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The Rayman Renaissance

by Annette Gonzalez on Nov 05, 2011 at 05:27 AM

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“Long ago the primordial forest, deep and mysterious, witnessed the birth of a man, er, a vegetable – no no no – ah, a thingamajig. Conjured from the magnificent moon beams of the second summer solstice, woven together by us, the nymphs, destined to preserve the equilibrium of the sacred universe, the one we call Rayman.”

At age 17, Ubisoft luminary Michel Ancel conceptualized a character simple in design, but complex in ability. Ancel admittedly lacked the artistic chops to animate a fully figured being, thus the limbless hero was born. The game creator brought in a team of five to his home in southern France to complete the original 2D Rayman. As the team grew, they moved to an apartment to work on Rayman 2. Once the space was no longer big enough to house the staff, Ancel began a search for the perfect studio. This led to the discovery of a modest 400-year-old home located in a quiet neighborhood in the heart of Montpellier. Affectionately known by the team simply as “La Villa,” the humble abode became the birthplace of Jade and Pey’j from Beyond Good & Evil, King Kong’s video game adaptation, and the Rabbids. Eight years after Rayman’s last traditional console release, Hoodlum Havoc, La Villa is also where one of Ancel’s earliest creations will be reborn.

Return to 2D Roots

Following his 1995 debut on PlayStation, Rayman’s trademark limb-free form and sense of humor catapulted him to stardom. He became one the most recognizable characters not just in Ubisoft’s portfolio, but in the entire gaming industry.
Rayman evolved from a 2D platformer into a 3D experience in The Great Escape, which has spawned a number of ports – including one that recently launched alongside the Nintendo 3DS. With excellent platforming and the introduction of memorable characters, Rayman 2 has managed to stand the test of time. Amid work on Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc and after working on the series for four years, the Ubisoft development team in Montpellier was ready for a fresh experience.

This sparked the creation of the cult hit Beyond Good & Evil, followed by the video game adaptation of King Kong. After production of these titles, the group was prepared to put the spotlight back on Rayman. Plans were to create a 3D platformer on the Wii, but after experimenting with the technology, series creator Michel Ancel decided the motion controller was better suited for party games. “Making a platformer on the Wii was not the best choice,” Ancel recalls. “We wanted to play with the controls, but in a free way, so the party game was cool.”

Rayman’s Wii adventures pitted him against the dim-witted, good-humored Rabbids. However, after a couple of installments, his name was eventually dropped from the series. So was Ancel’s, as he left the Rabbids projects to start working on the Beyond Good & Evil sequel.

“I’ve been working on Beyond Good & Evil 2 for a while,” he admits. “We had a little break on this project, which is quite big, and we decided to make something simpler. That’s the period where we realized how much 2D was possible and very cool to do with today’s consoles. It seems to be the right time for Rayman to come back.”

Origins designer Sebastien Morin agrees: “Now it’s possible to have a 2D game that can be big and immersive because the technology is much better. We have lots of different devices now. Industry execs discovered the simplicity of 2D, as it has this advantage to be more accessible and could be really deep at the same time.”

Anyone who has played the original Rayman can attest to its difficulty. Ancel notes few people actually finished the game, so with the return to 2D in Rayman Origins, the team hopes to make the experience more accessible, but still challenging for players of all skill levels. A large part of the game is controllable with just two buttons thanks to a number of combinations, though some advanced powers require triggers and ­the ­d-pad.

Origin Stories
With Rayman Origins, the Montpellier team wants to create a new and improved adventure while remaining faithful to the franchise’s 2D roots. Part of that plan is treating fans to a number of memorable (and revamped) characters and references from past titles.  Origins immerses players in the Glade of Dreams, where they will tell their own stories based on encounters with characters they find across the universe. Since this is an origin tale, players will learn how the original Rayman antagonist became Mr. Dark, where the iconic bright yellow Lums come from, who imprisoned the adorable Electoons in cages across the world, why Rayman’s partner-in-mischief Globox is blue when the other Red Wizards are, well, red, and how the ­duo ­met.
The team assures us that even if you haven’t played Rayman before, new players won’t have any trouble keeping up. “It’s more of a rebirth than it is a sequel,” explains lead story designer Gabrielle Shrager. “There are Easter eggs for fans, but it’s also a complete reintroduction for new kids. Anyone who’s never played the game will have no trouble getting immersed.”

