Revisiting TRON 2.0

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>the grid()- A digital frontier. A vast landscape shimmering opulently with a neon palette, where binary digits flow up from the ground towards the darkened skies and panels of data make up for the clouds. And you, a user, have entered it, albeit accidentally, while looking for your dad.

If you have ever wondered what the computer looks like if you could get inside, then TRON 2.0 is the game that would quench that childhood fantasy. A first-person shooter developed by Monolith Productions and released by Buena Vista Games for Windows in 2003, this game acted as a direct (and perhaps the true) sequel to the 1982 sci-fi cult hit, TRON. Now, if you haven’t seen the movie, I suggest you watch it before playing this game as it borrows in quite a lot of elements from the film and builds upon it, delivering a rapid, power-packed performance comparable to that of Quake and Unreal Tournament. Although, story-wise, TRON 2.0 can be played by just knowing the slightest titbits of TRON.

Coming from a time when Disney hadn’t gobbled up its subsidiaries and gone full-blown Illuminati, this game, for the first time in the TRON franchise, featured a real-time 3D environment with breath-taking graphics as opposed to all the previous games. Resurrected with a better storyline, TRON had again entered the mainstream media after lying dormant for 20 years, only to criminally underperform in sales resulting in a complete drop of support from Buena Vista Games just after 2 years of its release and ultimately losing the “Best Action Game” award to Call of Duty in 2003.

Hmm… a Best Action Game nominee… then why the heck did it underperform? Let’s find out.

>narrative()

It took Disney two whole decades to produce forth an upgraded version of the computer world that was first showcased in TRON. In fact, I re-watched Tron: Legacy to see how far technology had progressed, only to realize that the latest movie had straightway copied many narrative elements from this hidden gem.

Just like in Tron: Legacy, you star as a rebellious teenager named Jet Bradley, son of Alan Bradley, the creator of the TRON program from the original movie. Your father is quite persistent of you in joining a higher position in his company, the ENCOM Industries, but you, on the other hand, are happy with a low-level job. Basically, a fancy excuse to loiter around and play arcades all day. While having an argument with him over the phone, you hear people breaking into his office and then the call cuts abruptly. On venturing into his office, the system Al named Ma3a ‘digitizes’ you into the ENCOM server.

And Bam! You’re in! Get ready for a badass intro animation with pumping tech music.

The narrative is well fleshed out and mostly presented as pre-rendered cutscenes, but action fanatics looking for explosions and stuff might be put off since all cutscenes are of characters just talking to one another, spouting out computer jargons which you mightn’t have heard before. I felt this as a stark contrast to the fact that the protagonist had no other complicated objectives to accomplish other than collecting permissions (access keys) in order to advance from point A to B, all while derezzing (a fancy word for killing) enemy programs along the way. But if you’re a lore junkie, there are backstories, presented as short video clips or emails exchanged between the ENCOM employees, which you can acquire by locating archive bins scattered across the levels. Quite amusingly, I had found some outside of ENCOM’s intranet sitting on someone’s private network, basically, corporate information security gone out of the window (lol!) But who cares when you got a dangerous virus to wipe out which act as the game’s primary antagonists and one of the many enemy variants. There’s a case of mistaken identity; a sexy, digital chick rescuing you; deadly light cycle battles; the hostile takeover of ENCOM and the internet as a whole by the rival fCON Industries, and so on, all laid out in a tightly-knit fashion that is both fun and engrossing.

But don’t get your hopes high because the story doesn’t bring anything new to the platter: no plot twists, no character development, very straightforward like a generic shooter story. The dialogues are bland and so much oversaturated with computer terms that if you are, like me, a noob, would require hitting the real internet just to find out what the terms actually mean. A lot of jargons are slapped to ordinary stuff to make them sound interesting e.g. residents of the grid are called programs and have names like Marco.exe, Brian.exe; ICPs (the grid’s security officers) have names like sssys.dll, spooler.exe, whereas viruses have absurdly garbled up names like HA-HA-HA-0X0->??…Well, you get the idea. Everything is changed into TRON-lingo e.g. the game’s levelling system is called System Versioning, skills are called Subroutines, XP is Build, communication is via I/O ports, and so on. Then again, TRON and Tron: Legacy preferred style over substance, relying solely on the vibrant set-pieces that they weren’t shy to deliver.

