First Look: Enslaved
We were invited by Namco at the “Salon des Images” in Chatelet les Halles for a 1-hour presentation of the up-and-coming game Enslaved, followed by an exclusive – but short – interview with Tameem Antoniades, the creative director of the game. With only 5 minutes to ask our many questions, the majority of which were already answered during the presentation, we went for more personal inquiries requiring opinionated answers, which we supplement here by an in-depth preview of the game. We remind you that we had already played one of the demonstration levels at E3 and posted gameplay videos of the game. We were shown 3 additional levels and had some additional time to get our hands dirty with this new content. Keep reading for information on what we have discovered…
Update: Add of the interview of the creative director Tameem Antoniades
The storyline for the game is loosely based on one of the four great classical Chinese novels, "Journey to the West", modified to occur 150 years in the future. Even though it was made clear from the presentation that the game was heavily influenced by the book, the actual connections between the two are subtle. Similarly to the book, one of the central characters, Trip, needs to accomplish a tremendous voyage accompanied by a protector, Monkey. More specifically, "you move out of New York and travel west".
The apparent similarities between the book and the game end here and are pushed aside for the more grandiose video game scenario. Indeed, the game takes place in the future, where machines, originally built to fight wars and not programmed to do anything else, have turned against humans. The exact reasons behind the downfall of mankind remained extremely vague, either to avoid spoiling the game or to leave it to players’ imagination, but it is clear that the story progresses in an apocalyptic world, a world dominated by machines and “slaveships” looking for human slaves, where the human race is practically extinct and nature is well on its way to re-conquer a previously urban world.
Character Presentation and Development
Players, who control the character Monkey, a man with extraordinary powers, martial art experience, agility, and other athletic abilities, will start in the first mission by escaping from one of the “slaveships”. During the escape, he becomes unconscious and wakes up with a “slave headband” that was put in place by the second main character, Trip. Trip, a technologically savvy, smart, and beautiful 18 year-old, needs to go home but knows she cannot achieve such a dangerous journey alone. Having escaped from the same “slaveship” as Monkey, using her intelligence rather than muscular power, she modifies a “slave headband” and puts it on Monkey so that she has the possibility to give him orders. If he does not follow an order, his skull is crushed. Although the two-character dynamic might suggest a cooperative mode, "[the game] is a one player game only" where players exclusively control Monkey with some interactions with Trip.
A tremendous effort was made by the creative team in terms of character development. Indeed, the beginning of the story starts with an uneasy relationship since Trip has the power to boss Monkey around, an otherwise free, somewhat reclusive, and independent character. The creative director actually jokes that “she controls his fate, just like in a real relationship”. As the missions progress, however, the relationship matures and players notice subtle changes in the characters’ personalities and their interaction with each other. Evidently, the two characters "start to build a little bit of trust", slowly but steadily. This character progression is evident in a cut scene sequence from one of the presented levels where Trip states “I am not commanding you. I am asking you”. Even though the players exclusively control Monkey, and no cooperative mode will be available, an emphasis is made, in the gameplay, on the tactical teamwork and collaboration between Monkey and Trip since they “have to work together as a team".
In terms of gameplay, we were shown a variety of different styles that are all present in the game. From what was revealed in the demonstration, action-packed fight scenes between Monkey and different robots were the most prominent. These fights can be accomplished in hand-to-hand combat, where Monkey makes good use of his retractable stick, using a stun gun to temporarily disable enemy robots and their shields, or using a plasma gun to directly inflict damage from a distance. The fight sequences remain basic with the typical array of attacks, counter-attacks, cover, blocking moves, and evade maneuvers.
The game also incorporates an important platform-based component, where Monkey, impressive in his climbing abilities, needs to overcome the most improbable obstacles in a semi-destroyed urban environment. The platform component of the game, which essentially happens between fights and creates the impression of advancement towards the voyage’s destination, is interspersed with many cut scenes. From what we have seen, the cut scenes are exploited to transition the players to action sequences, advance the scenario, or develop the characters.
Another focus of the game is on the tactical aspect, which is introduced with enemies too difficult to defeat by brute force alone. Indeed, Monkey will not always be able to destroy enemies on his own, but “together [with Trip, they] will be able to defeat them”. Players then need to choose an appropriate strategy, often relying on Trip’s capabilities, and usually involving a “divide and conquer” strategy, such that “the combat becomes more technical”. More specifically, we were shown that players can use Trip to open doors protected by technological locks, to use as bait for a diversion, to stun enemies for 10 seconds with an EMP she possesses, or to exploit her dragonfly equipped with a camera to find weaknesses in robot defenses. All of these abilities are provided to solve “complex little puzzles” and for players to “think more tactically”.
