A mere week ago, the perennial question was upon us - what do you get a pre-teen for Christmas? The choices were plentiful. A mountain bike for the more active. A book for the keen reader. A magic set for the aspiring Paul Daniels. A lump of coal for the budding geologist. But, for the avid gamer, family-friendly choices are a little more limited. That being said, hopefully you did not get them Ben 10: Omniverse 2, unless the child in question had been a complete nightmare in the run-up to festivities. If that was the case, you've no doubt found that this game was the ideal punishment.
Inexplicably spawning a sequel after the first below average instalment, you’re returned to the world of Ben 10 on board an Incursean cruiser after being exiled from the planet and rescued by your buddy Azmuth. Your aim, as Ben Tennyson, is to escape the ship and get back to Earth. The entire backstory of the first title is encapsulated in a single paragraph when you start the game, giving you some idea of how much thought went into the narrative of the original Omniverse.
So what of the game itself? It starts as an on-rails corridor runner, which involves dodging obstacles by using one of three mutant protagonist classes: light, medium and heavy. You can transform via the D-pad into any of these forms, each with their own powers. Light classes can jump over walls and pits, medium classes can take out overhead guns and bad guys in your line of fire, and heavy classes can smash through walls. Ben himself is pretty puny, and if your Omnitrix meter (which dictates how long you can stay as one of the mutant forms) empties, you’ll revert back to him and have to survive whilst it recharges.
The corridors are split into three lanes and you’ll have to be quick off the mark to select the correct character for the obstacle - fail, and you’ll lose health. The problem is that obstacles are often so close together, and the time to change between classes takes so long, that you’ll often end up pummelling your way through, regardless of what you press. Tack onto that frustration the constant pop-ups (at least, at the beginning) which tell you which class you should be using - less than a second before you can action them - and even the reflexes of Vettel won’t be able to save your health. If today’s ADD kids manage to make it through these frustrations, one can only admire their perseverance.
Once you’ve tried (and usually failed) to navigate the corridors without taking a hit, you’ll end up in one of several identikit rooms where the objective is to smash any free-standing objects to pieces whilst fighting off constantly spawning enemies. There is usually a story tacked onto this, such as destroying a communications relay or collecting keycards, but the end result is always the same: go to room, clear everything in room, collect floating item, leave room.
Combat is incredibly simple, offering combinations of the tried and tested light/heavy combos. You can jump and use either attack button to perform - surprise! - a jump attack, and also block in different ways depending on the character you’re currently controlling. That’s the entire repertoire. Whilst it’s obviously not a good idea to laden a game aimed at seven-year-olds with an extensive moveset akin to God of War, you have to at least challenge them. What Omniverse 2 offers is one-button fighting, masquerading as something more and fooling no-one, least of all kids.
The difficulty is wildly uneven. The controls are so sticky that your responses register seconds after hitting buttons, making any sort of strategic attack futile and meaning you’ll resort to basic “attack and retreat” methods. I couldn’t believe that this was pitched at children - even on the easiest difficulty level I found myself shaking my head as wave after wave of bad guys smashed me to pieces. Unwilling to completely rule out the possibility that my gaming mojo had finally left me, I handed the controller to my ten-year-old nephew (a huge Ben 10 fan) who informed me, with unwavering certainty, that this was one of the hardest games he’d ever played. And then I realised that one of the characters, unbelievably, was rendered invincible whilst blocking and running. This meant that I could block, run to an enemy and kill them with one heavy attack, and then repeat until the room was clear. This immediately rendered moot any sort of challenge in these areas, and is akin to the “down+attack” combo which ruined the original Street Fighter. It’s the kind of flawed design which breaks games, and the age group it is pitched at simply cannot be used as an excuse for it.
The visuals nicely capture the feel of Ben 10, but the environments are sparse and dull; returning to Earth doesn’t shake anything up in any major way other than to set the game outside and replace the corridor obstacles with reskinned variants. Similarly uninspired is the ambient soundtrack, which could easily have been picked from a box labelled “Synth For Impending Danger #5”. It’s in keeping with the whole game, which feels like it’s been rushed to the shelves for the festive period, with one cynical eye on mother’s purse strings..
Each irritating character you transform into has a set of catchphrases which will soon have you reaching for the mute button. One such character is named Four Arms, and a sample of his musings include: “There’s four where that came from.”; “I’m going to beat you four ways to Sunday.” and “Four-warned is four-armed.” It’s like someone took the worst parts of Arnie’s Mr. Freeze and thought, “Can we make this even more awful?”... and then succeeded. Rene Auberjonois - DS9’s Odo - reprises his voice-over duties here, and sounds like he’d rather be back in deep space, oxygen optional.
Each of the six levels you complete will unlock more characters to control, although the basic moves remain the same and it’s unlikely you’ll deviate from the effective formula mentioned above to power through the game, if only to ensure the entire experience is as short as possible.
Also unlocked through progression are arenas, which can be completed either alone or in local co-op. These are essentially the same as the rooms you’ll encounter in the single-player story, but with the added bonus of making one of your friends suffer alongside you, or an AI counterpart for when they laugh in your face and go home. Essentially a variation on Gears of War’s Horde mode, you have to clear increasingly difficult waves of enemies whilst fighting off the urge to sleep. In fairness, it is ultimately the only part of the game which offers a significant challenge, but it really doesn’t do anything to relieve the overall tedium.
Overall then, Omniverse 2 is unlikely to appeal to anyone other than a subset of ardent fans with exceptional staying power, who are willing to overlook its deathly dull combat, crass voicework and utterly repetitive gameplay. That lump of coal isn’t looking quite so bad now, is it?