I think you should all go play Beyond Good & Evil right damn now.
I realize that this is a violation of unspoken principles. I am supposed to tell you about this game, and ease you into the idea that it's worth your money and time in a gradual and entertaining fashion. But I am not in the mood to be subtle.
Go play it. Seriously.
It is an adventure game, featuring the blend of other genres that is best characterized as "adventure." It switches smoothly between hovercraft racing to photography to stealth-based action to beat-'em-up and back again. It is also the single most imaginative and fresh title to come out this year, as far as I'm concerned; real thought went into this, and real emotion and feeling. Beyond Good & Evil is, and looks likely to remain, one of the few games to successfully mix the storytelling ability of films with the interactivity and viewer participation of a video game.
And you should be playing it.
It's set in what looks like an incomprehensibly far future, when humanity has long since settled other planets, and animals have evolved into fellow sentients. Virtually anything you can think of has become sapient: sharks, goats, bulls, cats, pigs, walruses, rhinoceroses (rhinoceroi?). It's that particular weirdly broken kind of science fiction where they have almost unthinkable wonders around every corner--flying cars, force fields, space travel, antigravity, the personal computer/matter dematerializer that Jade carries her entire inventory in--but a lot of it is junk, which doesn't work very well if at all.
On Hillys, the whole planet has been under siege for a long time. At frustratingly regular intervals, the insectoid aliens known as the DomZ descend from orbit to blow things up, set things on fire, and abduct increasingly large numbers of people. The only things that keep them back, and even this is imperfect, are the Alpha Sections, armored human policemen and soldiers who constantly give their all, every day, to keep Hillys safe. (We know this, because they tell us this, constantly, over television and radio.)
Jade's a reporter, in theory. Right now, she's running an orphanage out of an old lighthouse with her "uncle" Pey'j, taking care of the children orphaned by the DomZ's abductions. When the lighthouse's force field fails, she has to grab a burning stick and fight off the DomZ herself, and in so doing, receives a vision of something distant and alien looking straight at her.
Shortly thereafter, she receives the first work she's had in a while, photographing the animals of Hillys for the Science Center, and meeting a mysterious benefactor for a different sort of photography assignment. The latter is what sets her on the path that'll inform the rest of the game, where Jade goes from simple reporter, to adventurer, to revolutionary.
Your first instincts about what the story will wind up being are probably true, because this isn't a game that thrives upon truly unexpected plot twists. It is, however, extraordinarily immersive and visually powerful, occasionally throwing things at me that made me stop and grin goofily for a second, with my "why doesn't every game do something like this" smile.
For example, Beyond Good & Evil's "overworld," for want of a better term, is set on the water. Hillys is mostly covered in ocean, so to get from place to place, you'll often be taking Jade's hovercraft. You can enter the hovercraft into races, obviously; that was pretty much a given from the start. It's also equipped with a cannon, which comes in handy against water-borne obstacles or the occasional giant horrible alien monster from space.
To reach a well-guarded island fortress, housed inside an abandoned slaughterhouse, that hovercraft turns, for a few mad minutes, into Sonic the Hedgehog. As you burst out of a cave, following an ancient road, a giant alien that might as well be a warship comes after you, blasting away at the road as you travel on it. You have to lean on the accelerator or you'll be cut in half, but at the same time, the already-crumbling road is getting blown to pieces. It's not terribly difficult to pass, when you boil it down to the basics, but it feels like it was when it's over. You feel like you accomplished something due to the sheer visual enormity of the task.
That particular feel extends to the rest of the game, to some extent. You're up against, depending upon the situation at hand, either an entire army or a voracious alien race capable of twisting anything around itself into a living weapon. Individual soldiers wield hammers and grenades from behind the safety of a personal energy shield, when they aren't actually backed up by independently-guided laser turrets with perfect aim.
Jade, by comparison, has a stick, a camera, and a gyrodisk launcher. She's also agile, sneaky, and clever. She'd have to be.
She's usually accompanied by a partner, either Pey'j, her mechanic "uncle," or Double-H, an amnesiac and befuddled secret agent. Pey'j can fix broken machinery or cut through iron grates with his multitool, while Double-H is an excellent fighter and can bash through metal bars. Between these abilities, and Jade's, your job is to figure out ways to sneak or evade enemy attention as you invade their territory. You're not usually there to kill anyone or destroy anything, as in most games; Jade's a reporter. You're there to take pictures, so you can tell the rest of Hillys what's really going on.
Of course, you can also beat people over the head with a large magic stick if you want. Jade's quarterstaff can generate a large power-up attack if you hold down X, but most often, you'll be using it and the occasional kick to deal with pesky animals, robots, aliens, and the occasional ravening biomechanical monster. It's a little underimagined, since the X (or A, or whatever) button is really all you need. There could stand to be more moves, but really, there always could.
Most of the game will be spent in that exploratory mode, where Jade and her partner of the moment go undercover, investigating a new location. Each of the "dungeons" of the game involve a series of puzzles and obstacles, which you have to circumvent or solve to progress. Usually, that involves avoiding fighting if at all possible, or figuring out a way to cheat so effectively that the fight's over before the other guy knows it's started. In one dungeon, your biggest problem is avoiding detection at all costs, because the guards will go tactical on you with lasers and grenades if you're seen; in another, you have to figure out how to use the local, flammable plants to their best advantage. Other dungeons present you with problems such as electric fences, conveyor belts, broken elevators, distant platforms, narrow corridors, really tight guard perimeters, long climbs, and ancient machinery.
We've all been here before; you must find switches, reactivate or deactivate a circuit, figure out which item to break, shove crates or cylinders, or use the environment against an enemy, but it's always a pleasure, especially when it's done as flawlessly as this is. The dungeons start small, with a simple abandoned mine inhabited by explosive or hostile animals, but eventually expand out into giant facilities that're cities unto themselves. The slaughterhouse level, for instance, requires you to use the hovercraft to navigate between its areas, dodging heat-seeking mines and search droids the entire time.
The real trick here is how none of these obstacles feel arbitrary, like they're there simply to be an obstacle, placed from above by the spirits of gameplay. (Insert Resident Evil joke here.) Instead, they're just natural problems you'd run into. Of course the guards are alert; of course the mine is full of overgrown plants and dangerously broken machines. It makes sense.
Beyond Good & Evil's gameplay is part and parcel of an elegantly imagined gameworld. The animation is so smooth as to be almost flawless, with the same engine handling everything from simple dialogue to a headlong rooftop escape from enemy aircraft. There are occasional small problems with the camera, usually involving your partner blocking your view, but I don't think there's been a 3D game yet that had an absolutely perfect camera system.
In the cities, hovering cars fly by overhead in a dozen makes and builds while you dodge other, inexpertly piloted ships at water level. Walk into town, and you encounter Chinese walrus antiquarians, a bull-man bartender, and a bipedal shark who's hell on wheels at air hockey. The aliens are unsettling, and truly inhuman; the first time you see the DomZ, they gobble up a bunch of children, who, visible through the aliens' carapace, fight briefly before falling still and silent. A lot of RPGs talk about immersing you in a new world, but Beyond Good & Evil's gameworld does them one better.
It is, however, a very small gameworld. It's visually spectacular and there's a lot to see and do, but it's unfairly and unrealistically limited. Beyond Good & Evil is kind of like a really good sandwich; there's not enough of it and it's over too soon.
Regardless, I'm very impressed by it, and I want you all to go pick it up. I don't care if you'll never play it, although you should because it is fun. I just want to see what Ubi Soft will do with a potential sequel, how they will choose to broaden and expand what's already a remarkable work.