After the sensory overload of E3, the usual lull in actual releases has begun in earnest. With May to July being typically devoid of big franchises or bestsellers in retail terms, it makes a welcoming change to be given some serious hands-on time with what could be a huge franchise for Buena Vista. Developed by Amaze Entertainment, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is set to contest the theory that 'summer releases' don't sell, so on the promise of Kiera Knightly (who incidentally didn't show), I made my way down to Portsmouth Harbour to check out the PSP version of the game.
A third-person action adventure, Dead Man's Chest slips you into the guise of Jack Sparrow, a character made famous by the ever impressive Johnny Depp from the original movie. Set against the backdrop of the second film of the trilogy, the game takes you on a quest to find the legendary treasure, with sword fighting, duelling, disloyalty and humour all playing a part along the way.
Control of your character is achieved using the analogue control stick, with the D-Pad used for weapon selection and advanced pre-choreographed special moves. Running and jumping comes easily, as does navigation, and the fixed camera angles for each area makes this an easy game to jump straight into. The game begins with Jack having to pay up on a deal made long ago whereby Jack offered 100 years of servitude in exchange for 13 years as captain of 'The Black Pearl'. After our fearless, yet slightly camp, buccaneer concedes that he must honour any deal made, you find yourself needing to escape back to your comrades because "no-one gets the better of Jack Sparrow!"
Movement and animation is excellent, with Jack's famous camp walk in full effect, although only when walking slowly. It does exemplify just how far handheld gaming has progressed over the last few years, with animation, graphics and audio all making a quantum leap thanks to the huge advances in technology. The atmosphere in-game is backed up by some excellent ambient music, while a spot on voice actor expertly recreates Jack Sparrow's unique accent. You'll also see some truly amazing sword fighting effects that produce just the right amount of 'ching' needed at precisely the right moment. Speaking of the sword fighting, the action sequences are mapped out in a pretty non-spectacular fashion, with the analogue stick in charge of direction, while the square and triangle buttons are used for speed and power attacks respectively. Where Dead Man's Chest differs is in its application of tried and tested fighting mechanics and the way it works responsively; most importantly, it's bloody good fun!
A strong connection with the main character is something that few games nail, but the PSP version of Dead Man's Chest hits it bang on the head. The in-game Jack Sparrow has a weight and sense of movement that just feels right. The game is currently a bit on the hard side, meaning it takes a little while to settle in to things, but with development still ongoing, this is likely to be tweaked before release. Enemies won't attack you whilst you're busy taking care of someone else, but, to be fair, this occurs in games on all systems, and can often make for a less frustrating experience. The locations and characters are all taken either directly from the movie or custom designed for the game, with some highly detailed backdrops and surprisingly excellent character models. It is an impressive looking PSP game, and the grace of movement is worth mentioning again, as it's really not seen often enough in handheld games.
Whilst I didn't have a chance to grapple with the multiplayer aspect of the game, we're told that the final game will have no less than ten maps, with four game types, such as Deathmatch, Plunder the Flag and Last Pirate Standing - game modes that sound awfully familiar. Game share is also an option, so those without the game will be able to join in the multiplayer action.
All preconceptions of movie tie-ins aside, Pirates looks to have found a home on the PSP, effortlessly complimenting the features of the machine and, for once, it's a game that really uses the power to its full extent. Due for release in June along with the DS and GBA versions, Dead Man's Chest is a title I'm definitely looking forward to. In a summer where the release schedule looks a little empty, make sure you save a few pennies for your PSP game collection. Dead Man's Chest could certainly raise a few eyebrows on its release, not for doing something hugely original, but for doing the basic things really well.