In 2004, Jason Hall, the head of Warner Bros.’ new videogame division, did something remarkable: He promised to end bad movie tie-ins.
By then, gamers had become well acquainted with the suckiness of movie-based games. Ever since Atari’s E.T. — a game so bad, tons of unsold copies were buried in the desert — publishers of “licensed” games had been rightly accused of rushing out glitchy, uninspired pabulum.
To end this foul trend, Hall decided to punish publishers who defiled Warner Bros. properties. The studio would look at the average score its licensed game received from critics. If a game fell below 70 percent, the company could impose a monetary penalty by deducting it from royalty fees.
The plan went into effect, but with a major caveat: The penalties weren’t automatic — a failing score triggered an optional review process that let publishers appeal their accountability.
Unsurprisingly, abysmal WB movie tie-ins continued: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Constantine, Dukes of Hazzard . . . need we go on?
The latest in this shameful lineage is The Ant Bully, a cynical grab at Mommy’s purse.
Midway Games had fertile territory to work with. Ants hunt and fish. They war against other colonies and take slaves. They work in concert to lift great weight and cross great distances. There is a wonderful game to be made out of ant life.
Sadly, The Ant Bully doesn’t come close. Instead, the game slavishly reproduces the story line of the movie. And it doesn’t even do that right.
You play as Lucas Nickle, a bratty kid who gets shrunken down to miniature size by a secret potion brewed by vengeful ants. It’s the ants’ retaliation for Nickle’s torturing them with a backyard hose.
But you wouldn’t know any of that from the game, which dispenses with backstory entirely. Unless you’ve seen the movie, you’ll just have to accept your tiny status and nickname of “The Destroyer” without question.
The Ant Bully is riddled with other plot ellipses, but what really spoils the picnic is the game’s lack of imagination. Rather than plumb the fascinating social hierarchy of ants, The Ant Bully offers feckless lines about communalism: “No ant gets left behind,” preaches one of the game’s sanctimonious characters.
The game portrays ant society as a socialist ideal. Ants are hard-working team players. They don’t lie. They care about the health of the group, rather than personal enrichment. (Clearly, the government is tapping their phones.)
Nickle, on the other hand, is a selfish individualist. As he learns the ant way, he gains superhuman strength and the ability to climb walls. Supposedly, he also gains a conscience.
Don’t believe it. The game revolves around solo missions. Occasionally, you rescue a wounded ant or use your six-legged pals as an insect bridge, but for the most part, you’re looking out for Number One: Collect enough sugar crystals to get a skill upgrade. Kill enough pill bugs and spiders to advance to the next level. You’ll never truly learn to sacrifice for the good of the whole.
The final battle against a giant exterminator is a routine affair. Ride on the back of a wasp, and swoop in to sting the Orkin man in the butt. Game over. Forget teamwork. There’s not an ant in sight.
If any game deserves a beatdown from Warner Bros., it’s this one.