Let's talk about cinema for a second.
The overwhelming thrust in the industry these days is towards games that blur the line between cinematic and interactive, between what is possible in a movie between what's possible in a game. The basic idea is to allow the player to participate in what's previously been a passive experience, to "be in the movie."
We could sit here all day and talk about whether that's a good thing or not, whether the blurring of that line is positive or negative. Some games do it well. Most don't. You wind up watching more than you play, or stuck in a narrow and linear plot track with no room for exploration. While there's something to be said for a good story, a movie is a movie and a game is a game; if you sit down for one and get the other, you've got a right to be somewhat annoyed.
The exceptions to this rule, the games that manage to blend cinematic presentation with well-designed gameplay, are extraordinary stuff. They manage to blend the interactivity and freedom that we're used to in games with the spectacle and imagination of cinema. You're not so much taking the role of a character in a game, as a participant in a living, breathing, frequently idiosyncratic world.
Michel (Rayman) Ancel's Beyond Good & Evil is one of those exceptions.
It's set on the world of Hillys, some interdeterminate but clearly vast span of time in the future. The planet is under siege from the DomZ, an insectile race that's content to sit in orbit and bombard the planet with occasional showers of living meteors, like bombs that explode into alien stormtroopers. Hundreds of people go missing each week, despite the best efforts of the Alpha Sections, the heavily armored human police force.
Jade's theoretically a freelance reporter. Most of the time, she runs an orphanage out of an old lighthouse, for children whose parents have died or gone missing during the war. All in one very interesting day, she gets to fight off a horde of DomZ after the lighthouse's shield fails; while fighting the DomZ's queen, she receives a strange vision; she gets a new job from a mysterious contractor; and she finds out that the Alpha Sections may not be the virtuous and powerful soldiers that their relentless spin control would have you believe.
You're not so much a conquering hero in BG&E as you are an information gatherer. While Jade can handle herself pretty well in a fight, either with her trusty quarterstaff or, later, with a gyrodisc launcher she wears on her left hand, you'll spend at least as much time sneaking around as you will fighting, if not more. Jade's chief antagonists are, predictably, the Alpha Sections, and an individual power-armored police officer can stomp her flat. Fortunately, you have a lot of options for getting around; Jade can jump, roll, sneak, and climb with the best of them. A given situation — for example, an Alpha Section who's guarding a conveyor belt, who'll see you instantly if you come out from behind cover — often has a clever solution, which you'll see if you think about it for a minute. You don't see a lot of games with these kinds of puzzles, where they're sensible and challenging without being obscure or literally unsolvable without the official strategy guide. In Beyond Good & Evil, that's all they've had so far.
For much of the game, you'll have a sidekick, who's computer-controlled but who can be directed with the Triangle button. Jade herself doesn't always have the skills she needs to progress, but her "uncle," Pey'j, is handy with tools, and later, the armored secret agent HH can break down doors. In a fight, they can distract an opponent, letting you tear into them with Jade's staff. While the fights often degenerate into mindless button-mashing, the need to look after your partner and the fact that simple violence won't always get the job done will both serve to keep things from getting too boring.
You can also occupy yourself with freelance photography, taking pictures of various animal species for the benefit of a scientist. That's how you'll make most of your money in the game, transmitting new photos to the science center in exchange for "units" transmitted to your account. While the game's still somewhat linear, in that you're usually strongly encouraged if not forced to go in a certain plot-oriented direction, there's a lot of room for exploration, both on foot and aboard your battered old hovercraft. So far, I've found several secrets and minigames — air hockey, a shell game — just by poking around Jade's home and the city for long enough, and there're obviously a few more that I simply can't reach yet.
The world itself is, as noted above, immersive and occasionally spectacular. The graphics strike a sort of common ground between cartoony and realistic, like a Don Bluth cartoon. Jade is well-animated and expressive, whereas the people around her are often more exaggerated. Agent HH, for example, looks like he swallowed a horseshoe in recent memory, and one of your early clients is all shoulders with a tiny head.
Jade inhabits a planet under seige, where the machines are broken down and the city bears signs of recent war. You get the feeling that the DomZ have been hammering away at Hillys for a long time, particularly as Jade begins at near the bottom of the planet's socioeconomic scale. As your hovercraft carries you through the city's waterways, and you listen to the heavily spin-doctored radio broadcast — complete with a line of dialogue from early in the game that's been crudely edited; it gave me a laugh the first time I heard it — flying cars buzz by above you, across a pitted and scarred skyline. When the DomZ pods fall, the sky lights up with an aurora effect as the city's electromagnetic shields go up; you're left dodging meteors under a sort of technicolor tornado sky.
Hillys is a planet of surprisingly few humans; the rest are anthropomorphic human-animal crossbreeds. Pey'j is a pig-man, while you buy most of the parts for your hovercraft from a family of Rastafarian rhino-men. An antiquarian in the city is half man, half walrus, and one of your contacts in the resistance movement is the inevitable catgirl. It's a bizarre trend, and not wholly explicable, but it's another touch that makes BG&E visually unique. I cannot think of another game offhand that lets me play air hockey against a bipedal shark.
Unfortunately, the build of BG&E that UbiSoft sent over is only about two hours long. It cuts out right when things are starting to get really interesting. I wasn't really interested in the game before now, but now I'm anxious to get my hands on the final build. Dyed-in-the-wool adventure gamers should be, too.
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