‘Beyond Good & Evil 2’ is the space pirate opera of our dreams

We are happy to report that Beyond Good & Evil 2 is actually a video game — or at least it’s well on its way to becoming one. This has remained a point of contention throughout the game’s torturously long journey from rumor to reality, and developer Ubisoft Montpellier knew it needed to prove the game exists in some playable form — their words, not ours.

Although we still haven’t tried it ourselves, we did get to see some developers give it a spin behind closed doors at E3 2018. Beyond Good & Evil 2 is a monumentally ambitious space opera action RPG, set in one of the most immediately intriguing video game worlds we’ve encountered in quite a while.

Space Pirates of Penzance

Beyond Good & Evil 2 takes place at the end of the 24th century when two galaxies are colliding. It’s mostly set in System 3, a planetary system that’s been colonized by humans and human-animal hybrids used as slave labor. All of the original settlers found that radiation had rendered them infertile on the journey there, so everyone in System 3 is actually a clone, made from a limited set of human and hybrid DNA. Hybrids have been created for specific purposes, like human-monkeys for mining.

We have more questions than answers, but Ubisoft has shown us enough to earn our trust for the time being.

Breaking out of that master-slave relationship is a key theme of the game. System 3 is dominated by corporations with a vested interest in maintaining the oppressive and profitable status quo. Your goal, as a space pirate, is to rebel against it. As with real history, pirates are radically inclusive, embracing freedom above all else for humans and hybrids alike. Your character can be anyone from any of the DNA lines on a journey to become their own pirate legend. You will also be gathering a crew throughout the game, helping humans — and especially hybrids — find their freedom with you.

Dakini and the crew of the Gada, shown in the recent cinematic trailer, were legendary pirates searching for an artifact called the Moksha Gate that would supposedly bring freedom to all hybrids, until they were apparently taken down by Jade, the first game’s protagonist, who is hunting and decimating pirates throughout System 3. Some of the story will revolve around trying to piece together what happened to the Gada, and presumably continue the search for the Moksha Gate.

beyond good and evil 2 jade

No Hybrid’s Sky

The game’s initial reveal at E3 2017, the first time we’d seen anything beyond concept art, was essentially an engine demo to show off the incredible scope for which the game is aiming: Seamlessly transitioning from running around as a single character on foot, to zooming around the solar system on a space ship, with no breaks or loading screens. It’s essentially the bespoke version of No Man’s Sky’s promise to immerse you in a seamless and complete universe.

This year, developer Ubisoft Montpellier filled in that framework with actual gameplay systems, giving us a sense of what it will actually feel like to pick up a controller and play. We began on foot, with two characters playing in co-op — a human woman with large hair and a badass translucent katana on her back and a tattooed monkey hybrid in a leather jacket and jeans. Beyond Good & Evil 2 is a narrative action RPG, playable either solo or with friends, and the developers said that, regardless of whether you’re dropping into a friend’s game or playing in your own, you will always be making progress on your own story, (although they were vague about what that specifically meant).

While exploring an ancient temple, our heroes came upon a group of human scientists experimenting on hybrids, showing off the game’s person-to-person combat as they moved in to rescue the victims. Both characters were armed with a sword, a gun, and an energy shield, with a fairly standard third-person combat core. Tactical complication comes from equipable augments that enhance your abilities, for instance letting you temporarily slow time or knock enemies back with melee attacks. Enemies have access to all of these same augments, making fights against even ostensibly similar foes play out quite differently.

More than anything the world reminded us of The Fifth Element for its color, vibrancy, diversity, and texture.

They prepared for the fight by first using a spyglass to scan the enemies for information, such as their corporate affiliation, class, and any augments they have equipped. Careful planning, we were told, will be crucial to surviving encounters as the game goes on. The same spyglass served as a way to gather information about the world at every scale, identifying various buildings in the city once they emerged from the temple, or distant cities on the horizon after they took to the sky. Augments also operate across different scales, as you can equip them to enhance ship-to-ship combat as well, which we saw later on when one of our heroes provoked the Ganesha City police into a dogfight, soaring above the buildings.

Ganesha City was a sight to behold. Everyone travels by spaceship or hover bike, so deep chasms replace the streets for people to fly between buildings. Even without a vehicle your character has a jetpack for zipping around. Ganesha City has been built with this verticality in mind, with the rich living up on top while the poor suffer in slums below. More than anything the world reminded us of The Fifth Element for its color, vibrancy, diversity, and texture. The project to solicit creative contributions from the community, if it actually works, will dovetail nicely into this idea of a wildly diverse, alien city with heretofore unseen levels of detail. Space Opera is a particularly fun sub-genre of science fiction, tying a hero’s personal journey to cosmic stakes with an emphasis on the fantastical and the melodramatic.

Smoke and mirrors

One of the last things the developers showed us was an interesting little microcosm of the game’s impressive scale. Going into a map view of the planet, and then zooming out to see the whole system, they pointed out that it wasn’t actually a separate map or abstraction—it was literally just a pulled back view of the same continuous world we had seen in action. It reminded us of the Borges short story “On Exactitude in Science” about a kingdom of mapmakers who took verisimilitude so far as to make a map that corresponded to the entire kingdom at a 1-to-1 scale, covering the whole thing. That story is about the limits of representation, but video games are moving towards making it literal. Both Beyond Good & Evil 2 and Cyberpunk 2077 showed off the promise of worlds that feel impossibly detailed and dynamic within the framework of what we know video games can do today.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 screenshot

That said, both games were shown in very controlled, hands-off settings, and so it’s impossible to assess how illusory that semblance of depth really is. Beyond Good & Evil 2 in particular still felt like a theoretical exercise — a vertical slice of a game that hasn’t fully manifested yet. We have more questions than answers, but Ubisoft has shown us enough to earn our trust for the time being. It still feels like a dream, but we’re enthralled by its promise.