Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings Page One

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We're probably all about LucasArts

Disclaimer: This review is strictly of the Wii version, the only one I've played. My understanding is that the PS2 version is more or less identical sans obvious control differences and the absence of both a co-op mode and the Fate of Atlantis port (significant omissions, I'd say), while the PSP and DS versions are completely different beasts altogether.

Indiana Jones fans could not be blamed for reacting to the release of Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings with an eye-rolling "So soon?" It hasn't exactly been a brisk wait since 2003's Emperor's Tomb for LucasArts' follow-up 3D Indy adventure, and there's a story behind that wait. Let's spend some time in the library, where ninety percent of all archaeology is done, before moving on to the review, shall we?

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Folks with a long memory will recall that LucasArts actually announced a new, internally developed Indiana Jones game as early as 2005, saying only that it would be released for next-generation consoles and that it was based on an all original story of "biblical proportions" concocted with the help of George Lucas (dialog writer on Attack of the Clones) himself.

At E3 of the following year, LEC had little more to offer on the game's story or gameplay, but had an awful lot to sound off about with regard to the technology that would power it. The Spring of 2006 saw the internet bombarded with hype videos, animation tests, interviews and press releases bragging about Euphoria and NaturalMotion, "revolutionary" physics engines that the new Indy was going to take advantage of. The tech, it seemed, was the only thing about the game LEC was interested in sharing. They then mumbled something about a release in 2007.

All went eerily quiet on the Indiana Jones front for a long time after that, and it was hard not to draw conclusions when Star Wars: The Force Unleashed became the only game LEC wanted to talk about, a sister production that coincidentally was advertised to make use of the exact same technologies outlined above. What little was learned of Indy throughout 2007 came from the rumor mill, which reported that the game would receive companion releases for lower-end systems (Wii, PS2, PSP, Nintendo DS) developed by 3rd parties - a strategy that was also being employed for The Force Unleashed to hit all major platforms. In this case, the ports were to be handled by developer A2M, with the exception of the PSP version, which was handled by Amaze. The Force Unleashed was ultimately released to strong sales and a lot of fanfare while Indy fans sat, patient but confused, and perhaps a little apprehensive about the state of their game.

Whether the game wasn't coming along on time or as hoped, or whether LEC simply decided to devote its resources to the product branded with the more popular of two insanely popular licenses, was unclear, but it was obvious enough that the deafening silence signaled something foreboding about this long in-development Indy project. Rumors that the much ballyhooed AI tech would be altogether scrapped from the game seemed to confirm these fears.

2007 came and went, and even throughout 2008 (which included the theatrical release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), LEC remained pretty tightlipped about their supposedly still in-development Indy game, with few details other than a rumored title (Staff of Kings, which turned out to be real), emerging, along with some now traditional mass firings at the studio.

Finally, in early 2009, the game was re-announced for the Wii, PS2, PSP, and Nintendo DS for a Spring 2009 release, with no explanation as to what happened to the full-fledged version that was originally unveiled.

It turned out that, after all that time, LEC simply decided to quietly cancel their internal Indy game and release the separate and already completed low end ports, leaving 360/PS3 owners who had been patiently awaiting a game they'd been promised for five years to get the hell over it. And that pretty much brings us up to speed, with the Wii version - now the showcase of the pack - getting put under Mojo's critical eye. It should be emphasized that the game you'll see on the store shelves while passing through your local Gamestop is not the same game that was in development several years ago. That game, while certainly sharing the same story and some of the basic ideas of the final product, was a distinct production that is, as my grandma would say, gone pecan.

So anyhoodle - Staff of Kings for the Wii. Is the first LucasArts game we've gotten a review copy of in a decade any good? Read on!

Given its production history, the quality of Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings is something to be skeptical of by default. There's nothing promising about a Wii title that was conceived as the outsourced "alternate universe" version of a 360/PS3 game. The developer, A2M, doesn't exactly inspire confidence either, having a track record of producing suspect quality movie tie-ins and these simplified re-interpretations of games originally developed for more powerful consoles. Then there's the fact that the initial screenshots looked absolutely terrible by any standards.

Despite all of that portentous background, I inserted the game into my Wii with an open mind and certainly tempered expectations, knowing that I should rule out the possibility of anything really special and simply hope that I'd be getting a decently fun action/adventure game. Which, fortunately, I did. Staff of Kings isn't going to blow you away, but thanks to some simplistic but solid gameplay and genuine Indy thrills, the game should satisfy your craving for another Indiana Jones adventure and exactly nothing more.

