GOGathon: Beyond Good and Evil

by Shimmin

In which Shimmin actually completes a game, is charmed by rhinoceri, menaced by mutants, infuriated by cameras and bewildered by game designers.
~
I didn’t actually have the faintest idea about this game when I bought it, except that it was not a financial success and had evoked a mixed-but-positive response. I didn’t even know what kind of game it was. Having finished it, I’m inclined to say the designers were in the same position, and my own response is decidedly mixed.

Having completely forgotten the concept of "screenshots" for the last two reviews, I fully intended to get some for BGAE. Unfortunately, it doesn't support Print Screen or FRAPS, so text wall it is. Sorry.

Learning the ropes


As the game begins, I’m a young woman whose lighthouse on another planet comes under attack by aliens. There’s a frantic few minutes while I pick up the gameplay and learn the basics of the setting, but it’s the good kind of frantic, and I feel pretty cool.

The first, useful thing I notice is BGAE does pretty well at showing you how to play without reading a whacking great manual or dragging you through a tedious tutorial. Controls, items and new gameplay elements are introduced gradually, and the game points out how you should be using them. Not only that, but later in the game, if it gets the feeling you’ve forgotten how to do something, it’ll flash up a tooltip. This is useful if you have forgotten how to do stuff (perhaps after a break in playing), or if you weren’t sure how to tackle a problem full stop. I was pretty impressed with this; BGAE benefits from a relatively simple control scheme and few items to juggle, which obviously makes this easier, but it’s still a solid accomplishment.

On the downside, they do much less well at introducing the world around you. The fundamental aspects are not a problem: Domz are some kind of malevolent aliens, the Alpha Section are dubious PR-heavy security forces, and there’s a war on. Past that stage, though, you’re into what should be a familiar setting, without any in-character knowledge. There are computer terminals in your house demanding codes, but no indication of what they’re for (plot doors), whether you should be trying to activate them now (no), when and how you’ll find out the codes (when it’s necessary), or why you have terminals with no obvious function that you don’t know the codes for in your house (..?). People refer to basic in-character knowledge that the player doesn’t have, like local landmarks. Someone advised me to visit Ming-Tzu’s shop, so I wasted ages scouring high and low for it; it turns out to be in a locked district that wasn’t actually accessible at the time. The in-game map doesn’t have frivolous luxuries like labels, while from the very beginning your hovercraft’s HUD offers directions to locations you can’t actually visit until much later in the game. This was all rather confusing, and it it strikes me that they ought to have smoothed out those little bumps.

The game uses a version of checkpoint saving, so you can save your progress at in-game terminals, though with a paltry limit of five saves. It also save-spams for you, but you can’t load an autosave from the menu, only revert to it on death. I’m not really sure why they didn’t just let you save freely, since the game is already save-spamming for you; it just causes occasional inconvenience if you have to quit between terminals. You can also pick up any save and switch seamlessly between various languages, which I like, but I appreciate it’s a minority benefit...

Waterworld


The world of Hillys is an interesting setting, a series of islands that you navigate by hovercraft. It’s populated by a mixture of humans and anthropomorphic animals, which steers clear of the usual suspects in favour of goats, rats and walruses. It has pseudo-Jamaican rhino mechanics and your adopted uncle is a pig. And it’s under constant attack from the dreaded Domz, which are only kept at bay by the tireless efforts of the Alpha Section. Allegedly...

The story is devoid of player choice, but in a game like this I don’t think that’s a weakness any more than it was in Sonic the Hedgehog. The characters are pleasant enough, and I like the rather strange world that we get glimpses of. Indeed, this is one of those rare games where I wish there was more lore for me to tap into; Hillys is only lightly sketched out but it feels like a fun place to be. Initially I got the impression it might be a sandbox game; it turns out to be a linear plot, but in a questy way, with a fair bit of leeway to wander round between your missions. As usual with such setups, they’ve had to resort to Plot Doors to control your movement, most of which are fun and characterful. You encounter Alpha Section guards keeping citizens out of certain districts, hovering robots that seize trespassing vehicles, and laser fences that stop you driving out of the city. Each has a bypass mechanism that you can acquire at a suitable point in the game, and it doesn’t feel forced.

