The Curse of Monkey Island Preview

With the third Monkey Island game, LucasArts returns to one of the most popular adventure series ever

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Well, you can't accuse LucasArts of rushing to exploit its own success with hasty sequels. It took over a decade, and then some, for George Lucas to re-milk that reliable cash cow, Star Wars, with another trilogy. And even though the computer division's Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge are widely regarded as being among the finest games ever produced, it is five years now since the last entry. In that time, the adventure genre's production values have soared, though often at the price of gameplay depth and length. With the third installment in this venerable series, LucasArts wants to get back to the golden age of richer gameplay, while adding the chrome players have grown accustomed to in recent years.

Games designers and co-project leaders Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern are not only veterans of LucasArts winners like Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max Hit the Road, but also true fans of the Monkey Island series. They are determined to maintain continuity with the franchise. "The challenging part on this project was to tie in the crazy ending of MI2. We do explain it all and tie it together," Ackley assures us. They also promise cameos by earlier favorites like Lemonhead.

Guybrush Threepwood, the quasi-hero of the saga, is now locked in political and personal combat with his longtime nemesis LeChuck. This undead pirate not only wants to wreak his evil upon the land but take the lovely and spunky Elaine in unholy matrimony. In his own attempt to woo our damsel, the hapless Guybrush proffers a cursed ring and turns Elaine into a gold statue, pretty and priceless, but not a lot of kicks on the honeymoon. Restoring his beloved and thwarting LeChuck's destructive designs are his twin quests.

In designing the interface, Ackley says, "We liked the ease of use of the Full Throttle interface, and we also wanted to make sure that it was flexible enough so that we could have more complicated puzzles," as in Sam and Max. An X-marks-the-spot cursor turns red over a usable item or person. Click and hold on the item to pop up a doubloon icon, which names the object and gives you look, use/take, and talk to options. A treasure chest pops up as your inventory, where objects can be taken for use or, just as often, combined into artful new tools. Ackley and Ahern guarantee us, however, that the interface will be the only effortless and speedy part of the design. Their own ace testers are taking up to 40 hours to complete this one, which is good news for hard-core adventurers who breezed through Full Throttle or The Dig in a weekend.

Ahern assures Monkey Island fans that "whatever you loved about Monkey 1 and 2, we tried to put into the gameplay of Monkey Island 3." As Ackley recounts, they started by asking of the previous successes, "What is it about the puzzle structure of these games that makes them so fulfilling even though they're very, very difficult? Whereas other adventure games are very, very difficult but very, very frustrating as well. And it's the non-linearity, the fact that you can solve a lot of the puzzles in any given order, so that if you get stuck someplace you can have something else to do and something else to see."

While LucasArts games have a well-deserved reputation for polished scripts and cinematic cutscenes, their devotion to VGA resolutions was growing long in the tooth. In Curse, however, the designers are leapfrogging beyond mere SVGA. The many cutscenes boast animation that is certainly among the best ever seen in a game. According to Ahern, who also serves as the project's art director, "We're putting it through all of the steps that an animated film would go through." Better still, the graphic design here is much more expressive and idiosyncratic than say the photo-realism of last year's Circle of Blood or the Disney-fied King's Quest series. Guybrush is an elongated geek caricature, all angular head and eccentric pompadour atop gangly, awkward stick limbs. LeChuck is a green, hourglass-shaped face set amid a flaming beard and voluminous hat. In short, the artists don't seem to be merely tossing "high production values" at this game. The graphics express and carry a certain spirit of play. Anti-aliasing techniques are being applied both to movie and gameplay scenes, which eliminates the jaggies from line edges but also helps make the transition from cutscene to play area visually seamless.

At heart, the Monkey Island series is best remembered for its goofy conversations. "We just feel that that is the meat of Monkey Island," says Ackley. From what we saw of the first section of the game, virtually every encounter with things living or dead offers the player an elm tree of dialogue branches to follow. Quips, snide asides, and snappy comebacks abound. "The humor stems from those dialogue choices. You can do six jokes at a time." Six bad jokes, of course. What would another Monkey Island be without its nerdish humor, the kind of strained cleverness that one gets from too much Monty Python and a lot of high school chess club meetings. We were relieved to hear Ackley declare that "We did it the same way the first two games were written, which is a bunch of programmers sitting in a room cracking each other up." Nuff said.

From all indications Ahern and Ackley will be giving the adventure series that gamers have come to know and love an impressive face-lift but not an unnecessary brain transplant.

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