Though Aardman's unique style of character design and stop-motion animation seems to be everywhere now, showing up in Chevron ads and in the full-length feature Chicken Run, it all really started with a man and his dog and their trip to the moon. Those familiar with Wallace & Gromit can attest to the oddball sense of humor found in the animated shorts, and they can also attest to the fact that Wallace and Gromit have the rare ability to appeal to both children and adults. Now, Bam! attempts to translate the quirky sensibilities of Wallace & Gromit into a video game--with mixed results.
Project Zoo takes Wallace and Gromit on a chase after Feathers McGraw, the exceptionally evil penguin burglar from The Wrong Trousers, who has kidnapped Wallace and Gromit's adopted pet polar bear, Archie, from the zoo. The whole yarn seems befitting of a Wallace & Gromit short, with Gromit performing various feats of derring-do and Wallace improvising odd inventions by using whatever he can find and making the occasional offhanded reference to cheese. It's certainly cute, but what the story lacks is the strong sense of wit that always permeates the Wallace & Gromit shorts.
Though the Wallace & Gromit shorts are always refreshingly unique little bits of stop-motion animation, Project Zoo is a fairly straightforward 3D platformer. You directly control Gromit, but you need Wallace--who acts as a helper character--to occasionally repair various mechanical devices to continue moving forward. Most broken devices you come upon require nuts and bolts to repair, which you can find scattered liberally throughout the levels. Some require the use of tools, which are less abundant and require a bit more work to ferret out. Gromit offers the standard platforming abilities, like jumping, punching, and butt-stomping. As you progress through the game, however, Wallace builds new gadgets to help you on your way, like spring-loaded boots or guns that shoot bananas or porridge. Aside from all of the item collection, there's some light puzzle-solving, a little combat, and the occasional boss fight. But, for the most part, Project Zoo relies heavily on platform jumping, which is the game's biggest fault. Platform jumping on its own is rarely terribly enjoyable, and Project Zoo turns it into a frustrating chore, with a poor camera and controls that are just a touch less responsive than they should be. Bad level design hinders your progress from time to time, as it's often unclear just where you're supposed to be going.
The levels in Project Zoo aren't huge, but they tend to be rather dense. In fact, the levels make up for their lack of square footage by building up vertically. Though the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of Project Zoo were able to maintain fairly stalwart frame rates, the GameCube version seems to stutter a bit during some of the more action-packed sequences. It's far from debilitating, but it's something worth mentioning nonetheless. Probably the single most impressive facet of Project Zoo's visuals is how faithfully Wallace, Gromit, and Feathers McGraw have been rendered. Though the subtle lighting nuances that clay and plastic give off have been lost, their overall design, as well as the way they move, is quite true to that of their stop-motion counterparts. This is especially important for Gromit and Feathers, as these characters have no voices and must rely on their physicality to emote.
Peter Sallis, the voice actor who has provided Wallace with his pipes in the animated shorts, reprises his role as the eccentric inventor. He shoulders the burden of being the only character in the game with speaking parts well, though his exaggerated speech patterns may wear over time. The game's score, while fitting the overall tone of Wallace & Gromit, trails off a bit too often and ultimately doesn't provide a strong enough backbeat for the action. In-game sound effects, while reasonably well-done, are also underplayed. Save for Wallace's speech and the pre-orchestrated soundtrack bits that play behind the cutscenes, the game's sound design is kind of weak.
Wallace & Gromit in Project Zoo is a game that could prove entertaining for fans of Nick Park's peculiar pair, but, as a 3D platformer, it's simply not that impressive. When you add the game's relatively short length (of around six hours) to the overall lack of polish, Project Zoo isn't a terribly attractive purchase, but it can make a decent rental.