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SummaryAn eclectic gem in the rough, marred by a few rather silly problems
The GoodIn spite of the hype, I have little experience with the "Genius" of Michel Ancel. As far as i know, all he has done before BG&E is Rayman 1/2, and neither of the two struck me as wonders of the world. Regardless, Beyond Good & Evil comes with a great premise, has a number of original gameplay ideas that tie well into the storyline and setting without seeming gimmicky, and overall it comes across as a very well put together product by some obviously talented and creative minds.
The storyline is interesting right from the start, with a beautiful and harmonious world (the protagonist, Jade, is seen practising Chi-gong at the very beginning for example) fighting an infinitely alien enemy that seems like the direct opposite of anything else in the game. Even highwaymen are goofy and charmingly cartoony on the world of Hyllis, and i assume this is done to make the enemy even more shocking and horrifying when you do run into them.
The bad guys, oddly named the DomZ (sounds like a bad rap group), are a bunch of soul eating spider psychics who can't really decide wether they are in the movie Aliens or not, and they are backed up covertly on earth by the Hyllis-based Alpha Sector military unit (this isn't really a spoiler. It's obvious from the outset). Their ongoing attacks on the planet Hyllis has made certain groups of citizens weary of the Alpha Sector, who says they are in fact protecting Hyllis against the DomZ, whereas facts seem to say the contrary. Early on, Jade is approached by one such group, and is tasked to put her skills as a photographer to work revealing the true nature of the Alpha sector to the people of Hyllis.
In gameplay terms, this storyline mounts to a few distinct elements: Overworld shopping and adventuring along the lines of recent Zelda games. You walk around, explore, find dungeons, talk to characters and spend money, all to advance the plot. Racing and modding your Hovercraft, which is your main means of transportation around the overworld for about half the time, as Hyllis is a water planet. Dungeon crawling and puzzling with stealth as a strong element, where you're usually tasked with going some place you're not allowed and take pictures of critical events while remaining undetected. A sort of gotta catch'em'all game of animal photography where you try to collect pictures of every major species on Hyllis for cash. Crazy wacky completely insane action sequences and chases that defy description and always slap you right in the face when they occur. All in a good way of course. Wind Waker, Prince of persia: The sands of time and BG&E has made me aware of my favorite genre; The action rpg adventure. There are few genres that leave themselves as open to creativity as this, and BG&E is an excellent example. The gameplay constantly seems to be moving and flowing in different directions, and you'll almost never find yourself bored as the changes are so frequent. It's really rather pleasant to play games where the developers have obviously had fun.
BG&E has an art style that's quite brilliant, and uniquely French. Ever since Delphine were doing action adventures on the Amiga, the french have held the upper ante of fantasy design with an iron claw. These guys know fantastic. Half and half Don bluth & HR Giger, coupled with early Möbius and a slight tinge of early Disney, BG&E looks pretty fantastic throughout. Characters are brilliantly designed, and then in particular Jade, who is a proper poster girl for the modern era, army fatigues, fighting stick, bandana, camera and all. They animate wonderfully well, if slightly inappropriate at times (Jade's schoolgirl jog when in an alien dungeon is a bit unsettling to watch). Proper facial animation does a lot to convey a story, and BG&E even has a Pig looking sad. Kudos to Ubisoft for the effort. The world of Hyllis is otherwise rather beautiful, and viewed at high resolutions can make you think you're watching cartoon graphics at times. The water effects in particular are astonishing. The engine behind it all is surprising in how heavily it depends on point sprites, yet manages to pull it off. For instance, at the beginning, Jade is sitting under a large tree. The tree has hundreds of leaves that wave realistically, and it's almost amazing seeing that much motion in an era where trees are usually polygonal static objects. The tree is in fact made up of myriads of 2d images that look the same whatever angle you look at them, which dramatically lessens the impact on your graphics card. In short, the world of BG&E looks uniquely alive, but if scrutinized it has quite a few cheap graphical effects.
The audio work is for the most part rather mediocre. The english voice acting (which i assume to be inferior to the French. Why oh why wouldnt they let you use french audio with english subtitles like Evil twin did?) can be grating, but for the most part serves its purpose. The music however is astonishingly varied and well put together. I was very often surprised by the variation in genres. It can be seen as a kind of eclectic modern pop world music mashup, and it suits the living world of BG&E very well indeed.
