Release Date: Q4 2007
Normally, the most anemic demos at E3 are the demos of the games too early in their production cycle to be playable. Often, they're not demos so much as trailers, and while seeing footage of a long-anticipated game like Final Fantasy XIII, Halo 3, or Smash Brothers Brawl can be elating, the high eventually ends, and you realize that you don't really know much more about the game than you did before. One of the most depressing E3 experiences possible is to lay hands on a long-awaited title that's been hyped in trailer form through multiple shows, and suddenly realize that the game itself is offering stale gameplay hidden underneath a thick veneer of visual polish. It can, ultimately, make it very hard for a journalist to feel anything at all about a title that isn't yet playable.
I bring this up because at LucasArts' booth in Concourse Hall this year, I had a very unexpected experience. I saw a demo of a game that was in pre-alpha phase, not yet playable, and yet I cared about what I saw. For that matter, I saw a demo for a pre-alpha game that wasn't just a trailer. It was actually a demonstration of the technology at work in the game that left me with a clear impression of what playing the game would probably be like, and how the title in question would deliver a gameplay experience that wasn't just a rehash of things I'd done a thousand times before. On top of that, the title in question was one of those games based on a long-dormant film license. The experience was so strange that I left the LucasArts presentation feeling a bit dazed.
The game in question was, of course, the upcoming Indiana Jones video game. It's not designed to coincide with the upcoming film, instead acting as a sort of direct, playable sequel to The Last Crusade. This time, the adventure is set in San Francisco in 1939, which means old-fashioned two-fisted borderline-offensive action with Indy trading in his usual Nazi nemeses for a battle against the gangsters of Chinatown. The demo, played out in realtime by a LucasArts employee, showed Indy first brawling his way through the streets with his whip and fists, and then engaging in a breathless chase scene while riding atop a runaway cable car. Some events of the demo were scripted, such as a sequence where Indy sets off a chain reaction of environment destructions that topples a pair of huge neon signs down to the ground, but what wasn't scripted was the behavior of the gangsters Indy was fighting.
The LucasArts representative called it one of the next-gen's great upcoming innovations: AI behavior that thinks dynamically, reacting to contextual actions in a way meant to feel more like the reactions a human opponents might have. The difference between the AI gangsters Indy was fighting and your typical action game enemy was immediately, almost painfully obvious. Indy's opponents didn't wait for his player to move near them and "draw aggro" in the typical sense. They moved toward Indy on their own and tried to flank him and also tried to attack him in groups. This forced Indy's player to be careful with Indy's position. Indy had to keep his back to a wall to prevent being encircled, and couldn't rely on video game logic like relying on his whip to attack from a distance. Instead, Indy had to use intimidation tactics and his own fists to deal with his opponents. When Indy began roughing up one of his assailants, then the other thugs displayed an intimidated, wary reaction. They backed off, while also circling around to try and get the drop on Indy from behind.
Similarly, Indy wasn't able to simply beat the thugs senseless with a few punches, but instead had to invoke action movie stunts to try and keep them down long enough to get to safety. Really flashy stunts that destroyed a lot of property tended to have an intimidating effect on the other thugs, which gives Indy time and room to maneuver. The player showed off some examples, like throwing a thug through the windshield of a parked car or smashing a thug in the face with a breakaway chair. Object breakage was dynamic, demonstrated by using identical actions to make identical objects break apart in distinct ways. When Indy threw one thug into a windshield, he simply rolled off and laid on the ground in a daze. Another got his hand caught on a piece of glass and, after a period of being dazed, began trying to struggle free. The thugs were relentless, but they spent longer between attacks after taking a few good beatings from Indy.
The dynamic physics and AI blended spectacularly for the cable car chase sequence. For this level, Indy rode on top of a trolley car as it barreled down a hill at top speed. Armored cars slowly pulled up behind and alongside it, with thugs swarming out to make dangerous leaps onto the top of the car. Indy had to survive to the end of the ride by tossing the thugs off the car before they could do the same to him. The thugs had to struggle to keep their balance the same way Indy did, wobbling at the edges of the car and moving forward slowly. If they fell or were thrown off the side, they would try to grab the edge of the car. A thug that successfully got a hold would slowly try to climb back on top of the car, but could be frustrated by Indy's efforts or a really hard bump in the road. Thugs who couldn't save themselves from the fall would exhibit painfully realistic reactions, like trying to break their fall with their arms or twisting in the air to protect their heads. The camera would zoom in on particularly dramatic falls when Indy wasn't locked in combat with other thugs during a spill. Watching the demo being played gave a powerful impression of how it might feel to play through an interactive version of an Indiana Jones-style chase scene.
There are 18 long months left in the Indiana Jones development cycle, but the demo shows a promising foundation for the game's final build. The real test will be seeing whether the AI is still so impressive when LucasArts finally has preview builds ready for journalists to get their hands on, and finally has more than two scenes ready for us to experience. One of the LucasArts employees giving the demo mentioned that George Lucas had worked on the game, and had long said that there was no better character to star in a video game than Indiana Jones. Despite this, a lot of his past video game forays haven't been so successful. If the final version of the new Indiana Jones plays at all like the demo, then it'll be one of the good ones.