The traditional platformer generally involves some combination of running, jumping, and climbing. Nowhere in that checklist of attributes will you find "detailed vehicle customization." Perhaps that's why so many eyebrows were raised by genre purists when Rare and Microsoft unveiled one of the big new features in the forthcoming Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts--the ability to collect mechanical parts throughout your adventures and cobble them together into a vehicle of your own design. We recently had the opportunity to try a few missions and tinker with the vehicle-creation system during a recent trip to Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond.
Before we picked up a controller, we were treated to a brief overview of the game by the creative director of Microsoft Game Studios, Ken Lobb. He began with an introduction to the game's plotline. Banjo and Gruntilda are locked in a scuffle over the fate of Spiral Mountain, but before the conflict gets too intense, a mysterious Grim Reaper-like figure called the Lord of Games shows up and offers to settle the conflict. His proposition is to whisk both characters away to Showdown Town so they can participate in a series of challenges to see who can open up the most gameworlds.
Showdown Town becomes the hub in your series of adventures. It's a sunny little burg with enough bright colors and wildly varying terrain to serve as a reminder that you're playing a Banjo-Kazooie game. And those visuals looks very impressive--from the light reflecting off the surface of lakes and ponds to the detailed shingles on the old-fashioned buildings--the environments fulfill the series' history of doing great work with the hardware being used. The character models, by contrast, have a sort of retro polygonal feel to them, but that appears to be an intentional design decision when you consider how nice everything else looks.
Soon enough, we were set free in a level known as Banjo World. It bears this name because the entire area is a massive homage to previous Banjo levels, all assembled together into one mishmash of landscapes. You'll see rolling green hills quickly turn into arid desert, which just as rapidly transition into tall snowy mountains. Missions are prompted by strolling up to a character and hitting the X button. After a brief series of dialogue balloons explaining what's wrong, as well as what needs to be fixed, you're given an outline of your objectives, three tiers of possible ways to complete your goal, and, if possible, the ability to select which of your vehicles you'd like to use.
Our first mission, "Ice to See You," tasked us with rescuing an ice sculpture named George. This frozen-head-shaped chunk of ice has rolled from the snowy peak down to the desert terrain. The character offering you this mission already has a vehicle in mind, a sort of tractor with bracketed arms in front that is useful for corralling objects and pushing them forward. This stands in contrast to the default vehicle we began the mission with, a light and agile green number great for zipping around but utterly useless in pushing objects. The goal is reached when you successfully push George from the bottom of the hill to the top. When you accomplish your goal, you're given a Jiggy as a reward, which is deposited back in mysterious globes in Showdown Town that you need to transport to the city's central bank while avoiding the ire of local police.
Another mission we tried out--one we probably should have done first--was a tutorial for vehicle movement called "Mumbo's Stunt Spectacular." With this one, you need to perform various feats of daring with Banjo's car, like springing upward to reach green circles, as well as doing barrel rolls and backflips. You'll also need to launch off a ramp big enough to keep you airborne for three full seconds. This mission, with its introduction to all the acrobatic maneuvers you can do with your car, helped cement our initial suspicion that the vehicles basically act as an extension of Banjo's on-foot movements. Sure, they can be used as transportation for cruising through Showdown Town or going from one mission starting point to another, but with all the bizarre attachments you can put on them, these vehicles can be easily considered Banjo special moves in mechanical form.
And you can definitely make those vehicle look bizarre, which was soon evidenced in our next mission. This one had Banjo playing a soccer minigame against a team of mechanical gremlins. The default vehicle you're given for this task is a straightforward number with a boxing glove attachment with which you kick the ball. It worked well enough, but unlike the other tasks we tried out, this one allowed you to import your own custom-made vehicle. Custom vehicles begin with a foundation of blocks and wedges (the chassis, essentially). You can then add wheels, engines, gadgets, weapons, and fuel tanks--all of which come in varying sizes and styles.
Our first attempt was a similar vehicle to the default soccer one, but with a slight twist. Rather than using a car engine like the default one, we threw on a jet engine. It worked great and let us nimbly cut through the opposing team on our way to the goal. But we were feeling greedy, so we hopped back into the garage (aided by a cheat code unlocking every part possible) and created a monstrosity powerful enough to singlehandedly offset the effects of every hybrid car on the road today. This behemoth featured nine jet engines, five high-capacity fuel tanks, monster truck wheels, and retractable wings. Oh, and a boxing glove gadget for "kicking" the soccer ball. This one didn't work quite so well. Rather than a light and nimble vehicle, it was a hulking ball of fire that took off into the air on the slightest bump. It probably wasn't the best vehicle for the minigame at hand, but it was a blast to pilot.
So far, the vehicle editor is looking like an interesting feature. The ability to customize your movement throughout the gameworld should at least offer a nice twist on the standard platforming formula. But the game isn't all about veering from the series' roots. In fact, you can connect to the series' roots when the original Banjo-Kazooie for Xbox Live Arcade is released later this year. The unfinished Stop 'N' Swop feature will finally be completed for this iteration, meaning the two games will be able to interact with each other.
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is slated for release later this year on the Xbox 360. You can expect to see more coverage on this game in the coming weeks and months.