How will video game characters react when they are smart enough to realize they are video game characters? Maybe they'll be programmed to serve happily, boldly risking their lives for our entertainment. Maybe they'll be angry at the malevolent player-gods that continually throw them into harm's way. Or maybe—hopefully—they'll have a sense of humor about their situation, like the characters in Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc seem to.
No, the characters of Rayman 3 are not endowed with some radical new artificial intelligence that makes them fully aware of their artificiality. But they are endowed by the game's talented writers and voice actors with dialogue that might make you think they are. This self-referential back-and-forth sets this game apart from the crowded market of platformers that it mocks and imitates with equal finesse.
It's obvious from the start that Rayman 3 is not a game that takes itself seriously. After a quick flying mini-game, Rayman goes on a quest to find his trademark limbless hands, which were pulled off in the introduction by his big blue friend Globox. Aiding Rayman is his quest is an irritable fairy, Murfy, who narrates one of the funniest in-game tutorials I've ever seen.
As Murfy reads instructions from the manual—"hit the jump button to jump," "hit the punch button to punch," and so forth—he asks, "people get paid to write this stuff?" Eventually, the manual starts talking back, threatening to fire the fairy if he doesn't stick to the script. Murfy is not to be silenced, though, and continues to point out the logical inconsistencies necessary for a good platforming game. He challenges the manual with sarcastic comments like "Oooh, a switch. I bet it activates a mechanism," and questions about why one such switch activates a door in the middle of nowhere.
Murfy's comments makes tolerable what is usually be a tedious exercise for a seasoned gamer. By talking to the player through Murfy, the developers let the player know that they're in on the utter ridiculousness of many platforming game conventions, like the in-game tutorial. Murfy's commentary is the developer's way of asking the player to "please bear with us until we get to the actual game."
Those who stick with it will are treated to a well-done cutscene in which Globox inadvertently swallows Andre, a black lum bent on world destruction. Rayman is recruited to guide Globox to a series of witch doctors that try to help extract the black, fuzzy fly from his belly.
Ubi Soft seems to aim its humor at veteran gamers who have played dozens of platforming games in their time. It seems to be their way of making up for gameplay that is mostly standard, if well executed, platforming fare. Simple puzzles and repetitive enemies are balanced by above-average level design, excellently implemented controls, and the tongue-in-cheek attitude that pervades the game. Rayman 3 is the perfect game for the world-weary platform game connoisseur who isn't afraid to laugh at his favorite genre.
The adversarial, sometimes parasitic relationship between Globox and Andre is at the center of much of the Rayman 3's humor. Andre has an insatiable thirst for plum juice, but Globox is allergic; just a few drops will get him tipsy. Thus, when Andre forces Globox to imbibe whole barrels of fermented juice, all hell breaks lose. These drunken escapades are integrated as necessary events in the gameplay, but it's the animations and expressions on Globox's face that managed to at least make me smile every time I saw it.
Even when he isn't drunk, Globox often steals the show with comments that make the player wonder how much he actually knows about himself. When a disco inspired sub-level ends, Globox asks Rayman, "Who turned off the nice music?" When Rayman punches Globox, he quips, "You were a lot nicer in Rayman 2." As he hangs trapped upside-down, the blood rushing to his head causes him to spew off comments about his animations and polygon counts!
On the one hand, comments like these take the player out of the experience by reminding them they're just playing a game. On the other hand, though, these comments make the player step back and appreciate the absurdity inherent in controlling a purple, limbless adventurer with a helicopter for hair. It is just a game, after all, and the characters seem more aware of this than anyone. It's a welcome change from the string of dark, serious, self-important adventure games that seem to be coming out with increasing frequency.
Even the enemy characters get in on the act. Enemy grunts can be seen playing cards and blowing each other's heads off while waiting for Rayman to come by. Other guards can be overheard arguing about whose dad is stronger to pass the time. Still other comments are inserted, like "make him write bad checks," and "poke him in the eyes," into their chants of "make him bleed!" More than just being funny, these comments made me consider the motivations of the countless soldiers I was destroying in a way no other platform game has.
As Murfy leaves at the end of the tutorial, he cries out that he'll "see you in Rayman 4." One can only hope that he'll bring the irreverent humor that pervades Rayman 3 with him, because it's this attitude that converts it from a standard platforming sequel into a work of satirical art. I just hope Globox doesn't hold a grudge. After all, I did hit him quite a few times.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the GameCube version of the game.