Although some of the screenshots (and several bits of the trailer) give a mild hint, the unique splendour of Enslaved when you first see it in all its HD glory, is almost overpowering. It is a truly luscious looking videogame, and although its most direct forbear (in terms of both aesthetics and gameplay) is undoubtedly Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and its sequel, you’ll probably forget about both of those titles as soon as you first get your hands on it. A large section of the hardcore gaming audience are hyping Enslaved up to be one of this autumn’s strongest releases, and on the evidence of the preview build, they definitely aren’t barking up the wrong tree.
The comparisons to Sony’s thoroughly incredible Uncharted games would do a lesser release no favours at all, and not only does Enslaved take its visual cues from those title’s lush tropical vistas, so too does its hero’s limber and nimble acrobatics mimic those of Nathan Drake. But Enslaved is similarly preoccupied with story and character, and though the plot is based around the much-adapted ancient Chinese novel Journey To The West, writer Alex Garland’s refreshing sense of restraint with the dialogue exudes an admirable, uncluttered brutality that shares its no-nonsense demeanour with the re-imagined lead character of Monkey.
It isn’t spoiling much to reveal that Enslaved opens with a prison escape, and it is a prolonged sequence of awe-inspiring spectacle. After a series of hand-to-hand bouts with the airborne prison’s guards, Monkey is forced to negotiate the outside shell of the ship, hurling himself onto ledges and joists, as the craft is gradually ravaged by fire and flaming debris. The excitement of this sequence – reminiscent of some of the sharpest moments of Uncharted 2 – lies in its superior ability to bring you right into the heat of the action, via a set of ingeniously placed moments of heart-stopping tension; all created via the almost invisible melding of cutscenes with gameplay.
Immediately following this bombastic action extravaganza is a small, quiet cutscene that fully introduced the game’s two main characters, and the dynamic that goes on to shape much of the gameplay. Waking up after having been knocked unconscious during the escape, Monkey discovers that his head has been rigged with a strange metallic headband, by a young female prisoner named Trip. The headband will explode if Trip dies, and causes him horrendous pain if he disobeys one of her orders. And so, with minimal fuss and a refreshing lack of needless exposition, Trip’s journey home commences.
After another (brief) cutscene that establishes a bit of mood via some backstory about the succession of world wars that led to the apocalypse, a parade of brutal fights ensue, with Monkey tasked with progressing through the level whilst protecting Trip at the same time. The combat is bracingly ferocious, and instead of the graceful and fluid kung-fu that has become standard in too many videogames of this generation, Monkey bludgeons, stamps and slams his way through each bout, and although the controls are superficially familiar to a degree, the immediacy and forcefulness of the attacks are not.
Not far beyond this point, a new tool is discovered in the form of a dragonfly, which you have to chase down before you can equip. It primarily performs the same function as Joanna Dark’s Camspy, and in the subsequent sequence – which involves the twosome having to traverse an area thick with land mines that only the dragonfly can see – acts as a form of tutorial for the device. It isn’t clear how much of a part this little toy will play during the latter stages of the game, but its appearance displays an admirable predilection for mixing things up a bit.
That aside, it may sound like Enslaved is a relatively straightforward action title, but what left the most indelible impression was just how dedicated developer Ninja Theory and writer Alex Garland are to ensuring that the story, and your involvement in it, is what reigns supreme here. The mo-capped performances (including one by Andy Serkis, who plays Monkey) are benchmark outstanding, and result in some truly bewitching visuals, and this perspective of a post-apocalyptic world – in which nature has regained control of the planet – is plausible and vividly conveyed. In short, Enslaved is looking downright awesome, and October 8th truly cannot come quickly enough.
Watch the Enslaved trailer here…