Tron 2.0 Hands-On Preview
We take this upcoming action game based on the computerized world of Tron for a spin.
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We recently got our hands on an early version of Tron 2.0, the upcoming first-person shooter from Monolith and Buena Vista. Tron 2.0 is a game-based follow-up to the original Tron film from the early '80s. The game includes the voice talent of Bruce Boxleitner, who played Alan Bradley in the original film; the voice of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, best known for her work as a Sports Illustrated model and for playing Mystique in the X-Men films; and the voice of Cindy Morgan, the original Yori character from the movie, as the computerized AI character ma3a (pronounced "ma-three-uh").
Tron 2.0 takes place 20 years after the events of the original movie, and the game's primary character is Jet Bradley, son of Alan Bradley. The elder Bradley has been working at the same company where he developed the original Tron digitization program that turns humans into data, which can then be assimilated by computer systems. At the outset of the game, Alan Bradley is mysteriously abducted by an evil corporation called fCon, which is after Bradley's more advanced digitization technology. This technology is protected by an advanced AI called ma3a, who is also being attacked by a strange, virulent program. This chain of events sets off ma3a's contingency protocol, which is to digitize Jet into the mainframe computer system and recruit his help inside the computer world.
The transition is a jarring one for Jet, as he enters a strange universe where programs look and act like people but speak in the language of computers. Keys to locked areas are called permissions, humans are called users, warp gates are called data streams or exit ports, and treasure chests are called archive bins. Data in the form of e-mail, permission sets, or upgrades called "subroutines" are contained inside the transparent archive bins as floating bits of information, waiting for you to download. Helping you through the transition to the digital world are a couple of friends. One of these is Byte, a floating, talking ball who serves as a tour guide of sorts through the digital world. Just don't call him "bit," as he's quite sensitive about his size. You'll also be assisted by Mercury (voiced by Romijn-Stamos, though her voice has been given a digital echo so it may not be very recognizable), a female program who's a top-notch lightcycle rider.
The first thing you'll notice about Tron 2.0 is its highly stylized look. The level architecture is very boxy, and everything is bathed in a colorful glow. Though younger audiences with no recollection of the original motion picture may not recognize the style, the artistic direction of both the film and the game seem like accurate reflections of cultural attitudes and high technology in the early 1980s. From what we've seen of the game's first few levels, Tron 2.0 does an admirable job of re-creating the unique look and feel of the film. One look is all it takes to realize that the game is distinctly Tron, and there's no mistaking it for any other game.
As you make your way through the game's first few levels, you'll collect a few of the game's four base weapons, or primitives, which are the disc, rod, ball, and net. We had the chance to try out the first three. The disc acts much like a Frisbee crossed with a boomerang. You can throw it, and it will bounce off of walls, damaging any enemies in its path. If you hold the mouse button down as you throw it and move the mouse as the disc is in flight, you'll be able to subtly bend the path of the disc, in much the same way a baseball pitcher can impart lateral or vertical movement on a slider or curveball. You're also able to block incoming attacks with the disc or use it as a melee weapon.
Primitives, Subroutines, and Procedurals
The rod primitive acts a lot like a stun gun--you have to sneak up within melee range of your target and shock it into submission. Fortunately, your victims will be stunned and unable to move or attack as you're shocking them, but using the rod in a crowded room is not a great idea. The ball primitive, on the other hand, is derived from the weapons used by the sickly yellow corruption virus that threatens ma3a at the outset of the game. It acts very much like a hand grenade in its base form--you have the ability to lob it a short distance, and after a short delay, it will explode.
Despite the fact that you have only four base weapons to choose from, Tron 2.0's weapons actually offer a surprising amount of variety, thanks to enhancing items called subroutines. Subroutines fall into three categories: defense, utility, and combat. The defense subroutines act as armor enhancements that reduce the damage you take from enemies, while utility subroutines can enhance your general abilities. One example of a utility subroutine is the profiler, which lets you see how much damage your enemies have sustained. Another utility subroutine, called fuzzy signature, enhances your ability to sneak by opponents while walking. The combat subroutines improve your fighting skills and, in some cases, radically modify your existing primitives into new weapons. For instance, the sequencer subroutine enhances your disc primitive so that you can have more than one disc in flight at a time (normally you must wait for your disc to return before you're allowed to throw it again), which lets you effectively engage multiple enemies. The suffusion subroutine turns your rod primitive into a powerful shotgunlike device, while the LOL routine turns the rod into a long-range sniper rifle, complete with the ability to zoom in on its targets.
