Indiana Jones, the key-character in the films that defined the word swashbuckling and made leather hats cool, is back again on the small-screen with Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb. The next big-screen flick isn’t going to drop until sometime in 2005, so the fact that LucasArts has released a new game starring Dr. Jones is all the more welcomed. It has been a long time since gamers have gotten their fix of whip-cracking action, not since the PC and N64 game Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine in fact. But for most it hasn't been nearly long enough on account of that game’s disappointingly flawed presentation. But don’t let Indy’s past digital disaster stop you from giving this game a chance. Emperor’s Tomb goes far beyond the past incarnations of the franchise and delivers an experience that should satisfy on multiple levels. While not a perfect game by any means it certainly should prove an entertaining jaunt for fans of the films.
The story is completely original and fits snugly in the series’ ever-unfolding chronology. Emperor’s Tomb takes place in 1935, just before the events in The Temple of Doom. The plot revolves around an ancient Chinese artifact known as the heart of the dragon; a mind-controlling device in the form of a black pearl. As Indy, you must track down various relics that pertain to the heart of the dragon. But in the tradition of the movies you won't be the only person with his eye on the prize – along the way you'll get up-close and personal with a slew of treacherous Nazis and Chinese gang members. Through interspersed cut-scenes you'll become acquainted with a host of friends and foes who unravel the story one revelation at a time.
While The Collective did a great job in creating believable environments and including lots of Indy-style things to do, the game play system itself suffers from unresponsive control. The action takes place from a third-person perspective that those who have played The Collective’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be very familiar with. It actually runs on a slightly modified engine of that game. In any case, you'll need to do a lot of exploring, platform acrobatics, and brawling in order to progress through the game. Controlling the infamous whip-cracker definitely takes some getting used to. At first you'll curse Indy’s unresponsiveness and accident-prone nature which often forces you to retry certain objectives and sometimes causes needless deaths. But once you come to terms with how Indy moves, and realize that playing the game is more like clumsily controlling a string-bound marionette than it is immersing yourself into the Indiana Jones character, you'll move along at a pretty steady clip while extracting a surprising amount of fun out of the experience. While the way the game plays isn't natural by any means it does have a pretty solid rhythm all its own.
But should it really take three attempts to jump over a simple hole? With The Emperor's Tomb's game play this sort of thing is a common occurrence. The platforming objectives that are constantly required of you are basic Tomb Raider-ey fare that is made challenging by the fact that Indy controls with all the elegance of a elephant on skates. Platform jumping requirements are made worse by the fact that you must perfectly align Indy with the ledge you are jumping to in order to make him grab on to the side and pull himself up, any amount of imprecision will result in disaster. What’s really annoying though, is that you are often put into tight spaces with very little wiggle room to make the platforming acrobatics feasible. Doors automatically close behind you so it's hard to know where you've been, climbing dangling chains (which you'll find yourself doing frequently) is disorienting thanks to a camera angle that points towards the sky instead of straight ahead so you can see potential landing areas, and it is almost impossible to recover from being knocked down when there are three or more thugs on you.
The combat system is the highpoint in the game. Laying the smack down on Nazi scum is simply a matter of mashing on the X and A buttons, ideally while targeting with the R-trigger. Changing up the succession of attacks will cause various combos and hitting both buttons at the same time results in Indy grabbing his opponent, at which point you have the option to toss them away or smack them around a bit. Your whip will come into play during combat, allowing you to snatch the weapon out of enemy hands or wrap the whip around opponent’s necks and drag them over to you as you knock’em down with a left. Weapons come in all shapes and sizes, anything from a silenced German Lugar to a blunt-faced table leg can be picked up and immediately used to deal damage. The combat in Emperor's Tomb is the kind of visceral action you'd get from games like Double Dragon, or perhaps more aptly the aforementioned Buffy. Sadly, fighting isn't as prevalent as we would have liked. Instead, lame platform acrobatics and brain dead-simple puzzle solving take up the majority of Indy's exercises.
The various weapons and tools in Indy's disposal all serve a unique purpose, for instance his bullwhip can not only be used to knock a weapon out of an enemy’s hand but can also grab on to certain attach-points allowing him to swing from one platform to another, Spidey-style. The machete can be used not only to deal damage to foes but also to cut through vines that block access to the next area. And while these weapons and tools are fun to play around with and actually serve valid uses, they are no exception to the game's stunted game play. The auto-targeting system helps and so does the on-screen icon that appears whenever a particular tool is needed – but any time you need to use a tool to maneuver, like his whip for example, frustration is abound.
Textures are abnormally dark and bland in some areas, often making it needlessly difficult to know where you need to go since it is hard to make out elevation levels when everything just sort of blends into each other. I had to kick up the brightness level on my TV a few notches to somewhat circumvent this problem. Aside from the impressive facial model of Indy, and occasional brilliance, the game almost looks like something out of the PS1 era. To make matters worse, the framerate often inexplicably dips below tolerable levels and sometimes the action will literally come to a halt for a few seconds for no particular reason. The audio isn't much better, with tracks that tend to skip and an overabundance of the Indiana Jones theme – although some of the Jones-style tunes are quite good. The sound-alike voice actor that plays the part of Indy does a great job – I actually thought it was Harrison Ford until I checked out the credits.
There is lots of block jumping, switch pulling, and camera readjustments throughout most the game, but sometimes the game will surprise you with a truly original puzzle or interesting plot twist. Overall, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb does a lot of things right (the highly original instruction manual included) but does almost as many things wrong. Fans of the films (read: everybody) will find a lot to like about it and those who stick with it will be rewarded with an interesting story and impressive areas towards the latter half of the game – but those who just want to jump into the Indiana Jones experience and be entertained with little aggravation involved will inevitably be disappointed.
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