Tron: Evolution is that rarest and most wonderful movie-based game: one in which the related media serves as an inspiration, instead of an albatross. Nearly 30 years after the release of the film that inspired it, and itself being released nearly two weeks before the film on which it is based, Tron: Legacy, Evolution is designed to both promote the film and to bridge the gap between Legacy and its predecessor.

Tron: Evolution takes place many years after the events depicted in Tron. Flynn, the cowboy computer coder played by Jeff Bridges, has been hard at work developing an enhanced version of “The Grid,” the world he created in which computer programs act like people, and into which he was “rezzed” during the 1982 film. In the years since, The Grid has thrived and a new race of programs, called ISOs, has evolved.

At the start of Evolution, we learn that the creation of the ISOs has been the cause of unrest among the other programs, called “Basics.” A murder has been committed, and civil war is brewing. Flynn has created you, the System Monitor, to enter The Grid and put things to rights. Along the way, you will meet Quorra, played by Olivia Wilde, Tron, played by Bruce Boxleitner and others. You will encounter familiar sights form the original film, like the towering Recognizers, the lumbering light tanks and the “so-cool-every-kid-wanted-one” light cycles. You will also be dazzled by Daft Punk’s powerful soundtrack.

In other words, Tron: Evolution has everything one would expect from a movie-based game – and one thing extra: It’s good.

The gameplay is a roughly 50/50 blend of Prince of Persia-like parkour-inspired puzzle platforming and disc-based brawling. Both make up for in execution what they lack in innovation, and thanks be to heaven, they only very rarely happen at the same time.

The platforming is a bit linear, with only one real way to get through each level, that way being helpfully marked by special icons denoting which fancy parkour move to be employed, but the level of precision required is steep. You will fail over and over, but it never feels as if the game is failing you. It’s the epitome of rewarding difficulty. While the third person camera here is occasionally flawed, the fluid controls and crisp response more than make up for it. I never once felt trapped by the game. Once you master the moves, you’ll feel empowered and emboldened to try new tricks, zipping across the digital world of The Grid with abandon.

The Grid itself is a spectacle to behold. Tron: Evolution is easily one of the prettiest games of the year, simple and yet elegant in its neon-over-black lines and digital hues. What developer Propaganda Games (Turok) were able to do with the Unreal engine is simply astonishing here. The graphigasm cuts short once the main characters take stage, however, as no one seems to have yet solved the problem of making movie stars look like themselves in-engine, but that’s what opaque helmets are for.

Evolution‘s disc combat sections shine through elegant use of combos and disc upgrades to lend a bit of variety to what is, essentially, a one-weapon combat system. As with the platforming, once you master the flow of combat and learn a few combos, you’ll find tackling the game’s challenges a rewarding and visually stunning task. Enemies de-rez gloriously and although you are a bit more fragile than you may be be used to from playing modern combat games, so, too, are your enemies. Most will go down with one or two well-timed combos, and the block and parry system gives you the breathing room to formulate a strategy in the midst of the fight.

Leveling up to a new “version” gives you access to more memory blocks, which you can use to buff your disc, or add health or energy boosters. The more energy you have, the more special combos you can use. There are two types of collectibles, but not enough of either and they aren’t really all that useful. Collecting shards of Abraxis’ disc may help you later in the game, but the “Tron files” are little more than text-only introductions to the various characters and weapons you’ll encounter in the game. You can be forgiven for viewing them as an afterthought, since that’s exactly what they are.

The last remaining sliver of gameplay is taken up with driving light tanks and light cycle races, although the light cycles in particular aren’t what you might expect. The classic light cycle race from the 1982 film sparked such a flame of imagination that it’s the only thing most people remember of the film, although the light cycles were only on screen for fewer than 10 minutes of the film’s 96 minute running time. It’s surprising then that Tron: Evolution has strayed so far form the formula here.

The light cycles are damn pretty and practically ever-present, but in execution bear only a passing resemblance to how they were used in the original film. You will scream across the grid in your light cycle (and later, in Flynn’s), but you will encounter only a few enemy riders and the light trails are little more than set dressing. Instead, the challenge in these portions of the game is to stay on the road even as it de-rezzes under you, and to dodge obstacles that appear literally out of nowhere. It feels frustrating and unfair, at first, until you realize that even replaying the same section multiple times is still good fun. In fact, my biggest gripe about the light cycle racing is that there wasn’t enough of it.

Tron: Evolution also features a hearty online mode in which you can enter The Game Grid to wage Tron-like battle against your fellows. Memory blocks earned in the single-player portion can be used to buff up your multiplayer stats, improving not only your own abilities but those of your light cycle and tank. The play here is as fluid and gorgeous as in the single-player portion, and will serve as a fun online diversion for Tron devotees, but owing to the relative lack of depth, it’s hard to see it toppling Call of Duty.

Bottom Line: Tron: Evolution gets so much right, it’s easy to forget it’s a licensed game. It is at once familiar and brand new, and when it connects the dots it is as satisfying a game experience as they come. The good news is it rarely misses. It may not re-write the book on action games, but for licenses, it just might.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a good action game to play over a weekend, then you could do much worse. Tron geeks will likely want to own it and play it again and again.

[rating=4]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: Tron: Evolution
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer:Propaganda Games
Publisher: Disney Interactive
Release Date: December 7th, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, PSP
Available from: Amazon

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