The fourth installment in The Secret of Monkey Island series from LucasArts, scheduled for a fall 2000 release.

Since some dumbass decided some years ago that everything from word processors to adventure games has to be in 3D, this one will be too. With that patented slow and frustrating control system made popular by Alone in the Dark.

Not many details on the story are available as of now, but I'm guessing it will be similar to The Curse of Monkey Island: Short and inconsistent with the first two episodes. (which happen to the best games of this genre ever)

There are some screenshots available at http://www.lucasarts.com/, and I must admit they look OK. But the hand-drawn characters in the 3rd part looked so much better than the low-polygon models you see here.

Anyway, don't get your hopes too far up.
But remember that with really low expectations, you can only be pleasantly surprised.



Update (November 10, 2000)

Ok, now I've gotten my hands on the game. Here are some first impressions:

  • The user interface is downright terrible. No two ways about it, the controls simply suck ass. It's quite sad that the playability on the first episode made a decade ago is years ahead of the 3D crap presented here.
  • While the backgrounds are quite beautiful, the characters look like they belong in the year 1996. The 6-polygons-per-model style may have worked in Grim Fandango, but not in here.
  • Much of the music seems to be recycled straight out of MI3. Did they run out of money or time?
  • Although it may be too early to voice an opinion about it, the plot seems as interesting as reading through a phone book.
Of course, I will stay from giving any final judgement until completing the game. After all, part #3 seemed awful in the beginning but turned out to be a fairly decent adventure.
And don't get me wrong, I don't think everything about Escape is negative. I especially like the way they have brought in old characters and jokes to warm the fans' hearts. But the problems are what first got my attention.

This all is of course extremely subjective. Apologies for that, but as a huge Monkey Island fan I find it hard to not be a little passionate about the subject.

"Now in scurvy-inducing 3D!"

LucasArts LLC.
2000
****

Escape is the fourth installment of the Monkey Island series of graphic adventures. After reviving the long-dormant series with the third installment (1997's The Curse of Monkey Island), LucasArts obviously took on board a lot of the criticisms that were leveled at that game, and had a good hard think about what gamers expect from a graphic adventure in this age of 3D acceleration and identikit sequels to shallow "action-adventures". The result is a worthy addition to the series that proves the traditional adventure game isn't dead (at least, if bolstered with sufficiently aggressive marketing).

As you may have gathered, Escape makes the transition into "Resident Evil" style 3D (courtesy of GRIME, the Grim Fandango engine). While most of the character models have a fairly low poly count, intelligent use of texture and lighting coupled with extremely fluid animation give them a very solid feel. Escape is probably the first game to really pull off the seamless combination of rendered backdrops and polygons. One important point about the graphics: ensure that your graphics card has anti-aliasing capabilities before even thinking of buying this game. With a fixed resolution of 640x480, jaggies totally ruin the experience.

From the screenshots, the character designs look a little too cutesified, considering most of the cast are scurvy-ridden pirates and monkeys. In motion, however, the designer's intentions become clear. The range of gestures and facial expressions for each character, coupled with the exemplary voice acting, creates what are in effect three-dimensional cartoon characters. The big influences have obviously been the Muppets and Toy Story.

While I'm lavishing praise on the game's visuals, I should also point out that the cut-scenes (both in-engine, and lavishly rendered Bink FMVs) kick monkey ass. The ideal of "plot advancing footage in the visual style of the game" (as first attempted - with encouraging results - in Interstate '76) is finally achieved.

There are some problems however. Firstly, everything seems much too shiny and spotless, especially in the early stages of the game. The new islands (and even parts of the re-created Melee and Monkey Islands) seem a million miles from the dingy, dangerous shores of Scabb Island (for example). Also, the extreme stylisation is more reminiscent of Day of The Tentacle than the original Monkey Island games (but at least it works better than in Curse).

