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The last generation or so has seen one-time PlayStation icon Crash Bandicoot flitting around in an awkward limbo. He hasn't had his reputation quite as thoroughly sullied as Spyro the Dragon did by the increasingly desperate Legend Of Spyro titles, yet for all his endeavours and continually solid commercial performances, the bandicoot hasn't been able to recapture the form that made him the envy of the platforming world at the end of the nineties.
Mind you, it isn't for lack of trying. After Crash Twinsanity's novel but ultimately unconvincing experiment in co-operative platforming, its successor Crash Of The Titans, released in 2006, deals the series another significant shake-up, this time placing major emphasis on a revamped combat system. As a platform game, COTT rarely pushes itself beyond the realms of mediocrity, but add to the mix an array of cool, imaginative enemies who can then be made to do your bidding in some frantic and involved battles, and it gives itself a fighting chance.
The story is familiar fare; Crash's sister Coco once again gets herself kidnapped by everyone's favourite camp, evil egghead villain Dr. Neo Cortex, only for his equally deranged niece Nina to take over in his stead (a bit of a shame as typically, the more Neo Cortex, the better). There's not much in the way of narrative progression but that's never been especially important here, acting as it always has done as a framework within which its marsupial lead protagonist is free to explore all manner of bubbly cartoon landscapes and hazardous locations. The game isn't long in showing its hand, putting pretty much all of its eggs in the one basket. You're given the ability, having stunned an enemy, to "jack" and essentially take control of them, allowing parts of the levels to be navigated on the backs of some marvellous, freaky mutants.
The scraps impress and frustrate in equal measure. There's plenty to admire though; there are fifteen beautifully bizarre beasties, each with their own small but distinctive set of attack moves. The best of the battlers including Scorparilla (a gorilla-cum-scorpion, I'm guessing) with its devastating, far-reaching melee attacks; Sludge which offers an unlikely mix of toxic barf and sneaky uppercuts, and the tank-like Shellephant.
Occasionally, Crash will need to use jacked foes in order to progress through areas, and whilst this feature is fairly embryonic in its execution, it's nevertheless a positive step. The Snipe creature for instance shoots projectile beams, meaning they can flick targets or switches, whilst the Rhinoroller's devastating barrel-roll attack can take out obtrusive bits of scenery just as well as it sweeps away the bad guys. For the most part, the battling is solid fare; it's nothing overly technical as most mutants only have a small pool of attacks each, but learning to time your block and counter moves is actively encouraged, and particularly useful against some of the more aggressive enemies later on. Problems start to arise when you're outnumbered, and if Crash is left to fend for himself without the power of a mutant, it can feel a bit David versus Goliath. His lack of power exacerbated by the quick recovery rate of opponents who are quite content to block for long periods, whilst avoiding attack from other foes who is as much luck as anything else.
Whilst the combat shows creativity, the same sadly can't be said for the platforming which is something of a low ebb for the series. Nothing's terribly amiss unto itself; there aren't any major issues with navigating Crash and he's learned a couple of new tricks since his last adventure, including an amusingly balletic twirling technique that slows descents, but it lacks any real spark or conviction. There's no question combat was the big focus for COTT, but it seems to have been at the expense of the platforming, which is for large parts unchallenging, unfocused and seems like little more than a bridge between fights.
And as such, but for the odd uncomfortable spike, it's possible to coast through the majority the game. Because the levels tend to follow a similar pattern, things start getting repetitive by the latter stages when the novelty of controlling mutants starts to lose its gloss. In true Crash style though, there's no shortage of levels and extras. There are more than twenty stages in total and they're pretty lengthy too, offering roughly half an hour's play each. It makes a better fist of encouraging replay value than most platformers too, with a gaggle of hidden stuff and extras to garner by going back and perfecting your performances. The rewards themselves - artwork and mutant info mostly - aren't anything to write home about, but Crash's mutant-mimicking outfits are rather great, and it's worth some of the toil just to see his Halloween get-up.
The game is unlikely to win any awards for its graphics, but its cartoony visuals have retained the colourful, rounded and a-bit-zany-round-the-edges spirit of the series. In fairness to SuperVillain Studios who handled the PSP version, there are few signs of fallibility in what is a very smooth and competent game engine, the odd slightly protracted loading time notwithstanding. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't rock the boat thematically, but the mix of jungles, waterfalls, sinister laboratories and underground lairs are as attractive as they are predictable.
There are parts of Crash of the Titans that are a genuine breath of fresh air, though it's hard to shake the feeling that, even with all of the effort that's gone into the mutants and combat, putting the platforming on the back-burner is to the game's detriment. It's impressive to see a developer so actively able to pursue new themes and ideas in what is an aging franchise - a good sign for the venerable Bandicoot, even if this isn't quite the game to return him to the top of the platforming tree.
The game is divided into 20 "episodes," which primarily involve defeating waves of Minions and mutated enemies, although some platform-jumping events will also be required. Crash has a low attack and a high attack and can put together combo to score several hits against its enemies, but this will not be enough to destroy the massive mutants to stop him. Therefore Crash also has an innovative new capability called "jacking", which means that when he defeated a mutant, he can take control of the mutant and use it to fight and Jack second enemies. The many mutant types each have their own attacks and abilities (a practical guide for whichever creature you have jacked is available by pressing Select), although the various attacks generally follows the same pattern and are not really that different from a mutant type to another
Crash can upgrade their skills by collecting pieces of "Mojo", which is available in each section, each level also has a Mojo Room (essentially a bonus game) and some other collectors' items (and "destroyables") to check, but the biggest part of your progression through each section follows a fairly linear path. There are no secret areas to unlock or extra quest or targets to aim, the focus is simply to fight your way from beginning to end.
In a nefarious plot to unleash destruction, Crash Bandicoot ''s arch-nemeses, Neo and Nina Cortex, have mutated the creatures of Crash''s island into monstrous abominations! Never one to shirk from danger, our orange furry friend finds that with his potent mix of wacky bravado and daredevil action he is able to hijack the titanic monsters and wield their immense powers against each other! Bring on the titans, because with Crash in charge, the bigger the baddie, the better!