When Tomb Raider first hit the scene back in 1996, it was easy to describe the game's premise as an Indiana Jones movie with a female lead. Lara Croft spent the next several years cornering the market on the video game version of action archeology, and even though the comparisons to Harrison Ford's big-screen character never really stopped completely, it took LucasArts four years to strike back with Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine--a flawed game for the PC and the Nintendo 64. Now, LucasArts is giving its whip-cracking action hero another shot at the title with Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb. While the game does a lot of things right, severe technical issues surface at almost every turn and really drag down the game's high points, leaving behind a game with tons of untapped potential.
Emperor's Tomb takes place in 1935 and puts the rough-and-tough archeologist on a quest to recover a Chinese artifact known as the heart of the dragon--a black pearl with the power to control minds. In keeping with the standard Indiana Jones theme, our good doctor isn't the only faction involved in the quest, and along the way you'll encounter plenty of Nazi thugs and Chinese gang members, all of whom want the pearl for their own evil plans. Though the plot contains a few twists and double-crosses along the way, the game is very thin on storytelling, only breaking into a cutscene to move you from one part of the world to another. Even the mission objectives aren't expressly conveyed outside of the pause screen, though the linear nature of the level design doesn't often force you to know exactly what you're after at any given time, anyway. While the game is pretty straightforward, it does throw a lot of different levels at you, moving through various locales along the way. You'll travel to Prague, Istanbul, Hong Kong, an island fortress, and more. Even though you'll be moving along from place to place fairly quickly, it doesn't feel like a short game, and players should be able to get a bit over 10 hours out of it. There isn't much replay value to speak of, of course, though the game does contain three difficulty settings and a handful of optional artifacts that are hidden throughout the game.
The game combines the exploration and third-person maneuvering of Tomb Raider with a simplified version of the combat system found in The Collective's last game, the well-received Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Indy runs on a modified version of the Buffy engine, and you can do most of the running- and jumping-related activities you'd expect from a third-person action game. At first, the control feels a little too loose. It's easy to miss jumps if you're sloppy with the controls. But after some time, moving Dr. Jones around becomes second nature. You'll often find yourself having to use Indy's bullwhip to swing from one platform to another. The game always lets you know where, exactly, you'll need to do this by showing a whip icon on the screen when you're in position. Similarly, you'll see a knife icon when it's time to hack through thick vines, a switch icon when there's something for you to pull, and an explosion icon when you're near a spot that requires you to plant explosives. When any of these icons are up, an inventory button lets you quickly yank out the necessary item. While this helps make the game a lot easier than it would be without them, at other times the occasionally unclear level design and somewhat blurry textures obscure some things that you'd otherwise need to see for yourself in order to proceed.
While you'll spend most of your time in the game running around and climbing up and over platforms, there is also quite a bit of combat to be found. While the combat isn't terribly deep, it still feels incredibly satisfying. Indy's punches and kicks are exaggerated like in an action movie, giving you the impression that he's really beating the hell out of his foes. He's got a good variety of dirty moves in his arsenal, and a combo system lets you string attacks together.
Your whip comes into play during combat, as well. Normally, you just whip people, but if you get the distance between you and your target down right, you can whip weapons out of enemies' hands or even wrap the whip around a foe's neck and drag him over to you, Scorpion-style, for a quick left to the face. You can also find and use a variety of firearms and makeshift weapons like chairs, and the game even has a grappling system, which lets you get in a few punches or shove people up against walls...or over the edges of cliffs, where you'll hear them go screaming down to their doom.
With its satisfying combat system and straightforward, easy-to-pick-up tomb raiding, Indiana Jones definitely has the mechanics to be an outstanding game. It's this potential that makes the game's crippling technical problems that much more disappointing. The lack of polish on the game makes it seem rushed and unfinished and stretches from minor graphical problems--like a few missing textures here and there that let you see through some solid objects--to plainly obvious clipping and collision problems. Among other things, it's possible to set yourself up in such a way that you're actually standing in midair. You'll also see guns clip right through Indy when he runs around with a weapon slung across his back. On top of all this, the game's frame rate occasionally gets really wild, dropping down to unplayably slow states for no good reason. The audio also has its own problems--certain types of music in certain situations begin skipping for, again, no apparent reason. As if all this weren't bad enough, the game occasionally seizes up and halts completely for several seconds at a time before kicking back into gear--very odd issues for a console game, but we confirmed them using multiple retail copies of the game and multiple Xboxes. Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb starts out without many of these problems, but as you progress, it almost feels as if the game begins unraveling right before your very eyes, and the bugs just become more and more prevalent.
Aside from the aforementioned graphical problems, Indiana Jones looks OK. The animation for the fighting is done nicely and helps make the combat seem convincing. Unfortunately, the game's textures really aren't very good. They're quite repetitive and lack definition, giving a lot of the game a blurry sort of look in some sections. The game's sound has its fair share of problems, but when it isn't stuttering along, it does a good job of conveying Indiana Jones-like music. The soundalike used for Indiana Jones himself does a convincing enough job of sounding like Harrison Ford's take on the character, but you probably won't ever mistake the stand-in for the real deal. Some of the other voices don't fare so well. The standard enemy voices get repetitive, and some of the accents--Mei Ying's Chinese accent, for example--sound pretty bad.
The good parts of Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb are really good. You can definitely see a great game hidden in the finished product, but calling the Emperor's Tomb "finished" doesn't seem right. The problems in this game are the sort that almost certainly could have been ironed out with a few more months of work, but in the end, the unpolished portions of the game outweigh the game's strong points. There's definitely some fun to be had here, and Indiana Jones fans will likely appreciate the way their favorite archeologist is represented in the game. But the game can't be wholeheartedly recommended such as it is, and it's probably best suited as a weekend rental, much like the movies that inspired it.