Of course (as Edge magazine are so find of saying) what's important is how it plays. Well, it's certainly as good as the bulk of the SCUMM adventures. Puzzles range from the satisfyingly obvious to the mind-bogglingly inscrutable. The game never quite opens up to the degree of the "map-finding" section of the second game (by which I mean the game is rather more linear than its predecessors), but it still provides plenty to do (and get stuck on). Some of the old Monkey standard puzzles are there (insult-fighting, code languages, the riggable contest) although thankfully reaction-based puzzles and "arcade-style subgames" are largely done away with.

There is a sizeable fly in the ointment however. At certain points in the game, there will be a "chokepoint" where you must complete a certain puzzle to continue. Fair enough, you might think. But on two or three occasions, I found that the action required to solve these puzzles was so obscure, so illogical, and so mindbendingly unfair that I was quite annoyed.

Now, I have a rather high tolerance for illogical puzzles (I've completed the notorious Discworld games and countless SCUMM and Infocom adventures), but the point of difficult puzzles is that they only work as a gameplay challenge if you can solve them with lateral thinking. The solutions to some of the puzzles in this game make no sense even after you've done them (by trial and error, or more likely by consulting a walkthrough). If this happened just once then it'd be tolerable, but the fact that the designers seem to run out of ideas on three occasions (including the last fucking "puzzle" of the game) it's inexcusable.

If my outburst makes it sound like these small niggles ruined the game for me, let me assure you that isn't the case. Thankfully there is plenty of entertainment value to be had from Escape. The writing is fantastic (coming from the team who did Sam and Max Hit The Road, you know you're in for some serious laughs), the re-use of previous characters (including Stan, The Voodoo Lady, Murray, and Meathook) and locations is brilliantly done and in no way sullies the originals (unlike some of the tinkering that was done in Curse).

The new stuff is great too, with the new villain Ozzie Mandrill being sufficiently evil to make up for his slightly crap premise. Other highlights include the strict teacher Miss Rivers ("Pirates are Bad. Pirates are Mean. Pirates are POND SCUM!"), some scheming lawyers, and a vain (and psychologically scarred) plank-diver called Marco Pollo.

So is it funny? Well, if you think pirate handpuppets having an argument where one of them calls the other "Girlie Man!", talking tattoos, and butt-slapping monkeys as patently hilarious as they so obviously are, then you will laugh. Hard. God knows I did.

So, there you have it. A well written adventure game of the old school with a thick coating of LucasArts polish. Hopefully its commercial success will prompt LucasArts to bring us some more GRIME-powered adventures. When you have technology and talent this good at your disposal, it would be a far greater crime to under-use it than to hold back for fear of pushing your luck.

And maybe give us the option of mouse control next time?

(Version 1.2, Now with 50% more correct spellings, Aq-19/01/2001)

First Impressions Escape from Monkey Island (Or EMI, as it will forever be known) has a lot to live up to. For starters there is the whole "Death of the Adventure Game" thing. The adventure game is not dead whilst Lucasarts still draws breath, because not only have you got jackpot when they bring a new game out but you have the entire back-catalogue too. Besides, RPG's were deader than your average dodo a few years ago, and then Bioware's Infinaty engine became the catalyst that brought us enough games to keep RPG gamers playing for entire months, In the case of BG2 with little or no offline time! Yet still every adventure game is greeted with the death knell of it's genre. But, in an Oliver-Twistian move, there is more. Monkey Island is the best, most famous adventure-game series ever in the history of the genre, so it has to be as good, if not better, than them. And then there is Curse of monkey island, the third game in this quartet, which was (and lets whisper it so nobody else can hear) not quite as good as the first two. It was Funny, but more sort of Corporation funny, rather than the genuine amusement of MI2, Day of the Tentacle and others...

Others, yes. Here we come to one of the reasons why this was going to be so interesting, the story is scripted by the folks behind the fantastic Sam and Max game. This in itself is cool, the only thing better than this would be if Ron Gilbert came back from whatever-he-does-now to do it, but then there is the finishing point: it's in 3D. And here is where the vital bits come in, it's in the same engine that Grim Fandango was written in, plus several version numbers and less several annoying bugs. Can it work? Really? Grim Fandango was Situational/Script Comedy. The humour was in the situations (Skeletons getting killed by flowers, Skeletons that were fat, Death wearing platform shoes) and the Coolness of the script. Where as the traditional MI values have been Fantastic one-liners and Character based humour, and 3D, while being advanced, isn't advanced enough yet to render that amount of detail in the models for actual use. The nature of adventure-games means you have to see large areas of the map at one time without a loss of detail. Monkey Island 4 has to prove that Adventure gaming is still alive, that the MI Series isn't in decline, and that 3D is better than 2D any day of the week.

