Games geared toward younger players are typically repetitive, but Over the Hedge for the Nintendo DS sets a new standard for repetition. The 3D world is sufficiently interactive, the three playable characters are cute and useful, and the stealth-oriented gameplay, which is clearly inspired by Metal Gear Solid, is sometimes interesting. Unfortunately, all of those good aspects are totally savaged by a lack of challenge and by mission goals that mainly involve picking up and carrying generic items, one at a time, from point A to point B.
The game takes up right after the movie. This time, Gladys Sharp wants to bulldoze the forest to make room for a giant swimming pool. RJ, Hammy, and Verne come up with a scheme to foil Gladys' plan that involves luring endangered animals to the neighborhood, thus setting up the forest as a protected habitat. Endangered animals are apparently very greedy, though, and won't set up their homes unless RJ, Hammy, and Verne retrieve up a bunch of household items from the neighborhood. The majority of the game's roughly 20 levels center around locating a requested item somewhere in the targeted house and bringing it back to the backyard, successfully navigating whatever people, pets, and traps happen to be in the house.
Much of what can be done in the environment is actually quite interesting. The critters can jump and pull themselves up onto furniture, like dining tables and couches, and each has his own unique abilities. Verne can retreat into his turtle shell, which allows him to avoid detection from any nearby people or pets. RJ, the raccoon thief, can pick locks and hurl Verne's shell at distant switches to deactivate them. Hammy, meanwhile, can use his speedy squirrel powers to run faster and jump higher than Verne or RJ. Each house is stocked with people and pets that patrol the rooms like trained security guards, in addition to traps, such as security cameras and electronic beams, which can stun the heroic critters and alert the inhabitants to their presence. You have to alternate control between the three characters--juggling their abilities in order to sneak past the guards, navigate the environment, and avoid or deactivate traps--in an effort to retrieve the requested item that's inside each house.
Unfortunately, the level layouts are bland and don't require much exploration. Also, the game as a whole is ridiculously easy. While it may be possible to climb up almost anything, there's rarely a reason to do so. Within each level, there are perhaps one or two instances where you'll need to climb up furniture or sneak past an enemy. Often, it's perfectly acceptable to get noticed by an enemy or to spring a trap, because the critters can easily outrun their pursuers and are usually only temporarily stunned by traps. There are infrequent occasions when you have to stop and think about how to get past the overlapping traps and multihit hazards that can outright bring up the game-over screen, usually entailing the use of a specific animal's abilities to disable some portion of the security system; but once you do that, it becomes a matter of simply picking up the required item and walking it back to the drop-off point.
It's excruciatingly dull to watch as a character makes the slow trek out of a living room, down the hall, into the kitchen, and out to the patio while carrying something as innocuous as a calculator. The critters can only carry one item at a time, so in levels where you have to retrieve multiple items, you'll need to make multiple trips. To get an idea of how tedious that is, go into your own bedroom and bring three objects, one at a time, into the living room. Over the Hedge on the Nintendo DS is the video game equivalent of that.
It's a shame that the game is such a chore to watch, because the graphics engine is easily one of the better ones we've seen output on the Nintendo DS. Developer Vicarious Visions has put together an impressive 3D engine that displays the environment from two different perspectives simultaneously. On the upper screen, you see a familiar third-person viewpoint. On the lower screen, a bird's-eye view shows the action from above and acts as a map of sorts. The vision cones that show the sight range of humans and pets are also depicted in real-time on the bottom screen. The action on the upper screen looks great. Loads of polygons went into the environments and characters, and all of the various walking and climbing animations are silky smooth. Sadly, the technical elegance of the graphics engine is all but wasted on environments and characters that are totally devoid of style. Each house consists of a patio, a kitchen, a den, a family room, a few hallways, and some furniture, which look the same in every house. Characters can leap off of tables and latch onto countertops, but they do so in a very matter-of-fact way.
Most likely, the game's lack of panache is a result of the rigorous time constraints that typically guide the making of a movie tie-in. That would certainly explain why the gameplay lacks focus, why the environments and character animations are so cookie-cutter, and why the cinematic scenes that appear after the first two missions are full-motion video, whereas all the rest are put together using still images. The music and sound effects often come across as an afterthought, with some poorly composed Looney Tunes knockoff music and a few digitally recorded speech snippets comprising the brunt of the audio. Also an afterthought is the multiplayer mode, which lets two players compete to see who can grab the most food from houses that have fewer traps and hazards than those found in the single-player mode.
Over the Hedge for the Nintendo DS is one of those games that shows a great deal of promise when you first load it up, but doesn't deliver on that potential. Although the individual aspects--the 3D engine, the highly interactive environments, the stealth gameplay--are well designed, they never come together the way they should. The end result is a piece of software that feels less like a video game and more like cleaning your room.