Sony Online Entertainment's booth is one of the first that you see upon entering the west hall at this year's E3, and the game that's facing the hall entrance, running on a handful of PCs (a PlayStation 3 version is also planned), is Kung Fu Hustle. Based on the Stephen Chow movie of the same name, Kung Fu Hustle is a free-to-play fighting game that was originally designed for the Chinese market but that has since been confirmed for release in North America later this year. Kung Fu Hustle's competitive component, which will support up to eight players simultaneously, isn't being shown at E3, but earlier today we had an opportunity to check out both the story mode and the character creation.
The customization options for characters initially feel quite limited, given that there are only five bodies to choose from (two male, three female), and only two different fighting styles: Iron Fist, which is primarily a melee style; and Flying Dagger, which incorporates more ranged attacks. There are a good number of different hairstyles and clothing options to choose from, though, and if you don't mind spending a little money to make your character look good, there are microtransactions aplenty.
After creating a character, you'll want to check out the Story mode, in which you start out as a nobody from a small village, much like the protagonist in the movie. The Axe Gang has stolen the town's bell and so, after learning your chosen Kung Fu discipline from a scroll obtained from a beggar, you set out to retrieve it.
As you walk left or right through the horizontally scrolling levels, numerous Axe Gang henchmen will show up to attack you. Based on what we saw today, few of them are going to pose much of a challenge on their own, but like their movie counterparts, they're not shy about attacking in numbers. They also believe in augmenting their kung-fu skills with axes and guns, so you need to keep an eye on enemies who are across the screen from you as well as those who are within striking distance.
Kung Fu Hustle's controls take a little getting used to, but after a few minutes of mindless keyboard mashing, we chanced upon a few moves and combos that we liked. While moving with the arrow keys, you'll perform punches, kicks with Z and X, blocks and actions (such as picking up a fallen enemy's weapon) with C and V, hit the space bar to jump, and use the number keys to trigger any power-ups that you've picked up or purchased. The cartoon-style characters animate nicely, and as you progress through the game, you'll unlock additional moves for them, as well as increase their maximum health and chi levels.
Most of the enemies on show at E3 look very similar, considering that they're all wearing the Axe Gang's trademark black suits. Beating up the same guys over and over again definitely seems like it could get old, but there are boss battles in the mix (we defeated a guy about five times our size who was wielding a double-headed axe), and playing cooperatively with friends should help to keep things interesting. SOE is also hoping that the game's online leaderboards, which track a number of different stats, will give levels plenty of replay value.
When you play online, Kung Fu Hustle will purportedly work in a similar way to Guild Wars, in that you'll meet other players in towns and can them team up with them to play through instanced levels. We had enough fun with Kung Fu Hustle today that we're certainly looking forward to playing it for free when it comes out. Whether we (or you) will feel inclined to spend money on new character emotes, wacky costumes, or temporary experience multipliers (among many other things) remains to be seen. Look for more on Kung Fu Hustle in the coming months.