Monday, October 11, 2010

REVIEW - Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

Few folks would know about Ninja Theory were it not for Heavenly Sword's exclusivity, and its subsequent place in The Fanboy Wars. They are, we should not forget, a small, young, independent studio with limited resources and - most endearingly - hugely ambitious vision. Enslaved is very representative of its gestation. Ninja Theory once again seems to have bit off a bit more than they could chew, but the result is still a fun game, unique enough to warrant exploration - even if the largely remarkable presentation suffers here and there, lacking the polish of a developer with larger resources and bigger budgets.

In the year 2150, mankind has been all but wiped out in an ancient war, and only crumbling cities with empty streets attest to its previous glory. Oh, and the savage mechanical combat androids they used to fight their war, which are still operational and waiting for a squishy human to stumble into sensor range. Some mechs are utilized by the plague of this new world: the slavers, who snatch up those they can and kill the rest. Loyalty of the slaves is ensured by metal headbands which cause excruciating pain on command, and "discharge a lethal dose" if required.

Enslaved's single greatest, unqualified success is its environments. The player spends a great deal of time navigating the crumbling ruins of New York City. In the century since the war, nature has reclaimed the world's most famous metropolis. Moss and vines cling to long-abandoned towers, trees sprout wherever they can gain a foothold and, as you turn a corner, you may find you've startled a deer that springs out of sight before you're certain you've seen it.

Much has been made of Enslaved's wholly singular take on a post-apocalyptic world, but let me simply say Enslaved's art direction and its realization are absolutely fantastic. It's a good-looking game, but its environments are gorgeous.

Meet Trip. After being kidnapped from her hippie windfarming commune by the slavers, she sabotages their flying ship and escapes. In the resulting chaos, a nearly feral, lone-wolf survivalist named Monkey - in a last-ditch effort to get safely off the ship before it crashes - grabs on to her escape pod before she launches it.

When he wakes up, he discovers the clever Trip has enslaved him - hacking and reprogramming a lethal slaver headband, and applying directly to the forehead - and he must see her safely home, three hundred miles back to her commune, or she'll kill him. If he doesn't do what she says, she shocks him. If something happens to Trip and she dies, the headband will kill Monkey. Also, if he wanders too far away, Trip will have a panic attack and kill him.

Monkey is having a bad day.

Both Monkey and Trip are great, archetypal characters with just enough hazy, mysterious depth to make them interesting. Much more impressive than the characters, as revealed by (restrained, often well-written with a light touch) dialogue are the performances by the leads. Lindsey Shaw is very good, but Andy Serkis is once again amazing as Monkey.

It's the little things - nearly unspoken dialogue, a touch of inflection, a twitch of facial animation - that really sell these characters, and Serkis dials himself way back from the bombastic King Bohan of Heavenly Sword to deliver a wonderful, subtle performance.

I'm really starting to love this guy.

What's surprising about the story and its structure are how... elementary it seems, compared to Heavenly Sword's confident but very emotionally-engaging narrative. Much has been made of British screenwriter and novelist Alex Garland's contribution to the game's story - so I was expecting something a bit more ambitious - but the narrative seems to have taken a step back from Ninja Theory's last effort.

Trip is sensitive and technologically astute and Monkey breaks things. Oh-ho-ho, how at odds these two are! Surely they shall dislike each other immensely, but perhaps come to appreciate the others' strenths and a bond may perhaps form? Hmmm?

At their first meeting, we know how it's gonna' play out - and it's fine that the game delivers on that promise - but how we get from point A to point B of their relationship is simply a bit lazy. Not once did a bit of development surprise me, not once did things veer off in an unanticipated direction - it's all very paint-by numbers, and only manages to be engaging thanks to dialogue that does well not to oversell anything, and the wonderful performances.

A shame, then, that Enslaved's greatest flaws lie in its presentation.

Utilizing Unreal Engine 3 for its newest effort, the developer clearly struggled with technology here and there. Screen tearing is quite common, but after spending enough time with the title I'm prepared to say it doesn't really impact the experience. Worse offenders are the very long load times between chapters and sound bugs.

In a game that so heavily relies on its story and presentation, I have no clue how it made it past quality control, but often while I was playing, sound effects would be completely absent. Whack away at a mech and everything looks fine, but it feels very wrong to not be able to hear the fight. Equally jarring are big, spectacular, soundless explosions - but the worst offender is audio synch during the beautiful, well-directed cutscenes.

Here we have a game with great facial animation (which strangely, is not up to the standard of Heavenly Sword) and fantastic performances, and I stopped counting the number of times the audio and video was out of synch during cutscenes. It is, honestly, a stunning oversight.

Perhaps most surprising about Enslaved is how much more enjoyable it is to actually play when compared with Ninja Theory's past effort. Monkey can block, dodge and has weak and strong attacks - it's rather simple - but it actually manages to be more fun to play. This is due largely to the feedback of your strikes, the practiced, savage grace of Monkey's animation and the way the camera will occasionally zoom in to give you a close-up of the action (and the feral expression on his face) when he delivers a killing blow.

Combat manages a touch of strategy thanks to exploitable flaws Trip can discover in certain mechs, turning this one into a bomb or that one into a stun grenade, if taken out with a context-sensitive action. Gameplay is more interesting during the first half of the game, where getting both characters across an area is a fast-paced game of strategy - you have a limited number of tools, and must utilize them to solve the puzzle of survival - which makes it a bit disappointing when the game later relies so heavily on combat and platforming, instead of creativity.

That's not to say the combat or platforming is weak - simply that both become more interesting when combined with the puzzle-like areas you explore earlier.

The platforming is surprising strong as, like the combat, it uses a very simple system. Monkey simply will not jump if he can't land a leap, and clambering across ruined structures is (almost) always a linear series of leaps and swings. Pleasure here is found in the sight of Monkey's expressive animation as he heaves himself across huge gaps or does a half-backflip to spring off one wall and land on another. With only the demo to go on, I wasn't expecting it to enjoy it so much, but - as it turns out - I do.

It's very much on-rails - there's only one direction to go, and you're either climbing up or across a pole or jumping from one ledge to the next - but satisfaction comes from perfecting the timing, and negotiating the world as quickly as possible as Trip shouts at you from below.

It feels like nearly every positive aspect of Enslaved has a bit of tarnish on it. Presentation is largely above-par, but for some (major) technical foibles. Combat and platforming are both beautiful and strangely satisfying, but lack any real depth. The story you explore manages to be strong thanks solely to the great performances by the leads, but still feels very by-the-numbers in terms of character development, and plotting.

I do like that Trip is the driving force behind every action taken in Enslaved. She is very much the cracking whip at Monkey's back - Monkey is, for all intents and purposes, the hero - but it is through Trip's eyes that we see the world, and it's her uneasy moral choices that propel our protagonists across the wasted world.

And, if nothing else, it's a beautiful world.


-uneven, but generally solid presentation
-incredible enviroments
-Andy Serkis is once again remarkable
-fun combat and platforming
-great music
-if nothing else, you have to give Ninja Theory points for earnestness

-load times
-lots of audio bugs, but audio synch during cutscenes is woefully uneven
-character development feels a bit paint-by-numbers
-a "twist" ending with interesting sci-fi implications but which directly conflicts with previously established information about the world, and offers no explanation for the conflict
-the character we meet at the beginning of the second act is pretty much just wasted, juvenile comic relief

Enslaved is very close to a great game - but not quite. Toss it a rental, or buy it on the cheap.

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