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CONSOLE: Xbox DEVELOPER: Traveller's Tales PUBLISHER: Universal Interactive
RELEASE DATE (NA): April 15, 2002 GENRE: Platformer
// review by EscapeRouteBritish

Grapes of Cortex.

The Crash Bandicoot series is something that, much like a cold shower, you either love or hate. The first three Crash Bandicoot games show a cycle of continual improvement, but I honestly cannot say the same for Wrath of Cortex, the fourth instalment in the mainline platforming series. It was developed by Traveller's Tales (who later went on to develop the hugely successful money-making modern LEGO games), and it at least shows in terms of presentation — Traveller's Tales are much like Rare in that regard, they always put a lot of focus on the graphical aspect... but that's not all you need in a video game.

I play colourful platform games because sometimes the perfect cure for a nervous breakdown is to regress into childhood — and Crash is bright orange, so hey, colourful. I have a much greater fondness for the Crash Bandicoot series than most critics, but being fond of Crash Bandicoot actually makes this review a very difficult one to write. I don't want to rubbish this entry in the Crash series, but this game could have (and should have) been better; there is no excuse I could ever hear that would make this game's lacklustre content acceptable.

Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex sees our marsupial maniac spin and jump his way through Crash Bandicoot: Warped with better graphics, and slightly worse control. I mean it, this game is extremely formulaic, copying a great deal from its predecessors. This isn't inspiration; it's a straight up carbon copy. This game is what the third instalment of the Crash franchise is to the second: a re-tread with a few new ideas. This is another case of more lives than you could ever need followed by hard-as-nails sections that whittle them back down to zero with no balance or difficulty curve.

When you're trying to emulate the classic Crash Bandicoot gameplay, specifically that from when the series was at its best (and arguably very good), the one thing you need to get right is the physics. This is paramount because if Crash doesn't feel like he does in Cortex Strikes Back or Warped, it isn't going to feel right to pick up and play. Crash seems to have this odd floating feel to him in Wrath of Cortex that he doesn't have in any other game; it is as though he glides through the stages on roller-skates. If the lacking control wasn't enough, the drunken camera sometimes fails to keep up, causing you to inadvertently spring straight into an enemy or obstacle just around the corner.

At least the Naughty Dog developed entries had less of this and were paced better. I couldn't possibly lie and say this is never an issue in those titles, because it totally is.

Sure, it's not great, but it's got crates!

The bonus areas are specifically inhumane this time around, though you can try them as many times as you like without losing any lives (they managed to get that right, at least). There are fewer checkpoints than in previous games, which leaves levels with long sections that you have to perfectly memorize to make your way through. To mess it up right at the end is no fun. The game can be frustrating for this very reason. Instead of being able to read the screen and guess a good approach around the enemies, sometimes you're destroyed without even realizing it, requiring that you then take the level at a snail's pace, trying to see when an enemy is going to fall on top of your head before it happens.

For some reason, Traveller's Tales decided that having three times as many crates in a level than before would be a good idea, but now the hunt for the last box you missed is even more of a chaotic dangerous backtrack. When I first played this game, I had a genuine nightmare and woke up in a cold sweat because I thought I'd missed a box on a level. This game is psychological warfare.

At least the most redeeming features of Wrath of Cortex are completely new. That's not something I expected when I glanced at the back of the box and thought, "This is Crash Bandicoot 3 again, isn't it." For starters, Coco the Bandicoot is now fully playable. In other words, you're not always forced onto the back of a jet ski or a tiger pup. Granted, these stages were some of my favourites from Warped, and it's great to see the return of many of these starring Coco. But, actually being able to play as Coco on foot is still pleasing (even though these stages are short), as her sections feel a lot more like classic Crash Bandicoot. The physics are better here, too. Can't we just get a game consisting of these levels only?

The other elements, such as the rolling ball stages and the robot suit, make me quite glad that another team had taken up the reigns from Naughty Dog. The ball stages are especially enjoyable; it's Marble Madness with a bandicoot — what's not to love? Would we have seen these features if it weren't for Travellers' Tales — no, obviously not. They were able to put their own spin on the Crash Bandicoot franchise, which keeps the game at least a little fresh, even if the changes are not always fair. The boss battles against the elemental masks are infuriating. One boss battle whittled down my 60+ lives to a Game Over.

Wrath of Cortex is guilty of being mediocre, but at least it is mostly honest to the original material, so for that it at least deserves some praise (unless you disliked those games). It's a difficult game to hate, but also a very difficult game to recommend. This is the last console-based Crash Bandicoot game to use the level-by-level format, excluding the later released Crash of Titans, which I wouldn't even touch with a barge pole. There have been worse Crash Bandicoot games, that's for sure.

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