Turning a pile of shame into a pile of victory!
Originally released for PlayStation2, ported to PC.
Getting it working
Should install seamlessly on newer PCs, no dual core issues.
An eerie experience worth committing to.
This PS2 port doesn't feel at all port-ey, boasting some really lovely graphics, fantastic character design, serviceable sound and level design, and awe-inspiringly short load times. This is not a game for a twitch-fingered frenetic FPS fancier, nor something a casual gamer would feel comfortable dipping into. Its relatively slow pace and evocative atmosphere will probably be enjoyed by those who like to intellectually engage with a game, and are willing to commit a day or so of walkthrough-free exploration. I failed to finish the game the first time through because of overheating graphics card issues (it was a space-filler at the height of an Australian summer, when our cooling system had given out), and am really glad I ended up revisiting it.
The game opens with a cinematic that feels very dated now, but must have been quite swanky at the time of release. It goes to great pains to introduce the world, a futuristic classic sci-fi affair with the rich living at the top of ridiculously tall buildings, and slums and production nestled at the building bases. I always found the falling teddy in the opening cinematic to be so heartbreaking. Here's hoping it mutates into some crazy meat creature thing, climbs back up into the city, and finds its little friend (they can then live happily ever after, selling future!cakes and the like at their very own corner coffee house).
Anyway, some crazy things have been happening in the local artificial factory, Real Meat. I'm an avid proponent of switching from animals to vat-grown meat as a primary source of delicious nourishment, so it was nice to see the idea realised in the story (all-be-it slightly off-puttingly, but hey, even the grossest rendition of vat grown meat is better than an a realistic rendition of an abattoir). You, a squad of specialists (plural intended) from the Urban Protection Agency (UPA) have been sent in to see what is going down. And down they go, quite literally, for the rest of the game; the plot propels them from decrepit work sites through to decaying science facilities, ever downwards and creepier. The emphasis is always on puzzle solving, with a forgiving checkpoint system that means that you can't possibly die and slick level design that, as far as I can tell, makes it impossible to get completely stuck by doing something like killing someone you shouldn't, or using up all your weapon energy etc. As the plot progresses, it gets farther from sci-fi and closer to horror, then whips back to sci-fi for a finale that I think really wastes all of the great buildup. I'll not talk much about plot points here, because I found most of the fun lay in surmounting a puzzle and being rewarded with another clue as to what was going on.
The four main playable characters have their own specific skills that you will need, in various combinations, to solve puzzles. In order of awesomeness, they are:
Amber – made of solidified awesome, Amber was emo and had a car accident and is now a frikkin' huge cyborg. Towering above her team-mates, she can walk through environmental hazards such as fire and green goop without loosing life. The fact the developers decided the team tank character should be female, and didn't absurdly feminise her design, was absolutely brilliant. When I had the choice, I played as Amber the most, the hefty “Clump” of her footsteps were really comforting in the darker, more foreboding areas.
Carter – reminded me a lot of a red Power Ranger. Why? He had the earnest, clear-headed but still 'cool', firm but friendly leadership style you see in kid's shows like Power Rangers. A cliché, yes, but an endearing one. Carter has the super-duper power of security clearance, so he can... uh... open doors and talk to people. Of the team, I found his 'special' abilities the most absurd. Even though the others work for the UPA, the doors built by their own company won't let them through. Surely Carter could just give them clearance? Normally, I could overlook it, but it came to a point where the usually verbose Andre wimped out and was suddenly too shy to talk to a civilian, and continually wined at me to go get Carter. Jarring. Anyway, pseudo-daddy-but-cool-Carter had excellent voice acting and generally good lines.
Minoko – As the game progresses, the plot centres more and more around her (I can't say more, lest spoilers creep in). Minoko's special ability is hacking, accessing computer terminals to see through cameras, blast with lasers, or drive vehicles (like what I have dubbed the laser pwnage-mobile). The little minigames for hacking were quite easy, which was disappointing earlier in the game but a lifesaver later on when the rather dull AI of your buddies had to hold of enemies while you hacked. It was a shame she was such a bland character; Unlike the other three I didn't really get a feel for who she actually was... But at least she wasn't a total idiot.
