Archive for July, 2010

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Hands On

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , on July 24, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Time was that Monkey was my hero. Born from an egg, on a mountain top, the funkiest monkey who ever popped.

Mostly it was because his weapon was essentially a stick, and I had access to sticks aplenty – but as a child the story of a rebellious character who denied authority at every opportunity spoke to me. He was mischievous, bold and impulsive – everything a 12 year-old gets told not to be most of the time.

Until some years later, I had no idea that the series was based on a sixteenth century Chinese literary classic, itself based on a historical truth. Playing Enslaved for the first time, you’d be forgiven for not seeing the connection either.

Enslaved’s Monkey is hunched, gruff and grumpy, built more like a gorilla than a lithe tree-climber. Ninja Theory’s take on Tripitaka the monk cements the studio’s penchant for saucer-eyed redheads hinted at by Heavenly Sword. Technology replaces magic, slavery usurps the whim of the Gods. Much as with the TV series, however, there’s a tremendous sense of adventure, wonder and magic here.

It’s incredibly pretty – this is not what we’ve come to expect from post-apocalyptic scenarios. Taking inspiration from documentary series Life After People, Enslaved’s New York is a verdant jungle of tangled vines and rippling meadows. Bright, posterbook colours saturate the screen, swaddling the carcasses of toppling skyscrapers in blankets of reds and greens. Yellow highlights pick out points of climbing interest, and the bluest of blue skies would have Chicken Little wishing they would fall just so he could bathe in them.

Providing contrast are the rusting remnants of humanity’s last days. Shattered vehicles and broken masonry provide ducking points for the automatic cover system, whilst the tarnished, sharp-edged automatons prowling the wasteland give you reason to seek them out. Propaganda and political slogans proclaim hope for the end of a war which only came with the lack of anyone to fight it.

At the close of a civilisation personified by conflict and dominion, it’s nature which has won the final battle. The landscape is littered with brick walls which shatter under machine gun fire, treacherously fragile ledges and bright blue recycling bins, which seem to have persevered against the ravages of time more tenaciously than almost anything else.

There’s a wonderfully refreshing sense of openness – not perhaps in the relatively linear level design, but in the sprawling vistas and distant horizons. In the couple of hours I spent in its company, Enslaved didn’t once try to contain me in a single enclosed structure, always allowing that sapphire sky to alleviate any need for the use of the word corridor. Crossing the Hudson river allows the game to give the grand perspective on the world’s shattered capital, trees sprouting victoriously from the jagged teeth of the city skyline.

The spectacle of the macro hasn’t been to any detriment of the details, though. The services of rubber-faced Andy Serkis have been employed in what we’re assured is a ‘full-performance’ in the role of Monkey: motion capture, facial animation and voice acting. He, and Ninja Theory, have done a tremendous job, conveying more than enough emotion through the raise of a bestial brow and subtle vocal inflection to make up for his less than loquacious dialogue – adeptly penned by Alex Garland. In some scenes it touches on the uncanny valley, communicating so effectively with sub-conscious body language that I’m a little taken aback.

Monkey’s relationship with Trip, at least in the early levels which we’re given time with, is somewhat terse. Not surprising, given she’s forcibly fitted him with a headband which will kill him instantly should she come to any real harm. Punctuated as it is with sarcasm and truculence, their banter is witty and, at times, extremely touching, hinting that perhaps they shan’t consider each other so antagonistic by the end of their adventure.

So close is their symbiosis that Enslaved is actually pitched to me as ‘a single player co-op game’. Monkey might be the muscle, and his attitude more worldly-wise, but it’s Trip who possesses the technical nous to see the pair through many of their ordeals.

In one sequence, as the odd couple attempt to traverse a minefield, Trip asks Monkey to catch her one of the dart-like robotic dragonflies circling a large and ancient tree. A bit of resentful acrobatics later, Trip breaks out the holographic computer on her wristband and reprograms the tiny creature, turning it into an energy-sensing eye-in-the-sky which can pick out and map the location of the mines, allowing Monkey to pick her up piggyback and guide her through the danger. “Pretty cool,” the surly simian is forced to admit.

