Version tested: Wii
There's always a faint ripple of excitement when LucasArts comes out with a new Indiana Jones game, but like a faded band trying to relive former glories, we know deep down that our faith is misguided, and another numbing disappointment awaits. We still live in hope.
To dig into why people care so much, you have to understand how phenomenally brilliant the Indiana Jones games once were. LucasArts was once arguably the most consistent and progressive game developer in the West, and punted out a couple of particularly superb adventures, most notably 1992's The Fate of Atlantis - a PC/Amiga title that remains one of the finest games in the genre. As one of the very first fully voice-acted releases, it gave rise to the belief that games were going places as an interactive narrative medium. Nearly two decades on, we're still seeing the fruits of that evolution in titles like Heavy Rain.
But in the wake of Fate of Atlantis, LucasArts moved onto bold new IP, and eventually backed away from the whole 'adventure' genre as it milked the second Star Wars trilogy instead. By the time it returned to the Indiana Jones brand, it obviously made more commercial sense to churn out a couple of B-grade Tomb Raider knock-offs with added pugilism.
Still, three years ago LucasArts promised that the next Jones title would be a cutting edge affair, showing off unscripted and dynamic physics-based gameplay and chaotic action scenes via its Euphoria engine. When it was announced the game was billed as "a mystery of biblical proportions" set in 1939 - exactly the same as The Staff of Kings, then. But while reports last month claim that the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions have both been cancelled, LucasArts has been tight-lipped on the subject. Whether or why these versions have quietly been shelved is open to speculation, but whatever the reason, the net result is that we're back to square one with the Wii game that has come out, reflecting on yet another underwhelming title.
As is obligatory for a third-party Wii game, motion-based controls have been tacked on almost regardless of whether they make it better or not. What's served up is essentially a concoction of standard gameplay styles, none of which stand up to close scrutiny. Indy's globe-trotting jaunt in the search of the Staff of Moses flits between distinct styles rather than mixing and matching your abilities into a more expansive affair.
One minute you'll be slugging it out toe-to-toe with aggressive guards, and the next you'll dive into stop-and-pop shooting galleries. Once the prescribed number of Nazis (for it is they) have been dispatched, you'll shimmy into tomb-raiding action-adventuring: dodging traps, leaping obstacles and aligning contraptions to gain entry to some long-sealed ancient vault. Occasionally the gameplay will spin off in another direction entirely, throwing chase sequences via tram, mine cart, plane, motorcycle and even elephant into the mix to heighten the drama.
The advantage of such an approach is that the game keeps you on your toes. At no point does it feel like the task at hand is outstaying its welcome, and even during the less palatable sections you always know that it won't be long before you can progress to something you may enjoy more. And that would be all well and good, had developer A2M managed to make each gameplay component as exciting as the potential suggests, but instead they lack ambition and inspiration; a succession of depressingly unchallenging set-pieces which quickly get repetitive.
The melee combat is a reasonable amount of fun in small doses, with its amusing ability to whip enemies by the leg and pull them over before administering some choice blows to the chops. With the Wii remote's B button pressed, you throw the controller forward in a whip-like motion before yanking it back to reel them in, and there's no doubt that this a lot of fun in the early stages. Likewise, punching enemies is quite meaty, just as it was in the long-forgotten Emperor's Tomb.
This time, however, dishing out blows matches the left and right swings of your nunchuk and Wii remote. Throwing a standing punch-like gesture results in fast but feeble blows, while a hook-like gesture does more damage, albeit at a slower pace. On top of that, you can pick up objects and wield them like bats, or just pick them up and lob them for a quick and effective alternative attack. If that's not enough, you can grapple enemies, or go for unique 'Hero' moves by being clever enough to spot when wobbly scenery might come in useful during a scrap. At its best, it captures the brand's comic spirit.
But having implemented a satisfying, flexible and easy-to-learn gesture-based combat system, the whole thing's let down by the predictability and repetition of the encounters. Enemies dodder around waiting to be clobbered, and it's rare that you have to adopt any meaningful strategy. Simply select whichever attack you feel like pulling off at any given time, and the chances are that you'll win through without much trouble. A few more interesting and varied adversaries would have helped no end, but instead the AI routines might as well have been scripted over a lazy lunch.
From there it gets even worse with dismal stop-and-pop shooting sections. Like a tired riff on Time Crisis, you push the nunchuk analogue stick forward, left and right out of cover, and aim with the remote. Enemies take up the same cover points every time, bob up and down like a fairground duck and go down with one shot. Once you've cleared a section, Indy automatically runs to the next cover point, and off we go again. The only thing that prevents these sections from being completely objectionable is that they're over and done with in no time.
The puzzle-exploration element isn't any better. Puzzles are at best rudimentary and at worst insultingly easy. Staple gameplay mechanics like trap-avoidance and ledge-shimmying are present and correct, but the environments are so generic and boxed-in that there's almost zero exploration, and no feeling of discovery or achievement when you romp through to the next level. Persistence merely brings more of the same, with yet another pointlessly simplistic statue-shifting, pressure-plate-activating puzzle that a small child could figure out in seconds. That the game is a PEGI 16 rating is staggering, as it implies maturity and edginess. The only edges you'll be seeing here are the angular polygons in the character models.
Given the game's Wii/PS2 development cycle, the production values are unsurprisingly low, but there's no excuse for the game to be less impressive than the six-year-old Emperor's Tomb. The environments are merely so-so, enemies are generic and poorly animated, and it's only the reasonably impressive Indiana Jones likeness and voice double that saves the day. The storyline is forgettable, however, and the game doesn't even bother to try and play it for laughs. It's a pretty straight, join-the-dots exercise with none of the witty flourishes that characterised both the movies and the earlier Indy Jones games.
In fact, the only reason I'd recommend purchasing Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings is because the game contains The Fate of Atlantis as an unlockable. Playing the game with a Wii remote makes perfect sense, and although the graphical fidelity takes a bit of getting used to, it's still a masterclass in puzzle design, features a superb plot and benefits greatly from a fantastic voice cast. Whether you'll want to shell out for a substandard title in order to get a basic port of a game you've played before is something you'll have to wrestle with. Maybe once the price drops, eh?
Elsewhere, the addition of eight co-op levels (where you play alongside a hilariously voiced Sean Connery) adds a smattering of interest, while unlockable challenge levels where you fight off waves of thugs might appeal to some - but it hardly makes ups for the main game. At a time when LucasArts appears to be waking up to the potential of its rich back catalogue, it's crushingly disappointing that the publisher is still content to churn out loveless titles like this. The Staff of Kings certainly has all the ingredients for a cracking action-adventure, but somewhere along the line the team ended up making arguably the most forgettable Indiana Jones game to date.
5 / 10