A Platformer For Every Type Of Player
It wouldn’t be a Rayman game, or a platformer for that matter, without a number of collectibles scattered across the game world. Rayman Origins’ lush, organic world has no shortage of items, friends to save, or secrets to find. But if you’d rather test your precision on a speed run, you’re welcome to do that ­as ­well.

“We’re making the game for a lot of different types of players,” Morin says. “There are players that are more into speed runs, sprinting and chaining, then there are players who are more into exploring the whole world and finding everything. We have different kinds of collectibles for different types of players and each have different rewards.”

The Lums that you collect on each level serve as currency for new power ups, extra health, and “I Dare You” challenges that allow skillful players to wager on whether they can successfully complete a complex, acrobatic chain. Electoons are trapped in cages across the world for the more exploratory player to uncover, and collecting them will yield desirable unlockables such as additional pieces of the story. If you find and help other characters in the world, they will lend a hand in turn. Aid Red Wizards, for instance, and they can help open large doors for you to proceed.
Rayman has all of his standard abilities from previous titles to help him explore, but he’s also developed some new tricks. He can helicopter, sprint, wall jump, use the propeller effect as a fan to move things around in a level, and combat enemies by kicking and shooting. Power ups augment his abilities, allowing Rayman to run faster and jump higher. The team isn’t yet revealing specific details on Rayman’s new moves, as many features are still being implemented.

Beginning And Ending Friendships In Multiplayer
While players can grab each collectible and unlock every secret in Rayman Origins on their own, it never hurts to get a little help from friends. Similar to some of the current platformers on the market such as New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the Origins campaign includes four-player local multiplayer. “For us it’s a way to connect people around the television,” Ancel says. Or drive them apart, according to Morin. “We want the game to be cooperative and competitive at the same time,” he says. “It’s all about opportunity and the mood of the ­people ­playing.”

The levels are designed with both single- and multiplayer in mind, so no one is at a loss if a player tackles the game alone or in a group. A multiplayer demo showed off a four-player team featuring Rayman, Globox, and a pair of Teensies from Rayman 2. The team climbed on top of one another to grab hard-to-reach Lums, slapped around a locked cage to free Electoons, and occasionally duked it out in a friendly melee brawl. In a more athletic level, the team engaged in a swift vertical platform climb as a massive, spiked beast chased them from below. While the team cooperatively spread out across the screen to clear as many of the items as possible during the vertical ascent, there was no stopping one player from hilariously smacking another toward the ­menace ­below.

To maintain accessibility in multiplayer so players of varying skill levels can participate, all four players have the same abilities. This includes the talent of turning into a ghost after falling into harm’s way. Less-skilled players can ghost to collect more items and navigate by floating along as other players leads the action. The ghost player can return to original form with the help of other live players. If all players lose their lives, the group returns to the previous checkpoint. These mechanics are still being balanced, but players decide how they want to complete a level – whether it’s trying to see who can collect the most items or engage in a speed race to the end. It may have a harmonious start and end in a shouting match, but that’s just all part of ­the ­fun.

A Continuous Journey
Rayman Origins was originally pitched as a downloadable title primed for episodic releases. As development continued and the amount of content substantially grew thanks to the UbiArt tools that allow the seamless collaboration between artists and engineers, the team decided to make the project a full retail release.

“We really wanted to make something simpler and faster, and I like the idea of downloadable because we ship a part of the game, get feedback, react, and continue the adventure,” Ancel explains. “At the same time a lot of people wanted to have a real sequel, a real big game. We realized that the game was advanced with so many powers and abilities for Rayman that it was enough for a big game. Rayman is the kind of franchise where you expect a big adventure.”

Judging by what we’ve seen so far with the gorgeous artwork spanning across tons of varied environments, plus single- and multiplayer options, Rayman Origins looks to be his biggest adventure yet.