Preview - Jak's got some competition, as Acclaim Austin burst onto the scene with a very promising platformer for PS2 and Xbox
Jak of all Trades
It only takes a few minutes with Naughty Dog's inspirational platformer to gauge its strengths. J&D is an entertaining, exciting and intricately detailed adventure with a quirky sense of humour and a distinct lack of loading screens. Vexx, on the other hand, is borne of an equally fantastical premise, but the most humour we can expect is dark, and despite its zany graphics, this is more Legacy of Kain than Mario. The story concerns the plight of young Vexx, whose arms are bound by ancient gauntlets of immense power. The gauntlets, which initiated the bond, have turned Vexx into a mixed entity, comprising good and evil in equal amounts. However, these two forces have a habit of propagating themselves without warning, leaving our reluctant hero in a sort of Jekyll and Hyde situation. Astara, Vexx' homeworld, was once a vibrant, animated place (pun duly intended) full of life and vivacity. But for some reason this era of peace and tranquility all came to an untimely end with the advent of the Millennium War, which literally tore the place apart, leaving only four life-supporting fragments of the planet for its occupants to quarrel over. On one of these quarter-planets sprang up a village called Rockhaven, where the peaceful former denizens of Astara tried to make the most of their crummy lives in the aftermath of Armageddon. As you might have expected, however, this was not to be. A Shadowraith by the name of Dark Yabu quickly enslaved the people and set them to work in the caves surrounding the village.
Gently does it
Predictably, Vexx is one of the youthful villagers, a cocky teenage type whose main objective is to see, if not bring about, the downfall of Dark Yabu. Compounding his miserable life of slavery though, Vexx chooses not to rebel right now, vowing to do so at some point in the future instead. However, when his grandfather collapses (and presumably dies), Vexx makes up his mind, abandons his bereavement and sneaks aboard Yabu's personal Wind Ship. And it is here that he meets up with the Shadowraith's Astani Battle Gauntlets, which fuse with him, destroying the Wind Ship in the process and ultimately bestowing unusual powers upon Vexx. Dark Yabu is quick to make his escape in the aftermath of this botched attempt to bring about his demise. Assuming Vexx is a goner, he rounds up the villagers and herds them away with his mighty army. And this is where the game kicks off, with Vexx waking to find some old codger called Darby conveniently waiting at his side with news of Yabu's flight to the Landspire. Without a Wind Ship though, Vexx's only hope of reaching this towering monolith of insurmountable evil is to collect the orbs scattered around Astara (there's a shock) and fire up the Riftgate portals, one of which should take him straight there. I expect you all saw that one coming a mile off. Anyway, befitting his unfortunate affliction, the designers of Vexx have filled his world with both the cute and the not-so-cute, and the designers hope the former will accentuate the latter. The creative background story and Vexx's fledgling ability to control his own powers means that this is a very different adventure to Jak & Daxter, but ultimately one consisting largely of the same goals. Which doesn't strike me as a bad thing, really.
Much as Wolverine or Street Fighter's Vega, Vexx does away with enemies using his gauntlets and their vicious endowment of talons. These talon attacks lead to beat 'em up style combos, allowing Vexx to juggle his enemies around before finishing them off, and brief spells of frenzied fighting also help to replenish Vexx's health bar. From time to time, Vexx's gauntlets grant him a number of abilities, not least of which is a spell of limited invincibility. Amongst the gauntlets' other benefits we have power swimming, which makes the Australian Olympic team look like toddlers, an energy blast to help propel him to higher planes and deal death unto his oppressors, and should none of that tickle your fancy, the ability to clamber up sheer rock faces and hang from the ceiling Spiderman-style will probably come in handy. Apart from collecting orbs and brutally slaughtering Yabu's foot soldiers, Vexx will also have to deal with a number of crafty gimmick levels. Amongst the diversions Acclaim have planned for our hero are; a section of 2D platforming (inspired by a sequence in Disney flopbuster The Prince of Egypt, according to a recent magazine preview), a level set in a Giant's castle (complete with lounge and Shenmue-style playable games console), and an abstract musical level which sees Vexx floating about battling notes and treble clefs…
Wish Upon Astara
Graphically Vexx is shaping up like Jak's bastard offspring. The four remaining sections of the planet are all on Vexx's path as he puts pay to Dark Yabu's nefarious schemes, and their isolated societies have each evolved quite differently, giving Acclaim the chance to diversify and create four fairly unique settings for Vexx to work his way through. Traversal of his own land will presumably offer players the chance to get used to things without dying too much (Dark Yabu having taken most of his forces with him), while the other three fragments of Astara will form the meat of the game. Astara is also strewn with large monuments, visible from various points on the four floating islands. The developer is quite keen to point out that there is nothing in the game world you can't get to, and these monuments are all worth exploring, whether it takes minutes or hours to reach them. Although Vexx has a lot of orb collecting to do if he plans to give Dark Yabu the beating of his unpleasant life, the team wants to make his adventure as non-linear and enjoyable as possible. In terms of adversaries, we're promised that Vexx will come up against some pretty tough customers, and the final confrontation is said to be spectacular. But Vexx will also have some help on his journey, with Darby doing his best along with the game's equivalent of Jak's friend Keira, Reia, an only a child during the war that started this whole mess, who is now stricken with guilt because it was her people and their odd purple hue (okay, not directly) who gave the Shadowraiths their chance to seize power.
As is obvious, Vexx draws heavily on the teachings of Naughty Dog, but having been in development for over two years the game is hardly a cash-in and seems to be enough of its own project to compete. Indeed, J&D is the only game we can think of that even comes close to what Acclaim Austin have envisaged, and when it eventually arrives, we'll be waiting with bated breath to receive it.