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June 18, 2005

REVIEW: Dog's Life

Current price (new): $20

Amount of Game Played: 95% (we collected 111 bones, but the last level is a little tricky, so we never officially "finished" the game)

What the…? Is that a "T" in the lower left corner of the box? T as in Teen? As in not for kids under the age of 13? Can someone at the ESRB please explain the logic behind this decision? Because I think one of y'all fell asleep at the ratings switch. Dog's Life is a great game for kids!

More about video game ratings at the end of the review. Now to the game...

If you base your evaluation of Dog's Life on the traditional criteria (graphics, sound, etc.), then this game won’t end up with a high overall score. However, if you judge it based on what is most important to young children (i.e. IS IT FUN TO PLAY?), then you’ve found yourself a winner.

To illustrate the difference between these 2 evaluation philosophies, go to Metacritic’s Dog’s Life page, and you’ll see a significant gap between the average critic rating (64) and the average user rating (9.5).

So why the disparity between the critics and us regular folk? I think that the critics spend so much time concentrating on traditional ratings criteria that they no longer see the forest for the trees. They forgot to ask whether the game passes the fun test, which this one certainly does.

What's so much fun about it? Well, how 'bout this... Dog's Life is like a Fantasy Camp! No, you can't "plunk" Joe Pepitone and "pop" Mickey Mantle during a Yankees baseball camp brouhaha, or learn "the art of crotch-stuffing" from Lenny Kravitz at Springfield Rock 'n Roll camp, but you get to experience life as a dog! What kid wouldn't like that? Or, for that matter, what dog-loving, dog-liking, or even dog-tolerating adult?

You control Jake, a happy-go-lucky pooch who’s either a very big beagle, or a very small fox hound. So let’s split the difference and call him a harrier for the time being (please forgive my houndular hair-splitting). Either way, he’s a cute “everydog” or “dog’s dog.” For the sake of comparison, here's a coupla pix of our beagle, Count Dogula ;o)

In the opening scene, Jake's carefree ways are brought to a screeching halt. His gal Daisy is kidnapped my mysterious men in a red truck, and he spends the rest of the game trying to collect bones and track them down so he can save Daisy. This (the kidnapping) is where the "grownup" world intrudes on our happy little doggie romp through the countryside. There are intermittent, non-specific references to the nefarious plans of the bad guys, but not much else that should concern parents.

Speaking of parental concerns, let's talk about where that ridiculous T rating may have come from. By pressing the correct combination on the D-Pad (the directional pad on the left side of the PlayStation 2 controller), you can make Jake poop & fart. Clearly, it's lowbrow potty humor, and if that bothers you, that's certainly your parental prerogative. But kids think it's hilarious. In addition, the pooping isn't completely arbitrary. You can only make Jake "do his bidness" after he's eaten something.

Which brings me to hunger & fatigue. If Jake hasn't gotten his snack on in a while, he'll get tired, his head will droop, his tail will stop wagging, and he'll start moving a lot more sluggishly.

So the game is less fun to play when Jake isn't well taken care of. Hey! How 'bout that! Not only do the kids have fun, but they learn some responsibility as well (I'm half-joking on that one).

The game has 2 main points of view when you play. 1) Third person, where you are slightly above and behind the dog you’re controlling, and 2) First person, which they call “Smellovision,” a fitting term.

Third person is the best way to enjoy watching your dog move around, but Smellovision is our family's favorite. Smellovision is a graphic representation of how we might see the world if we had the amazingly powerful sense of smell that dogs possess. The colors in the world of Smellovision are muted (which mimics a dog's colorblindness), except for the multicolored scents that rise out of the ground as you explore your surroundings. Each smell represents a different task or mission. For example, orange usually means means a person or another dog, unless the scent is emanating form the ground, in which case you've found yourself a buried bone (score!). Find all 50 pinks, and earn a bone. Sniff all 8 blues, and have a bone-digging race with another dog. All 8 yellows bring on... you guessed it... more potty humor in the form of a territory-marking contest (do I have to spell it out for ya?). There are also tug-of-war competitions, biscuit-trail-following races, doggie trick contests, and individual challenges. If you have young kids, you may have to help them with some of the more challenging ones.


Once you defeat the other dog in a contest, you get to control that dog for a limited time, during which you're supposed to perform a task that Jake couldn't accomplish. For example, small dogs can fit in small spaces (duh), fast breeds can catch the goose that stole Jake's bone, etc. In general, the graphics in Dog's Life are nothing special (more below). However, that’s probably because all of their time and effort went into making sure Jake & the other dogs looked great. Each breed not only looks like it’s supposed to, but also moves the right way. Controlling the big ol' mastiff doesn’t feel like controlling the fast-twitch Chihuahua. And since the main goal of the game (being a dog) is enhanced, then the other issues tend not to bother you too much.

