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The seminal work of Michel Ancel receives an HD rebirth over XBLA...
Poor Michel Ancel. He had the vision to create the classic Rayman series as well as the subject of this review (certified cult-classic, Beyond Good & Evil) only to draw the short straw of designing Ubisoft’s Rayman Raving Rabbids spin-off series on the current cycle of consoles. As successful as these casual mini-game compendiums have become on the Wii and DS, the work of designing them is hardly befitting of a man who once pioneered new styles of adventure gaming. An equivalent in the world of cinema would be like Darren Aronofsky’s superiors telling him to direct a new line of SpongeBob SquarePants movies now that he’s proved himself with The Wrestler and Black Swan. That said, Aronofsky is currently confirmed as Director for next year’s The Wolverine, so perhaps ‘the man’ forces all of us to sell out at some point.
Nevertheless, at least with Beyond Good & Evil’s HD revamp for the fertile soil of XBLA (and PSN later in the year), Ancel may now enjoy the commercial success and critical plaudits that he deserved the first time around. Not many video games manage to stay relevant seven years after they failed to sell many copies and received middling-to-good reviews, but Beyond Good & Evil certainly has, making it part of an elite group of titles that can truly be credited as cult-classics. As with any revamp though, the question isn’t so much whether the game is good (in its time, it was brilliant – of this we can assure you) as much as whether it’s still relevant. From that perspective, Beyond Good & Evil is a somewhat mixed bag – it seems to reveal just how far video games have come in seven years and, at the same time, the vast scope of what they’ve forgotten.
It's a game that never patronises you; it never says, ‘here’s a door and here’s a key. What could you possibly do with these two things? Hint: it involves a lock.’ Instead, it casts the illusion that there's no safety net; that you could get completely and utterly lost if you're not careful. The reality, of course, is that the game's design is always smart enough to guide you in vaguely the right direction (like a wise parent) – you will, by some path or other, end up in the correct place eventually even if you have to wander around scratching your head for a while. And it's this that makes the world as believable today as it was all those years ago; it brings a palpable sense of adventure and exploration to the whole experience. Truly, it's a reminder of how fussy some modern games have become with their perma-tutorials and excessive prompting.
On the other hand, Beyond Good & Evil HD's camera work and cinematics are sub-par by present-day standards. What's interesting about this is that they were genre-leading for their time. Ubisoft Montpellier's control of the camera during combat and set-pieces was lauded, but these days it comes across rather less impressive. It's not that slow-mo effects and wide-view shots are bad, just that they lack currency compared to the shaky cam and gritty filters of contemporary blockbusters. It doesn't help, of course, that BG&E's free-cam is quarrelsome and inhibitive at times, but then this is the case with pretty much every free-cam from the previous generation in hindsight. Besides, it may be better to be forgiving and blame the tools rather than the workmen in this instance, as the leaked footage from Beyond Good & Evil 2 that emerged a couple of years ago presented eye-wateringly good cinematics.
You could also criticise BG&E's stealth along similar grounds, calling out its sterile gameplay and accusing it of being mired in previous-gen pitfalls (or words to that effect). The fact is that this smattering of stealth throughout the game remains solid today even if it is 'a bit of old hat', and is perhaps more reflective of a widespread decision by publishers to avoid traditional stealth on current-gen consoles than it is a particular indictment of BG&E HD. Even though the stealth AI and level designs combine consistently well throughout, some gamers will be left craving combative action like a whining baby starved of its mother's teat. And when that action comes, the very same gamers will be quick to point out BG&E's archaic one-button combat.
The thing is, neither the stealth gameplay nor the combat are really the point of BG&E. Instead, they play mere supporting roles and are used as a means to an end rather than the crux of the gameplay; the foundations rather than the actual building. Instead, it's the methods that Ancel uses to explore the game world that play the starring role here. For example, the puzzles have a superbly designed circularity to them. That's not to say that they're particularly fiendish – on the contrary in fact, most of them can be whittled down to a few simple principles such as finding buttons to press, vents to escape from, boxes to jump on-top of, fuses to restart electrical circuits with, or actions to make your AI partner take care of. It's not as if there are Portal, Limbo, or Braid levels of head-scratching going on here. It's just that the puzzles are woven as loops through entire buildings and complexes rather than standing as singular entities, dished out in ever so slightly different ways each time to keep you guessing and evolve the experience.
But it's Jade's use of her camera and the pursuit of BG&E's all-important pearls that you'll remember most fondly seven years from now and, once again, this remains as true today as it did in November 2003. It's a feature that's guaranteed to transfix curious gamers purely because it's so unconventional, but suffice to say that we won't go into too much detail for the risk of spoiling it. Instead, we'll just whet your whistle by saying that it involves a touch of photo-journalism and the search for rare alien creatures. BG&E's world is literally filled with hidden areas and concealed encounters where you can pick-up these pearls that allow you to progress in the game, but you'll have to do everything from discussing hidden treasures with a barman that looks like a cow to infiltrating an evil empire's underground den to find them.
We've left the best info until last though, which is that Ubisoft has priced the game at an entirely reasonable 800 Microsoft Points (a mere £6.80) over XBLA. Given that the campaign itself caters for a hearty 10-15 hours of gameplay (that's not including the many supplementary hours spent finding all of the pearls and alien creatures), you have to look towards the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game for a title that offers comparable value for money (and both titles are published by Ubisoft, we might add).
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