Version tested: Xbox 360
There's not much to complain about, writing about games for a living. We're not working down a coal mine, curing cancer or tinkering with the Large Hadron Collider. But as idyllic as the job can seem, there are some minor frustrations. The main one is that the games you want to play often aren't the same as the games you have to play.
I guarantee that every games reviewer has a pile of discs at home, a stack of games they're going to get around to just as soon as the current assignment is out of the way. But then there's another assignment, and another, and the "treat stack" gets taller and taller, until the ones at the bottom might as well be fossilised.
That's what happened to me with Beyond Good & Evil. Everyone said it was great. Everyone said I should play it. But for one reason and another, I never found the time. Somewhere, deep in the tangle of cables and dusty CD cases under my TV, there's an original Xbox disc of Michel Ancel's 2003 classic, untouched by human hands for over seven years.
This is why I love digital distribution. It delivers an overlooked classic into my lap and finally makes it my job to do something I should have done under my own steam a long time ago.
Can a game so shrouded in cult praise deliver so long after the fact? Surprisingly, yes. Beyond Good & Evil is still a wildly ambitious game, often beautifully constructed and with its own distinct personality. Stacked alongside its modern descendants, like the less interesting but equally commercially-challenged Enslaved, its pioneering qualities are plain to see.
It has elements of Tomb Raider's exploration and block-shoving puzzle-solving. It's got an enjoyably fluid melee combat system. It's also a stealth game. It's got an open-ended RPG feel, with complete freedom to explore the over-world in upgradeable vehicles and linear dungeon-style mission areas.
And there are multiple bonus objectives and mini-games, should you fancy a break from the main story. From air hockey in alien bars to hovercraft races and ongoing wildlife photography assignments, this is a game with no shortage of things to do.
Crucially, all these elements blend seamlessly into one another rather than clanking along as mismatched ideas. It all adds up to a rich, varied and lively gameworld that positively demands your attention.
And what a world it is. Beyond Good & Evil drops you into an extremely bizarre scenario and then leaves you to work out its peculiar wrinkles for yourself.
You won't find stodgy exposition or lengthy cut-scenes spelling out the back-story here. You're simply introduced to Jade, our hero, with the minimum of fanfare, and before you can ask why her uncle is a pig or why she lives in a futuristic lighthouse with a bunch of truculent orphans, the story is already tugging you along, filling in the blanks (or not) as it sees fit. It's bold, unapologetic and delightfully whimsical.
The broad strokes quickly fall into place. We're on the planet Hillys, a curious colony populated by humans and – for no apparent reason – anthropomorphic animals. The planet is under attack by alien invaders called DomZ. Protection appears in the form of Alpha Section, a rather creepy military force that inserts itself between the alien attackers and the population of Hillys.
Not all are convinced of the Alpha Section's good intentions. A guerrilla movement known as ISIS believes that Alpha Section and the DomZ are one and the same, with the ensuing fear and paranoia used as a cover for something more sinister.
Jade goes from freelance photographer to conspiracy-busting adventurer, and Ancel's skill at videogame narrative means that your gameplay goals help the tale to unfold at just the right speed; never so quickly that her transformation seems implausible or so slowly that your attention wanders. Whatever else it brings to the table, Beyond Good & Evil is a fantastic piece of interactive storytelling.
It's also great to have a female protagonist who wears sensible clothing and doesn't have a chest that looks like a dead heat in a zeppelin race. Jade is very well rounded for a videogame character, motivated by family and financial need, with just enough spunky go-get-'em attitude that you believe she'd willingly creep into deadly peril.
While she uses a fighting staff to batter the various creatures and enemies that get in her way, her greatest weapon is a simple camera and the ability to document what she finds. This, more than anything, makes her a uniquely interesting character and a great example of how meaningful videogame action doesn't have to involve pulling a trigger or pulverising a jaw.
Deeper into the actual mechanics of the game, not everything has aged so gracefully. The camera is a particularly fractious beast, requiring constant attention in confined areas and becoming a real problem during the game's well-intentioned but frustratingly woolly stealth sections.
Trying to get past pairs of Alpha Section guards by firing remote discs at the breathing tanks on their backs becomes a real fiddle, especially as you need to disable both of them at the same time to prevent one from fixing the other. The lurching camera makes evasion a pain, while simply aiming your reticule is hampered by the invisible barriers that jut out from corners.
Is that enough to take the shine of an otherwise memorable game? Not at all. It's a problem, but whatever frustrations the camera causes are more than compensated by the wealth of imagination elsewhere. Strip it down to its constituent parts and there's nothing here that's particularly new, but what remains refreshing is the seamless confidence with which Ancel blends the pieces together.
In fact, only the rather simplistic character models and occasionally stiff animations tip you off that this is a game soon heading for its tenth anniversary. The HD makeover is both thorough and beneficial, and while I can't compare the new soundtrack to the old, it's suitably nuanced for the varied tale being spun.
It certainly shows that Ubisoft recognises the value of its overlooked cult favourite, and bodes well for the treatment of the long overdue sequel.
Most pleasing of all is the cost. At a time when many downloadable games are sliding up to the 1200 MS Points barrier, the 800-Point price tag for this much-beloved classic shows that a little generosity can go a long way. If, like me, you let this one pass you by, there's no excuse not to rectify that mistake now.
9 / 10