It's the same every year at E3 in that almost all the really interesting, groundbreaking games are tucked away in appointment-only booths away from the sweat, noise and fuss of the show floor. It's not difficult to understand why, either. However glitzy and glamorous the event might look from afar, the reality is that the E3 show floor is not exactly the ideal place to experience a videogame for the first time. Small wonder, then, that LucasArts continues to conduct its show appointments in a quiet, sane area of the vast convention centre where it's possible to observe an early Indiana Jones tech demo without someone coughing up nachos in your face.
With a noticeably reduced product line-up being shown off this year, LucasArts elected to focus much of its efforts on giving a select number of attendees an early glimpse of the cunning 'Euphoria' technology (a behavioural simulation engine from NaturalMotion) that's underpinning its next Indiana Jones title. For the first time in, oooh, ages, the company is returning to in-house development, and the various presentations exuded a justifiable confidence in what it's trying to achieve with a groundbreaking tech display. Essentially it's a nifty way of taking ragdoll tech to the next level by making it appear as if characters are reacting to their 'Hot Set' (as they've termed it) environment in a dynamic, believable and unscripted fashion.
Careful where you stand
For example, one part of the demo shows Indy stood on a typically rickety rope bridge that the LucasArts rep could move around via the joypad and cause rocks to fall onto. With no control over Indy himself, the purpose of the demo was to illustrate that none of the character movements we saw were scripted or animated in the traditional sense. If the rope bridge was wobbled slightly, Indy would counterbalance himself to compensate. With a bit more momentum Indy responded instinctively, planting his feet convincingly, bracing himself for a fall, staggering around using his arms to steady himself and eventually grabbing desperately onto the edge of the bridge itself once he was finally tipped over. Falling rocks are always a hazard in Indiana Jones adventures, so it was also fun to see The Man With The Hat reacting to a deluge of falling debris. Starting with mere pebbles, Indy was merely startled, but then the LucasArts rep began to up the ante with progressively larger chunks of rock that had poor Indy knocked asunder and crushed.
On an adjacent pod, another LucasArts staffer was busy showing off another two demos which gave more of a gameplay context to the Euphoria system. Like a scene lifted straight out of one of the classic movies, we were treated to a sequence in San Francisco's Chinatown (circa 1939) where Indy is slugging it out in a back alley against a posse of goons. Giving us a glimpse of his mastery of the whip, we see Indy not only manage to disarm a gun-toting thug, but then yank him onto the floor by pulling his leg out from underneath him.
With chaos kicking off all around, this rather excellent demonstration of a fight scene showed Indy reacting to blows convincingly, with enemies doing the same - for example grabbing hold of scenery items like car bumpers to steady themselves when off-balance. Certain scenery items give you the opportunity to test the theory, such as a fireworks stand that can be set ablaze to destroy a rickety platform nearby. Anyone standing on it won't just fall to their death in typical ragdoll fashion, but actively try to cling on for a few seconds before their inevitable doom. Admittedly, this tech progression could just be written off as Ragdoll 2.0, but has big potential in a gameplay context when you or your enemies manage to drag themselves back from the brink of death. Better still, replaying the same sequence never produces the same results twice, so, at the very least Euphoria has the potential to make the gameplay feel a little more organic than we're used to.
In the other gameplay demo we see Indy once again in San Francisco, but this time on the top of moving trams, fighting off another posse of violent madmen while they hurtle down the steep hills. As you might imagine, the Euphoria system allows LucasArts to create sequences where everyone reacts convincingly to their environment. Enemies climb aboard the trams realistically, balance precariously and react to the impact of Indy's punches in a convincing fashion, reeling back and instinctively grabbing whatever they can as they fall. The LucasArts rep seemed particularly delighted to show us how winceworthy the impact is when enemies fall to the ground, or get battered by the trams following in pursuit.
Right now details on the actual storyline and setting are scarce to say the least, with LucasArts barely revealing more than it was written with direction from George Lucas himself, is set in 1939 (one year after the events of the Last Crusade) and will be a "mystery of biblical proportions" that takes in "the world's most sacred grounds" as he searches for ancient artefacts spanning the globe. We're told to expect "thrilling chase sequences" that "remain true to the spirit of motorcade in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the mine-cart scene in The Temple of Doom, and the free-for-all aboard the tank in The Last Crusade".
Scraping the barrel for details, we can also expect to encounter some of Indy's "most hated long-time rivals," as well as some of his buddies and allies that we'll be familiar with from the series. The chances are that the game will actually arrive before the long-awaited fourth movie, but we wouldn't be foolish enough to take anything for granted when it comes to next-gen game development schedules. Provisionally, though, LucasArts has planned the game for release sometime around summer next year, so we shouldn't have to wait too long before we get a closer look at this promising sounding action adventure.
Indiana Jones 2007 (working title) is due for release next year on PS3 and Xbox 360. An externally developed version of the game will also be released for PS2, PSP and DS.