Next year is quickly shaping up to the year of the ape for Sony. You have Ape Escape Academy hitting Sony's PSP for your portable monkey needs, and, better yet, you have Ape Escape 3 for some full-blown console platforming. Though the game is technically the third official entry in the main series, which began on the original PlayStation, the franchise has taken on a life of its own and has branched out with several spin-off titles. The game brings some fresh new material to liven up the standard "catch all monkeys" formula, which has served the series well over the years and is shaping up very well.
This time out, the kooky helmet-wearing simians are causing mischief on a global scale on behalf of their leader, Spectre. The bullet points of bad news is pretty extensive: Spectre has nearly taken control of the whole world by using inane TV shows to turn most of the population into drooling couch potatoes. The nefarious Doctor Tomobuki has joined forces with Spectre, lending his expertise to the villainous monkey's plan for world domination. The freaky-monkey five have returned. Our heroes from the previous games, Jimmy, Spike, and the professor, have all been potatoed, leaving the game pretty thin on available heroes. Obviously this leaves one to wonder if there's any good news. There is--kind of. Natalie, the ever-helpful operator and provider of gadgets from the previous entries in the series drafts a pair of siblings, Kei and his sister Yumi, to help set things right. Though the plucky duo isn't the most experienced of adventurers, they're pretty much it when it comes to thwarting Spectre, and they're certainly enthusiastic.
Kei and Yumi's quest to save the world forms the core of the Ape Escape 3 experience. The game will stick to the familiar objective-based format that has served the series so well over the years and will send you to TV stations across the globe to stop the apes. You'll have a handy and expanded arsenal of gadgets to use on the adventure. Fans of the series should have no problem making use of the seven gadgets that have appeared in the previous games, but they'll have to get acquainted with the game's new costume system, which changes the game's dynamics quite a bit. As you progress through the game, the siblings will gain the ability to change into different-themed costumes with unique attributes, which will be invaluable when capturing monkeys.
Now, if you're thinking the new costumes mean the human cast finally catches a break in the face of overwhelming monkey odds, guess again. Your simian foes have also seen some irksome upgrades that will keep you from breezing through the game. The most significant--and sure to be painful--development is that you can now have your gadgets jacked and used against you. An ape can now snag your net and use it on you, which basically kicks you out of the level you're in. This adds a whole new "loss of dignity" component to the action, which most players will want to avoid.
As with every entry in the series, you can expect to find a plethora of unlockable content. While this is pretty atypical for an Ape Escape game, Ape Escape 3 goes the extra mile and includes a game within a game, Metal Gear Solid, that is a tip of the hat to Metal Gear Solid 3's Snake vs. Ape mode. In the unlockable game you'll take a brief detour into the Metal Gear universe and find out about the professor's past; apparently, before he decided to focus his mind on intelligence-enhancing ape helmets, the old boy kicked it with Solid Snake and company. You'll find out all this and more when the professor is asked to locate Snake, who is trapped behind enemy lines.
Unfortunately, because the prof's teams are all away at summer camp, he has to improvise and winds up sending a specially trained monkey who thinks he's Snake to get the job done. This provides the perfect setup for an MGS-inspired adventure, spread out over eight levels that come complete with bosses. Though the levels follow the themes of those you'll play through in the proper game, they're newly designed and aren't recycled. As far as gameplay goes, Metal Gear Solid offers up an authentic, although monkey-flavored, Metal Gear experience. You'll stealthily sneak about, making use of fruit-themed weapons, collecting ape tags off of your foes, and working your way to an epic battle against the latest Metal Gear. It's a fun and funny change of pace from the proper game that's a great treat. In addition to playing the MGS game, you'll unlock a variety of extras such as a movie viewer, a monkepedia, and even a tool to make your own 15-second movies that you can save to a memory card.
The game's presentation buffs up the sights and sounds you'd want to see in an Ape Escape game, making Ape Escape 3 the best-looking title in the series to date. The character models and environments retain the simple detail from the previous PS2 games, but look noticeably sharper. There's also greater variety on the models, courtesy of the different costumes on the heroic duo. The standard apes aren't particularly remarkable, although the looks on their faces still retain their goofy charm. The environments benefit from the assorted pop-culture parodies, put to good use in the game. All of the above sensibilities work especially well in the Metal Gear Solid game, which looks and sounds like a pitch-perfect parody, right down to the Ape Snake's hoarse grunts.
Based on what we played, Ape Escape 3 is shaping up to be the coolest entry in the series yet. Above and beyond the engaging core game with Kei and Yumi and the additions made to the Ape Escape formula, the wealth of unlockables, especially Metal Gear Solid, add a lot of appeal to the already strong package. Anyone looking for a monkey fix with some Metal Gear thrown in would do well to keep an eye out for Ape Escape when it ships early next month.