Progress another four screens or so, however, and this nightmare vision is shattered as Monkey is sucked out through the shattered hull and into glorious sunlight and bright blue skies. This is a statement of intent, for, minutes later, Monkey and reluctant master Trip(itaka) find themselves dropped into the heart of a decayed and ruined New York overrun with flora and fauna so vibrant and richly colourful, other videogame distopias can do little more than bask in its radiance.
New York is not the limit of the games locations, of course, for this is a road movie as well as a buddy one. What sounds initially like a nightmare prospect – an eight hour escort mission – is mitigated both by sound gameplay mechanics and by engagingly characterised performances.
Enslaved is a game of two halves: platforming and combat. Monkey handles with a loping grace and muscular agility that accounts for the majority of the satisfaction in the game’s platforming sections, since these are otherwise rather simple, generally very clearly signposted affairs that present little in the way of challenge or honest jeopardy.
Graspable handholds shimmer in a fashion which is usually immediately noticeable without being too intrusive and there is rarely much danger of missing the mark and falling outside of a few sections where Monkey must navigate giant spinning gears and jets of flame. The main attraction of these sections is the chance to admire the vistas Ninja Theory has created and to appreciate their canny eye for a big set-piece, since the only time they summon any particular sense of urgency or danger is when being navigated while under fire, hails of bullets transforming a leisurely climb into a frantic scrabble from surface to surface in desperate search of cover.
Combat is an equally good example of a simple system yielding significant rewards, forever threatening to edge into dull repetition, yet never once actually doing so. The basic nature of Monkey’s combat abilities – light attack and heavy attack combined into a handful of simple combos – is wisely defocused in favour of dodges and counters, and the prioritisation of weakened targets. These are mechs, usually at least one in a group, who will yield up an attack bonus once sufficiently pummeled.
Those armed with electrical weapons will explode in a burst of electromagnetic static that stuns all surrounding enemies, mechs with gun-arms can have them brutally wrenched from the socket to turn against reinforcements, while certain others can be aimed and thrown into the idle of a group, where they will detonate and destroy anyone unlucky enough to be nearby. This small sprinkling of strategy is sufficient to add a tactical thrill to battles that ensure both that they remain a pleasure as the game wears on and that the larger, more ferocious battles of the final stretches never quite overwhelm or devolve into tedious button-hammering.
Narratively, Enslaved is an extremely polished and capable production, boasting fine performances and measured approach to dialogue. It somewhat lacks the more cinematic flair of Ninja Theory’s previous collaboration with Andy Serkis, 2007’s Heavenly Sword, but this is largely attributable to the greater integration of storytelling and gameplay in this title. Any cutscenes that do occur are concise and entertaining, if rather functional in their staging, ensuring that there is little, if any desire to skip through them. An interesting story, well told, is a surprisingly rare thing in these days of epic blockbuster titles, but Enslaved manages to set a high standard for others to live up to, despite lacking much in the way of the formal bravery of the two Modern Warfare titles or quite nailing the emotional range and tonal versatility of the Yakuza series.
Graphics – 4/5 – A sadly uncommon taste for bright colours and lush vistas means that Enslaved’s apocalypse is a memorably beautiful one, with a number of sights that linger in the imagination. Animation is of a generally high quality, particularly for Monkey and his robotic opponents, who lope and snarl like barbed-wire wolves covered in knives. Some issues do arise, however, chief among these being texture pop-in and indeed the use of fairly low resolution textures generally in parts of the environment. Judging from these niggles, and the far more serious issues bedevilling EA’s recent reboot of their Medal of Honour franchise, the Unreal Engine may be reaching the end of its useful life.
Sound – 4/5 – Nitin Sawhney’s soundtrack is epic and evocative in a fairly predictable, though very likable, way. Vocal performances are of a uniformly high standard, with Andy Serkis wrestling manfully, and eventually victoriously, with a Brooklyn accent, and essays a textbook example of the gruff brute with a heart of gold while skilfully steering clear of any of the cliches that have come to be associated with such a character. Lindsey Shaw turns in a performance as Trip that combines with sensitive gameplay mechanics to ensure that she is never an irritant or a burden, but instead engages with just the right mix of naivety and bravado. Richard Ridings as Pigsy manages to find enough space in the comedy relief role to develop small hints of lonely self-awareness and a peculiar sort of seedy dignity, to the extent that I look forward to spending a little more time with him in the upcoming DLC.
Gameplay – 3/5 – Unwilling to overextend itself, Enslaved commits itself instead to doing a small number of familiar things very well. Though you won’t see much here you’ve not encountered before, the craftsmanship with which it has all been put together and the small but important concessions to some kind of tactical play ensure that it never outlives its welcome nor that you find yourself doing any one thing for too long. Even the obligatory turret section is actually quite fun.
Longevity – 3/5 – The campaign is unlikely to trouble anyone for more than about eight hours, even on the highest difficulty. No scores are awarded or anything like that, so replay value comes only from attempting to nab all the achievements/trophies or by participating in the dreaded scourge of modern gaming, the collectibles hunt. These, at least, are given some relevance to the game by being either directly useful for purchasing upgrades (the tech orbs) or tangentially fleshing out an aspect of the games conclusion (the masks).
Overall – 4 Slave Headbands 5
Building on the successful elements of Heavenly Sword and scaling back its ambitions in areas where that game was less successful, Enslaved is a memorable and deeply charming experience that stands out considerably in a sea of murky videogame apocalypses featuring muscular men with shaved heads and little emo-beards furtively eyeing each other’s pecs. Though much (but not all) of its gameplay is tried-and-tested stuff, it is executed with a considerable level of polish and intelligence that combines with winning performances and imaginative, stylish art-direction to ensure that this particular odyssey is always a pleasure trip and never a slog.