A final specific note, i really enjoyed the camera mechanic. The idea of gathering this sort of information and putting it to use the way it is done in BG&E has simply not been done before, and the way the game portrays it is more than efficient. The camera rocks, it's that simple.
The BadUnfortunately, BG&E has some rather significant flaws. On my first way through the game i was so busy taking in the sights and enjoying the variety that i was blind to most of it. However, after playing it through and experiencing it's cataclysmically dissatisfying and ambiguous cliffhanger(!) ending, even though it is pretty obvious today that there won't be a sequel judging by the game's sales, the bad things just pop up all over the place. My biggest gripes are the following:
The storyline is shallow. There is no suspense as to who the bad guys are; you know it from the first moment you lay eyes on them. Characters are simple to the extent of being forgotten within moments. Jade looks after a house full of wartime orphans, each with distinct personalties. However, after the intro, these kids are quickly forgotten and play no real part in the gameplay after that. Each and every element of apparent depth eventually appears to have an almost mechanical function in driving the plot forward. You rarely see anyone do anything unexpected, and for a game which focusses so much on information versus disinformation, it can be viciously predictable. I was disappointed to see the hamfisted way the game tells it story, driving points and facts home with a sledgehammer, very little is left up to the player other than the inane ending, and the linearity of the game betrays the protagonist's early promise to get to the bottom of whatever it is that's going on. You have no choices, and you're led by the hand throughout. Whereas this also was true for Wind Waker (a comparison i'll stand by), Wind Waker filled in the linearity of the main story arc with a multitude of lesser story arcs to flesh out the world. BG&E does no such thing, despite having a well realised world to place such arcs in.
The controls go from bearable to atrocious, usually the latter. The mouse+keyboard setup of BG&E works well by default, despite having some odd quirks. Menu options are navigated with the mousewheel, the spacebar is used to confirm choices etc. One quirk i found particularly annoying is how obviously the game is designed for use with a gamepad. One minigame has you playing a strange form of Airhockey. To send the pucks in the direction you want, you must rotate the puck in the direction and send it off. Sounds easy, but it's all different when you realise that to turn it up/left, you must push your mouse up/left. Rotation is done by moving the mouse in circles. This radial motion is obviously designed for an analogue stick, and while it works okay when you input passwords and the like with letters and numbers spiralling out from the center, it really isn't very precise with a mouse. Most other problems with the controls include "imprecision", as the context functions occationally change when you least expect them to, wall hugging tends to simply not work, and a number of other strange little catches. One such catch is the hovercraft controls and how they deny you the possibility of circle strafing, even though there is no good reason it's not available. When stationary, the mouse moves the camera, when moving, the mouse turns the hovercraft. However, the wsad keys ALSO steer the hovercraft. Why make the camera/steering switch? In cases, this turns out to be simply broken, as a camera turned to the left versus a press of A to move left will result in the camera locking into an incredibly awkward position, resetting once the hovercraft is stationary.
The camera is horrible. I reckon by now that camera programming is every game developer's nightmare. I don't think there's any fun connected to making a third person camera work, and most games today are evidence of that fact. BG&E has a vicious and mean spirited camera that will do such things as get stuck in walls, flicker back and forth between front/rear views during combat (effectively reversing your controls back and forth), disappearing into the floor, letting you look through walls etc. It is strictly mouse controlled, though the game switches to stationary cameras that mostly do the job. The mouse controls are enormous offenders, as their rules seem to change based on the room you're in. It can be frustrating beyond belief to be simply denied the view you need because the camera refuses to be anywhere other than inside the floor or inside the ceiling.
2 dungeons and the case is closed? If my memory serves, there is a total of 4 "cases" you must solve with your camera. For instance, a case would involve taking pictures of an object on a trolley, and then two people handling said object. Once this evidence is assembled, it can be transmitted to the rest of the world electronically. It's a great idea but the game never makes anything big out of it. Four cases during 2 dungeons is all it takes to convince the world of the Alpha section's nogoody nature. For a game of 17hours in length, 2 dungeons is a little disappointing. No wonder people find the game short when the majority of game time is just filler and transit.
The Bottom LineIt's great fun the first time through, and you're viable to ignore the flaws and just take in the spectacle. However, i don't see a lot of replay value, mostly because you'll be so disappointed with the ending you won't want to experience it again. It is really quite extraordinarily bad in spite of its buildup.
In any case, a recommended rental, if only to see the fantastic visuals. Definitely one to show your friends.