Andre – Ugh. What a douche. Whenever any dangerous stuff had to be done, I took Andre so I could watch him die. Perhaps the developers were going for street-smart, straight-talking... If so, they missed, and Andre's personality fell squarely in the quagmire of being a complete tool. His speciality was repairing damaged equipment. The minigame was simple but fun, with the challenge ramping up nicely as the game progressed. I also quite liked Andre's character design; having a younger bald player character is unusual (I can hear the cry of “What about Agent 47 from Hitman?”, I maintain his forehead wrinkling is so extreme that he's not so much bald as too serious for hair), and his build was just lean enough to give a good contrast to Carter's bulkiness... Yet his personality just ruined all he had going for him.
As well as the four intrepid heroes, you also get to play as some non-human objects to help you through puzzles. You get them as the story progresses, and can generate them at any time you see fit (with some depletion of power). Working on a time limit, where damage robs you of precious seconds, you can spend a while as the eyebot a weak but free-flying doohickey that gets through small high gaps to throw switches, and the rover, a small wheeled doohickey that can fit in small low gaps to throw switches and shoot bugs nomming on power cables. As Minoko, you also get to remotely operate cameras, laser turrets (satisfying pwnage) and, at one point, the aforementioned laser pwnage-mobile.
So, following the opening cutscene, you're dumped in a relatively safe area to get to grips with the controls. Switching between characters is easy to get used to; their brightly coloured HUDS make it clear who you are, and the call-to-follow and stay-back systems is elegent. The AI is pretty good at following you, usually exactly tracing your path. This avoids AI getting stuck in walls, but means if you make a silly mistake like jumping off too high a ledge, everyone following you will make the same error. The few occasions the AI-driven companions got lost, or were completely useless in battle, were noticeable only because they were far and few between. Some of the puzzles were a bit tiresome because I had to keep switching between the four, or had to backtrack too often, but seeing as the game was designed around multiplayer, this can easily be forgiven. Combat wasn't the emphasis of this game, and is an aptly simple point-and-click-until-they-die/explode affair.
Things start to go wrong as soon as the UPA team arrive; the bridge they're supposed to cross collapses, a scientist falls to their death, and your commander sends you onward anyway. This sets up a nice flow of obviously scripted, but quite fun, happen stances that give you a feeling that things are really going badly. The instructions directing you to the lift at the left, when in fact the lift is to the right, are quite confusing. My first time around, all those years ago, had me stumped for a shameful length of time; getting used to the controls and the requisite swapping-around shenanigans took most of my attention, and finding a lift that doesn't really look too much like a lift was a bad start that didn't mesh with how excellent the rest of the game was. Don't let this shaky start put you off!
Enemies are another example of how the game is slow to warm up. They start off as disappointing grunts, with a small repeated repertoire of spontaneously shouted comments (one more distant thuggy cry of “Who'se your daddy!” and I'd have kicked a mutating puppy). Your first hint of things getting better is a twitching dog... Conservation of mass be damned, when the first dog mutated into a horrible thing, I squealed like a little girl! With enemies increasingly resembling the grotesque distortions of the Thing and the oppressiveness of being so deep under the city, a really nice mood is set up.
If you're willing to push through the first sub-par ten minutes or so, you'll descend into about a day's worth of creepy, fun gameplay. I'd recommend playing this without using a walkthrough, as most of that time (and most of the fun) revolves around puzzle solving. Most of the puzzles aren't physics based, they're more of the pull-the-switch, shoot-that affair that follow enough consistent logic to not be completely frustrating.
Things to look out for as you venture through the underground labyrinth include:
- A very angry bogan lady who demands pie
- Deadly candles!
- Amber accidentally (and repeatedly) elbowing Carter in the head in close quarters
- A scientist who shouts “Nooo! Arrrr!” in a very B-movie way
- The lovely touch of a little 'jump' when elevators reach their destination
- Hilarious poses resulting from holding down switches (I swear Minoko was about to slap Andre at several points)
- The synthesiser effect on Amber's voice inexplicably giving out in the penultimate level
- Thing flu, where slight nausea gives way to coughing and then instantaneous mutation
I wouldn't say there is much replay value to the game, as once you know how to solve a puzzle it feels empty and a bit dull. BUT, given how cheaply I've seen it for sale around local game stores, it is well worth the small investment.
Other belated game reviews...