Initially resistant to many of Monkey’s terse commands, Trip soon realises that her judgment must cede to his in some of the more dangerous situations. To command her, players call up a radial menu which also focuses the camera on her location. From here a number of options will eventually be available, although our only two were enabled during our play test.

First is a simple ‘catch-up’ command, bringing Trip to scurrying to heel. Not only does this keep her close for easy protection, it allows me to call her out of cover when I’ve dealt with or distracted any potential threats.

The other ability on show is an electronic ‘decoy’ – a shimmering blue hologram which draws the enemy’s attention away from Monkey long enough to let him traverse open ground or perform flanking manoeuvres. Crossing one bridge, high up between two lurching office blocks, the decoy gives me time to run across to cover by drawing the fire from three robot sentries with a vantage point over the causeway. Once across, and safely back in cover, Monkey can then distract the bots more traditionally, shouting and waving his arms. Trip then follows as the robots concentrate their fusillade on his hiding place.

Once Trip’s safe the nasty mechs need dealing with in a permanent fashion. Trip whips out the decoy once more and Monkey swings athletically across some pipework to approach them from behind. There’s a real sense of momentum to his movement, and a necessity for a correspondingly rhythmic series of button presses. Monkey has all the gymnastic presence of Nathan Drake, but coupled with an animalistic power and confidence which lacks a lot of Drake’s Keatonish clowning. He’s fluid and smooth in motion, weighty and graceful all at once.

Much of our progression through the city is vertical, Monkey hurling himself, and sometimes Trip, across gaps and up walls like a bullish, tattooed orang-outang. The camera moves dynamically throughout, accentuating the drama considerably. The climbing model owes a considerable nod to Uncharted and its sequel, but I’m yet to be convinced this is a bad thing.

This balletic menace carries across perfectly to Monkey’s style of combat. Whipping out the steel-shod staff which is his primary form of offence, he flows into dextrous combos. Weak and strong attacks are the bread and butter of his fighting playbook, but a sweeping crowd-control move and a devastating finishing flurry broaden the palette a little. It’s a fairly simple system but an effective and impactful one, conveying both force and impact.

During fights the camera zooms in slightly, focussing on you and your current target. Tapping a shoulder button raises a shield when enemies flash red to signify an attack, and a bright yellow suffusion to the staff indicates that you’ve pummelled your unfortunate foe enough to unleash the coup de grace.

It’s not all up-close-and-personal. Later on in our demo we pick up some ranged charges for the staff, turning it into a blasting weapon capable of stunning and destroying foes from a distance. When we come up against a group of shielded bots defending a fractured rooftop, it’s these charges which allow us to create enough of a gap in their defences to close the gap.

For all his combat prowess Monkey doesn’t always get his own way in a rumble, especially when he has the considerably more fragile Trip to consider.

After climbing a collapsing crane, giving us the opportunity to create a bridge across a ravine for our companion, Trip’s terrified whisper for help comes across Monkey’s headset. Something wicked this way comes.

It’s a Dog, but no tasty pork chop is going to distract this fearsome canine. 12-foot tall at the robotic shoulder, and leering with the mechanical menace only a snarling, snaggle-toothed carnivorous junk heap could carry off, the Dog prowls ever closer to the trembling Trip’s hiding place. A bellow from Monkey has it leaping towards his metal eyrie, slipping and tumbling from the loose pipe bridge which we’ve just created into a ravine below. Monkey 1, Dog 0.

In true slasher-flick style, though, the beast is soon back on its feet, clambering from the crevasse with murder in all six of its gleaming diode eyes. The chase is most definitely on.

