It's not often you get a game that permanently raises the bar for what you expect from videogames. It's rarer still outside of the launch window of a new console. By embracing and fully taking advantage of performance capture, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West does exactly that.
Rather than stitching together voiceover, facial animation and motion capture, often from different actors, to create a hobbling, dead-eyed Frankenstein's monster, in Enslaved the whole lot is captured at once from a single performance and the results are astonishing. As a bonus for us reviewers, it means in the future we'll be able to bitch about terrible acting in games, rather than just terrible voice acting. Did we say 'bitch about'? We meant 'critically deconstruct'...
There's a subtlety to the characters in Enslaved that we haven't seen anywhere else, not even the exemplary Mass Effect games. Monkey and Trip, the two main protagonists, don't need to spell out how they're feeling - you can read it in their faces. It's a similar story with the animation of Monkey himself as he scrambles around a world reclaimed by nature.
There's a unique physicality to each of the characters, but Serkis' simian performance, presumably honed on King Kong, is particularly inspired not only in cutscenes, but also in the movement animations. While there's no real risk of plummeting to your doom unless you're on a crumbling handhold, there is a pleasing rhythm to Monkey's agility and the satisfaction comes from plotting a route then executing it as quickly as possible through a set of perfectly timed taps.
It helps that Ninja Theory has created a world worth exploring. For a start, this isn't a grimy, grey and brown vision of the apocalypse. The human beings have been cleaned out and, while there's plenty of blasted wasteland about, the places you'll be clambering around are remarkably colourful and unendingly beautiful. There's an enormous sense of scale as well, from New York's overgrown skyscrapers to the gargantuan hunks of twisted metal in a mech graveyard.
Over the course of Monkey and Trip's journey you're presented with a remarkable amount of variety, broadly broken into platforming, combat and puzzle solving. More often than not all three are combined in some form and there's the odd chase sequence (on Monkey's hoverboard-esque 'cloud') or multi-stage boss battle to further spice things up. The result is that we rarely found ourselves lingering on one activity for long enough to get bored and the journey has an engaging momentum.
While this review might sound like it's turning into a love story - and we are just a little bit infatuated by Trip - there are a few elements that occasionally threaten to spoil the harmony.
While for the most part the controls and camera behave themselves, occasionally the two contrive to press your nose against a wall as a gang of three mechs wail on you. It's usually the moments when you're being overwhelmed by attackers that things begin to fall apart, which unfortunately is usually the time when you most need them to play ball.
We're also not hugely enamoured with the shooting mechanic - Monkey's staff is a little twitchy for tracking foes - though fortunately you're rarely forced to use it if you prefer actively clobbering someone instead.
Finally, there are two or three sequences in the game, mainly toward the end, that slap you with an instant death with very little warning at all - they're relatively easy to clear after a couple of attempts, but the trial-and-error style doesn't sit well with the measured strategy and precisely timed combat of the rest of the game.