(Okay, at the point where they stopped making content there’s a set of impassable towers that pop out of the sea and hurl you back with an endless, pinpoint-accurate barrage of energy bolts, powerful enough to hurl a speeding vehicle many yards in the opposite direction, but controlled enough to do no damage. If they have that technology, I’m surprised they don’t add it to their bases to keep out the rebels! But really, I appreciate that they have to put something in there to keep you on the map, and there aren’t many options that you can’t pick holes in. It’s better than your character constantly saying they don’t feel like doing things.)

Despite feeling a little lost, I really enjoyed the early stages of the game. I was running up against the novelties of Hillys, fixing my hovercraft, taking photos to earn some keep, and the plot was starting to unfurl. It felt like a quirkly game with a lot of promise and variety, and I wondered what they were going to do with it. Looking back, I feel like they missed an opportunity here to really exploit the original and fun aspects of the setting. The storyline means focusing on the Alpha Section, which as a sinister paramilitary organisation of armoured apparently-humans are the least original thing in the entire game. Snooping around military complexes full of laser beams is fine, but considering that my next-door neighbours are black-marketeer Rastafarian rhinos and there’s a goat in the bar talking about pirate treasure, I can’t help wondering why they went in that particular direction.

What’s it all about (Alphas)?


The game doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. It’s a bit like an adventure game, but without ridiculous item-combining or mysteries for the player to puzzle out. There’s significant combat, but it’s fairly simple and your moves are limited. You climb and scramble on platforms, but you can't fall off them. Basically, you're moving through a storyline, overcoming obstacles in the shape of simple puzzles, enemies to defeat, others to sneak past, and routes that call for scrambling or crawling. A few puzzles call for more complex strategies, such as using an enemy's own attacks to break through a barrier, or hurling enemies around to short-circuit forcefields; but mostly it's pretty straightforward stuff. The frequent driving sections, on the other hand, are all about quick reflexes and piloting skill, which is a bit of a departure.

All this variation keeps things interesting, but it does have the downside that you don’t really know which hat you should be wearing when it's not obvious what to do next. I’d also have appreciated the ability to use characters’ special powers freely; for example, your uncle Pey’j has jetboots that could overcome many problems, but he can only use them in a couple of pre-set puzzles. There's rarely more than one solution to a puzzle, but they're typically reasonable solutions, without lugging items around or talking to loads of people in precise order.

While the plot is linear, there are optional minigames that provide ways to earn money or practice skills. Racing is good for improving your piloting, but also offers pearl prizes, and you can also play air hockey and attempt to raid pirate dens. There’s a photography minigame that earns you nice rewards for recording biodiversity for the science centre; this seemed a really nice idea to me, and I liked the animals they’d invented, even though they were only models and names. It’s another interesting touch in a sadly under-exploited world, and I would have loved for them to flesh that out more. On the downside, it means my first instinct when something weird attacks me is to stop and take its photo.

I honestly don’t know how to feel about all that. I mean, the photography added flavour, racing was okay but fundamentally irrelevant, the air hockey was frankly annoying, partly due to a silly camera angle, and the pirate stuff was just a bit random. It seems nice on the one hand that they have these other things for you to run off and do, but on the whole I reckon with a basically linear game, they’d have been better off polishing the main plotline and the gameplay for that, rather than implementing a lot of side-content that doesn’t get you anywhere. Had it been sandboxy, they could have woven these other things into a game where you chose what sorts of gameplay you wanted, but that’s not the way they went. On top of that, the pearls you can win don’t actually make any difference. Pearls are used to upgrade your vehicle, which essentially moves you between game chapters. While you can eventually get a fair number of pearls with all the optional content, access to them is carefully controlled. There are also hefty price jumps between upgrades, so you’re left relying on plot rewards to actually buy your next upgrade. This works okay for controlling your progress through the game, while simultaneously stopping you sabotaging yourself by blowing all your pearls on an upgrade that won’t advance the plot; at the same time, it makes the bonus pearls worthless. I finished the game with plenty of hard-won pearls to spare.

The game is largely third-person, with optional first-person controls when driving. They’ve sensibly made it impossible for you to fall off anything unless you’re supposed to. Since it’s not actually a platforming game, that’s a big relief – you don’t have to worry about making some stupid mistake and winding up dead. Unfortunately, it’s also absolutely crucial, because Beyond Good and Evil has one of the most frustrating, curse-yielding control schemes I have ever encountered.

