The appeal is clear: crack the Wii Remote just like Indiana Jones cracks his whip in the films. Because Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings promises so much, because it means so much to so many people, interest is stratospheric. But perhaps there's more to it than that. LucasArts has kept the game carefully guarded, not allowed much of its creation to be seen in the run up to release. Children of the 80s are interested because we're not quite sure what we're going to get. We know there's no "next-gen" version, and that the Wii version is the main focus, but beyond that? Well, it's as mysterious as one of Indy's famous adventures.
Quelling the excitement, however, is a degree of cynicism. This is a Wii game, and we know what Wii games are like. Motion sensing isn't what it's cracked up to be, at least pre-MotionPlus it isn't, graphics tend to look like the rotten side of a tomato, and gameplay, well, it's often an afterthought. It's with this in mind that our first hands-on gander at the game begins - we're almost scared to look, almost frightened to discover what fresh hell LucasArts has bestowed upon our beloved Indy.
So, what did the preview event reveal? One) Staff of Kings is a third-person action game that combines boxing-esque fighting with simple puzzle solving. Two) The graphics won't blow anyone away, but they have their moments. Three) The story revolves around Indy's race-against-time search for an ancient relic, the Staff of Moses, you know, that bloke from the Bible who parts the sea. And four) It's actually good fun.
The game begins with a tutorial, one that's designed to familiarise players with the unique combat system. Indy's in a desert part of Sudan, watching some German activity from a cliff top. It's 1939, a year after the third film (so Indy's his smouldering self), and he's searching for an idol in a cave. In the cave there's some rudimentary puzzle-solving to do, some chasms to swing across, a big door to open (via setting two altars on fire) and some spiders to burn (by swinging the Wii Remote like a torch). Once the main chamber is reached, the graphics start to impress. The fire effects and lighting in particular look great, with actual heat distortion giving a real sense of temperature. Indy sees the idol perched on an altar - you have to whip it to get it. What do you know? It triggers a booby trap. Indy runs towards the camera, desperately trying to escape collapsing pillars, all the while you're alternating moving the Wii Remote and Nunchuck up and down to keep Indy going. He leaps through a closing door, his hat falls off and at the last second... yoink! He plucks it from impending doom. So far so very Indy.
Outside the cave there are Germans to fight. At its most basic, flicking the Wii Remote forwards makes Indy throw a right jab, doing the same with the Nunchuck throws a left jab. Moving the Wii Remote sharply from right to left throws out a right hook, vice versa for the Nunchuck and a left hook. Flicking upwards does an uppercut - slower but more powerful. These six punches form the foundation of Indy's famous brawler fighting style.
It can actually look quite brutal, at times. Indy can headbutt enemies after grabbing them, and pound them while they're on the ground. And there's some depth to it too: by pressing the A and B button together Indy can dodge attacks - essential if you're up against one of the stronger enemies. We faced off against a bald bruiser who looked exactly like the big bloke Indy fought by the plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was tough to beat, and required a few well-timed dodges to knock out.
While punching is great, (that classic meaty punch sound effect from the films is faithfully reproduced), it's cracking the whip that's got everyone excited. Here, flicking the Wii Remote forward while holding the B button makes Indy whip out his, er, whip, and do the same. Now, the point to make here is, you can't just do this whenever you want. You'll only be able to use the whip in context-sensitive situations. For example, when up against an enemy, you can whip the weapon out of their hand, or whip their legs and drag them towards you, or, if you see a whip icon above an object, for example a cupboard, you can whip it to bring it down to knock out an enemy. You can't just run around the levels whipping everything into oblivion.
LucasArts describes this as interacting with the game's "Hot Sets". Indeed there are icons everywhere, for items you can pick up to use as weapons - such as brooms, glass bottles, pool cues and billiard balls - and for items you can interact with using the whip. We've mentioned being able to pull down objects in the environment to knock out enemies - Indy can swing across chasms with his whip, too. If you grab an enemy (with the Z button), and drag them to certain objects in the environment, an icon will pop up to show that you can slam them into it - a fish tank, for example (you can even pick up a fish and use that as a weapon), or a gong. This is a great way of knocking out enemies quickly, rather than whittling down their life bars with punches. The tutorial advises you to scout out an area before you start a fight. Good advice.
One of the big problems with Wii games is that the motion sensing technology isn't accurate enough to distinguish between subtle differences in motion. More often than not the animation you want to trigger isn't the one you end up triggering. In Staff of Kings this doesn't appear to be a problem. During my time with the game it was a rare occasion indeed that what I wanted to happen didn't. One of the mini-games, for want of a better term, involves striking flint and steel together to light a torch - you need to strike the Wii Remote across the Nunchuck a few times in the appropriate motion. This works, isn't frustrating, and is good fun.
After beating up a few Germans, it's time for Indy to make his escape in a plane, of all things. The idea here is to hold the Wii Remote upwards, as if it were the plane's throttle; moving it about will affect direction and aim the targeting reticule for the turrets. At first this was incredibly fiddly - I died three times simply from flying into great big rock faces. It wasn't until I was advised to hang the Nunchuck around my neck and plant the Wii Remote into the palm of my left hand that I started to make progress.
Back in the US, the game's second level is set in San Francisco's Chinatown - Indy's had word from an old archaeologist professor friend of his called Kingston, who has gone on ahead of you in search of the Staff, that there's some new information. On the street he witnesses a girl being kidnapped, and gives chase through back alleys, a money laundering facility and eventually into a club, where you need to beat up scores of Triads.
Although we've only really had a glimpse of what Staff of Kings has to offer, at least now we've got a good idea of what it's all about. But there's still much we haven't seen. For example, there will be separate modes and even a separate story (complete with comic book stills) for four-player coop, most of which involve vehicles. We're not sure how this is going to work, exactly, but it sounds promising. We haven't seen Indy's love interest, Irish journalist Maggie O'Mally, either. There's tons of unlockables, too, including different skins for Indy, new modes and, get this, 1992 point and click adventure Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. That's right, you'll actually be able to unlock the full game, untouched (bar the mouse cursor being replaced by the Wii Remote pointer). When LucasArts showed this off, in all its pixelated glory, it garnered the most attention of the day.
Some fans will bemoan the lack of a "next-gen" Indy game. And it is a shame indeed. You'd have thought, given that Star Wars: The Force Unleashed did so spectacularly well at retail across all platforms, that a similar fate would befall a fully multi-platform Indy release. But, alas, it's not to be. We're going to have to get used to the fact that Indy's new home is on the Wii. The good news is it's a lot better than it perhaps could have been. It's clearly aimed at a younger audience (the many icons on screen should ensure the whole family will be able to get something out of the game) but the combat system, cracking the whip and the "Hot Sets" hopefully will provide enough depth for more experienced gamers. In short, so far, so good.
Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings is due out for Wii, PSP, PS2 and DS June 12, 2009.