It might not speak great volumes about the medium of videogames, but novelist-turned screenwriter Alex Garland’s fingerprints melt through to Enslaved’s very core. The production – which has apparently seen everyone involved dabbling in every possible aspect of it – features what is hands-down one of the most exciting, measured and involving narratives ever seen in a videogame. Enslaved’s gameplay is so resoundingly well-designed that it’d be a stellar proposition even without Garland’s storytelling smarts; but the author’s respect for his audience is the game’s most powerful tool.
The moment that triumphantly signals the fact that you’re in good hands comes early. During the adrenalised, knife-edge prison escape that opens the game, a famous national landmark is clipped by the wing of the penal aircraft that you’re riding on, and that is the only indication as to where the game’s story takes place. There’s no monotonous text crawl, no laborious exposition. It’s just that single, tiny moment. And it feels like it’s come straight from an extremely classy movie.
Likening Enslaved to a film seems pretty disingenuous, primarily because every other game that is released nowadays makes a play for that unjustly hallowed turf. Few of them realise that great movies don’t always pander to teenage boys, and even fewer dodge the fact that great games almost always do. Enslaved isn’t an ‘adult’ experience by any measure, but adults are certain to get the most out of it, purely because nobody’s intelligence is ever insulted.
The plot is a re-imagining of the oft-retold Chinese novel Journey To The West, and despite its powerful narrative grip, it’s surprisingly sparse and economical with its storytelling. If a plot machination is best conveyed via an action scene, then that’s how it plays out. The cutscenes are short and punchy, and dialogue is only as prominent and important as the two (excellent) fully motion-captured central performances. The basic story is this: a young woman named Trip needs to get home, and is going to need Monkey’s help to get there. That’s essentially it.
But their relationship isn’t a merry one. Monkey is a furious savage who doesn’t want to concern himself with helping anyone, and Trip has rigged his skull with a device that’ll shock him if he disobeys her, and kill him if she dies. It’s an elegant construction that is never milked for needless drama, and similarly, action sequences are never over-exploited. During one sequence, you’re given access to a gun turret, but are only given the opportunity to dispatch one enemy with it. A much lesser game would’ve seen it as a chance to create the illusion of value by forcing you into yet another tiresome turkey shoot.
The core gameplay fundamentals superficially resemble those of Sony’s tremendously entertaining Uncharted series, but the emphasis is on brutal melee combat rather than gunplay. There’s no balletic kung-fu here; Monkey, a man raised in the wild, fights with all the ferocity of an uncaged animal. The combat is simple at first, but as your enemies become progressively more cunning (and arrive in greater numbers) you’ll be forced into using as many of your available side weapons and evasive manoeuvres as possible.
It also cribs one of the very best things about Uncharted and its sequel. Those game’s cutscenes were so thrilling because of how seamlessly they were integrated into the gameplay; a cinematic was never a reliable sign that you could sit back and relax for a moment, and the same remains true here. A handful of other recent titles have tried to ape that dynamic, but none of them have even come close. Enslaved is on a par, easily.
Even the inclusion of collectibles – so often a dry indication of a developer trying their level best to wring undeserved extra play time out of a game – feel organic. The tech orbs that are scattered around Enslaved’s world aren’t particularly well hidden – and their collection isn’t even essential, in truth – but whenever possible they’re placed beside land mines or on the edge of cliffs, turning their collection from a chore into an exciting part of the actual game.
The tech orbs can be used to beef up Monkey’s weapons and physical attributes, and you’re heavily advised not to hoard them. As you can only upgrade yourself via Trip, and are occasionally placed in situations where she isn’t available to you, you’ll have to make sure that you’re constantly levelling up if you want to avoid undue stress later on. Fans of this genre are whole-heartedly encouraged to jump straight into Hard mode, which offers an utterly perfect degree of challenge; not too hard, and far from easy, it’s just right.
It terms of ambition, inventiveness and overall quality, 2010 has been a thoroughly exceptional year for videogames. Inarguable masterpieces have flown past us with a completely disarming frequency, and with just under three months of the calendar year left, don’t be surprised if the tally of must-experience titles swells beyond its currently rude size. Enslaved has more than earned its place amongst that distinguished company, and simply demands to be played.