The Graphics

Oh boy, we don't start off with the easy parts, do we? The graphics are absolutely gorgeous, every background looks as though it has been lifted direct from the artists imagination, from the trademark swirly clouds of MI3 right down to the traditional old, decrepit maps of the islands themselves. From the dark, dingy feel of MeleƩ island, down to the open touristness of another island. And then... then... then they put the characters on top. The engine runs at 640*480, same as the default res for Quake 3, and you can't change it. But this does mean that the edges of the characters are distinctly blocky. The interaction of the 2D and the 3D inanimate objects is great, Doors swing open behind barrels, but the distinction between the smoothness of the backgrounds and the rough characters means that they sit slightly oddly on the screen. There are points where Guybrush has to climb a set of stairs, and you can see him climbing, and you can see the stairs, but they have no relation to each other, and it looks like he is gliding. Having said that, a better 3D card might fix it, and I'll update this when I try. The graphics engine still isn't perfect, although the transitions from scripted sequences to normal game-space are seamless, at one stage I got Guybrush poling his way across dry land, but I fixed that. I'm not quite sure what necessitated the lack of polygons on the characters, with games like Discworld Noir showing how many an adventure game can have and still be playable, it might be a part of the desire to keep it accessable to most computers.

Sound

The voices are amazing. From the charectors in MI1 & 2 that have cameo roles, right up to the new people you meet, each one is wonderfully casted. You can tell when one or more of the main cast has been used for "extra's", but only if you listen to it. Guybrush is much better, and Charles L. Charles's educated tones have an air of familiarity about them. The music has been done by the same people who brought you the last lot, and whilst a riff on the main theme plays no major part in the proceedings, the familiar strains of Stans Theme, followed thoughout series, will haunt you, and there are many returning riffs you may, or may not, recognise. They still mispronounce Caribbean though.

The Plot

...is fantastic. Tributing, yet not stealing from, the previous games, following old characters, introducing new ones, leading to a fantastic climax you will see coming from a whole 10 seconds away. And that is all I will say. I object to being told the plot of a game beforehand, so I won't tell you either. Ner. It does wrap it up a bit too neatly for a MI game, and these endings are getting more and more difficult to follow on from, but apart from that it's great. The script is fantastic, the timing is great, the jokes... occasionally fall flat... Some running gags need slightly more run-up space before they get the high-jump, and some of the parodies may get drowned out in the noise, but the inflections are wonderful and the puns terrible. I like this storyline.

The Engine

Minor glitches aside, the polish on the GRIME engine shows well, Manny's trait of looking at interesting objects has been expanded with a SCUMM-like idea (GRIME is the Grim Fandango Engine, SCUMM is the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, the engine on which all LucasArts adventures except that and this were created in) of putting a short description on the screen, and also if there is more than one object around to look at, they all appear and you can PG-Up and PG-Down between them. The inventory has also been expanded, Pressing I now darkens the screen and the objects you own appear in a Tomb-Raider-style circular menu, in which you can take an object into the game, or take it to use it on something else in the Inventory. This works. Although the help function mentions being able to take the first 10 objects from your inventory by pressing 1-0 on the keyboard, this doesn't seem to work.

Overall

I like this game. The game itself is great, the puzzles hard without being impossible, the voices are almost perfect, the music is perfect. But I remain unconvinced that 3D is the best direction for this to have gone, It would have worked as well, maybe better, as a 2D game, although I think the amount of animation such a thing would require would have necessitated another CD. For what it is, it's fantastic. I have, as of 10 minutes ago, completed the game and, since I have nothing better to do with my time, I think I'll spend tomorrow doing the same thing for a hint-site. TTFN

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