Trip is quickly shouldered with a tap of a button and Monkey sets off towards the camera with the Dog in close pursuit. It bounds between piles of rubble, hurling a car towards me with force of its landing.

It’s a close run thing, but the metal predator is evaded, just, as the pair come to a breathless halt in the shell of a building, Dog’s progress is arrested briefly by some steel girdering. It’s another example of how much Enslaved is trying to fit in, and perhaps another little IOU appropriately made out to Naughty Dog, but another surprise is swiftly on its heels.

Jumping forward in the story a little, we segue into the crossing of the Hudson, where the collapsing bridge has left gaps across the water too wide for Monkey to cross. No trouble, though – he’s a man prepared for the task. It’s time for Monkey’s magic cloud.

There’s no blowing on fingers to summon your personal cumulo-nimbus in this futuristic remake. Instead, Monkey whips a flat metal disc from his belt and flings it to the ground, where it extrudes a pulsing halo of light, whipping up a handy little Hoverboard which conveniently works on water.

Two seconds later, and I’m skimming around the surface of the river, boosting through glowing points of power and smashing out some pretty extreme air from the ramped sections of bridge which litter the Hudson. Fast and fun, this circular surfboard is a pleasing contrast to the vertical aerobics which we’ve experienced so far. We’re not sure how often you’ll get to use it (Monkey points out to a somewhat incredulous Trip that “it doesn’t work everywhere”), but it’s a lovely break in proceedings.

Ambitious, intensely visually stimulating and thoroughly engaging with its characters, Enslaved is definitely taking tips from some of the best games in the business for its run at the charts. Let’s hope it possesses the protagonist’s impressive climbing abilities.

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New Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Screenshots

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , on July 24, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

First look At The Marvel Enslaved Comic

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Enslaved: ‘We don’t expect a sequel’

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , on July 22, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Ninja Theory boss Tameem Antoniades says his studio’s not automatically expecting to follow up adventure stunner Enslaved with a sequel.

Popping into CVG towers for a chat and a cuppa this month, the Ninja Theory head revealed that despite industry trends, the studio’s not planning a story arch for enslaved – and it’s certainly not holding back ideas for future games.

“For this game this is the one story, we focus everything on that one story and pretend there won’t be a sequel,” he said. “So no, we don’t have a big arc.”

Antoniades explained that Ninja Theory’s aim is to put “every cool idea and concept” it can into the first game, but it’s not automatically expecting success.

“We did Kung-Fu Chaos and there was no sequel for that. Heavenly Sword, there was no sequel for that. So we’re now in the mindset that there’s not going to be a sequel for this unless it’s miraculously successful. Well not miraculously, but we don’t assume it’s going to be successful.”

He added: “If there is going to be a sequel then you can probably think there will be two sequels and you can start planning that.”

The Ninja Theory boss added that despite restrained expectations, he doesn’t think it’ll be a problem coming up with ideas for new games in the Enslaved universe.

“There are ways to extend it out, I’m not worried about that. I just didn’t want to leave anything hanging – I hate that,” he said.

Last month Antoniades offered depth to Enslaved 2’s chances, admitting that Ninja Theory would’ve done Heavenly Sword 2 if it weren’t for Sony gobbling up the rights.

If you read our interview with Namco Bandai Partners, you’ll also see that it’s keen to turn Enslaved into a monster series.

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Alex Garland “intimidating” – Ninja Theory

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Celebrated screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, Sunshine, 28 Weeks Later) can be “quite intimidating” to work with, according to Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades.

Garland has co-written Ninja Theory’s new game Enslaved, but apparently his uncompromising nature meant his influence soon went far deeper than that.

“Alex Garland was up for meeting me and just having a coffee,” recalled Antoniades during his Develop speech in Brighton on Thursday. “The first thing I asked was, ‘So, have you seen any materials for the game?’ And he said, ‘No; I don’t know why I’m here to be honest.’ It’s a bit unnerving because you’re in the presence of someone who doesn’t need to work on your project – he’s actually never worked on anyone else’s project, ever.”

