Thursday, June 5, 2008

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures

Traveller's Tales hit upon a winning formula. Take two franchises, mix together with quirky humor, and serve. My kids and I loved playing the Lego Star Wars series, so it was with only the slightest hesitation that I picked up Lego Indiana Jones when it released this week (the uncertainty coming from the fact that my kids have not seen the Indiana Jones movies, and are still probably a little young for them).

If you're familiar with the gameplay of Lego Star Wars, you'll find they haven't strayed from the basic formula: you and a partner (either an AI or a human, drop-in and drop-out at any time) proceed more or less linearly through a level, breaking stuff apart to collect studs, building things, and fighting bad guys. The primary goal is to get through the level, while bonus goals consist of finding hidden treasures, such as the ten pieces of an artifact hidden in each level or the parcel to be mailed back to Barnett College (analogous to the "minikits" and "power bricks" of Lego Star Wars). The game spans the first three movies, with each movie broken into six levels. There are certain classes of characters that have specialties — females can jump higher, researchers can use a book to decode heiroglyphs, etc. Each level has a "Story Mode", where a scripted set of characters are at your control; and once you complete each level's Story Mode, it unlocks "Free Play", where you can transform into different characters on demand. Free Play is required to get some hidden treasures, as you can access different classes' specialties as needed, e.g. be female to jump to a high ledge, become Indiana to use the whip to swing to another platform, and then become a short character to crawl through a small tunnel to reach a hidden artifact piece.

It might be easier to point out the differences between Lego Indiana Jones and Lego Star Wars. The puzzles in Lego Indy are more complex, requiring a lot more problem-solving. In addition to building things up and tearing them down, you also have to pick up and move boxes, find keys, pick up and throw items, repair machinery, and dig up items and treasure from the ground. For the most part, the game does a good job indicating what needs to be done where. When you pick up a box, for example, a white arrow begins flashing at the point where it needs to be placed. Also, when you get reasonably close, the arrow turns blue, telling you it's ok to drop the object, as it will be placed where it needs to go. Trying to perfectly place some object in some location is almost never a problem. If you see some machinery smoking, it's a sure bet you'll need a wrench. Something glowing on the ground will require a shovel, and so on. There are a few occasions where it's not immediately obvious what to do, however, and that can lead to some frustrating moments. A certain boss battle, for instance, that takes place around a plane, had me wandering the field for a good 20 minutes before I finally went online and found that someone discovered the plane can shoot. If the movie scene didn't play out so differently, maybe I would've stopped trying to recreate it.

Although speaking of recreating movie scenes, when you get to the final chapter of the last movie, if you haven't seen the movie, you may have a very hard time. I didn't see any clues to the right answer and had to rely on my movie memory to progress; I wonder how my kids will do there.

Some tasks must be completed by using both characters in concert. In Lego Star Wars, this was usually accomplished by having the player perform some primary function, while the AI does some supporting role to finish it off. Occasionally, that happens in Lego Indy as well, but there are times when you are required to do both actions. You position the first character, and you press Y to switch to the other. Different from Lego Star Wars, it now no longer matters how close or far away you are from your partner; you can switch at any time (just about; opposite sides of very large levels, not so much). The game will prompt you to press Y when this is required, so you don't have to spend too much time wondering. Half of me thinks that makes solving those puzzles too easy, but the other half prefers that to the 20 minutes of wandering around not realizing the plane I kept jumping into and out of can shoot.

Combat can be a little frustrating at times. Many of your enemies will come after you with guns, and by default, none of your characters carry them. Thus, you will have to run at them, taking hits until you get close enough to hit back. The whip is effective, but slow, and only hits one enemy at a time — not so good when you have three or four shooting at you. Fortunately, when you fell an enemy, in most instances you can pick up their weapon; so it is possible to take a gun and open fire on your foes. Ammo is limited, however. Bazooka soldiers are probably the most annoying, as they have a tendency to fire at just the right time to kill you two or three times in a row (the second explosion hitting just as the invincibility time from your first respawn wears off). Fortunately, they don't appear all too often, so the annoyance is temporary.

Overall, the game can feel rather small. Partially, that assessment may have to do with most recently playing Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, a game that was based on six movies, with six levels in each, expanded to have two stud meters and two sets of minikits per level, plus extra levels, bounty hunter missions, a two-player arcade mode, five hundred characters, two turtle doves, a partridge in a pear tree, and a kitchen sink (plus Indiana Jones as an unlockable character) — I'm sure adding features until they felt it was more than just a bundle of two existing games and worth buying even if you had those other two (hey, it worked for me). However, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga was huge, to the point that the 100% achievement felt like a chore. Considering the number of things that had to be done, the number of gold bricks to collect, the number of times you had to play each level to make it happen — in the end, it was just too much. Lego Indy has no "Super Story Mode", no bounty hunter missions, no stud-collection extravaganzas; it just goes back to the basics, keeping the game simple and clean.

Downloadable Content and Forwards-Compatibility

It's just been revealed that Guitar Hero: Aerosmith won't support GH3 DLC. While I think that's a bad move, because it makes GH:A just a niche side-product, it got me thinking (a dangerous pasttime, I know).

We're starting to see the potential of DLC, how it can extend the life and interest of games for a long time. I think EA/Harmonix is the poster child for this. While I may not be interested in what they offer every week in Rock Band, I do keep an eye out to see what they are offering each week.

But how long should we expect this extra investment to carry? Is it reasonable to expect DLC to be forwards-compatible with future versions of the product? (Or new versions to be backwards-compatible with the DLC, however you want to look at it.)

I've seen the comment made (by myself included) that current Rock Band DLC should be compatible with Rock Band 2. But it could be impossible, depending on how different RB2 is from RB1. Just hypothetically speaking, if RB2, say, added a fifth instrument, and you had a five-person band, what would happen if you tried to play a set that included a RB1 song, which only has four instruments? Force one band member to sit out? Unless they re-encode all DLC to be RB2-compatible by adding the fifth instrument, it would be pretty pointless; and that's a lot of work I don't see any company willing to do for free for existing content.

Additionally, why would DLC for a specific game be treated any differently than the included content for that same game? Sure, if the content isn't compatible, I'm going to miss playing Boston's "More Than a Feeling" in RB2, but I'll also miss playing "Foreplay/Long Time". What would I reasonably expect Harmonix to do about that? They'd have to distribute all the RB1 content on the RB2 disc with all the new content, provide some way to hot-swap discs (or use the HD-DVD player to load both discs at once), install the RB1 content to the hard drive, or release the RB1 content as DLC — and that's assuming the content would even be compatible with whatever RB2 does.

I can see why Activision/Neversoft is getting a lot of flak about GH:A, seeing as how what they're releasing is essentially a content pack for an existing game (GH:A hasn't been advertising any big features or innovations over GH3). If Rock Band 2 turns out to be Rock Band 1.5 and has the same lack of compatibility, they'll deserve a lot of heat, too.

I think the reason that some of us hope for more is because the content is a little more personal. This is music many of us have grown up with and enjoyed, to which we have an emotional attachment. Having a chance to actually (pretend to) play those songs we used to just listen to is something we're hesitant to let go of.

But if Rock Band 2 has the innovation, I know I'll buy it. Of course, how much innovation is required to offset losing all the old songs is another question. I know of some must-haves, like online bands (although if you ask me, that should be a patch to the existing Rock Band), but I'm afraid that's more of a case of "I'll know it when I see it".