Camera obnoxia


For reasons known only to themselves, the developers made the controls relative to the camera, not to the character. Not content with this feeble-minded step, they added a camera with appalling judgement and the attention span of a goldfish on coke, and the end result is that it’s difficult to predict from one moment to the next what any given button will do. At times, the combination of erratic camera and camera-centric controls can be downright infuriating. I’ve found myself wedged into corners or up against walls plenty of times, unable to see anything except a wall in close-up, and fighting the camera and controls for a good few seconds before I can escape. Oh, and calling down a torrent of paint-blistering invective on the game and its creators. This is, just to be clear, not characteristic behaviour.

There are frequent sections where the game forces a particular camera angle on you, which isn’t always the one I’d have chosen; it’s particularly tiresome when you’re trying to sneak around an enemy building and the game won’t let you look around for enemies. At other times, the camera simply changes angle rapidly as you move around corners and doorways, causing you to double back on yourself or run in circles, which would be hilarious if it was an Ealing Studios comedy involving a bedstead, but is merely irksome when you’re trying to save the world and not get blown up in the process. In the driving sections, the combination of speed, constant movement, vehicle inertia and dodgy camera can make it very difficult to tell what’s going on or go where you want, since working out which button will move you in a particular direction is a real puzzle. Add to this rich broth sections where you’re frantically trying to carve a path through a rapidly-respawning minefield using languorous auto-targeting, or baiting heat-seeking torpedoes so you can use them to demolish barriers, and there’s a lot of potential for reloading.

Speaking of technical issues, I also really wonder how this game played when it first came out, because at times it’s struggling on my machine. I don’t exactly motz the thing auf, but it’s perfectly respectable for modern use, let alone ten-year-old games. Far Cry painted it with lavish jungles full of angry shooty men, without any obvious problems. Nevertheless, BGAE lags frequently when things get graphically intense, which is generally just when you most need the game to not lag so you don’t die. There’s also a very short section where you play in some fog. How can I express this best? Extrapolating from the game’s performance on my computer, I can only imagine that if anyone started playing that section on their new machine when the game first came out, they are still waiting to finish it. Should you be so thoughtless as to use your zoom in the fog, you find yourself holding buttons down for two or three seconds before it registers any keystrokes. I literally have no idea how this worked originally.

Hit me with your rhythm stick


Combat isn’t especially complicated, though I died quite a lot, through a mixture of poor skills and being too lazy to eat healthpacks. The combat’s moderately varied – enemies have particular attack patterns, moments of weakness, and so on, and the environment can offer ways to beat them, from hurling them into electric fences to throwing them off walkways. Coordination with your ally lets you hurl enemies through the air, which you can use to knock down drawbridges, short-circuit forcefields, or break open valuable crystals. Button-mashing will get you there in the end, but tactical fighting and timing is definitely worth it. You also have a ‘super-attack’, though bizarrely I have no evidence that the standard version actually inflicts damage; the upgraded version is beast though. Boss battles call for coordination between you and your ally to interrupt attack patterns or expose vulnerabilities, and are mostly decent, though the last couple got over-long and repetitive. Thankfully, you don’t have to walk your ally past obstacles and traps, though he does sometimes get mauled to death (Game Over). On the downside, they’re as prone as any NPC companion to getting in the way all the freaking time, and the second one you pick up isn’t even entertaining.

The last fight of the game is a multi-stage boss fight where your allies are picked off, leaving you alone to pound the Domz leader into a fine mushy paste (for rather longer than seems interesting). Midway through the fight, there’s a cutscene where the alien tries to dominate your mind, and your vision goes blurry. Once the fight resumes, it turns out they’ve reversed the controls. In theory this is an interesting way to reflect the difficulty Jade has in controlling her actions. In practice, the cramped and frantic conditions of the boss fight, plus the existing control problems, meant I only worked out anything had changed on my third attempt at the fight. Once you do work out the boss’ simple attack patterns and the control-reversal business, it’s really just busywork. I appreciate their desire for a big extended boss fight to cap the game, but length isn't really a replacement for entertainment.

