Beyond Good & Evil HD: Why you can't miss it a second time
2nd Mar 2011 | 19:30
The recent boom of HD remakes is a great step forward for the games industry. A handful of cynics may wish to label the move as an easy opportunity to make money from old rope, but it's hard to imagine publishers renovating and repackaging the poorer games in their library.
Instead, we're beginning to see unfairly overlooked gaming greats given a second shot at hitting the sales figures they richly deserved first time around.
While Ico and Shadow of the Colossus (and Splinter Cell and Tomb Raider...) will once again be venturing into stores nationwide, games such as Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath are taking a wholly different, digital download-focused strategy.
XBLA and PSN are safer options to re-release renovated classics thanks to the lack of physical media production and distribution costs, and Ubisoft's hoping they're the platforms on which Michel 'Rayman' Ancel's wonderfully evocative adventure, Beyond Good & Evil, can find the success it always merited.
Ubisoft's 2003 classic was intended to be a Zelda for a new generation but weak sales scuppered plans for a three-part series. However, as the years went by something odd happened: the game seemed to get better.
From a technological point of view, the game never actually improved - these were the days before console patches, after all - but while other genres slowly homogenised by latching onto the flavours of the seasons (remember all those WW2 games anyone?), Beyond Good & Evil's unique offerings set it farther and farther apart from the massing glut of similar titles.
Here was a game unlike anything else available and the few people who bought it responded by keenly spreading the word. The unmistakable buzz of cult online fanbases grew and grew until Ubisoft did two brilliant things: okay a sequel and give the go-ahead for a remake for a new audience to enjoy.
Retouched, polished and tweaked though it may be, Beyond Good & Evil HD is every bit the forgotten classic from 2003. Even eight years on it feels as fresh today as it did back at launch.
Associate Producer Eric Damian-Vernet likens the game to James Cameron's Avatar and it's not hard to see why: it's the tale of toil and strife on a beautifully realised alien planet, told with deft confidence and sprinkled with so many subtle touches it's nigh on impossible not to be captivated by its charm.
Hillys is the world in question and, like Avatar's Pandora, it's a mesmerising location. It's a contemporary fantasy planet where humans live in harmony alongside anthropomorphic goats and pigs and where seagulls share the skies with schools of fish.
Where items are scanned and digitised by electronic satchels for easy storage, and people own AI companions who act as dynamic personal organisers. Hovercraft is the preferred mode of travel and it's a wise choice given the world's vast bodies of water and small islands.
An idyllic life? Hardly. The planet is scourged by alien invasions from the hostile DomZ forces, who kidnap Hillyans for purposes initially unknown. Despite the world's undeniable beauty, it's these Hillyans who give the game its inescapable charm.
Central to everything is everywoman Jade - a spunky lead as believable as any character in any game you choose to mention. She's peppy, she's strong-yet-vulnerable, she's caring and she's level-headed; the epitome of the girl-next-door and the perfect heroine.
At the game's opening she's thrown straight into the deep end. When a deadly alien meteor shower threatens her orphanage she's mortified to discover that there aren't enough funds at the bank to power its forcefield shields.
Aliens emerge from the fallen rocks and capture her children, forcing her to scoop up a nearby stick and battle back. Combat's a simple affair and herein lies another of Beyond Good & Evil's great features.
Remember one of Peter Molyneux's main goals for Fable II in 2008? It was to invent a system easy enough for the clueless to succeed by button-mashing, but with enough depth to allow those gamers who knew what they were doing to really shine. Beyond Good & Evil passed that benchmark half a decade earlier.
Its adventuring is basic enough for all-comers to understand. Rhythmic presses of the solitary attack button unleashes volleys of combos, munching nutritious snack items refills any lost hearts (Zelda, anyone?) and stabbing the special attack button calls your trusty companion into action.
Jumps are automatic and stealthing, when called upon, is wonderfully intuitive. The game's combat is as involved as it needs to be without ever taking centre stage. Scraps never overshadow the task of exploring new zones or infiltrating secret facilities, letting the story and the characters really breathe.
When the first battle is over and the captured children are rescued, local news network HTV News arrives to record their own version of events. Jade and her uncle Pey'j (a slightly less crude version of Enslaved's Pigsy) are overlooked in favour of the late-showing Alpha Sections soldiers - Hillys' supposed peacekeepers - and mere minutes later the story's broadcast around the planet complete with doctored quotes from Pey'j to further enhance the propaganda.
The encounter serves to establish one harsh fact: Hillys' government isn't acting in the best interests of the people and it has the media in its pocket. At first, your goal in Beyond Good & Evil is simply to make a living. Eager to raise funds to keep the orphanage up and running, Jade begins working for a local science museum.
They need to catalogue every living species on Hillys and Jade must help out by taking detailed snapshots of every animal - placid and hostile - in the world with her trusty camera. It's an off-rails Pokémon Snap, and the promise of rare creatures is a great incentive to explore all the nooks and crannys.
Soon, bigger jobs roll in that require Jade to explore increasingly dangerous territories for her scoops and to battle towering monsters with her Dai-jo combat stick. Before you can say Friedrich Nietzsche, our loveable rogue tumbles into an underground resistance movement called IRIS network which needs help in freeing the people of Hillys by exposing the government as anti-Hillyan, DomZ collaborators.
What follows is a poignantly handled adventure that juggles serious issues, such as treason, betrayal and morality, with feel-good messages of hope and fun.
One minute you're sneaking into Alpha Sections facilities with camera in hand like Sam Fisher crossed with Frank West to try to help enslaved and tortured captives, the next you're taking part in races or tracking down elusive wildlife in the unlikeliest corners of the world or even upgrading your hovercraft with black market modifications to take to the skies in order to reach more locations.
Upping the number of explorable zones means there are more opportunities to bankroll both resistance and orphanage and eventually you'll even venture into space in search of answers.
All these disparate parts should, at the very least, feel a little odd when thrown together into one game. Beyond Good & Evil's lasting magic is that they seamlessly gel together to make a greater whole.
Ubisoft used solid gameplay as a means to shore up a good story in a wonderful world, and then used an eclectically assembled soundtrack to lace the different elements and pull them together as if with a tightly drawn shoelace.
Reggae and Latin beats are mixed with haunting tunes and toe-tapping ditties to great effect. Beyond Good & Evil was always intended to be a cinematic experience with heavy movie influences and it successfully did just that. Today these features still resonate.
The enhanced visuals (including an upgraded Jade model) retain all of the original's zest, while other general housekeeping, such as remapped buttons and tweaked save point locations, irons out any potential frustrations for the modern gamer or for first-time players.
And although the majority of the original team have moved on to take part in other projects, every change has been run past the game's original creator, Michel Ancel, to ensure there's nothing that takes away from the experience. There aren't many games that can claim to be must-haves almost a decade after their release, but Beyond Good & Evil, complete with facelift and lower price point, is looking to be one of them.
Perhaps the lasting charm is the mark of a game that was released wildly ahead of its time: the themes of economic woes and government frustrations are as timely as they've ever been, and the mechanics still hold up next to more modern titles.
Beyond Good & Evil HD could very well find itself at the top of the downloadable games pile. Beyond good, beyond great... beyond compare, even.