The worst hacks aren't the kind that infiltrate security systems or unravel consoles, but the kind that write. A careless opinion spreads even faster than malicious code – and can be just as destructive.
Mindjack, sadly, is a game destined to fall victim to such opinions. I know that because, as I booted the game up, one thought stood out in my mind: that this was going to be bad. An unheralded, low-budget, third-person shooter from Japan? Made by a hodgepodge development team of questionable experience? Published by Square Enix, of all companies? I couldn't help but doubt.
For the first few hours, those doubts were justified. Over the following eight, however, they slowly began to dissipate, before turning into outright respect.
Mindjack is best described as a strange blend of Resident Evil 5, Uncharted and Minority Report. A very watered-down blend, but the elements are there nonetheless. The character designs, camera angle and fudgy controls are straight from Resident Evil 5, along with an evil corporation plotline. The basic duck-and-cover gunplay is reminiscent of the first Uncharted, flawed but satisfying, while the lead actor does a terrific Nolan North impression. The futuristic setting and tone vaguely recalls Minority Report, albeit in sporadic glimpses.
In spite of those obvious influences, Mindjack eventually rises above them to assume its own identity, mainly because of disciplined design choices, excellent pacing and one brilliant little feature: mind hacking. Mind hacking is the game's calling card, an ability that allows you to convert injured enemies to your side during combat, turning the tide of battle, but also allows you to leave your body and 'possess' neutral NPCs and team-mates, many of whom offer tactical advantages.
Instead of forcing this feature down the player's throat and designing every battle with linear mind-hack 'solutions', Mindjack simply introduces the concept and lets you decide how to use it. It shows an understanding of game design that, ironically, most Western shooters have eschewed in favour cinematic overload and set-pieces. You can choose when and whether to use mind hack – if at all – and the sense of empowerment and control is all the more satisfying as result.
The plot, meanwhile, was clearly written by a gamer. Mindjack is well-written, but not in the traditional sense. It might surprise you to learn that exposition is at an absolute minimum here, something we rarely say about Square Enix games. In fact, there isn't even an opening cinematic.
Instead, things start in an airport, with you playing as FIA agent Jim Something-or-other. Your orders are to follow an FIA target, Rebecca Weiss. There is no reason given. A few moments later Jim finds himself suddenly on the run with Ms Weiss, as dozens of FIA agents (think SWAT team) attack from all angles. At this point, it's easy to assume that Mindjack will completely ignore plot and characters in favour of shooting stuff, but that's only half true.
You will have killed hundreds of enemies before Mindjack's threadbare story begins to get under your skin, but it does get under your skin. Jim doesn't have a huge amount of dialogue, but what's there is well written and acted, with Nathan Drake-like quips and subtle hints at a troubled past. Even stranger is how self-aware the writing is, with plenty of nods to the bizarre premise. After a while you begin to wonder how the dialogue could be so solid, yet the subsequent plot holes so apparent.
Suffice it to say that, by the end, an answer is provided. Mindjack is well written not because it presents us with a movie-like experience or touching moments (it doesn't), but because it tells a story only games could tell, with a late revelation proving the point nicely. To make its story work, Mindjack has to play dumb until then.
Still, even without that symbiotic plot development, the gameplay is compelling on its own terms. Each battle you face typically takes place in a large open area or room decorated with plenty of cover spots. Dozens of enemies will attack, also from behind cover, and before long Jim and Rebecca will find themselves under pressure.
Early on, you'll find yourself playing Mindjack just like any other shooter, killing enemies from safe vantage without much trouble. You'll even start to use mind hack a little, converting soldiers to your side whenever they become injured. You can convert up to five at once, but the ability can only be used within ten metres of the target, so you need to get close enough to fire it off. It's immensely satisfying.
After a while, the difficulty ramps up a little. Enemies start doing a better job of surrounding Jim and Rebecca and ammo becomes an issue. Suddenly, you find yourself taking necessary chances – running from behind cover to get within mind-hacking distance of a fallen enemy, knowing that he will draw attention, allowing you to gather much-needed ammo from a dropped gun.
Then, things get even more hectic. Hacking becomes a life-saver, as enemies threaten to overwhelm you. New threats like snipers, heavy weapons and vehicles appear. You find yourself thinking about the 'possession' ability, wondering how a nearby civilian or robot could help you to catch the enemy unawares. But leaving Jim's body (by pressing both analog sticks and becoming a spirit-like 'wanderer') means trusting the AI to control both him and Rebecca. Do you take that chance? Especially as possessed NPCs die all too easily.
About halfway through Mindjack's ten-hour run, after considerable adjustment to some awkward controls, you suddenly find yourself squarely in the zone, popping off headshots for extra experience points (used to customise Jim), followed by an efficient mind hack to draw fire, followed by a run to cover, topped off by the possession of a nearby NPC. You don't need to do all that, but you want to.
That's not to say Mindjack is without problems. It's plagued with them. The graphics are PS2-standard, the environments are drab and repetitive, the hand-to-hand combat seems to be broken, the button for picking up ammo is inexplicably the same as for mind hacking, the cover system is beyond fiddly, the AI can be plain thick. To make matters worse, the drop-in, drop-out online gameplay (in which opposing players become the enemy FIA agents) is something of a ghost town at present.
Yet none of that managed to affect my enjoyment of the game. In fact, by the time I finished Mindjack, I was already thinking about playing through again, on a higher difficulty, searching for an alternative ending.
Stood alongside Gears of War, Uncharted or Vanquish, Mindjack looks and plays positively bad. But wait until it drops in price and then consider giving it a shot. If you can look past the lack of polish and horrible graphics, there's a compelling and unique take on cover-based shooters here, along with an interesting lesson on how games deal with plot. It's a rewarding little game, if you can hack it.
6 / 10