That Don't Impress Me Much


Because of Jade’s relative fragility, a lot of the time you’re relying on cunning to take down enemies. This means stealth-combat, which I generally enjoy; I really liked methodically clearing entire levels in Commandos, for example. BGAE starts out promisingly when the Alpha Section come into play. Alpha Section guards are effectively invincible in combat, and the only practical technique is sniping their respirators to render them helpless for a coup-de-grace; given the chance, though, they’ll patch each other up. It’s an interesting mechanism, both fun and appropriate, calling for a bit of tactical thinking rather than jumping in. Fairly soon, you’re looking at complicated stealth-sniping tactics, as you try to get all the nearby guards disabled at the same time without ending up in combat, or take out your victim quickly enough not to be caught by reinforcements. Cool, right?

Unfortunately, this means constant switching between photo/snipe mode and movement mode, all while the game is arbitrarily playing with the camera. It’s manageable in the early levels, but as things get more complicated problems creep in. As if the camera wasn’t enough of a problem, the crouch and snipe-mode buttons are next to each other, and there’s an over-zealous wall-hugging mechanic that often leaves you sliding along at a snail’s pace instead of belting for cover. Playing a relatively weak heroine is a nice change of pace, and it reminds me pleasantly of Thief; but Thief had a decent camera, more tactical freedom, and even the occasional (expensive) AOE attack to knock out a cluster of guards when you just couldn’t be faffed with fancy tactics.

Sadly, the further I got into the game, the more annoying these sections became. Naturally, they want to up the ante in gameplay, so you find yourself trying to duck and vault through laser mazes before a door closes, and so on. That’s all well and good, in fact it’s just what I’d hope for. When it comes to the stealth sections though, they make them harder not by demanding ever-more-intricate tactical planning and execution, but by adding in infallible sentry guns. D’oh. So long as you’re within line-of-sight of a gun, simply alarming a guard brings hot laser death. This removes any choice of playstyle, forcing you to just ghost it. The gameplay moves from ‘quite linear’ to ‘entirely linear’ at points – there’s sizeable sections where deviating from the intended path by the merest inch or second means instant and unavoidable death. I did eventually manage to outwit one and take out a roomful of guards, and I felt a sense of vicious triumph at putting one over the designers, but they’d clearly strained every muscle to stop me doing it, and to be honest it was not remotely worth the fifty-odd attempts it took. Luckily, the game does break things up by interspersing other types of gameplay, which gave me a chance to simmer down.

This problem hits its peak when you infiltrate the Alpha Section HQ, where you have to sneak past twenty-odd guards in the space of two minutes, crawling and skulking up the face and roof of the building. In story terms this should be the highlight of the game so far. It should be a tense, thrilling episode that lets you revel in the skills you’ve picked up throughout the game, perhaps flitting like a shadow between foes, perhaps taking the opportunity to off a few guards for vengeance or as a distraction to others, all while navigating the outer walls and rooftops to find a safe route inside. In practice, you simply have to follow the intended route, walk slowly behind all the guards, and do nothing to attract any attention whatsoever so the half-dozen floating gun platforms don’t incinerate you on the spot. It’s... well, it is tense, but not for the right reasons. It’s tense because you’re thinking “please don’t die, flipping heck, I really don’t want to have to slog through this another fifteen times, why did the sons-of-mothers put in those darned lasers?”. The word I’m looking for here, in fact, is “tedious”. That is not an adjective I should ever be using to describe a daring lone infiltration of the headquarters of an evil paramilitary force. At this point (after, I think, a dozen arbitrary deaths in as many minutes) I seriously considered abandoning the game, but on my ‘one last try’ I actually made it through.

This chapter also wins my coveted ‘Mauve Coelacanth’ award for perhaps the worst chase sequences I’ve been forced to play through. It achieves this with elegant simplicity, merely by placing the camera so that you can’t see more than two yards in front of Jade, forcing you to get through on the twitch rather than planning a sensible route through the obstacles and enemies that litter your path. There’s a ton of explosions, gunfire and things collapsing, which is probably quite cool if you’re paying attention to it, but I was busy looking for things I’d fall over. When, exactly, did they decide that this puzzle-platformer with combat elements really needed a couple of Sonic zones? I get that it’s cross-genre, really. You don’t need to add team management or lumber-trading either.

