41. Beyond Good & Evil
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Format: GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
(Ignore the fact that the video's in German, that was the best one I found for showing the gameplay and not being ten years long like every video seems to be on Youtube these days.)
A perennial of “classics that nobody bought” lists, Michel Ancel’s gorgeous sci-fi adventure is a thing of class. The core gameplay is simple enough: it’s just Ubisoft’s take on Zelda, but with a greater emphasis on stealth. It’s good – very good, even, because it doesn’t fall into the old stealth game trap of “you’ve been spotted YOU’RE DEAD” that makes me largely shun the genre – but it’s not the main draw of the title. The main draw is the exquisitely realised world.
BG&E takes place on the planet of Hillys, which is inhabited by a mixture of humans, humanoid animals (most memorably the Rastafarian rhinos that run the local garage, Mammago’s) and regular ol’ animals. It’s undergoing a protracted invasion attempt by aliens with the silly name of DomZ. A military power, the Alpha Section, is doing its best to thwart the DomZ’s ambition, but is gradually being forced to introduce marshal law. In the middle of all this is Jade, a photographer who has turned her lighthouse home into a makeshift orphanage for kids left on their own by DomZ attacks. After her home is raided and the children kidnapped, Jade searches for a way to rescue them, which leads her to a notorious terrorist group called Iris who are claiming that the Alpha Section are in league with the DomZ. No prizes for guessing what happens next...
The story and characters are among the best I’ve come across in a game – the cast are well-drawn, and the voice cast is universally excellent, while the political-thriller plot, while arguably not sophisticated enough for a top-flight film or book, is miles ahead of most of the lazy bilge that passes for game writing. The concept of a character whose main weapon is her camera (a lengthy sidequest sees Jade contracted to photograph every fauna species on the planet, but her photojournalist skills swiftly become the main way of exposing the Alpha Section) is pleasingly refreshing, too. There’s a wealth of little bits and bobs that enhance the game world – my favourite being the newspapers you can subscribe to – making Hillys one of the most absorbing locations I’ve encountered in gaming.
It should, however, be noted that it took me two goes to get all this. No real idea why, but my first playthrough made me think, “yeah, good game”. It wasn’t until my second time through that I realised what a classic Beyond Good & Evil is. Now, about that sequel...
MAGIC MOMENT: the opening section. As Jade attacks the abductors that are running off with the orphans, the game gradually slows down until you’re battling in slow-motion and a gorgeous choral number starts up, allowing you to a) marvel at the silky-smooth animation and b) appreciate that this is a game with a little bit of class.