For a number of years many fans have been waiting for one of science-fiction's greatest licenses to make its way to the small screen in the form of a videogame adventure. This epic would be none other than Planet of the Apes. Needless to say, one of the highlights of this past E3 in May was the announcement that Fox Interactive would be bringing Planet of the Apes (hereafter POTA) to the home market.
The problem with most licensed properties is that the games are either rushed or a genre is forced onto a license - or both. Batman, for example, might be a great license, but it doesn't fit neatly into one single industry genre. POTA, one of the more recognizable franchises in movie history, can work as an action title, an RPG adventure, or even a strategy game.
Dubbed an action-adventure title by Fox, POTA mixes liberally from both the movie and Pierre Boulle's groundbreaking book but is really its own story. You play as Ulysses, the sole human survivor who crash-lands a spaceship on an uncharted planet one thousand years in the future. Here the apes rule, and you must survive.
While most fans would attach a fair amount of nostalgia concerning the movies, it's understandable why Fox would want to create a new hero to base its story on. Even so, Charlton Heston as Taylor and James Fransiscus as Brent in the second movie are pretty much ingrained in the consciousness of the POTA fan. It would have been nice to have the opportunity to play them or even James Naughton (Burke) and Ron Harper (Virdon) from the short-lived 1974 CBS TV series. But, of course, the premise of the TV series was about a different group of astronauts and was set hundreds of years before the Heston movie. So if the TV series can create a new set of heroes, it is not unreasonable for the game series to do the same. In the movies and the TV series, the ape society is fairly primitive (no pun intended - really). There are guns, of course, but the society is a lot less advanced than the society in the book. Fox has come up with a storyline that includes a conspiracy within the ape government to keep secret the discoveries that have been made within the Forbidden Zone. These discoveries include not only proof of a great human civilization, but equipment and gadgets that will be used against Ulysses.
The game features three modes of play: stealth, normal, and athletic. There are currently 15 major levels, and within these major levels are 70 sublevels. Overall, gameplay is a mixture of puzzle solving, stealth, and trickery, combined with battles against nefarious foes. Hence, the hybrid designation action-adventure. Therefore, the standard "collect everything you can pick up" of adventure games is combined with taking out a gorilla soldier.
Enemies come in various shapes and sizes. One of the more interesting things about POTA was the primate distinction. Chimpanzees such as Cornelius and Zira, played beneath a lot of makeup by Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter, were the scientists. The orangutans were the politicians, while the military consisted of the gorillas. This was a very clever way of setting up different reactions and motivations based on visual cues. Added to this mix now are the mandrills, who form the militia, and the baboons, who are used mainly as a labor force (there is also a band of baboons on the loose).
Each of these groups will have its own social structure and abilities. The AI will reflect this, giving multiple reactions from the same ape group. Each group also fights (or doesn't, in the case of the chimpanzees) in a distinctive style, and this will encourage you to use different tactics as appropriate. In addition to the ape foes, there are mutated rats, giant bats, and rabid hyenas.
Sometimes it's funny to read press releases. The game has "over one thousand amazingly realistic motion-captured character animations." I do wonder where they found the apes walking around, acting in human ways, to do the motion capture. Obviously, a lot of the animations are related to the Ulysses character and the amount of combat he is involved with.
Speaking of combat, Fox is talking about a rather extensive range of combat options. Rifles, shotguns, and lasers guns are all used in weapon combat. Sniper mode is starting to become a standard, and POTA is no exception and will offer this useful feature. The targeting system is described as Zelda-like, using a lock-on system moving from enemy to enemy. Handheld weapons include a club and a machete, but probably most interesting is that the game also includes hand-to-hand combat. Ulysses will have a variety of kicking and punching moves to complement the weapons. Three distinct combat modes are hard to pull off, but when it is done so successfully, it greatly adds to overall gameplay.
What may make or break POTA is the character interaction and voice acting. The game features more than 2,000 lines of dialogue, and fans will have an expectation of quality. Fortunately, it sounds like the producers have stayed away from the obvious potential for monkey puns and instead are trying hard to make this a real story-driven project. Details of the interface setup remain sketchy, but, at this point, the camera is said to be similar to the Resident Evil series with movie-style zooms, cuts, and pans. While the main female character, Nova, is described as scantily clad and intelligent, there are lots of other scantily clad and not-so-scantily clad characters for you to interact with.
To many POTA fans, Roddy McDowell remains synonymous with the license. His passing leaves a great void, and it would be nice if Fox Interactive found a way to acknowledge what he means to the franchise. A licensed product is generally a tricky thing to pull off. For every successful GoldenEye, there are literally hundreds of poor examples of movie-based software. Fox Interactive's challenge is to take the time needed to make a great game. With a new movie rumored to be coming out in the summer of 2001, there is no pressure on Fox to rush Planet of the Apes. Here is an opportunity for Fox to create a long-term software franchise starting in the third quarter of 2000.