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Retro: Tron 2.0

This piece was first published in PC Gamer UK's Long Play series.

Disney occasionally hit the high notes of imagination. The Tron movie was one of those: a neon-and-black vision of the innards of cyberspace, long before such concepts became bread and butter to our science fiction diet. Making what purported to be a sequel to that famed film as a videogame was a brave move, and it's one that only just worked out for the best. Tron 2.0 is an awkward, flawed combat adventure that mixes annoying jumping puzzles with atmospheric brilliance and scenes of stark, cold beauty. Not one of the great games, perhaps, but certainly one of the memorable ones.

Tron 2.0 sees you re-entering the Tron world having been 'digitised' twenty years on from the original film. Once in the computer world you must work your way through what FPS players will quickly recognise as an acutely-linear, decision-free combat game, albeit it one dressed up in strange, idealised clothing. The failure to learn what was best about FPS games might have been where Tron 2.0 was undone. It quickly introduced disheartening puzzles and pace-shattering key-hunting obstacles – the kind of instant-death and repetition that we chew up shooters for delivering today.

Nevertheless it was both elements of deeper design and that superficial gloss that made me realise that cherished its existence in 2008. The Lithtech engine, which was tweaked for perfect neon-glows and weird light effects, captured the graphical essence of the Tron world effortlessly. It created a world that was crisp and beautiful, but that also contained a constant sense of non-human menace. It's an inspiring and sometimes frustrating glimpse at what videogames are capable of: melding corporate fantasy and stylistic smarts into a detailed, expanded universe that we can delve into in our own lost hours. It's a game that cannot age, thanks to its ability to capture and deliver a distinct, abstract style. I love it for that, like I love Darwinia or Team Fortress 2 – games we laud for their individual, insistent styles. Tron's world is one of laser bridges crossing abyssal void chasms, of spinning fractal gates, glowy-edged neon lines and vectors. It's all primary colours of bright information against the shocking blackness. It's almost binary: light against nothingness, but also surreal and unreal: floating abstract tiles, buzzing teleport systems, and vast chain-flows of information pathways, like the traffic of distant cities. Few games capture a fraction of this kind of beauty.

The deeper design, however, that of upgraded, modified weapons and equipment, was also satisfying in a way that few linear shooters had managed to be at that time. Although there was really rather little there to play with, you felt a unique sense of satisfaction of have uncovered secrets and accessed better weapons: optimising them as you went along in exactly the way that sticking a scope on your AK fails to do in most FPS games. Of course the combat was unnecessarily decked out with reimagined FPS regulars – machineguns, shotguns, sniper rifles, all in glowing crystalline form – but it was the disc combat that really made things interesting. The disc was all you needed, and all I wanted. Using the weird boomerang missile against groups of enemies was violently rewarding, particularly because it was not like any other FPS weapon.

Then there's the fact that the game is hewed in two by the most important set-piece in Tron: the light cycles. Tron 2.0 actually provides an entire single-player game based on the light-cycle combat, complete with a dozen arenas, a handful of power-ups, and a beautifully precise light-cycle engine. For a cinematic scene that has been so regularly reinvented in videogames, this was like a final statement. It's a shame that the bots are so stupid, and that play over the net so agonisingly laggy. As a multiplayer game on a LAN, however, it's just about perfect. Racing side-by-side along neon grids, seeing the black-and-red skies of information vaulting over head, well, it's just about as video as a videogame can be. If we ever have anything to thank the Disney Corporation for, it's an experience like this.

Finally, this is what is most satisfying: that Tron 2.0 takes such keen joy in tackling its subject. It's a move licence that makes familiar terrain unfamiliar again. Too many games forget to be a genuine fantasy. They keen on referring back to the real world – trying to patch up their fiction with elements of fact, or authentic people, places and objects. There's none of that with Tron 2.0. Here we're in a land of pure metaphor: where the jargon we use as shorthand for glossing over the complexities of computer operations become people, places and objects themselves. “The Progress Bar” is where off-duty programs hang out, “Permissions” replace traditional FPS keys, and the over-arching idea of corrupted data and viral information-as-biology make the mythology of information-space complete.

Yeah, that's Tron 2.0... More fun to write about than to play? Something like that.

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