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2020 has been a real stinker of a year, so I've very much been looking forward to Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. Billed as the true sequel to 1998's Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, developer Toys For Bob and publisher Activision promised us a nostalgia-filled adventure that looks back to take the bandicoot forward.
I'm delighted to report that Crash 4 absolutely delivers on that promise, and then some. This dimension-hopping adventure brings in enough new ideas to justify its existence as more than a tribute act, while still feeling like an authentic love letter to days gone by.
For the most part this is a window into the past that celebrates everything the fans loved about the original Crash platformers. Crash 4 a game that could easily have been released in the late 90s, along with all the good - and quite a bit of the bad - that you'd expect from its predecessors.
Right out of the gate, I was struck by just effortlessly Crash 4 feels like vintage Bandicoot action. If it had come bundled with Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy - which Toys For Bob also helped out on - then I doubt I'd have batted an eyelid. Our marsupial mate spins, double jumps, and slides around like it's 1998 in a level that pays homage to the very first game.
But as much as everything seems to be business as usual on the surface, it actually looks and runs just that little bit smoother than 2017's remakes. Jumps feel tighter and more precise, checkpoints are more generous, and load times are much quicker. There's even the option to play without game overs. In the original games, losing all your lives meant going back to the very start of the level. In Crash 4, you can restart from checkpoints as often you'd like without worrying about having to go through an entire level again. Although the choice to go old-school is still there for you, if you have some kind of problem with a modern video game respecting your time.
Thanks to a wacky story involving evil scientists, ancient masks, and tears in the skin of reality, Crash, Coco, and an assortment of surprise guest stars are able to travel through a universe of gorgeous, inventive worlds packed with detail. Whether you're exploring a Mad Max-style wasteland or dashing through caves filled with pirate treasure, this is hands-down the best Crash Bandicoot has ever looked. Not that you'll spend much time admiring the scenery, what with all the dying that you'll be doing.
I was particularly grateful for the option to play without game over screens when I realised just how difficult Crash 4 can be, because good lord it does not screw around. From the very first level Toys For Bob makes it painfully clear that it intends to treat you as if you've played - and beaten - the original games. It comes at you with everything it has from the off, and only builds in intensity, slowly introducing new powerups and systems (more on those later) that begin to make its many platforming gauntlets all the more intricate.
While that probably sounds super appealing to the masochists out there, I should stress that Toys For Bob have found a few ways of making sure every player has a chance to getting to the end of the game, even if this is your first time playing Crash. In addition to the aforementioned option to remove game overs, checkpoints and extra lives can start to appear more frequently during sections that are really tripping you up. It's unlikely that you'll ever be down for too long. And I say this as someone who is shockingly bad at the game.
Purists looking for a real challenge will want to hunt down and smash every crate in every level, which can earn unlockable skins for Crash and Coco. There are also various other hidden goodies scattered across levels and extra-punishing bonus trials, as well as the option to head back into levels and compete to get the top scores in various time trials.
I can promise that if you're looking to 100% Crash 4, you're going to have to give it your all across every level - and believe me when I say there are plenty of 'em.
As you progress through the game, Toys For Bob slowly builds up the variety of systems and items to keep challenges fresh, and there are some great, if not wholly original, ideas on display. One mask that Crash is able to pick up gives him the ability to phase shift - which is to say that at the press of a button you can make it so that certain platforms blink into existence as others disappear.
This leads to some pretty intense segments where you're having to leap from platform to platform while keeping this extra element of where and when you can actually land safely in the back of your mind. There are one or two occasions where it feels a little clunkier than it should be, such as when you accidentally phase shift before you've properly made contact with a platform and die... but it works for the most part.
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Another mask lets Crash perpetually spin, giving you the ability to tear through levels like a miniature hurricane. In this state it's possible to jump higher, smash through crates and enemies, and float through the air... all of which culminated in one particularly grueling run that involved me having to guide Crash up a tower made of narrow platforms while avoiding the TNT crates that would explode on impact.
Without giving too much away, there are also a handful of bonus characters that come with their own unique challenges and movesets, all of which add a pleasing extra dimension to the game. The vast majority of these are entirely optional, which means you'll rarely be taken out of the flow of the core journey, if you'd rather focus on tearing it up as Crash and Coco. Other new features, such as grind rails and wall running, add very little to the game and end up feeling like clunky gimmicks more than essential additions. Still, it's easy to overlook these minor irritations when the majority of what's new works so brilliantly.
For the most part, I can't praise Toys For Bob enough for the manner in which these new ideas effortlessly bed into the game and feel like a natural extension of the Naughty Dog era. Crash 4 could - and would - have made buckets of cash if they'd simply jumbled around a few old levels, but they've gone so much further. My only real criticisms, in fact, stem entirely from the feeling I have that they didn't go quite far enough in making the mascot their own.
As much as Crash 4's willingness to embrace the past is a strength, there are many times when its stubbornness to let go holds it back from being a truly essential platformer. While an undeniably smooth game for the most part, the same frustrations and niggles present in the first three games have a habit of appearing. Jumping from platform to platform is a heck of a lot smoother, yes, but there are still times where it's all too easy to misjudge the location of a rope or narrow path and plummet to your death.
There are also multiple instances of hazards or traps springing up with little to no warning, leaving you with no time at all to react and evade accordingly. I'm happy to take on as much challenge as I can get my hands on, but running into a spike trap I didn't know was there until I jumped over to it feels cheap - and I'm a lot less willing to forgive that kind of level design now than I was in 1998. Oh, and I don't know who needs to hear this, but levels that force you to run towards the screen away from something are bad. They were a bad idea in the 90s, and they're a worse idea now.
The bottom line is this: Those that found Crash to be one of the clunkier and more irritating platforming mascots from the old days probably won't have their minds changed by this latest outing. But on the other hand, if you grew up loving Crash Bandicoot, you're going to adore Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. I promise you that. Toys For Bob set out to create an authentic sequel, and in that regard this game is a stunning success.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to work out who to pester until Activision lets Toys For Bob make a new Spyro game.
Pros: An incredibly authentic sequel with strong new ideas, plenty of challenge, and gorgeous levels
Cons: Platforming can still feel a little fiddly, not all the new ideas work that well, the story and dialogue is a little irritating at times
For fans of: Crash Bandicoot, Spyro The Dragon, Pretending we don't live in 2020 anymore
Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time was tested on PlayStation 4 with code supplied by the publisher. The game is released on October 2nd on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Read a guide to our review scores here.
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