She’s the One


The heroine, Jade, is fairly bland: she wants to find out what’s going on, look after her adopted family, and help to stop the war. Other than that she climbs and jumps around the place and occasionally hits things with a staff. She’s basically your typical game protagonist, featuring traits like ‘loyalty’, ‘determination’ and ‘heroism’, which is absolutely fine with me. This straightforward approach works well until the last chapter of the game, when things suddenly go all Highlander.

So our ordinary protagonist Jade gets on with life, trying to improve matters and help her friends, and becoming increasingly hardcore until she ends up raiding Alpha Section bases single-handed and flying to the moon to infiltrate their base and rescue her family. Note that her actual job is ‘photographer’. That’s right. See, the rebels (by which I mean, Jade) have already proved that the Alpha Section are:
  1) kidnapping people and packing them into crates to send to the moon;
  2) working for the Domz; and
  3) hideously warped by alien influences.
Despite this, the rebels still aren’t quite convincing enough to get the population entirely behind the rebellion. I mean, they’re waving placards in the streets and shouting, but that’s not going to stop any evil alien plots. The obvious solution is to send a photographer and her plus one to the moon in a tiny ship and have them infiltrate the enemy base in the hope of getting some even more incriminating photographs! Well, it’s a computer game, this sort of thing happens, and that’s enough of a tangent for now... In the process of your daring lunar incursion, you find your captured uncle, trapped in a mysterious energy prison! He’s dead until you hold his hand a bit, at which point he wakes up and babbles about the mysterious power you’ve always had.

This eleventh-hour plot point was not a good sign.

Naturally, you succeed at inciting a violent uprising on Hillys, which results in the Alpha Section guards disappearing from the base. On the moon. Um... as far as I can work out, the idea is that the actual army (who have, as far as I can tell, done nothing whatsoever during the alleged ‘war’) are heading to the moon, and the Alpha Section guards skedaddle. Despite the fact that they’re brainwashed and horribly mutated, and don’t have anywhere else to go at this point, either metaphorically or literally. I mean, they’re:
  1) mutated alien-loving oppressors of the people; and
  2) on the moon.
Anyway, you take the opportunity to break into the main block to free the prisoners, the head alien appears, and my misgivings prove accurate.

So, on today’s exciting Exposition Special! Apparently you were taken away from the alien and raised as a human, but you’ve always had a Special Link with the alien, and it’s been surviving for years by feeding on mediocre ordinary people, but now it’s trying to re-establish its influence over you, and in fact maybe a significant part of this business was an elaborate trap to get hold of you. ZOMG! Or perhaps more accurately: yerwhat? Your allies buy you a moment to escape its influence, it pwns them, you battle it to the death in a drawn-out boss fight. Fine, fine.

Then the huge statue the alien was hiding in reaches down and lifts you overhead, and you burst into radiant energy that heals all the prisoners and pulls them out of their cocoons and levitates them artistically all around you, just as the rebels finally burst in to be impressed by it and your mates wake up. And that’s a wrap.

I would like to think I am not alone in thinking this is a quite stupid last chapter. Admittedly, rocks do not fall everyone dies, and you don’t have to condemn the galaxy to one of three arbitrary dooms. The sudden change of tone and the introduction of the mystical fluff was pretty jarring, though. Up until then, it’s been a pragmatic game about a tough young woman who gets drawn into the Resistance, achieves great things because she’s in the right place at the right time, brings retribution down on her family, and is driven to even greater heights to rescue them. It’s a good story. There is really no need for a Special Princess here, and I felt it undermined the story rather than enhancing it. Plus, the Domz’ explanation is mostly incomprehensible. I don’t understand who or what Jade is actually supposed to be, what the Domz are, who took her away from the Domz, or what’s happened to her in the meantime. A big reveal that leaves a gaping void in place of previously solid backstory, and crams in a hotchpotch of clichés, is not good writing.

Also, the game’s title seems weirdly inappropriate for a story that is quickly revealed as ‘selfless heroine battles evil establishment for good rebels’, with no shades of grey whatsoever. Even approaching the last chapter, I was expecting to find some moral complications underlying the whole Domz-Alpha alliance and the kidnapping of Hillyans, but no, not a sausage.