>style_over_substance()

With the artistic guidance of Syd Mead, widely known for his neo-futuristic designs in Blade Runner, Aliens and TRON, TRON 2.0 offered a breakthrough in visual imagery that was pure eyegasm. A slavish devotion to the surrealistic art style of the original film, this game suspended me in disbelief, compelling me just to pass time by staring at those neon-lit buildings and translucent geometries. The trademark spectrum of red, green, blue, white, it’s all there, layered like cream over the sharp, blocky structures consisting of transparent, translucent and opaque shapes.  Everything glowed in superior colour schemesweapons, bikes, programs, youeverything! And this was what made the whole world so magnificent, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in any video game before.

Enemy programs, on dying, shattered into a glossy pile of binary digits (and that’s guys, is what you call de-resolution or derezzing) which was quite fun to watch, more because they left behind fast-disappearing core dumps which could be looted for stuff. The weapon animations are so sick and in fact, there were moments when I kept on switching weapons just to look at how gracefully Jet Bradley unholstered them, a personal favourite being the opening animation of Sequencer Disc and Cluster Disc. And, did I yet mention the sniper rifle named LOL, a grenade launcher named Drunken Dims and a guided missile launcher called Prankster Bit!

>Level_design ()

Names aside, once I got used to the neon aura, I found that every level was more or less the same, just coated in a different colour palette to distinguish one system from another. A very simplistic approach to level design was followed similar to the original movie, which made me question whether the devs intended to send me down on a nostalgia trip or was it plain-old laziness on their part. Linear corridors, energy bridges, floating platforms, deep ridges, projected displays, power switches and annoying enemies were common across all. There were generic shooter tropes like conveniently placed Health patch routines to replenish health; energy patch routines for energy, archive bins that contained new weapons, armour and skills; simple control panels where you only have to press ‘F’, and the like. All in all, the charm that the TRON franchise was known for, wore off sooner than expected because of the seemingly insipid approach to detailing.

>Gameplay ()

Take away the aesthetic cover, TRON 2.0 is, after all, an FPS, with tons of platforming sections that felt like a chore. I had to jump over arbitrary floating tiles like umpteen number of times within a single level, which was quite tedious because the game offered only a limited field of view, forcing me to constantly look down to see where my invisible feet were landing. The difficulty scale was also very erratic—at lower difficulties, enemies were cannon fodder and at higher they became bullet sponges. The worst part was, they always attacked in groups, and this was where I realized how dumb the enemy AI was. They never moved into cover and kept shooting at me from the same position as if they’re some kind of firing squad. But when I moved into cover, they would come running like hounds. Ironically, this mechanism allowed for some real fun gameplay: I would lure enemies into a tight corner and throw my disc weapon at them because the discs would pinball around the walls ricocheting off their bodies and hitting them multiple times in a single throw.

Speaking of weapons, there aren’t many, just the usual shooter tropes like a melee, a shotgun, a sub-machine gun, a sniper rifle, three types of grenades, a health-energy sucking claw and a missile launcher. There are tanks too—glowing tanks! But their rate of fire was so ridiculously slow that I should be thankful I wasn’t forced to drive one, just dodge the incoming artilleries.

Thankfully, enemies were varied like the ICPs, who would attack me on sight; the viruses called Z-lots, who would hurl grenades at me; floating finder programs that fired energy bolts; Resource Hogs that were basically a bloated version of the low-tier ICPs; data wraiths who were digitized humans doing the dirty work for fCon Industries and some obligatorily bosses like the data worm below.

