Early PS3 owners will already know that developers Ninja Theory can make stunning looking games. Their last effort, Heavenly Sword, was a bit unlucky as it was released too early on in the PS3's lifecycle to become a significant sucess. Despite the much healthier numbers of PS3s out there now, Ninja Theory have decided to play it safe with a multi-platform release. And who could blame them with a game this good looking?
Before we lucky handful of fans get three delicious hours with a complete build of the game (ahead of the world’s press, by the way), Namco Bandai’s Lee Kirton gives us a bit of background about the game.
Enslaved takes place 150 years from now, in a post-post-apocalyptic environment, meaning the world has seen numerous wars and diseases and humanity has almost disappeared. The people left have known nothing but pain and fear all their lives. The crumbling cities have been deserted for so long that the plants have reclaimed the land as huge trees burst through concrete and green ivy and flowers attempt to smother every building.
The plot is only very loosely based on the 16th Century Chinese novel, Journey to the West. In truth, it’s a whole new story, penned by film writer Alex Garland of The Beach and 28 Days Later fame. Apparently Garland is a big gamer himself and also had some influence on elements of the gameplay as well as the story.
And who could forget Andy ‘Gollum’ Serkis? He not only voiced and mo-capped the lead character, Monkey, but directed the other actors for the motion-capture sessions too. After the amazing work he did on Heavenly Sword and what I saw playing Enslaved, it’s a great decision. The game utilises the same mo-cap tech that James Cameron used for Avatar, importantly though, Ninja Theory used it first. Games 1: Hollywood 0. The games also uses the Unreal III engine, but NT has completely redeveloped it to get the very best out of the famous tech.
The game begins with farm girl Trip escaping from a slave air-ship controlled by the robots. There’s no explanation as to how she got there, but I’m sure all will be explained throughout the course of the adventure. You play as Monkey, a brutish Wildman also desperate to escape the robot’s ship. The game gets off to an awesome start as Monkey has to climb around the outside of the exploding vessel. It’s really taking on that train climbing opening from Uncharted 2. At the end of this stage Monkey grabs onto Trip’s escape pod as it plummets towards the ground far below.
He regains consciousness to find that Trip has fitted him with a metal, slave headband. She knows she’ll never make it back home without his help and he probably wouldn’t be too co-operative seeing as she wouldn’t let him in the escape pod earlier. If Trip dies, the headband will kill Monkey, so it’s in his best interests to protect her at all costs.
This sets up an interesting relationship for the pair as they’re not friends, but will have to learn to rely on each other throughout their journey. The tech-savvy Trip scans enemies throughout the game to learn about their weaknesses for Monkey. So while some first-time fights will have all the danger of a boss fight, eventually they might become standard foes for Monkey to plough through with ease.
Enemies seen throughout these early stages consisted of a variety of robot droids and sentry turrets. They both become tougher as Monkey and Trip progress, their first variant being the inclusions of shields. The robots are leftover remnants of a human war that nobody remembered to turn off. But why are they all hell-bent on killing/enslaving every human left? Three hours wasn’t enough to find out, but I can’t wait to learn more.
Monkey is the muscle behind Enslaved's combat. His staff weapon can be used for standard and strong attacks which will eagerly mix together for strong finishing moves that usually end up with Monkey swirling around in colourful blurs or getting up close and smashing straight through robots with his fists. He can rip some of the machine gun turrets from enemies too for his own personal use. There’s also a sweeping move with the staff that can be used to stagger a group of enemies and a charged attack can deliver a devastating thwack.
The problem with the flashy charge attack is that the camera zooms in behind you and you can’t see if the enemy is about to attack. A bit of finger wrestling will let you swing the camera round to the side, but it’s a bit awkward.
There are some other concerns with the combat as it doesn't seem to have much depth. This stands out even more considering the developer had a rich variety of moves for Heavenly Sword. There are no lists of moves anywhere and the normal and heavy attack buttons usually produce the same small numbers of combos. Hopefully there will be a few extra moves unlocked further into the game.
On the plus side there aren’t constant waves of enemies to wade through to make it a repetitive game-breaker. From what I played in three hours, the game managed to mix up gameplay styles throughout to keep things fresh.
The staff can also be used to fire energy shots in destructive or stun capacities. Ammo is thin on the ground so it was best to use it against the odd turret that was pinning me down. Once I started to feel more comfortable with the melee combat I found I could use a shot to quickly stun an enemy at close-range if I was about to get swarmed. Blocking is available, but dodging looks to be the best defensive tactic, particularly against the first boss, a mech with two wrecking balls for fists.
It’s not all about the fighting though. A large part of the game involves climbing and leaping. The climbing action in the game raises comparisons with the likes of Prince of Persia and Uncharted. Most of the climbing in the early stages is on/in semi-destroyed buildings, helped by keeping an eye out for shining ledges and pipes. Monkey is a quick climber and any leaps he makes are so accurate I felt confident enough to make many jumps without re-adjusting the camera first like I would in other games. Trip can’t climb as well, but she’s light enough for you to throw her upwards to ledges or even across gaps. Sometimes she'll land a little short, leaving her scrabbling on the edge and you needing Monkey to get over there and grab her before she falls.
Like Yorda in Ico (a game clearly dear to the Enslaved team’s hearts) Trip can’t be left alone for long in-case she gets attacked. She can’t defeat enemies on her own, but she is able to briefly stun them which buys you some time as you try and get back to her. A shoulder button press allows you to zoom the camera towards her position to check up on her too. A pop-up dial let's you issue commands to Trip to follow you or create a diversion.
Both characters can distract the enemy to give the other person chance to get by. Trip has a fancy electronic image to project, Monkey settles for just standing up, shouting and waving his arms. Some of these sections can be really tense too as most of the walls or pillars you hide behind are destructible, meaning decisions have to be made quickly before the bullets chew through them with unforgiving precision and speed.
Navigating minefields are a frequent occurrence as well, as Monkey carries Trip past the glowing danger areas. Another part of the game has her on Monkey’s back as you run away from a larger robot. It’s a great chase scene as Monkey runs towards the screen like an old-style Crash Bandicoot level.
Other gameplay mechanics include Monkey’s use of the awesome Cloud device which is a glowing hover-board he uses to cross water sections or open stretches of land. It handles great and can be used for a bit of platforming too. This part of the game looks absolutely stunning as Monkey speeds across the water.
The visuals reminded me of the Uncharted games mainly because they're just downright gorgeous. Other influences could be seen as being a mixture of 2008's Prince of Persia and Fallout 3 although thankfully it borrows the vibrant colour palette from the former.
For the most part, these early levels take place in a ruined city, which you’ll probably recognise early on thanks to some clumsy robot steering on slave ship, crashing into an iconic landmark. One indoor location includes a theatre, which is also the scene for an early boss fight against a huge dog-like mech. Hopefully, there will be a few more surprising environments to be revealed later on.
3 Hours Later
With the game apparently taking 12-14 hours to complete, things were really getting interesting by the end of my three hours. The two characters were starting to gel nicely after their hostile opening and the team at Namco Bandai promised there were plenty of surprises left. More characters will be introduced soon too, which will change the plot somewhat again.
There will be some more moves and upgrades to unlock once a decent amount of Tech Orb currency has been acquired too which should rejuvenate the combat. The platforming feels really fluid and the animations are superb in-game. There’s no loss of detail between in-game and cutscenes either and as you can tell by the screenshots it’s absolutely stunning to look at. Better looking than Uncharted 2? Well, I’ll wait till I’ve seen the whole game before making that call. Overall, it’s looking like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is going to be well worth the wait.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is out October 8th on PS3 and Xbox 360.