Verdict: does not attain Good but not actually Evil either


Beyond Good and Evil has plenty going for it; but it really needs those things, because the appalling camera and some ham-fisted attempts to add a difficulty curve make some sections of the game tortuous to get through. These efforts tend to make it difficult rather than challenging, and serve mostly to limit players’ creativity. It’s possible that if you’re less contrary than me, and prepared to play it the way they want you to, it’s less irritating. It seems a real shame that glaring problems with fairly obvious fixes were allowed to undermine this game.

Nevertheless, I actually played this to the end, unlike either Far Cry or Planescape. The puzzles are okay, the storyline reasonable, and it serves up regular doses of whimsy and New Stuff that keep me fairly hooked even while swearing profusely at the computer as I died, again, at the whim of a god-like security system or steering mishap. The problem-solving elements and variety combined to keep my interest, whereas in Far Cry I was basically looking at more of the same and that didn’t appeal. By the time the main frustrations kicked in, I felt I was approaching the end of the game, whereas I had no idea how far I was into Far Cry. At the same time, BGAE was linear enough not to leave me stranded like Planescape, and although I was sometimes confused about how to proceed, I always knew my objectives. That being said, now that I’ve solved the puzzles and seen the New Stuff, there’s absolutely no reason to replay it, whereas Far Cry lends itself to skill-honing and Planescape offers lots of choices and alternative approaches.

I feel like their attempts to make it broad-ranging and varied left each element half-hearted and under-developed; the puzzles could be more interesting, the minigames more satisfying, and Hillys really deserved to be better explored. I also found that because it kept changing gears, it took me a while to guess how I should approach any given section. In particular, the puzzles were few enough that I often wasn’t looking out for puzzle-type solutions to problems. Making a game with rich and varied gameplay is a lovely idea in theory, but they didn’t achieve that lofty goal, and it mostly feels slightly directionless.

To get counterfactual for a minute, it seems like there are several games this could have been that I would have enjoyed more. Drop the combat and it could have made a lovely adventure game. Tweak the level design, give more freedom of movement, and you could have a great stealth game about infiltration and data collection. Cut it loose, throw in more quests, and you could have a fun sandbox game where you photograph stuff for money, accept quests, keep the orphanage running and investigate things in your own good time. Streamline things, try to do less, and it could have been a cool puzzle-platformer with plenty of simple combat. As it is, it doesn’t give quite enough of anything to scratch any particular itch, and I feel like everyone will find something to gripe about as much as something to enjoy.

On the whole, I’m quite torn about this game, because while it started well and had some intriguing elements, it’s on a knife-edge of technical tolerability and doesn’t really know what it’s trying to be. Whether you find it compulsive fun, an acceptable diversion, or a source of limitless rage will be a very personal thing. Basically: if you like this sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing you will like – unless it makes you hate it.
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Comments (go to latest)
Heidi at 10:54 on 2012-05-29
I played this game on the PS2 a few years ago, and I don't remember having as much trouble as you did with the controls. Perhaps things were a wonkier on the PC?

I agree about the story, though. Like in a lot of games I've played, the ending just gets packed full of "epic" moments, where they try to make things more awesome, but wind up making things more confusing. I especially hated that cliffhanger at the end, particularly because the sequel still hasn't come out. While I'm excited for the sequel (the footage they've shown so far looks promising), I'm worried that they're taking it down a Darker and Edgier route. Of course, it's way too soon to know for sure, and I liked BG&E enough that I'll get the sequel regardless, but I just hope that it keeps at least some of the whimsy of the original.
Shimmin at 11:17 on 2012-05-29
Yeah, I strongly suspect it's either down to a poor implementation of camera/controls for PC, or possibly to changes in the PC over the last ten years that affected how the camera and controls work. It was mostly camera rather than controls that caused the problems, but they're tied together. Glad it wasn't a problem for you, though. Kyra, that probably answers you IRL question about the console version, why not give it a shot?

I did feel like there were some promising ideas, and I suspect the gameplay would've been a lot faster and more compelling if I could just control the damn thing, whereas the frustration also gave me time to get fed up and pick holes in it. It's like how you can enjoy a fairly average book with writing that doesn't get in the way, whereas something pretty good that's written distractingly feels worse. So I'd be interested to see what a sequel was like, but I would need cast-iron assurances that it was playable before I'd invest any time in it.
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