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed with people like Alex. It’s very important to establish before that we’re the games guys; that’s our responsibility, and you’re the story guy; that’s your responsibility. But at any point we can tell each other if stuff doesn’t work: you can say that my stuff’s rubbish and I can say that your stuff’s rubbish but we have a kind of boundary.”

“And he really took advantage of that,” Antoniades added. ” He really took advantage of that, and told us all kinds of stuff that was going wrong with the game, and it was quite eye opening.”

Antoniades’ bravado doesn’t seem to have lasted very long. After conceding that gameplay and story were inseparable, Garland – “a massive gamer” in his own right – became more involved.

“When we got Alex on board I did think it was mainly for dialogue writing, and he ended up doing a hell of a lot more,” said Antoniades. “He worked with the designers for weeks on all aspects of the game. He’s credited as a designer on the game.”

Garland’s input was made on all areas. His reductive script meant scenes focused on one meaning rather than multiple in an effort to protect “clarity”. He looked at camera angles and animation – questioning why heroine Trip stood “like that”. “If she was an actress and this was a movie, I’d tell her to stand differently, to look more intimidated, less confident,” he said. And so it was.

He even apparently crossed the “boundary” into gameplay. Garland said: “You’ve got all this stuff leading up to the fight and the fight should be the exciting bit. But currently it’s a bit damp: you don’t feel like you’re in the action.”

But the biggest impact came when Enslaved was roughly complete.

“This is what I didn’t expect Alex to do,” recalled Antoniades, “basically go through the entire game when we had everything in place and talk about the gameplay logic: Why’s that there? Why’s that door there? Why’s it got power? And he would do that all the time and we were tripping over everywhere.

“It was really tough, actually, for us,” winced Antoniades. “Really tough.”

That set the producers off into a “panic”, because these changes weren’t helping “get the game done on time”. But all the time Garland was asking “why?”, and if there wasn’t an answer then one would need to be found – the world needed justification or the fantasy was ruined.

“It was mind-blowing to me,” said Antoniades.

Videogames essentially ship their first cuts, the Ninja Theory boss realised. His new philosophy is that “game-complete is basically when you start story development”. Eventually, a film editor came in and spent a few weeks – seconds in the movie world – editing the game’s two hours of video down to 80 minutes.

“The best thing about working with film people, if there’s mutual respect, is that you learn so much from them. I learnt more from Alex in the last two years than probably I have in the last eight,” concluded Antoniades.

“Alex is quite intimidating as well.”

Enslaved is due out in October on PS3 and Xbox 360.

Full interview soon

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How a movie screenwriter helped save Enslaved’s story

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

Gamers sometimes criticize games for playing too much like movies. But as Ninja Theory Designer Tameem Antoniades explained at a Develop Conference session this week, bringing in screenwriting veteran Alex Garland to consult on their upcoming game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West made their game more movie-like is some very beneficial ways.

As the writer behind movies like Sunshine and 28 Days Later, Garland had a feel for how to get the most drama out of Enslaved’s story scenes, Antoniades said. Garland would write scenes with very simple, reductive dialogue that looked thin on the page, Antoniades said, but gained more “meat” with an actor’s performance behind them.

Indeed, the short story clips shown at the conference were notable for how much they relied on body language and vocal cues to convey information without words. Antoniades said they ended up cutting the game’s cutscenes down from two hours of dialogue to a lean 80 minutes, with less focus on exposition and more on drama. “If you have too much dialogue, it doesn’t work,” Antoniades said. “Alex changed my view of what writing meant,” Antoniades said. “I felt like a schoolboy so many times talking to Alex.”

Antoniades said Garland ended up suggesting a variety of touches to increase the story’s clarity, such as taking camera control away briefly so a player will notice an important enemy or plot point. The development team fought the idea, saying it would break the flow, but in the end Antonaides said it actually helped keep things exciting. “It’s only when you do it badly, when they’re cutscenes you don’t care about, that you wish the cutscenes didn’t exist,” Antoniades said.

