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Outland review: Will and grace


This admission is better read than said: I'm hopelessly addicted to will and grace. A video game provides the ideal arrangement for someone -- like me -- whose extreme athleticism remains dormant in reality, but seeks expression just a few feet away from the couch. It's the basis for the accord I once made with the Prince of Persia. "With my will and your grace, your grace," I said, "we'll get through this elaborate death chicane in under an hour. And if you end up squirming with a spike through your chest, we'll just put that on me. Deal?"

In the low fidelity of Jordan Mechner's classic, the prince's form of movement became a mesmerizing, superhuman display of perfect movement ... and when it didn't you reverted to an older save. Outland, a visually arresting 2D platformer from Finland's Housemarque studio, is just as reverent to grace, personified by a tall, inexhaustible silhouette in search of the meaning behind his dreams. He runs and leaps with such intense confidence, some of it starts filtering through the controller and into you.

But as any acrobat will tell you, balance is what keeps you alive, and it's what makes things interesting. In Outland, the ancient world is always out to curb your wonderful locomotion, slow you down when you want to go fast-fast-fast. It'll take you a second to stop and think about the chasms and spikes and the jumps and the slides, but you'll only want to spend half a second. This internal impatience to move when the light says RED acts like a personal countdown timer, and injects tension into what might have otherwise been a brisk jog through a vibrant, Tron-tinged jungle.

And man, are there a lot of red lights out there. Outland can't avoid comparison with Treasure's ultimate test of polarity clarity, Ikaruga, even though it's different in a crucial way. As with the ship in Ikaruga, you can switch between two colors (or spirits, in Outland's parlance) and absorb projectiles of the same color, but your movement is much more restricted. You're not a spaceship, remember? You're a dude bound by gravity (as all dudes are).

Pushing through spirals of light and dark, flitting between colors and just barely missing your spiritual antithesis is even more challenging when you're also hurtling between moving platforms, and smashing giant spiders. A trick that Outland often resorts to is placing you in a situation where you have to be blue to survive -- except you need to be red to kill a monster of the opposite color. The sword combat is simple initially, embellished with a slide attack, some juggling and some honest-to-god smiting, but winning a fight is more about positioning yourself safely before slashing away. And when you're safe enough to revert to the right color, that's only half the battle won against bullet-spewing dragons and that most irritating of video game enemies, the occasionally electrified jellyfish.

In your most difficult tests of elegance (careful, Outland is quite tricky in general), you'll defeat pests, barrel through alternating waves of red and blue death, and then launch yourself between walls and platforms that appear and disappear with the rhythm of your color swings. The handful of spectacular bosses offer the most ambitious sequences -- run, jump, blue, slide, red, jump, blue, red, land! -- though they represent the few instances where the thrill of success can be overridden by the irksome repetition before failure. Developers! If a battle has several clear stages of pattern recognition, there had better be checkpoints between them. THIS IS GOING IN THE REVIEW.

Things are easier in the game's online co-op mode (a disappointment, since it doesn't change your approach to Outland's rapid platforming in any meaningful way), but I'm more interested in the five "co-op challenges" you'll unlock during the course of playing. They make things much harder, and show potent bursts of what could have been another game entirely -- there's a hilariously disastrous bomb transportation mission, and another that puts one player in charge of color control for everyone. These intense tests are worth the price of admission, but it's a pity that in absorbing Castlevania and Super Metroid's style of level design, Outland didn't leave room for true co-op opportunities in the campaign.

Still, the game succeeds where it counts, in what I now dub the Will and Grace Factor. If my will can be married to someone else's grace, tightly enough to make me leap through a barrage of deadly bullets in a desperate bid to maintain momentum, you've won. Just one thing, though -- don't mistake my love for running and jumping as signs of being a closeted urban jogger. The most athletic thing I did today was to walk over to my computer and tell you to play Outland.

This review is based on the final Xbox 360 code for Outland provided by Ubisoft. Outland is available now for 800 MS Points ($10) on Xbox Live Arcade. Its launch on PSN has been delayed due to the network outage.

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