Version tested: Xbox 360
Two years on and the Xbox 360 finally gets its first adventure game (of sorts). Pull the party poppers! Oh, but hang on, it's another CSI game. Aren't they the ones Ubisoft releases with a degree of stealth that would make Sam Fisher proud? To put it politely, these aren't games that the French publisher likes to shout about. Go on, try and find the reviews for the other three CSI games on Eurogamer. Oh.
But wait! This one's the first to hit the new wave of consoles and is also the first to benefit from the considerable development talents of Telltale Games - the team behind the much-admired Sam & Max Season 1. As point-and-click adventure aficionados will know all too well, it's a studio that knows a thing or two about making decent adventure games, not just from its recent episodic excursions, but also from its glorious days during LucasArts' golden age.
Based on the 'hit' CBS TV series, the title's a bit of a giveaway as far as the game is concerned. You, er, investigate crime scenes for the LVPD's CSI unit and try to nail the people responsible. In Hard Evidence there are five cases to solve one after the other, all set in Vegas, and all involving homicide.
Death becomes you
Given a quick briefing on the circumstances of the death, you and your partner find yourself at the scene of the crime. The initial premise is to poke around in the manner of an old school point-and-click adventure, trying to scan the screen with your cursor for a handful of pre-determined 'hot-spots' which may or may not reveal key evidence with which to build your case. When your cursor changes to a green arrow, you're able to zoom in on the item of interest and use your special toolkit, which contains a set of collection and detection tools.
Say, for example, you spy a footprint, or a piece of fabric snagged on a fence, or a discarded bottle nearby, you'll be able to collect that as evidence - but only in a very prescribed, lead-you-by-the-hand fashion. So, if you find a bottle, the only thing the game will let you do is the thing that is required - in this case, dust for prints, rather than swab for DNA traces or use an Adhesive Specimen Mount or whatever. It's less crime scene investigation and more crime scene do what we tell you. The only thing ever really holding you back in your ability to solve a case is how thorough you are with scanning the screen for little green arrows.
Once you're satisfied you've scooped up enough evidence, you can run it all through the lab. You can run fingerprint analysis and try and match them against those in various databases, or try and find a DNA match against a hair or fluid sample you may have discovered. You can even work out which brand of shoe fits the footprints seen at the crime scene, or perform a chemical analysis on a piece of clothing. It might sound very hi-tech, but it's quite simple once you put it into practice. If you've got something that needs looking at, the relevant computer screen has an exclamation mark on it, and if you've looked at your items of evidence closely enough, a little tick with appear in its box. It's a pretty friendly game from the word go, and even has a built-in hint system which details step-by-step what you need to do in order to progress at any given stage of your investigation - in fact, the score you get at your end evaluation even factors in how much help you asked for.
Questions answers! Answers question?
At that point you'll have identified new people to question, and new questions to ask those who you've already connected to the crime scene - it's a pattern that repeats itself throughout each case. So, you'll talk to the coroner, ask him a bunch of pre-determined questions, pick up the items belonging to the deceased, analyse that for clues and go through the process again, each time finding a little more to connect the various suspects to the murder enquiry. With each increment of progress, the game will unlock a little more of itself, such as allowing you to ask for a search warrant of a suspect's residence, or to eventually bring them in for questioning. Every time you hit a dead-end, it's usually a cue to go around and either talk to everyone again, search for some more evidence (that you may have overlooked), or do some more lab work. Failing that, you can always ask your all-knowing assistant. He's good like that.
In terms of the basic mechanics of the game, it's not bad at all once you get beyond the 1999-era character models that greet you at every turn. The dialogue's generally well scripted (in a bland TV cop show kind of way) and reasonably proficiently voice-acted, so that's a big tick right there. Also, after a slow start, the way each case unfolds becomes curiously moreish, especially once you suss out the simple, refined interface.
That said, some components of the game are so hilarious low-budget and clunky that it detracts significantly from the enjoyment - such as the way the game doesn't allow you to move around the crime scene freely in 3D, preferring an appallingly limited system of on-rails movement (not dissimilar to, gasp, The 7th Guest from 1993) where you can 'guide' yourself around the location by moving the cursor in a direction the game allows you. If the game lets you point the camera in that direction, it rotates or pans around the scene, also allowing you to zoom in on a specific part of the environment. To begin with it feels, frankly, horrible, and so outdated and ponderous to play to make the game feel unacceptably behind the times in a fairly fundamental way. To give Telltale its dues, you can see why it opted for an on-rails system, because it actually does make the process of searching for clues a little more straightforward, but it's an inelegant solution nevertheless. After a while, other elements of the game, like dealing with evidence and grilling suspects, go some way towards making up for the clunky mess that is evidence gathering, but even those aren't exactly stylishly executed.
The conversation system is about as basic as you can get, with a set stock of questions, and absolutely no degree of choice in what you ask them, how you approach your questioning (softly softly, sarcastic, or just playing hardball). It's like Monkey Island never happened. Fair enough, branching conversation trees and dead-ends might needlessly pad out the game, or effect the outcome in a convoluted and negative way, but at least you'd feel like you were vaguely trying to use your powers of interrogation, rather than just asking one or two stock questions prescribed when you link their DNA to something found at the crime scene.
And it's just as well as there is a built-in hint system, because otherwise you'd end up furiously frustrated at being held up because of one simple action - usually something irritating like not having gone back to question everyone again, or finding out that the next time you go back to a location an item of evidence (previously not considered important) is suddenly now of pivotal interest. Grrr. The amount of repetition in the questioning, and the sheer number of times you keep having to go back to your suspects starts to grate after a while. You find yourself asking for a hint just so you can just move the damn thing on - without them, you could conceivably find yourself wondering if you really had scoured every location for every piece of evidence - at least that element of doubt can be swiftly removed, but the mere fact the game has the hint system is a sign that it's a game that desperately needs it, and is therefore slightly broken by design.
It's not an especially hard game, though; it's just one that demands you to be exceptionally thorough to a degree that doesn't always make for a fun gaming experience. Once you see through the formula of what CSI expects from you, it does remove some of the abject clunkiness of it all, and things that may have proved frustrating to begin with become less so. After a while you might even begin to zone out from how absolutely awful the graphics are, and just enjoy picking your way through like an obsessive compulsive. But all too often there are a host of jarring reminders of how flawed this game is, and how much potential the concept has if Telltale had been given the time and investment onto doing a proper job (but, hey, if it pays their bills to make more Sam & Max, fine).
Ubisoft chose the right developer, but clearly it's a game which wasn't very high up on the publisher's list of priorities in terms of investing in it, and it shows. If you're a die-hard adventure apologist with a CSI fixation then step right up, but the rest of you can put your curiosity to one side - especially at its current stupidly high price point.
4 / 10