There are some additional gameplay features, although exploited less frequently, such as Monkey’s “cloud” that allows him to hover on water or ground, offering a “completely different gameplay style” similar to surfing or skating. Last but not least, there is an RPG element to the game where players can collect orbs to ameliorate various components of their character. It is evident that the developers chose to utilize a "big mix of gameplay styles", rather than to concentrate on a single one, a move that will allow the game to be appreciated by a greater audience while alienating more picky gamers, or those looking for a more one-dimensional gameplay style.
With the game using the relatively old Unreal 3 engine, the game is not particularly graphically impressive, whether it be the Playstation 3 or XBOX 360 version. The art direction is, however, remarkable, as can be clearly seen by the magnificent environment, the character models, and their animations. We are far away from the typical post-apocalyptic games that are very somber, as explained by the creative director who “[doesn’t] really understand why all games are dark and grey”. More specifically, we play in an urban environment that has been partially re-conquered by nature, providing graphically pleasing lush green environments interspersed with remainders of the society that used to be: buildings, bridges, construction cranes, etc… This art direction was clear in the presentation with levels that are “always colorful [and] mostly sunny” with only “one or two dark levels”.
In the developers’ opinions, the game represents what would happen in a real post-apocalyptic world. Additionally, clues giving players insight about the reasons for human society’s downfall, such as an election poster partially covered with moss, are scattered throughout the levels. We note that more clues will be given throughout the game when players collect special masks placed in the levels, which, when collected, trigger a video providing information about the past. During the demonstration we were particularly impressed by the facial expressions of the characters. Even though the expressions were not particularly realistic since they were a little too stoic, they clearly and effectively showed the emotional state of the characters.
Link to the cinema
Before concluding the preview, we must make a note of some of the reasons behind the game’s choices, which were presented extensively during the preview. The creative director’s “favorite game on the Amiga [was] Another World” because of its “really emotional experience” that allowed players to “[have] a relationship [with the] game”. He remarked that, in his eyes, the game was “more like what you would expect in a good movie or a book” and that, in his opinion, the majority of games today are still “not quite there with the cinema”. It is for these reasons that Alex Garland and Andy Serkis, two famous personalities in the cinema industry, were influential parts of the project. Alex Garland, a screenwrighter notorious for his work on movies including The Beach, Tesseract, and 28 Days Later, worked on both the scenario and character development of the game, to provide a more cinematographic feel to the game. Indeed, the creative director states that “more than a physical journey, [the game] is a character’s journey” and that the “emphasis [of the game] has always been with storytelling”. The cinematic script writing is clearly felt through the rich dialogues, the numerous cut scenes, and the several contradicting themes explored in the game, including the Beauty and the Beast, brains versus muscles, human against machine, and the forgotten power of nature.
Andy Serkis, an actor specializing in motion-captured roles such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Kong in King Kong, has been “working with [Namco] for 4-5 years”, where he provided the motion capture for Heavenly Sword. For this game, he worked on the motion capture of Monkey to provide character animations rivaling the best Hollywood animated characters. With animations of such high caliber, we were told the gameplay, videos, and cut scenes were all produced using motion capture – an impressive fact. The principal problem in going for a cinema-oriented game, freely admitted by the creative director, is that it becomes “very linear” since the game has to progress through the scripted scenario. There is some possibility to explore a little bit, but nothing like the gigantic open world games that leave players with many choices and decisions, usually to the detriment of a more immersive scenario.
Apart, perhaps, from the art direction, it seems that the game does not do any single gaming component perfectly but many different things really well. Indeed, the tremendous number of different gameplay styles and themes in the game demonstrates the multi-dimensional nature that the developers are going for. Consequently, it is difficult to classify the game, even for the creative director who somewhat contradicts himself by saying that it is an “adventure [rather than] a combat game” even though “combat is [a consequent] 30% of the game”. The art direction is impressive with well-modeled characters, pleasant animations, and a superb level design full of light and colors that goes against the grain of the typical apocalyptic game. The game itself looks very polished with a few sound bugs and we were told that “[the developers] have finished all the content” even with the game’s release being relatively far away in early October 2010. Tameem Antoniades remained evasive on the length it would take to beat the game saying that it would be similar to current games of the same genre and that it would be “a lot longer than Heavenly Sword”.
About the game
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