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Indy pulls shelving onto a Nazi German; his buddies seem cool with it.

The game is set in 1939, putting it one year after Last Crusade and around the same time of the events of Fate of Atlantis. The game seems to pride itself on "classic" Indiana Jones tropes: the 30s, Nazi villains (only they wear iron crosses instead of swastikas and are referred to only as "Germans," which is stupid to the tenth power), a Judeo-Christian artifact, and such locations as Chinatown, Central America, Istanbul, and the Himalayas, which evoke settings from the original trilogy. And, oh yes, you'll hear a Wilhelm scream or two.

Honestly, the storyline occasionally feels a little bit too much like a mildly loose remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I suppose that was often true of the movie sequels, too. The game opens with Indy recovering a golden monkey ram's head idol from the ruins of an ancient, booby trapped temple. Unfortunately, he's thwarted by Rene Belloq Magnus Moeller, who was a former friend and classmate of Indy under the tutelage of Professor Abner Ravenwood Professor Charles Kingston but decided to saddle up with the Nazis instead. After recovering the Staff of Ra medallion head piece Jade Sphere from the father uncle of the fiercely independent American spitfire Marion Ravenwood Irish journalist Maggie O'Mally, Indy embarks on a globetrotting expedition that takes him to various exotic locales in his quest to retrieve the legendary Ark of the Covenant Staff of Moses before the Nazis can wield its divine powers for their own dark purposes.

The story and dialog are serviceable, and might even surprise people who expect absolutely no care or effort to be put into that area. I was entertained, with my only real whine being that the plot felt a little needlessly episodic, mostly thanks to near nonexistent transitions. There are times when Indy's adventure abruptly cuts from one part of the globe to another when the trademark red tracing line against the map (an image which is unforgivably absent) would have been a perfect segue. That said, the frequent in-game cinematics are well staged and animated, and I think you'll find the Indy yarn provided a motivation to keep playing until the end.

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In a nod to real life, enemies are outfitted with health bars over their heads.

The levels are lengthy and varied, with frequent checkpoints making sure you don't get set very far back after meeting an unfortunate end. (The visual for Indy respawning is excellent.) The gameplay is lightweight but generally satisfying. The levels prove to be pretty formulaic, basically comprised of puzzle-solving segments interspersed with the occasional fight and shootout. There are some noteworthy patches of inspiration in the design, however, including my favorite level in an Istanbul museum, which comes off as a kind of poor man's Zelda temple.

The fighting mechanics are pretty easy to get the hang of (and you will most definitely get the hang of them, thanks to frequent and impossible-to-bypass in-game tutorials) and are surprisingly addictive. Always keeping things interesting, many objects in the environment during these bits are destructible or otherwise useful. This furnishes you and your enemies with such items as chairs, wrenches, pool cues, and even fish to work with during the occasionally chaotic melees. The whip is also useful in a fight for disarming goons or making things crash down on them.

The Wii's controller is fully embraced. The remote and the nunchuck are called upon, sometimes in tandem, for attacks, the frequent quicktime event escape sequences and environment puzzles. Interaction with the environment is a matter of an icon appearing over a hotspot, indicating an action you can perform. The whip is a vital tool for this stuff, used countless times to swing across chasms, climb vertical walls, and tug at objects. I won't say the controls are bereft of hiccups, but they are enjoyable, and it's nice to see the motion controls used so intensively in a Wii game that isn't first party.

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Indy confronts his mutual fears of spiders and quicktime events in his greatest challenge yet.

The game's visuals are surprisingly good given the circumstances and especially considering how bad those thankfully misleading screenshots looked. I don't know what to say other than in motion it's much better, and there are subtle touches to appreciate. (It should be said I played Staff of Kings on a large, standard-def television, which is a setup that tends to serve Wii titles the best.) The environments are reasonably varied and detailed, and as said the animation is good as well. My only complaints would be a degree of drabness (this is not a colorful game), low detail for character models, and the fact that Indy lacks his signature satchel. This absence is completely inexplicable, and what's weirder, he evidently sports the accessory in the handheld versions of the game. Bizarre stuff.

I was also slightly put off by the distracting glowy aesthetic courtesy of the excessive bloom lighting "effect" the game sports, much like that seen in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which feels implemented for the sake of it and does not fit the license very well. Look, all I'm saying is that when I think of what an Indiana Jones production should look like I think of this:

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Vibrant! Gritty! Film-like!

...and not this:

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Glossly, glowy, diffusive, washed-out bullshit.

I'm sure this is something only I'm bothered by.

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