The animated film Planet 51 turns 1950’s sci-fi about Earth being invaded by little green men on its ear. Life on the titular planet very much resembles the stereotypical vision of 1950’s America, but the inhabitants are little green men (and women), and the alien invader is an American astronaut. It’s a charming concept, but a bland presentation and serious control issues turn what should be an enjoyable excursion to a pleasant alien world into an experience that even the most patient young players will find dull and frustrating.
You spend most of your time in Planet 51 playing as Lem, the young, eager Planet 51 inhabitant who befriends NASA astronaut (and alien invader) Chuck Baker. Unfortunately, the only movie footage employed by the game is in brief, wordless snippets, and the story the game tells is an incoherent one that players may have a hard time making sense of if they haven’t seen the film. The plot here is a paper-thin excuse to send Lem on all kinds of odd jobs, putting him to work as a paperboy, a courier, a dog catcher, a taxi driver, and a waiter, among other things. The flimsy story is disappointing, and these tasks, while varied, just aren’t much fun.
Most of your missions involve controlling a vehicle, so it’s vital that the driving be enjoyable. Unfortunately, it’s anything but fun. The cars in Planet 51 resemble classic cars of the 1950s, except that they’re round and hover a bit above the ground. This freedom from friction with the road means that in addition to accelerating, steering, and braking as cars do in any number of games, they can freely strafe from side to side and leap higher into the air for a few seconds to get over obstacles or other cars. Given that they’re floating cars, you might expect the handling to be a bit floaty, but it’s much too floaty. As you turn left and right by tilting the remote, it’s difficult to keep your vehicle under control, which is especially frustrating during the game’s many races. You jump by jerking the remote upward, but this is so sensitive that you’ll sometimes feel like you’re riding a wild, bucking horse and find yourself focusing on holding the remote still so as not to jump at an inopportune moment. Driving is at the very core of this game, and with such poor handling, everything else just falls apart.
There are a few activities that don’t involve driving, and these are even worse. A few have Lem walking slowly while carrying a large pile of books or plates. Your goal is to keep the pile from toppling, which you do by holding the remote upright and then slowly tilting it in one direction or another to compensate as the precarious tower starts to lean dangerously to one side. The controls for these missions feel unresponsive and unintuitive, and they go on for so long that they’re more a test of patience than anything else. The game also puts motion controls into the newspaper-delivery mission, trying to simulate the experience of tossing a paper, but this is similarly done in a way that’s awkward, unnatural, and totally unpleasant.
Just as bad are the few missions that cast you as Chuck or Rover, the WALL-E-esque robot. On foot, you control the camera by tilting the remote, which is slow and laborious. As Chuck, you’ll sometimes need to avoid obstacles in your way by matching an onscreen prompt. When it’s pressing a button or even moving the remote up or down, it works fine, but mastering the precise side-to-side motion you sometimes need to make is an irritating process of trial and error. As Rover, you’re tasked with such mundane tasks as scanning for and collecting rocks, which is bad enough. Making matters worse, the camera follows you so tightly that you can’t get a good sense of your surroundings. Considering that you frequently need to navigate ramps, drops, and turns, these missions can be as maddening as they are dull. Thankfully, you can skip any mission in the game should you fail it a few times, so you’ll never be stuck on these or any other missions in the game, but that doesn’t make them any less terrible.
After encountering any task in the game, you can return to it at any time to complete increasingly challenging levels to unlock stickers and other collectibles, but given how dreary they are, it’s unlikely this option will get much use. There are a few bright spots in the campaign, such as the final mission, which is a large-scale escape sequence that takes you throughout the massive Base 9 military installation. But these moments are much too few and far between to make it worth putting up with the game’s flaws and frustrations. If you do feel compelled to push your way through the entire story, you’ll be done in about five hours.
Unfortunately, the world of the game isn’t even much to look at because the colors are dull. While the streets are busy with traffic, vehicles and other objects look fuzzy unless they’re very close. The frame rate stutters terribly during races and at other moments when a lot of activity is happening. Story cutscenes are weak, with an unsettling lack of synchronicity between the moment a character appears to talk and when we hear the character speak. This is exacerbated by some weak voice work, provided by actors who, for the most part, sound nothing like their movie counterparts. The music, while sometimes too dramatic for the lighthearted action, is quite good, but the sound effects are not. At first, hearing radio noise emanating from passing cars seems like an impressive detail. But then you’ll notice that you’re hearing the same few snippets of radio chatter from every passing car, which becomes a kind of sonic torture.
There are a few local multiplayer options here as well. Two players can compete in races, demolition derbies, or hot bombs, which are basically a vehicular game of hot potato. But the poor vehicle controls sap these of any potential fun. The world of Planet 51 seems like it would be a nice place to spend some time, but if that’s a trip you’re interested in taking, this game is not the way to do it.