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A decade after they made their debut on Nintendo 64, the Rare-created duo prepare to make their debut on the Xbox 360...
After a relatively quiet 2007, UK-based Microsoft subsidiary, Rare are set to make a rather hectic return during the 2008 Holiday period, with a double-header courtesy of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise. Whilst TVG's first hand look at the Viva Pinata follow-up is due within days, we're going to first turn our attention on the return of Banjo-Kazooie after a gap of far too many years, as the duo prepare to make their debut performance on Xbox 360.
The return of the bear and bird dream team was first confirmed back at Microsoft's X06 event in Barcelona, and despite hints, rumours, and speculation in the subsequent months, Rare and Microsoft Game Studios alike have kept very quiet on the subject. At the platform holder's Spring Showcase in San Francisco however, TVG secured a firsthand look (and very brief hands on) with what many had termed 'Banjo-Threeie', but has now been christened 'Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts'...
A Bird In The Bag Is Worth...
With the seemingly daunting task of redefining and evolving the action-platform genre, the team has gone to work with gusto in building what it sees as the next-generation. Despite early attempts in pre-production to smooth off the blocky character models of yesteryear, Rare has gone for a much more stylised approach, with some squared-off angles (Banjo's snout the most obvious example) and a patched up gameworld of stitching and repair work. Whilst not to everybody's taste, the style is nonetheless endearing, even after only a brief tour of Showdown Town, the hub of Nuts & Bolts. Extra details, such as a subtle shine to Banjo's eyes, help to bring add a level extra quality to the visuals.
However, the graphical style isn't the crux of what Rare is pushing; it's the implementation of a physics-driven world, and the creation of a customisable vehicle creator. Whilst we can almost hear the Banjo hardcore of '98 screaming from the hilltops or spinning in their graves, Rare's drive to develop the genre is at the very least admirable. The fact the development team sees itself more in competition with SCE's LittleBigPlanet than the already released PS3 debut Ratchet & Clank is already sure to draw battle-lines later in 2008.
Besides a host of default vehicles available from Mumbo's Motors (the shaman seems to have become something of a Frank Butcher wheeler-dealer during these past intervening years), players will be able create their own on the fly. Using additional parts found and awarded during the progression of the game, this version of 'real world LEGO' forms the basis of Banjo's potential success come Christmas. From the seat to the wheels, the final paint job, not to mention 'filler' body blocks and a range of gadgets such as a 'liquid squirter' and 'smoke sphere', there's a lot of creativity on show.
Even regular vehicles can quickly become more zany with the aid of springs or balloons, with every element broken down into a series of attributes that give players a decent enough chance to figure out what the hell they've created. Thanks to a strongly integrated physics engine, the various attributes and abilities of a vehicle are thoroughly dynamic, with the demo showing how a propeller-driven car can become a helicopter, or even a surprisingly buoyant boat, on the fly.
Even if you have the creativity of a lobotomised ferret, the host of default vehicles on show is quite 'healthy', with everything from racers, boats, and even a version of the NASA Space Shuttle (with detachable booster rockets) available to use - perhaps the duo will get to escape gravity in the finalised game??? Regardless, the vehicles on show hint that there's going to be plenty of variety in the objectives and the locations come the Holidays. But Rare isn't forgetting that Banjo is a platformer either, and is adding several new skills to the bear's abilities; walking a tightrope, for instance. Such elements seem more in line with the fact that the 'action/platformer' has come some way since Banjo-Twooie, and that the core game mechanics required quite an update.
Very little gameplay was on show at the Showcase, which some may see as a real cause for concern. But with the net still swarming over the key part that vehicular customisation will play, it's no surprise that it formed the heart of both the presentation and hands-on play.
The Bear Necessities...
Rare's trademark humour is already in evidence for Banjo, with an intro sequence to the 'Nutty Acres' region straight out of a certain 80's US soap (split screens included). Focused on a farmyard and its surrounding lands - with its name suggesting that another Rare squirrelly son maybe making a cameo - the Nutty Acres was the backdrop for one of the few pieces of actual gameplay away from Showdown Town. A timed challenge with the objective of collecting a set number of coconuts before the clock runs down to zero, may not sound like the most original or attention-grabbing in gaming, but it at least allowed the team from Twycross to show off the physics-driven shenanigans we can expect before the end of the year.
So back to the farm, and the task of collecting coconuts. Armed with a 'Vac-o-Mat', a contraption that sucks up coconuts and could very well be under ACME ownership for its wackiness, Banjo has to collect the individual giant nuts and take them back to the main collector. It's a fairly generic way of achieving the goal, although thanks to the emphasis on physics, it's not the only way. Using the vehicle creation tools, players can create a truck with a sticky ball, which can then tear the coconut collector and use it directly to suck up the required number of coconuts in record time. A hint of things to come, let's hope that a balance between casual and core gaming is struck by the time Nuts & Bolts is released. After all, if the default vehicles are 'good enough', why go through the bother of all that customisation?
Not content with what's looking like a delicate balancing act between casual and core gaming, Rare is also working towards the introduction of eight-player multiplayer. Many of the gametypes are being kept under wraps, at least for the time being, although the promise of Sumo Wrestling in vehicles hints at some of the crazy stuff coming before Christmas. For now, much of the eight-way action took place in a giant hanger filled with ramps and quarter pipes, which acts as a lobby ahead of the main events.
Ok so it's not quite as epic as the 'Play Mode' of GTA IV, but the hanger does at least allow players to try out different configurations of vehicles along the floor, platforms, and (if you have the right set up) the vertical walls too. Throw in the game's zany additions to car design - how many Vauxhalls have you seen with a multi-spring chassis - and it looks like the lobby will become a decent stage to set some pre-competition rambling. Like much of the 'Nuts & Bolts' experience, its still to early to make a call on whether gamers from both sides of the spectrum will find Banjo's multiplayer compelling, there just wasn't enough on show. It could all be an exercise in padding rather than a bit of fun on the side - but we hope for Rare's sake that it's not.
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