A short while ago, I was invited to Namco Bandai's Headquarters to check out the newest build of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West - the latest game from Cambridge's Ninja Theory.
Ninja Theory came to prominence in 2007 following the release of their PlayStation 3 exclusive, Heavenly Sword, which pushed numerous boundaries. It was an extremely engaging experience from the perspective of story telling, and it was like watching a movie in certain instances. Andy Serkis, who played Golem in The Lord of the Rings, was at the forefront of this, and he returns once again to play the main protagonist in Enslaved, a man named Monkey.
The game's story is loosely based off of 'Journey to the West', one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. It's a piece of literature that was also made into a rather cheesy TV series, which is what I instantly thought of. However, Enslaved is nothing like this and while there are some similarities to the original Chinese source material, the writers are keen to make their own stamp on its interpretation. They've also brought on board Alex Garland to help refine the story and make it much more engaging. He has previously worked on films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, films which were recognised for their ability to suck the audience in.
Enslaved has been in development since around the time that Heavenly Sword was wrapped up and this time, Ninja Theory decided to use the Unreal 3 Engine as their desired tech, as opposed to making their own. You wouldn't know it though, as they've managed to bend the Unreal 3 Engine so far from what others have - it really makes for a unique visual experience.
The game is, in-part, based in a very desolate New York City. Players are taken 150 years into the future and humanity is on the brink of extinction. As such, nature is reclaiming the earth and it makes for some truly breathtaking landscapes. Huge skyscrapers that once littered the skyline are now covered in greenery and, as I found out, the combination of overgrowth and existing man-made structures almost makes it feel like the perfect personal playground.
Shortly after the opening sequence, where Trip (known as Tripitaka in the Chinese source) inadvertently releases Monkey from incarceration, players are able to begin their adventure. However, there's a catch. Fearing for her safety, and also realising that Monkey is an asset she can use, she equips a slavers helmet to him and programs it so that he must do what she says. She also inputs a clause so that if she dies, Monkey also dies.
There are numerous games that employ an AI buddy system, but Enslaved's genuinely seems like it works. After playing through the game for a reasonable amount of time, she never caused a game over screen and was actually more helpful than a hindrance. As players progress, she will gain abilities which will help them solve puzzles, like displaying a holographic projection to distract the numerous droves of robots that have been left as remnants of previous wars.
These robots certainly aren't friendly though, as players will very quickly learn. In fact, some might say they have a bad attitude problem - something which Monkey is more than happy to rectify.
Monkey has various combat options available to him, and for the purposes of the demonstration, quite a few were unlocked much earlier than they should have been. It helped to show off his array of moves though, and they certainly feel very rough, rugged and heavy. It's what you'd expect from a burly guy smashing robots in the face with a huge club. He can also use it as a projectile weapon to either simply cause damage, or to fire off EMP charges, but these must be picked up around the level.
However, that's just one part of Enslaved. It's so much more than a beat 'em up, as there are numerous platforming elements. The developers have tried hard to make sure that these sections are accessible, but also feel challenging at the same time. And from what I played, they certainly achieved it. Monkey flies around with consummate ease, but you'll be wondering at any given moment whether your over-confidence will be punished. There are also some sections where it's actually possible to fail, for example, when a sign was collapsing. If I hadn't managed to grab onto the ledge, I would have had an untimely death.
There are also some more dramatic scenes throughout, such as being chased by a huge mechanised dog. And it's scenes like this that help to switch up the gameplay. Other elements that help achieve this are the use of Cloud - a hoverboard which only works in certain areas of the game.
After seeing quite a few levels of Enslaved, I can safely say that it will offer a very unique experience. Of course it shares certain elements with other games, but its setting and story look as though they will make this a stand-out title. I'm really excited to check out the full product, because the story is apparently going to be around 12-13 hours long and that was my biggest complaint about Heavenly Sword.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West will be released on the 8th of October, 2010 on PS3 and Xbox 360.