Anyone that’s seen this summer’s excellent War for the Planet of the Apes knows how subversive the cinematic trilogy can be; that evocative verb attached to the title suggested battle. An explosive escalation of everything that’s come before.
Yet the expected tour de force, the final battle between simian and sapien? It never materialised. The story took a surprising sidestep from what the trailers would lead us to believe. Or perhaps that should be ‘unsurprising’.
Like Rise and Dawn before it, War was more intrigued by internal struggles and personality conflicts than explosive bombast. A summer blockbuster more concerned with the strain war puts on the psyche than the spectacle warfare would bring.
It’s a template that’s successfully adhered to for Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier, a choice-driven experience the central narrative of which drills down on factitious intergroup politics as ape and human come into contact.
It’s a more intimate affair than its cinematic brethren. On one side, a small splinter group of apes, who’ve roamed across the country in the wake of schism that divided their clan during the events of Dawn, seek a new home. On the other, an equally tightknit crew of frontiersmen using their experience to etch out a living in a land that’s increasingly unwelcoming.
How those intergroup politics and internal fractiousness develop, or erupt, will be on you. Or more accurately, you and your friends; Planet of the Apes joins the ever growing range of couch-friendly, multiplayer orientated PlayLink titles for PlayStation 4.
As with narrative-rich adventures like Telltale’s The Walking Dead or Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, situations both large and small will develop from minute to minute. What happens next needs chosen from multiple dialogue or action options that pop up on screen. Mirroring the group dynamics in-game, choice will be dictated by majority vote, selected on each player’s smartphone or controller.
That’s an interesting similarity between the game and its big screen originator. The movies’ moral ambiguity lingered long after the credits rolled and ignited conversation at whatever watering hole or cafe you swung to after. You understood The Colonel’s aggression as it was built on personal loss, as much as Caesar struggled to remain peaceful in the face of hatred. You could empathise with Koba’s lust for war because fundamentally it was driven on revenge for previous abuses.
So to is it in Last Frontier, a demo of which I play alongside its creators during a hands-on event last month. I – we – witness, interact with, a range of flashpoints on both sides, everything saturated with that moral ambiguity.
The severity of an interrogation as the Frontiersmen try to coerce a captive ape into giving them information; the apes’ arguing whether to ghost through and steal from an inhabited farm or not; to kill attacking humans or let them flee.
Dialogue choices are many and varied, their rapidity making me react with gut instinct rather than objective contemplation. But there are several moments in which I freeze, common sense warring with emotion; exactly the sort of reaction a game like this should inspire.
There’s a flush of satisfaction when the group votes with me, frustration when events spiral in a direction I’d personally voted against. Discussion is polite in a play session of strangers. I imagine it’ll be less so with a living room full of friends.
But in every choice lingers an undercurrent of uncertainty; survival isn’t guaranteed for any character. Neither are repercussions foreshadowed by on-screen messaging. In a game whose length is equivalent to the movies that inspired it, you could be looking at the worst gaming massacre since Mass Effect 2’s final mission in the space of a single evening.
But that brevity promises to be a strength though. Anyone, everyone, can keep engaged for the length of a movie. Especially when they’re deciding its outcome. Especially since it doesn’t require them to be off their phone. And the discussions that it’ll generate afterwards will keep the conversations going long into the evening… and even necessitate a replay.