The ICPs, in particular, vexed me because stealth was nigh impossible with them, and once they detected me, all hell would break loose. Low-tier ICPs would throw a single disc at me which I could dodge easily and hit them before their disc returns back to their hand. Mid-tier ICPs—fully armoured and armed to teeth with Sequencer Discs—were like the Heavy Troopers in any shooting game. High-tier Z-lot viruses inflicted splash damage with their grenades that would significantly deplete my health bar. Resource Hogs exploded on dying to leave behind an area of static electricity. There were some other enemy-types too, but sadly, none required any finesse to slay—you just keep shooting at them till they die. This aspect of gameplay became quite conventional and repetitive, at times even forcing me to stop playing for long spans until I remembered how beautiful the world looked.

But all things weren’t bland because the best part was yet to come: the light cycle battles, which consisted of insanely fast bikes running on solid ribbons of light which could turn at perfect 90o angles. The Game Grids where I got to battle were a visual treat for the eyes, consisting of speed and slow zones, power-ups, obstacles, traps, all scattered across the massive arena. All I had to do was make the opponents crash into my light trail, which actually worked as a double-edged sword i.e I would die if I hit my own trail (remember that Snake game from Nokia 3310). And you really, really have to be adept at it because the opponents would take turns quickly at high speeds. One second it’s an empty arena, the other moment I would be on a collision course into the walls of a maze created by their light trails.

Skill upgrades in this game is definitely a plus point because the very disc which I yielded also acted as my inventory, allowing me to stock all my weapons, armour and subroutines inside it. I found tons of subroutines which enhanced me with abilities like jumping higher, walking silently, doing greater damage etc., with each occupying certain memory space on the disc. Though initially alpha, they were upgradable to beta and gold versions to make them occupy less memory, and this applied to the weapons and armour as well. The memory space was limited, pushing me to choose what stuffs I actually needed to install, and the entire memory configuration changed once I entered a new system.

This kind of micro-management was a welcome breath in contrast to the universal shooter elements that the game was littered with. On being hit by the virus’s grenades, some of my subroutines would get corrupted. In that case, I couldn’t use those particular abilities unless I disinfected them. In other cases, some of the memory spaces would be blocked on receiving a hit. Then I had to use the Defrag Procedural to free up space. There was also something called Port Procedural which compiled the uncompiled subroutines so that they could be burned on the disc. Although it did take me some time to learn all the aspects of the disc, thanks to the repetitive gameplay, I eventually got a hang of it and was able to alter my skills on the fly.

//end of the line

To be honest, I still don’t know what made me stop playing the game halfway and switch to other games to kill time. Was it the fact that this was an old game? That couldn’t be true as the visuals in this game were extraordinarily better than the shooters that came even after 2010. So what was it then? Was it the gameplay? That could be a valid point because TRON 2.0 is essentially a generic FPS at heart. But that doesn’t mean there were some good moments. There was a system-wide reformat to eradicate the virus and I had to escape a rapidly approaching firewall all while shooting, there was a moment where I had to escape relentless shelling from enemy artilleries, there was also a moment where I got to fight alongside the ICPs to eradicate our common enemy—the virus, but in actuality, these moments were short and widely spaced apart from each other, with the chronic gameplay to fill the space in-between.

The soundtrack was all electronic synths from the ’80s and in fact composed by the same guy who had composed the OST for TRON, but the same set of scores played across all the levels and eventually, I felt like muting the audio for a sec. What’s worse was that the highest resolution the game offered was 1040 x 768. There was also a multiplayer mode which I didn’t get to try, though I’ve heard you could play light cycle battles over the LAN.

As of now, TRON 2.0 sits idle on Steam priced at 349 INR, waiting to be purchased by the next user.


About the Author

Sailesh Singh

For every Bong dude, there’s an Odia counterpart. AAA titles don’t entice him as much as underrated ones. A lore junkie at heart, no backstory, not even fan theories escape his eye if he’s really into a game.
 

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