A meteorite enters Earth's atmosphere, so small that it mostly fractures and burns out. Life goes on as if nothing happened, unless you're a mushroom. Welcome to Mushroom Men - The Spore Wars, where world suddenly changes and mushrooms evolve into sentient beings that walk and talk. For many mushroom species with self-awareness also comes war. They fight to control the meteorite chunks that gave them their new life and skirmishes break out in many places. Away from all that, a single spore travels on the wind and eventually ends up in a peaceful mushroom colony where he learns he's not like other mushrooms - he can absorb chunks of meteorite. Embarrassed about the fact that he just absorbed the holy stone of another species, Pax sets off on a journey to find out what is happening to him.
An interesting concept of this game grips you immediately. You see this beautifully designed world from a perspective of a 2 inch tall mushroom. The shift in perspective makes our own world so magical, helped with the stunningly good graphics. The world is so full of colour and shapes you just want to stand there and admire the artwork. Strange and wonderful music and sound effects only serve to further this experience. The thought put into details shows just how beautiful games on Wii can really be. This is a truly inspired game and as such it fills you with expectation. It promises not only a beautiful world, but a great adventure and a great game playing experience. And then, as you meet your first enemy or try and jump over the first gap, the main flaw of this game comes right up to you and slaps you in the face: The camera!
How can it be that in the age of such inventive technologies as Wiimote and WiiFit board, after several generations of games with perfectly reasonable camera controls I come across the game that makes me want to throw my controller at my brand new 42" TV because the camera angle changes as I jump? Or come close to enemies. Or jump over enemies. Or ... well... do anything! How can it be that Spyro on PS1 managed a perfectly functional camera and easy camera control 9 years ago and such a beautiful and inspired game as Mushroom Men can't? I cannot express my frustration enough without using unprintable language. Suffice to say I make sure that Wiimote is safely secured to my wrist before I play Mushroom Men, even though I'm not known as a player that throws controllers at the telly in frustration.
And yet, in many ways, it's a wonderful game. It's a classical 3D platform game where you go around searching meteorite chunks and bits and pieces that may come in handy for making new weapons. You don't acquire new weapons simply by finding them. Instead, you find junk humans have lost or thrown away and put it together to make many of the game's brilliant weapons. I love the variety in the bizarre things you can make. I'm sure I won't be the only one amused by the fact that you can make a slashing weapon called Occam's Razor, or a bashing weapon called Beat 'em Down Scottie. In short, there are four weapon types and certain weapons work better against certain types of creatures. And believe me, the variety in creatures is very, very good. An awful lot of thought has gone into this game and it's a credit to the designers.
One thing I found really neat in both concept and implementation is the fact that your health is not determined by some sort of a number. Instead, your mushroom cap actually visually shows the state you are in. If you are in full health, it's full, but as you get hurt it starts looking like someone took bites out of it. Ouch! It also appears to show your brain underneath, just in case you didn't get the idea. As you find meteorite dust or actual chunks, your health fills up. Your mushroom cap also doubles up as a shield, so if you can anticipate the attacks, you can try and deflect them. That is especially useful for various ranged attacks you come up against.
Throughout the game you gain special abilities which are then used to further your advance. For example, you gain a Sticky Hand ability which you can use to reach far away places. As you scan your screen looking for hiding paths, the pointer will occasionally change shape indicating you can use a special ability, providing your spore power meter is full enough. You can refill your spore power by absorbing more of the meteorite dust. It also recharges slowly over time.
Also, you come across some species that need your help and can, in turn, help you providing different forms of transport etc. The boss fights themselves weren't as challenging as the rest of the game, and I suspect it's because the camera actually doesn't play such a big part in boss fights. As in so many games (Zelda springs to mind), for each boss you have to work out how to hurt it and then do so repeatedly.
Even though this is a pretty straightforward 3D platform game, the menu does have a list of goals you need to achieve in any given level. It's useful if you haven't played the game for a while and can't remember what you are supposed to be doing. Saying that, the game is so linear that if you just walk around for a while, you're bound to accomplish things and eventually find your way to the next level. The weapon customisation screen has a list of items you need to find to make new weapons, helpfully indicating which of those things can be found on the level you are currently at. If you happen to miss any of those items and accidently stumble across the level boss, don't worry. You can return to the same level from the main screen and collect everything you missed the first time round.
Combat itself is not particularly challenging and it involves swinging the Wiimote to attack and blocking with your mushroom cap. What makes it challenging is the camera that changes if you get too close, jump or sometime for no apparent reason, so while you think you should be facing the enemy, you are actually facing in some random direction.
On the whole, this is a good game. But it had a potential to be a great game, and that disappointment is what makes it seem worse than it actually is. There were many games with a bad camera, but I don't remember feeling quite this frustrated with any of them. Main reason for that is that Mushroom Men had such a huge potential and it is so beautifully done, that a little bit of extra effort around the camera would have made it a "must have" game. Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to the expectation and delivers at times wonderful, but at other times most frustrating gaming experience. It should come with a health warning.
Every so often I am dragged back to it. I love it, I enjoy it and then, once again, I give up in frustration of not being able to get somewhere because the camera changes mid-jump. Games like that belong firmly in the last century. Let us hope that the developers learn from this and start paying attention to the things gamers object to the most - a wonderful game with poor playability.