My kids loved the Chihuahua mission best. The Chihuahua'a owner runs a fancy schmancy restaurant, and he needs his little "pixie frou-frou" (his words, not mine) to help get rid of the rats that have overrun his restaurant. You have to chase down and catch each individual rodent, then jump-shoot it into a trash can. FYI, the "331.9" in top right corner of the photo is the number of seconds remaining in the mission, not the number of rats he has to catch. Just in case you were wondering.

The kids were laughing so hard, I recorded the moment for posterity on my mp3 player, which makes it easy for parents to record life's little moments, without making the kids self-conscious.

So just what is it that the ESRB saw in this game that I didn’t? What did they see that’s so harmful for children under the age of 13? That the main character says “that sucks” a few times (I'd certainly rather he didn't, but I just explain to the kids that it's not a nice way to talk)? Or that in one of the opening scenes, a kid says “how’s it hangin?” Could it be the dreaded "Running of the Rodents?" or, horror of horrors, the performance of bodily functions on cue? Say it ain't so, Jake! Say it ain't so!

Dog’s Life is certainly not the slickest game around, which is probably why the critics rated it so much lower than everyone else. For example...
  • Gameplay: While the game is very easy for kids to pick up and play, the controls are imprecise and glitchy. This can be frustrating when you have to perform tasks that require precision. For example, during a timed mission where you get to control a bulldog, you have to collect newspaper fragments from several henhouses before the clock runs out. But the controls have a frustrating inertia to them, so you can't "shift-on-the-fly" or "turn on a dime." Unless you take your time to set up your lines exactly right before you start moving, you'll waste a lot of time going close to, but not exactly where you want to go. However, this is one of the more extreme cases, and it usually isn't that bad. And not all the glitchs are annoying. The kids love it when they try to make Jake walk onto the ski resort's gondola, and he suddenly starts to levitate for no apparent reason. Gets 'em every time.

  • Graphics: As I mentioned above, except for the dogs, the graphics are no great shakes. For example, the shadows are so pixilated, I kept having Intellivision flashbacks.

  • There is clipping aplenty. FYI, clipping is where one 3D character or object passes through another. This isn't necessarily so bad, though. One of my kids' favorite parts of the game is "hiding" Jake inside one of the sheep he's supposed to round up in one of the early missions.

  • There are many invisible walls (just what they sound like). When kids see a concrete wall in a game, they understand that they can't walk through it. But when all they see is a lovely green meadow before them, they expect to be able to stroll over there, but that isn't always the case. Many games use invisible walls, all gamers hate it, and kids find it very frustrating, because they don't understand what they can't just go where they want to.

  • AI (artificial intelligence - how the characters in the game not controlled by the player act): The AI is very basic. Most of the characters Jake interacts with say the same things and make the same movements over and over again.

  • The voice acting is brutal, mainly because they have one voice actor doing a lot of multitasking. It would be one thing if he were so talented that you really didn't notice, or if the writing were so clever/quirky that you didn't care (e.g. the many characters voiced by Seth MacFarlane in Family Guy, and by Hank Azaria, Dan Castellaneta & Harry Shearer in The Simpsons), but neither is the case in this game. All of this guy's characters sound similar, and the writing is corny. The dreaded voice-over double whammy.

  • The final criticism I've read is that the game is repetitive and boring. For adults addicted to fast-paced action games like Halo 2 & Half-Life 2, that may well be true. But we're talking about kids here. When my kids find a game or activity they enjoy, they love to play it over and over and over and over (sound familiar?) and over and over and over and over... As long as they're having fun, they are obviously not bored.

    One of the most kid-friendly aspects of the game is the open-ended, non-linear gameplay. Sure, there are missions to be completed, foes to be vanquished, and bones to be collected, but if your kids just wanted to run around and explore aimlessly, switching from third-person to Smellovision (and back) on a whim, they are free to do as their little hearts desire.

    Both kids love Dog's Life, which they call “the Jake game.” We've spent hours and hours playing it TOGETHER. Even my wife, who is at most a casual gamer, enjoys playing this game. Bottom line, it's one of the kids' favorite games.


    ESRB, continued...

    In general, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board is recognized as a very good internal (i.e. non-governmental) rating system. In fact, Senator Joe Lieberman, who chaired the 1993 hearings (along with Senator Herb Kohl) that led to the very creation of the ESRB, has said that the ESRB is “the best entertainment rating system in the United States.” And as a parent of 2 young kids, I was thrilled when they recently created the new E10+ rating, to differentiate between games for my kids, and those more appropriate for pre-teens. On the surface, the ESRB seems to do a good job, and many times, they give games the ratings they deserve.

    However, they are far from infallible, and they occasionally give a game a confusingly incorrect rating. Dog’s Life is one such mistake.

    In fact, the entire continent of Europe agrees with me. Instead of the ESRB, Europe uses PEGI, (Pan-European Game Information), and if you compare the North American box and the European box side-by-side, you'll notice that while the North American version (left) has a "T" rating, the European version (right) is rated "3+".

    Is it logical to anyone that European kids have a 10-year headstart on American kids in terms of maturity?... umm... Europeans aren't allowed to answer that question. ;o)


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