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Aeon Flux (PlayStation 2) artwork

Aeon Flux (PlayStation 2) review

"I have studied the histories, and the moral of the Aeon Flux videogame saga is apparently this: There's nothing like the advent of a spin-off film starring Charlize Theron for getting things done when it comes to turning a super-crazy sci-fi animation into a videogame. "

I have studied the histories, and the moral of the Aeon Flux videogame saga is apparently this: There's nothing like the advent of a spin-off film starring Charlize Theron for getting things done when it comes to turning a super-crazy sci-fi animation into a videogame.

Multiple attempts were made to get a Flux game up between 1995 and 2005. The first company that tried spent so much time viewing episodes of the show in a state of bafflement that they forget to do any developing.

The second company that tried was France's Cryo Interactive. They got pretty far with their version for Playstation and PC, and promo copies went out to journalists, from which cool-looking screenshots survive to this day. But unluckily for Cryo, Viacom New Media (for whom Cryo were making the game) was then merged with another company and all Viacom game development was suspended. Cryo redressed the work they'd done and released it as the buggy weirdfest Pax Corpus, which subsequently bears all kinds of similarities to Aeon Flux's style, subject matter and plotting. It was not popular (* but I'd still rather play it than Tomb Raider any day.)

Attempt number three came courtesy of GI Interactive and was based on the Unreal engine. Screenshots of Aeon's be-G-Stringed rump in this version look pretty outrageous, but I doubt that's why it never got completed and the truth is that nobody's telling what went wrong this time.

In 2005, the director of Girlfight delivered Aeon Flux as a big budget feature film with Charlize wearing all those cool clothes. Good ol' Terminal Reality of Terminal Velocity and Bloodrayne fame managed to serve up the accompanying videogame, finally achieving what many good folk had struggled towards over the past decade. Enough to bring a tear to your eye, is what that is.

Well, grouchiness is a good antidote to this kind of sentiment, and I experienced a fair bit of it while playing Aeon Flux. It's a way fast, floppy-feeling acrobatic platforming and combat third-personer, with good doses of Bloodrayne's (or perhaps Terminal Reality's in-house) style, but it slides a little too much into the red in all the important areas in this genre. It's got controls that fight with you, camera angles that really fight with you, tons of microscopic confusion about what you're meant to do at any particular point in the game, scenery you're struggling to apprehend and some annoyingly placed load intervals. Visually, sonically, it can be quite dazzling; there's no disservice to any of the film or cartoon source material here. Production values are high all around but there's just too much gameplay annoyance.

The plot is utterly incomprehensible. Some would say the source material is, too, but in a way that works for it. Yet, that the developers of this game saw fit to try to flesh out that plot by including collectible Intel Capsules in the levels which open onto long scrolling pages of text accompanied by distracting voiceovers, that makes me roll my eyes. The wise player immediately learns to ignore all the capsules.

What you need to know goes something like this: Aeon Flux is a stylishly dressed superspy-assassin-fashion model and televsion star, and a goodie, and she's fighting against Breen oppression in the future. Or is she? Maybe she's actually a baddie fighting to crush the Monicans. And married. After all this is a world in which cloning is all the rage, so you could say that you don't even know if you are you. Whatever the heck is going on, you (the player) control Aeon in every level, fighting whomever your enemy happens to be on that level, blowing up or vandalising infrastructure by planting Spider Bombs, always killing, kung-fuing and exploding.

Aeon is so madly acrobatic that you'll come close to losing sight of her on almost anything. Get near a wall and you'll start running up it. Press a button whenever you're not stationary and you'll be flying or leaping for miles. It's actually extremely cool to behold, and liberating-feeling, except during some of the rougher platform sequences, where it can be baffling. The core liability is the camera. It's designed to anticipate the next needed angle and to show the new relationship between wherever you are right now and where you need to leap to next, but that relationship can be weird, fraught, or hard to depict, and it whips around real fast. The platforming goes in all directions and quite often you just get lost or vertigo'd, not knowing which way to jump. These anti-intuitive moments pip you frequently, breaking whatever exciting flowing sensation the acrobatics were meant to be creating. I'm sure it's a great challenge to design these things, but this game came out reasonably near the end of the PS2's core lifespan, and we've had all of the PS2 and PS1's lifespans to try to work such issues out in 3D games. We’re clearly still not there. Perhaps my anger with this aspect of Aeon Flux just speaks to wider dissatisfaction with development in the third-person genre in general.

The melee combat against various soldiers and robots can be hectic and fun, and it does control a lot better than the leaping. Aeon has a bunch of punch and kick combos, a style meter for unleashing charged attacks, and multiple finishing moves which both look crazy and can be used strategically. You can choose to draw health or style from a finished enemy, toss him at the scenery (often important to achieve goals in levels) or at other enemies, or you can finish with a Spider Bomb to effect area damage. You can also mix the punching up with some easy-to-handle gunplay, but you're never hugely dosed up with ammo. The emphasis is always on coming back to the kung-fu.

One of the game's finest points is the way Aeon automatically grabs any ledge she happens to run off. Then you can climb back up or spider-scurry around to a safer vantage point. This removes your fear of toppling to death by accident when fighting on high places and really frees up your sense of movement at such times. It's the kind of thing 3D platformers with AI cameras need in them to counteract the reality of not knowing where the camera's going to move next, and therefore which direction you'll next find yourself moving in.

The game's most hellish moments are all down to that camera, and involve Marble Madness-resembling 'minigames' in which you must activate various sockets by means of a remote-controlled orb. This seems charming and highly motivated by the story when the socket isn't too hard to reach. Later in the game, the sockets are extraordinarily hard to reach. The ball must be steered and jumped through deadly-walled mazes or along pipes only twice as wide as the ball itself, or up spiral ramps, within a strict time limit. This would be acceptable if control was razor sharp, but you're controlling a freaking inertial ball in a world where the camera's movement and perspective continually reorient the controls in real time. I'd estimate it took me 30-40 attempts over a couple of afternoons to complete the dual orb gauntlets at the end of level twelve. I had to give up on afternoon one for the sake of my blood pressure.

The orb episodes alone significantly damaged my relationship with the game. Most of the acrobatic platforming is punctuated by confusion and frequent 'Where am I going? or 'What is that?' moments. The game is extremely episodic, and there are a good number of moments in which there's one action you must take in order to survive or continue. For instance, plant a bomb at a critical point, or get off an exploding tower. It's nice that such moments rarely send you back further than themselves if they kill you, but the forty second reloads endured each time you have to renegotiate them do add up and take a significant toll on your patience and good will, especially if you have to try something four or five times in a row. The worst occasions are those where you're not sure what you're meant to do anyway, you've got almost no time to figure it out and then you're being blown up again - and these come around too often.

In stretches, Aeon Flux offers a lot more fun than my score would suggest, but the worst things about it are deeply angry-making. Elaborate platforming can be a pain in the arse with a whiplashing camera system, and trying to guide an uncontrollable ball through the eye of a needle while the world's compass spins is a pain in the arse. Overlong reloads upon death, do-or-die episodic-ness and much goal-oriented and directional confusion all prompt teeth-gritting. And finally, though it is true you can totally ignore the Intel Capsules, I'm kind of angry that they're there in the first place. They seem to be a really tedious way to try to convey one of the most baffling plots in storydom.

When Aeon Flux is being glamourous and pacy, it is indeed glamourous and pacy, but at most other times it’s infuriating.

* Thanks to The Video Game Graveyard and for the details of Aeon Flux’s development.

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Community review by bloomer (December 17, 2007)

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