If there is one stand at ECTS which is truly buzzing with people this year, it's Ubi Soft's, largely thanks to this year's Game of the Show, Splinter Cell, and its various companions from the Tom Clanciverse. However, lurking amongst the big brash super-realistic military simulations and cel-shaded first person shooters is a more familiar face - that of Rayman - and it was with him that we enjoyed an audience on Thursday afternoon.
Old dog, same tricks, more fun
Rayman was a cuddly 2D platformer which didn't fall into the trap of trying to emulate its many contemporaries so directly. In fact, we can only think of one other platform character who hurled his limbs around as lethal weapons in all of gaming history, and he was a mad blue Englishman called Plok, who spent most of his time on a harmonica. He certainly didn't have a propeller blade to keep himself airborne, anyway. What Rayman did was to borrow successful ideas and put them to good use in a well-designed platform game structure. Rayman 2, although in 3D, was built on very much the same premise. It didn't want to be Mario 64 - even when everybody else did - and it fared all the better for it.
Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc appears on first impressions to be very similar to Rayman 2, but as you dig deeper the changes become all the more apparent. Speaking to the game's French producer for a while on Thursday, we ascertained that although the plot has had a lick of paint, it's still quite unsurprising - Globox has swallowed the Dark Lum, making him a target for the Hoodlum army, and Rayman has to guide him to various shaman and doctors who are trying to remove his cargo safely. However, diving into one of the game's platform-based levels, we found ourselves immersed in the cliché and as the game's producer had enthused, the suspension of disbelief was very tangible.
The level we were playing actually comes quite near to the end of the game in the current script, and it is enormous. It's shaped like a big cavernous cylinder to begin with, and Rayman is right at the bottom. A very wide column runs up from the centre of the room to the ceiling, with crumbling causeways jutting out further up on sections of the pillar which rotate around the centre. Other, smaller pillars are dotted around, some of which can be scaled to a certain extent, and connecting them are air balloons, which act like springboards, and metal rings which Rayman can attach his chain to and swing like Tarzan. The idea is to get to the top of the room, and in the process Rayman will clear the ground of enemies by throwing his fists around (quite literally) and lassoing enemies with his chain before electrocuting them, after which he'll climb small pillars, hop between balloons and swing from hooks, jump to and from moving platforms on the central pillar to spiral staircases on surrounding pillars nearer the ceiling - all of the time making careful use of the propeller blade to stop himself hurtling to the ground, and judging his position thanks to the benefits of his real-time shadowing.
After spending nearly 20 minutes on this section of the level though, we managed to reach the next - a sequence of moving platforms - and then the next, a room full of hot air balloons which must be used to hop upwards in sequence, and so on.
What's quite surprising is that there's nothing distinctly new about the experience, but it's all beautifully textured and modelled, and downright fun. Rayman himself is wonderfully over-animated, and his surroundings likewise; lava bubbles and boils, torches burn intensely spitting light all over nearby objects, balloons pop as you bounce on them and the chain lasso rattles and flows with grace as you swing like the king of the jungle, with Rayman keeping the audio side up with his babbling from the onomatopoeic script. When it comes down to it we were having simple, compelling fun.
Knowing that these days a simple platformer isn't going to win any prizes, Ubi has packed the game with alternative gameplay sections, and they have chose wisely. When shielding Globox, the big sissy, some levels will be very combat-oriented, while in many you will need to avoid confrontation. In one section, Rayman was weaponless and faced with a roomful of guards blocking his way. Only by climbing to a higher vantage point and firing a cannon at a gong could he lure the enemies out of their hole, before gliding down behind them and sneaking further onwards.
Another facet of the single player game is a section in a free-flying aircraft, roaming between pillars and swarms of enemies, which switches you between white-knuckle flying amid helpless cries from the petrified Globox, and sections firing the cannon on the back of the craft at pursuers.
Perhaps my favourite distraction reminds me of a very old PC shareware game called Sky Roads. The premise was and is very simple. You are in a ship flying along strips of road in the sky. These roads run parallel, but they dot the sky like a staccato melody, forcing you to hop between them, left and right, at regular intervals to avoid plummeting to your doom. Further on you find moving roads and other obstacles - it's very much seat of the pants, rush of blood to the head gameplay, based entirely on the player's reactions above all else, and as with the rest of Rayman 3 in its current shape, it's remarkably compelling.
At this stage, the game is coming together quite nicely - we're told that it should last about 15-20 hours, and judging by the excellent design we've seen so far, it should be a very compelling experience. There are still issues to resolve, and the code we saw was quite buggy and unfinished, but the general shape of the game is there and many of the sections we played were confirmed as finished. Of course then there are localisation issues to contend with before the game is ready - all of the spoken text in the game is currently French, for example - but Ubi Soft are shooting for an early 2003 release date, and Rayman fans should be sure to put that one in their diaries. Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc doesn't redefine genres - it seems to embody the very best bits of them, and that's a compelling argument if every there was one.