But Garland’s changes ended up applying to more than just the story scenes. He suggested small changes to camera angles and positions during battle scenes to make the fights feel more impactful, and even adjusted details as small as a main character’s idle pose. “If she were an actress and this were a movie, I’d tell her to look more inhibited, less confident,” Antoniades recalled Garland saying. The change isn’t immediately noticeable, Antoniades said, but it does make a difference you can subconsciously pick up on.

Perhaps the most important thing Garland brought to the project, Antoniades said, was an insistence that everything in the game world be explainable and consistent. He questioned seemingly inconsequential environmental elements like forest paths or powered doors, demanding to know how they made sense in the game’s world. “We were tripping over everywhere, [but we had to] come up with something. The world has to be believable. Anything that breaks that fantasy can ruin the whole game.”

By way of example, Antoniades described one point in the game where the designers had thrown in a few robot enemies because they “felt it was time for a fight.” Garland noticed that the fight scene had no tension, and wrote a short story scene where the main characters accidentally attract the mechs’ attention by loudly lowering a drawbridge. The tiny addition makes the fight itself “a payoff for something else” and gives it “a narrative flow [that] makes it a little story in itself,” Antoniades said.

“If anyone says ‘its just a game,’ you know you have a big problem,” he said. “You can’t justify stuff like that. You can’t just leave it. You have to fix it.”

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Enslaved’s Tameem Antoniades Interview

Posted in Enslaved with tags , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2010 by HeavenlyNariko

When Namco announced Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in September 2009, folks were surprised to learn the tactical action-adventure game with its post-apocalyptic setting was based upon the ancient Chinese novel Journey to the West, and the subsequent 80s television series.

Centered on the complex relationship between main characters Monkey and Trip, players use a mix of combat, strategy and environmental mechanics in order to get back to Trip’s home village. Along the way, the duo must fight robots hell-bent on eradicating humans, the pair relying each on another and their strained relationship to survive.

The game features actor and director Andy “Gollum” Serkis as Monkey, along with music composed by Nitin Sawhney. Novelist Alex Garland (28 Days Later) having penned the script.

Lucky for us, Ninja Theory boss Tameem Antoniades was willing to speak with us again regarding the game at Develop yesterday, and gave more information on the planned demo, DLC, and tell us exactly what he thinks of 3D and motion controls.

VG247: How do you feel about the current generation of consoles? Do feel that people are starting to get bored with sequels and first-person shooters?

Tameem Antoniades: I don’t think it’s the consoles’ fault if people get bored. I think the more we can stay with this generation the better the games will become. New consoles can be disruptive; you have a whole new console to learn and you tend to play it safe on the creative aspects. A game like Red dead Redemption showed that a large evolutionary jump is possible, so I’m hoping we have a few more years.

Microsoft and Sony are obviously trying to extend its current generation of consoles with technology such as Kinect and Move. How do you feel about these devices? Do you think they’re more designed for the casual, or do you think they can offer something to the core as well?

Tameem Antoniades: To be honest, I haven’t tried them out, so I don’t know how it feels. I’d actually need to try them so I could get a feel for them and see what they can do. The problem is that they’re peripherals, so you always have to treat them as if they were optional – at least for the kind of big budget games we do.

We have to make sure that it still works without them. So, it’s kind of not ideal if the whole console isn’t based around it from the get-go; that would probably change things dramatically.

Given that your games aren’t geared towards the casual audience, do you feel these devices will benefit developers such as yourself?

Tameem Antoniades: I don’t know. Like I said, I probably ought to try them out, but I’m not jumping at the tech. I’m not, because I feel they have to be optional.

When do you think you’ll be releasing a demo for Enslaved?