Unfortunately, you can't use every subroutine you find all at the same time. Each one takes up valuable space in your system memory, so you'll have to make choices about which ones you'll enable. As you go through the game you gain experience, or build points. You'll start the game as Jet 1.0.0, and as you find and earn build points, you'll upgrade yourself to Jet 2.0.0 and 3.0.0 and so on. With each full improvement in version number you'll gain more memory slots to hold your subroutines. However, there's a better way to fit more subroutines in memory. If you find special bots in the levels called code optimization wares, you can improve your subroutines from alpha class (the lowest level) to beta class, and to the final level, gold class. Not only do code optimizations reduce the size of subroutines, but they enhance their strength as well. For example, the beta version of the sequencer subroutine takes up two slots of memory and allows you to fire off up to three discs, while the alpha version takes up three valuable memory slots and lets you fire off only two discs.
Outside of subroutines, Jet can improve his intrinsic skills as he advances in version number. With every level gained, you can spend points to improve your health, energy (needed to download data from archive bins, activate some switches, and use most weapons), weapon efficiency, data transfer rate, and procedural speed. Data transfer rate can be an important asset, because in some cases you'll be under time pressure from enemies or other environmental dangers to quickly download goodies out of archive bins or from core dumps, which are the dropped caches of health, energy, and sometimes permissions and subroutines that enemies leave behind after you kill them. Procedurals refer to three existing utilities Jet uses to fix broken subroutines. Once in a while you'll pick up a corrupted subroutine that can't be used immediately. You can run these through your disinfection procedural to clean it. Another procedural is a port program that translates unrecognizable subroutines into ones that you can use. The final procedural defragments memory slots that become unusable. All of these procedurals take time to do their work, running in the background as you move around in the level.
Combat and Lightcycles
While playing through the first few levels of the game, we got a feel for combat against the virulent yellow corruption agents as well as the red ICPs (Intrusion Countermeasure Programs) who act as the mainframe system's defense. Unfortunately, the ICPs recognize Jet as an intruder, so anytime you run into them you're in for a fight with some tough, disc-wielding programs. The ICPs make liberal use of sec rezzers, which are basically alarm panels that summon more ICPs, so you have to kill them quickly in order to avoid extra combat. The corruption agents tend to have much weaker armor, although if you take too many hits, their attacks will not only damage you but corrupt your subroutines and create bad blocks in your memory sectors, rendering some items unusable and forcing you to use your procedurals to clean up the mess.
Like in other Monolith games, you'll be able to pick up notes scattered around the levels (in this case, as e-mail data inside of archive bins) that give additional insight to the game's plot. And as you might expect from a game developed by the creator of the No One Lives Forever series, Tron 2.0 has a few jokes here and there. For instance, at one point, Byte gets captured by the corruption agents, who have fun swatting him back and forth across a pool in a makeshift game of Pong.
The design in the early levels seems pretty linear, although they are paced nicely to advance the story and provide a good deal of action. Unfortunately, the game seems to offer a few more jump puzzles than we'd prefer for a first-person action game, though there seemed to be fewer of these as we advanced to the game's later levels.
Early on, you'll unlock Tron 2.0's lightcycle arena, which is where you'll meet up with Mercury. For those unfamiliar with the early '80s Tron arcade games, lightcycle racing is very much like a multiplayer version of Snake (a very basic game that's common both to Windows startup menus and also to cell phone games). You enter a grid arena where you drive a lightcycle that leaves a trail behind you. You are always moving forward and can turn only at 90-degree angles. The object of the game is to use your lightcycle trail to force your opponents to crash into a wall or into a trail--the last one left in the arena is the winner. In Tron 2.0, you can play from a first-person perspective (which isn't very useful) or from a third-person, isometric view that lets you rotate the camera around you. The different arenas will have respawning items like turbo boosts to give you a burst of speed and a cutting device that will enable you to slice through a light trail without crashing. You'll also be able to take advantage of special areas of the grid that can speed up or slow down your cycle. Though the lightcycles appear to be only a small part of Tron 2.0's early game, you will be able to launch the lightcycles arena separately from the main menu and play it as its own game whenever you like, once you've unlocked the area in the single-player game.
From what we've seen, Tron 2.0 seems to do a great job of capturing the essence of the original film, thanks to its distinctive art design. The game's unique weaponry also distinguishes Tron 2.0 from other first-person shooters, and the creative inclusion of subroutines should allow you some freedom in how exactly you want to modify your weapons and items and how you want to play the game. While some of the level design aspects in the early version we played--especially the jumping puzzles--could probably stand to be tweaked, Tron 2.0 still shows promise. The game will be released later this year.