challenges amounts to little more than making smarter blocks and throwing well-timed punches.
That's partly because the combo-free combat's so simple, to the point that its monotony outweighs its accessibility in the campaign. Jaeger or Kaiju, you're limited to blocks and strong and light attacks that amount to little more than swiping or stomping whatever's in front of you, which occasionally has no effect thanks to Pacific Rim's poor collision detection. Power attacks for each fighter spice up the action a bit, if almost to a fault--let your energy meter build up all the way, and you can unleash a devastating attack that downs most of your Chrysler Building-size opponents within seconds. In a surprise twist, it's actually more fun to fight Jaegers than monsters, because there's at least an extra element of strategy in depleting the two health bars that represent the machine's two pilots. With the Kaiju, it's just a case of whittling down one bar.
Even so, facing an opponent with two health bars certainly isn't enough to counter the drudgery the campaign presents, although the multiplayer options for local play or on Xbox Live at least benefit from the challenge of fighting opponents whose attacks aren't as predictable as watching a clock. Fighting other players is also a good way to earn more experience to buy gear for your fighters, although doing so involves a long and tedious process that easily extends far past Pacific Rim's meager threshold for fun. Instead, considering Pacific Rim's limited appeal and sparsely populated multiplayer arenas, you're probably better off spending your experience on one-use boosts and a handful of barely noticeable stat upgrades.
On the bright side, Pacific Rim lets you customize your preferred Jaeger or Kaiju using the parts you've earned from playing; on the downside, it keeps many of the cosmetic options (such as the ability to change colors) locked behind a roughly $2.00 downloadable add-on. And so it goes with the three extra Kaiju available for purchase, including the flying monster Otachi that you encounter early on in the lightweight campaign. Not that downloadable content is necessarily bad; it's just that Pacific Rim makes the unwise decision to lean so heavily on it that the core game ends up feeling like an extended demo.
That's a shame, since the concept behind Pacific Rim brims with untapped potential. Unfortunately, this release comes off as a sluggish imitation of 2011's Real Steel, complete with environments on the Xbox 360 that look as though they were lifted from Pacific Rim's similarly disappointing iOS incarnation. With more time and potentially more resources, this could have been an exciting and enjoyable experience with the power to stand on its own, independent of the film. As it is, its pleasures rust away long before it finally gets moving.