Tameem Antoniades: It’s not been announced, but we are doing a demo. Since it’s a new IP, it doesn’t have a pedigree; I’m keen for people to actually get a hands on.

I understand you are working on DLC for the game. Since it’s story-based, will it be more of a side adventure then?

Tameem Antoniades: Yes, it will be a side-adventure. We want to be very clear that the story has a beginning, middle and end, so you don’t need to get the DLC to fill in the gaps. It’s a totally separate side-story, and totally separate from the main production of the game.

If the DLC proves to be successful, do you plan on providing more?

Tameem Antoniades: Yeah, that would be good. We don’t have a plan as such yet, but if it does work – I don’t know much about the dynamics of the DLC business – but if it does work I will be keen to do more.

Is there a difference between the two console versions of the game? Will one have any exclusive content over the other, or will they both be the same?

Tameem Antoniades: Our goal is to make them both identical.

Providing the game is successful, are you planning any sequels at all?

Tameem Antoniades: No, one of the things Alex [Garland] told me, and I agree, was: ‘Don’t hold anything back. Work on every project as if it were your last’. So, we’ve worked on two games now that haven’t generated a sequel – Kung Fu Chaos and Heavenly Sword – and our base position is there probably won’t be a sequel. But we desperately hope that there will be [laughs].

I understand that you’re working on a secret project. Can you tell us anything about that?

Tameem Antoniades: Nothing at all, sorry.

How much drama and progression did Alex [Garland] bring to the game? Do you feel that by bringing him in the game’s completely changed from what your idea was originally?

Tameem Antoniades: No. The mechanics and the gameplay were always there since fairly early. What has changed is the feel of the game. There’s more of an emotional feel now, and you’ve got moments of tension. You don’t know why you’re feeling tense; it’s just cues. You’ve got the lights, the music, the sound, the body language. Just small things change as you play.

So, while the mechanics are the same, everything else is lifted. At least that’s what we tried to do. Make sure that the mood, the pacing and the story beats all happen in gameplay as well as in cut-scenes.

So, it’s just like a movie, where the atmosphere and the music build the tension up.

Tameem Antoniades: Yeah, yeah.

Do you think games will eventually get to the point where it feels like the we’re actually playing a movie?

Tameem Antoniades: Yeah. I think with the kind of game we’re doing, yeah. But not for all games. Not all games are story-driven, and not all games are particularly trying to create the type of experience we are. But the technology we use, like the motion-capture technology, is the same technology they used on Steven Spielberg’s Tin Tin.

When we were shooting Monkey, James Cameron was on another stage shooting Avatar, Spielberg was in another location shooting Tin Tin, and Uncharted was on another stage. We’d kind of visit each others sets so we’d get a chance to see… Well, I didn’t get to see Avatar, but I got a chance to see how Spielberg was shooting and his producer came over and had a look at ours. Robert Zemeckis also had a studio there. I didn’t have a chance to see that, but it’s interesting how the same crew, the same talent are all kind of looking at each other and moving in between projects. It was quite cool.

Would you ever consider making a PC MMO, or even an RPG?

Tameem Antoniades: I’d say never say never, and I haven’t thought about it too much to be honest. But never say never [laughs].

What about 3D? Where do you stand on that?

Tameem Antoniades: I think 3D’s cool. I think it’s actually going to be the future of gaming. I think there’s still some technical hurdles to get over. There’s some people who suffer from motion-sickness, and the tech is not quite there because the higher the frame-rates, the higher the resolution that we can achieve per eye – the less we’ll have those problems. So I think 3D is not 100 percent there yet.

Is retrofitting your games with 3D something you would consider down the line if the tech became mainstream enough?

Tameem Antoniades: I don’t know. Games are quite disposable. They come out, and then after a few weeks they’re kind of off the shelves and then they just kind of circulate and stuff. So I don’t know if would would retrofit, or if that would even be possible.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West releases for PS3 and Xbox 360 on October 5 and 8 in the US and Europe respectively.

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