Who said that cartoons weren’t educational back in the ‘80s? Despite its ridiculous title Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a massive success, introducing kids to four Renaissance artists for the price of one and giving you a damned good show to boot. Let’s face it, outside of an art history class, who had heard of Donatello? For all their moralising, alternatives such as He-Man simply didn’t come close to the impact of the reptile reprobates and twenty-six years after the cartoon was first aired, another game tie-in has appeared courtesy of Red Fly Studio whether we wanted it or not.
It could have been good. It should have been good. As gamers, we probably should have abandoned any sense of optimism around a new Turtles game since the license’s zenith back in 1991: Turtles in Time. Four-player arcade co-op didn’t get much better, and since its triumph we’ve been subjected to various travesties bearing the TMNT name - the last 360 effort being a fairly gruesome reimagining of this classic back in 2009.
So what could TMNT: Out Of The Shadows offer to beleaguered fans, desperate for that heyday experience? Early indications were promising. A complex moveset to rival - and even surpass - that of Batman: Arkham City. A transition from the lighter tone of the older series to a grittier, more faithful comic book adaptation which stylistically draws on the new Nickelodeon show. An online multiplayer offering group attacks, counters and tag team fun. It all sounds great on paper and excitement rises as the familiar Partners in Kryme hit from the original film kicks in from the title screen. Once you hit Start though, things begin to go very, very wrong.
Playing as busybody and general damsel-in-distress April O’Neil to begin with, you’re thrust into a confusing story involving Shredder, Baxter Stockman and The Foot Clan committing non-specific crimes and, yes, trying to kill the Turtles. Once you gain control of your favourite ninja (always Donatello), the game proper begins. Sadly, there’s not much to the plot other than moving from area to area, clearing out a bunch of enemies, watching some hideously drawn comic book panels flash up in quick succession, then moving on to do it all again. It’s interesting to note how atrocious the artwork on the panels is, since the designers have done a great job of drawing and animating the in-game characters. The Turtles’ movements are fluid and varied, with flips, leaps, kicks, punches and blocks merging well with their individual weapons and limited environmental interactivity. Donnie’s the slowest but widest reaching with his bo staff, Raph is more of a close-quarters fighter, Mike’s the quickest and Leo is the best all-rounder. This is at odds with the enemy movement which is repetitive and clumsy, consisting of telegraphed pauses designed to signal a blocking opportunity and followed through with a lunging attack. Collision detection is also suspect at times, but just about muddles through.
You’ll pick up experience points as you play, and upon levelling up you’ll have the opportunity to unlock new special moves, combo attacks and more. OOTS doesn’t just borrow from the Batman franchise, it copies huge chunks from it.
In campaign mode, you’ll have the ability to play in either split-screen couch co-op alongside two AI-controlled Turtles, or alone with three AI buddies. The latter is preferable in most cases, as the split-screen is truly horrendous - the aspect ratio has been squashed to a point where the volume of wasted space almost matches the actual playing area. In single-player mode you’ll have the option to switch between each character at any point, a nicer touch which means you can experience all of the characters on offer and decide on a favourite.
For reasons best left unknown, OOTS - a beat ‘em up, let’s remember - was deemed an appropriate genre within which to insert a hacking minigame, perhaps in an attempt to lure in some Deus Ex diehards. It fails for two main reasons. Firstly, the hacking is pointlessly simple, requiring you to connect matching icons on a hex grid and offering little challenge other than desperately fighting with the cursor in order to navigate between them. Secondly, thanks to a frequent bug you’ll get attacked whilst locked in the minigame screen, unable to get out whilst halfway through a hack. It is a bizarre and unnecessary inclusion in a fighting game.
Yet it isn’t the worst bug you’ll encounter. OOTS is rife with both minor glitches and game-breaking issues. These range from screen tearing through to melding into objects and walls which you have no place being. At one point, Donnie was teleported inside of one of the boss sprites whilst attacking it. The camera doesn’t help in this regard, swinging wildly into positions which vary from unhelpful to outright incoherent. If that wasn’t enough, we were forced to restart a chapter on several occasions because the game hadn’t recognised that an area was clear. There is little to no signposting, nor is it obvious whether a door is accessible or not. Some of them light up to indicate you can continue. Some of them don’t. Sometimes you can blaze past three areas full of bad guys and the game continues without the need to fight them. At other times you’ll get into a lift, wait for your AI buddies to join you, carry on regardless when they don’t, then realise you can’t continue because the path once you leave the lift hasn’t opened up.
If anything, the multiplayer is worse. Do you like glitching across the room whilst in the middle of a fight? How about launching staccato attacks against enemies which disappear and reappear behind you? Or perhaps you prefer teaming up with some friends against a group of soldiers, only to be suddenly left alone with all trace of the fight wiped from existence and your friends halfway up the next corridor? If so, you’ll find lots to enjoy here. The ultimate insult was being left in limbo after the host left the game, kicking us back to the lobby once we died and preventing us from actually leaving the lobby at all. Attempting to do so just returned us back to the lobby. All other options did nothing; it was a purgatory inflicted upon us for no discernible reason and made us happy to reach for the power button. Did we mention that the cutscenes are unskippable, even in multiplayer? Bodacious!
In keeping with the rest of the game, the music is poor at best. Once you skip the title screen you’re treated to utterly forgettable industrial beats and loops, which stutter and cuts out frequently. On the other hand, the voice acting is actually very good and feels reminiscent of the juvenile banter present in the films. It’s just a pity there isn’t more of it; you’ll soon grow weary of Donnie saying “Welcome to the staff meeting!” for the eightieth time in the chapter, and let’s not start on Mike’s overlong ruminations on pizza toppings which feels like it goes on for a good three minutes - and then repeats. This isn’t improved by multiple voice samples often playing simultaneously, bombarding your ears with mashed-up noise. It’s yet another area of the game which simply hasn’t been tested properly. Radical!
A few extras have been bundled alongside the campaign. Challenge mode is a watered down version of the same mode in - you guessed it - Rocksteady’s franchise, which sees you fighting off waves of enemies in either an alley or the subway whilst attempting to ramp up your combo counter. A slightly more welcome addition is an arcade version of the game essentially providing a 2D runthrough without the cutscenes, in a similar (but far more playable) vein to the recent Double Dragon: Wander of the Dragons and one that actually offers a more enjoyable - if bland - single-player experience.
What we are left with is a dull, broken button-masher of a campaign, a risible, barely playable multiplayer game, and a couch co-op which puts most players on a level playing field with Mr. Magoo. The most frustrating part of the experience is that it feels like there’s an inkling of a good game buried underneath the bugs, desperately struggling to make itself known. If more time had been spent testing and polishing OOTS, it would have been an unremarkable but still enjoyable brawler. In its current form though, it’s more “cow dung” than “cowabunga” and a sorry way to end this year’s Summer of Arcade.