For a game supposedly set in a make-believe world, with made-up creatures and far-fetched situations, parts of Little Big Adventure are disturbingly real. There’s a scene at the beginning of the game where you, as the humanoid Twinsen, make your escape from the asylum where you’re imprisoned. You kick one of the doctors in the face and, as he reels back, punch him viciously in the abdomen. He collapses to the floor at your feet, clutching his stomach in agony, until you kick him once more in the head and he dies. You’ve got to do it because it’s the only way to get the key to the exit, and if you’d let him go he’d have raised the alarm. But it looks gruesome.
And it’s all down to the astonishing animation which French developer Adeline (a company which includes many of the programmers of Alone In The Dark) has managed to accomplish. By using SVGA Gouraud-shaped polygons rather than pre-stored sprites for the characters, they’ve produced animation as smooth and true to life as anything previously seen on the PC.
And this achievement is all the more impressive when you look at the detail of each character – not just physical features like eyes, hair and clothing, but the way they move, crouching down, recoiling when hit, shouldering their rifles and peering around suspiciously. In a way, it’s a shame when the rather more conventional rendered video footage cuts in.
The animation, then, is a state of art. The scenery, too, is fabulously detailed and ‘solid’, thanks to the use of 3D Studio-rendered SVGA backdrops. There’s also realtime zooming at the press of a function key – amazingly, the screen scrolls around smoothly in normal VGA to provide close-ups of the action.
The sound is equally outstanding. As you might expect with a 16bit card, LBA offers great music, endless sampled speech and a huge array of superb effects. Walking on grass, stone and wood all produce their own distinctive noises, and generally nothing happens in the game without an original and convincing aural accompaniment.
But what’s also interesting is the game’s setting. We’re all familiar with oppressive, totalitarian states where the gun rules and there’s steam rising from every grating in the pavement. But LBA takes a fresher perspective. The world it’s set in actually looks like quite a pleasant place, with parks to walk in, well-tended flower beds, clean benches and good street lighting. It’s only recently that things have gone wrong (the plot tells of an evil doctor who’s taken over the world with the help of genetically engineered clones) and soldiers have appeared on the streets. There are sandbags piled up on every street corner, clones peering out from behind barbed wire, and although some citizens glance around them nervously, most seem unaware of the net that is slowly closing in on them.
Controlling Twinsen seems a little odd at first – you use the cursor keys to rotate him and move him forwards and backwards, rather like driving a car. But it soon becomes natural. He’s got four ‘gears’, too: normal (for walking around and collecting things); athletic (for running and jumping); aggressive (for fighting); and discreet (for sneaking about). The animation is different for each mode.
It quickly becomes apparent that the year and a half Adeline has spent putting LBA together hasn’t been entirely devoted to making it look nice. One minute you’re fighting your way past a group of guards, the next you’re sneaking through a secret passageway, shuffling crates around in a 3D sliding block puzzle, or picking your way through a treacherous jumping section. LBA combines the best elements of computer games like Alone In The Dark and Flashback with the intricacies of console adventures like Zelda and Landstalker.
There are irritations. It seems rather harsh that if you bump into a wall while in athletic mode you lose some energy. And sometimes the screen flip-scrolls to reveal that you’ve just blundered into the path of a robot.
But you can forgive LBA anything. With well over 40 hours of playing time and something new apparently around every corner, it’s both huge and absorbing. Rarely does a game arrive that combines technical innovation with diverse gameplay, humour and genuine personality. Little Big Adventure is quite unlike anything else.