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Enslaved to the Grind

June 5, 2011

Haha! Monkey so funny now.

What do we need? Where do we go? When we get to where we don’t know.

She is instead a pretty woman.

I think I’m about halfway through Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. I really wish I liked it more than I do, and I’m not entirely certain of why I don’t.

I don’t want to write it off as a cut-rate Uncharted 2, because I do think there’s more to it than that. It does share a lot of that game’s ambitions and flaws, though, adding in its own little foibles along the way, never quite understanding what made Uncharted so special in the first place. It’s like that guy repeating the stand-up comedian’s routine to his friends the day after, missing all the subtleties and getting the delivery all wrong. (That guy is usually me, so I can empathise while I slap it silly.)

It does have some things going for it so far. It has a very distinctive flavour of post-apocalyptic wasteland going on, all lush greens and rusty reds and brilliant blues. It sort of reminds me of something I heard about flora and fauna flourishing surprisingly in Chernobyl post-disaster – with people forcibly removed, nature just got on with it. If there was the odd wild animal poking around here that you could spot, rather than angry Mechs and some birds, it’d probably be one of my favourite gaming environments ever. As it is, it’s just astonishingly pretty, but disappointingly empty of anything except violent robots.

The platforming can be fun. It’s always entertaining to fling yourself around dilapidated buildings and scale big ol’ cranes and towers and what have you, and Enslaved has plenty of self-flinging. (Does that sound rude to anyone else?) It could stand to be a lot better though, perchance by not holding your hand the whole time as if this were Baby’s First Platformer (sorry – “Action-Adventure”). Instead of doing what, say, Prince of Persia games do so well, and introducing you to various platforming elements one at a time to educate you on what you can use to traverse your environment, Enslaved takes the remarkably lazy route of making anything you can use to swing, grasp or vault glow incongruously all the time. (PoP’s technique, by contrast, is this: “Here, swing on these poles”, then later “Run along this wall, and bounce off to this pillar”, then later presenting you with a wall, some poles, and a pillar, and trusting you to recognise these signposts. Then it goes on to combine them in increasingly complicated ways as your skills improve.)

"A v--sta. See------how the PS----eeps", more like.

As a result of Enslaved’s complete lack of faith in its player, you’re never allowed to feel like you carved your own path around the areas – you’re just jumping when told, and asking how high. Uncharted was similarly stringently linear, but was always far more intelligent about masking it. (Enslaved’s glowy bits make it a lot harder for me to criticise games for having simple “press this button” tips when you approach something you can interact with, but it DOES still annoy me because it’s either FLAGRANTLY LAZY DESIGN or INSULTINGLY PATRONISING. Or maybe the people playing these games are 8000% dumber than anyone I’ve ever met – I CAN’T BE SURE.)

I don’t want to say anything too in-depth about the relationship between Monkey (your musclebound angryfaced protagonist) and Trip (the clever wisp of a woman he’s “enslaved” to by way of a fancy headband that can murder him), because, as I said, I’m only halfway through, and this is a very story-driven endeavour. So while, so far, it’s been that “ooh, they hate each other, but after saving each other’s lives a few times, they love each other” type stuff that I’m far too easily impressed by, the last bit that I played just turned me off Trip as a character completely. Finding her home outpost completely destroyed by slaver Mechs, she runs off by herself, crying and whining, despite the fact that you’re likely to DIE if she gets too far away. So now you have to chase her around, fending off Mechs by the dozen, listening to her sob and moan, and ignore your advice to just WAIT THERE FOR TWO SECONDS so you can catch up with her. As game mechanics go, it’s offensively transparent. As story goes, it just plain doesn’t make sense.

Granted, it probably wouldn’t be quite so bad if the combat wasn’t such a load of rubbish. It’s hard finding words to describe how bad it is. You fight with an electrified staff. Mechs swarm you and batter you and block you with shields, while other Mechs pepper you with electric charges from afar. You can fire bolts to damage or stun the mechs from your staff. It all sounds intriguingly layered. But then the camera starts interfering, choosing to point in exactly the wrong direction. And then you try to fire a stun bolt but the controls (both aim and movement) get about as responsive as a dead tramp in a swamp: sure, it’ll move every now and again, but glacially slowly, and the whole thing just stinks.

It's awful to control too.

I mean, I get that no third-person action platformy thing has ever done combat perfectly. The first Uncharted almost choked itself to death on zombie pirates. Uncharted 2 was better, but probably over-reliant on cover, and those blue guys towards the end were just cheap. The PoP games have all been pretty rubbish except for Sands of Time, which was graceful but repetitive. But you’d think EVENTUALLY developers would realise that – hey – maybe we shouldn’t have fourteen thousand fights in a row then. Maybe I’m just a crazy damn fool.

But the biggest problem the game faces is the result of its greatest strength. (And yes, this is the bit where I get boringly techy, so feel free to have a Coke or something.) Those breathtaking vistas have a tendency to utterly decimate the game’s framerate. I think I might be super-sensitive to these things after years of fighting tooth-and-nail for a smooth 60fps on the PC, but at least when I’m gaming on a PC I can FIX the framerate. But Enslaved is just inexplicably poorly optimised for the PS3, and I have no way of lowering detail or turning off whatever filter is causing the problems, so the end result is a jarring reaction whenever the super-pretty visuals suddenly start juttering and skipping. Dropped frames haven’t damaged so much beauty since I did work experience at the Louvre. Awkwardly, the proprietary engine Naughty Dog cooked up for Uncharted handles similar vistas effortlessly, which makes it harder to forgive Enslaved its poor performance. (Which, of course, could have all been easily solved by releasing it for PC, where I could FIX THIS. HOW DO PEOPLE STILL BEGRUDGE THE PC ITS CUSTOMISABILITY. Instead, however, it languishes in consoleland.)

I could go on about its sometimes slightly aggravating animation flaws and whatnot, but I’m only halfway through. I have to save some gripes for when I’m finished with it.

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