For the past few years, 3DO has released Army Men games at a disturbing rate. And more often than not, this has meant bad things for the games--they usually have an overall rushed feel to them, making them strictly hands-off material for any but the least discerning. Portal Runner--the latest game set in the Army Men universe--pleasantly bucks this sad trend and stands as an altogether solid entry in its category. It's apparent that more time was spent developing it than most of the publisher's previous fare, and the end result is largely pleasing. Many will be surprised that a game set in the Army Men universe actually looks and plays well.
Portal Runner's story centers on Vikki G, the daughter of the Army Men universe's highest-up military man. She's also the main squeeze of Sarge, the series' green-inside-and-out protagonist. For those who don't follow the series, the evil General Plastro was imprisoned at the end of the last game, leaving the treacherous Brigitte Bleu to impose her foul reign on the world. Somewhat bored with her unending power, Bleu finds herself craving something less easy to attain than mere influence: the affections of a certain hunk of green plastic, name of Sarge. To do so, she concocts a plan to whack Vikki. Her plan is botched, however, ultimately resulting in Vikki traveling to a whole bunch of different lands within Bleu demesne--which is a swell premise for an action-adventure game skewed at a slightly youngish audience.
Throughout the game, you'll find yourself in a variety of whimsical environments, whose settings range from the prehistoric age to the space age. There are five worlds in all, which amounts to 20 individual single-player levels. A whole bunch of different activities will be open to you all throughout, although the bulk of the gameplay involves relatively simple physical puzzles and fetch objectives. A good bit of platform jumping is also present, and enemies have been scripted in with a free hand, both of which ensure that the minute-to-minute gameplay seldom relents.
As you'd imagine, you'll take the role of Vikki throughout most of the game. However, early on in your quest, you'll hook up with Leo, the friendly lion that's prominently displayed in all of the game's promotional materials. You'll get to play as both of them, in a number of configurations: Vikki and Leo together, either one independently, or Vikki mounted on Leo. Thankfully, every such configuration comes with decently distinct gameplay mechanics, and their occurrences are paced well enough to break up whatever monotony you'll encounter.
As Vikki, your main mode of defense will be a bow and arrow. You can shoot the bow with the square button, and it's blessed with a forgiving auto-aiming function, which allows you to pick-off enemies fairly easily. You can also enter into a first-person view, for the purpose of precision shooting. Strafing, finally, allows you to effectively evade enemy attacks and mount decent offensives. Combat is fairly straightforward; once you're able find the precise moment that your enemies' attack animations commence, you'll usually be able to stop them right in their tracks. Things get a bit more interesting once Leo's at your side, though. When you're not directly controlling him, you can issue commands to him via the shoulder buttons, commanding him to either follow you or stay put, and sic enemies. Also, Leo's ferocity increases the longer he's in battle--an animated flame above his life meter allows you to keep track of this. The angrier he is, the more damage he causes. You can also manually goad him into anger, which will increase the damage he does. When you're controlling Leo directly, you'll also be able to execute a vicious claw attack. Leo's a very fast-moving creature, overall, and you'll likely find controlling him more immediately visceral than guiding his actions via Vikki's commands. Still, the Leo-exclusive stages tend to be a bit single-minded, when compared with the ones in which you're controlling the duo. Regardless, they serve well to break up the monotony.
Portal Runner's sharp production values will immediately catch your eye. Aside from the pleasant graphical effects, there isn't any aspect of it that is immediately breathtaking. Rather, the whole presentation seems well conceived overall, which lends the game a level polish absent in the publisher's previous efforts. It also stands very well on its own. Portal Runner's world of glimmering jewels and primary colors is quite easy on the eyes, and its environments fit the color and texture schemes quite well. The character models don't fare as well, oftentimes: Even Vikki's in-game representation isn't as generous in respects to poly count as you might like, though she's well-modeled enough to hide it. The world's other denizens don't fare as well, however. Also, the game's animations are a bit stilted and funky, which is quite noticeable in Vikki's stilted jaunt. Most of it seems like first-pass animation that managed to have slipped through. Still, the game's overall mood is strong enough to carry these weaker elements. The overall feel is pleasant, if a bit saccharine, not unlike most mainstream American animation.
Your enjoyment of Portal Runner depends wholly on your tolerance for both straight-up, albeit slightly watered-down, 3D platform-adventure gameplay and 3DO's distinct brand of abstract patriotism. The game is sufficiently long, and it rewards dogged players with all kinds of bonuses for cleaning out entire stages. Those who find themselves in front of a TV with Portal Runner playing will likely spend a good while coursing through its colorful worlds, even if they'll be a bit ashamed to admit it. Let's hope this marks the turning over of a new leaf for 3DO.