Rhodan: Myth of the Illochim
- Developer: BrainGame
- Publisher: Deep Silver
Not, sadly, an adventure game starring Godzilla's infamous avian foe, but that's not to say that this Rhodan can't satisfy the urge for pulp sci-fi fun. It's based on a massively popular series of German SF novels following Perry Rhodan, a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/John Carter of Mars figure whose encounter with aliens on the moon fast-forwards the human race into the space age and leaves him with a "cell activator" which makes him pretty much immortal.
By the time we meet him, he's 3000 years old and the ruler of the Terran empire. No rest for the regal though, as he's also under attack from forces unknown and sealed into his office building for security. Being a hands-on sort of guy, his first order of business is finding a way past the lockdown, and then investigating the source of the attack. It's a saga of arcane political intrigue rather than a fantasy quest, making the experience more Dune than Star Wars.
The point-and-click interface feels a little cumbersome compared to other recent entries in the genre, as you can't double-click on exits to automatically load the next area and skipping dialogue requires the keyboard rather than the mouse, but the game compensates with a useful inventory system. Always on-screen, it not only gives you constant access to items, but clues and people of interest are also recorded here, and can be dragged onto characters and computers to trigger relevant conversations or data searches.
What really makes Rhodan stand out, however, is the construction and pace. The puzzles actually stem from the plot and situations, so while none of them are particularly innovative you probably won't notice since they're introduced so organically into the game. There's logic and relevance to the way the brainwork is woven in that keeps you immersed in the story, rather than moving it along just to get to the next head-scratcher.
Speaking of the plot, the game benefits hugely in this area from the enormous amount of back-story established by four decades of published stories. You don't need to be a fan to get into the game (I'd never heard of him before) but you'll immediately recognise that this is a universe that is more coherent and populated than most adventures get to play with. There's a sense of history and character that is very difficult to manufacture artificially. It's also nice to see a point-and-clicker that doesn't follow the period horror or modern conspiracy templates, with Rhodan's epic SF tone helping to summon memories of Space Quest or Beneath A Steel Sky.
There seem to be two types of adventure fans. Those who favour puzzles, and those who favour plot. Rhodan definitely skews towards the latter, which pleases me greatly, but offers plenty for the former as well. It's one of the richest, most cohesive entries in the point-and-click genre I've seen for a long time, and I'm a little sad that it didn't come out fifteen years ago. Just think of all the sequels we could've had by now...
- Developer: Frogwares
- Publisher: Ascaron
I'm a fan of Frogwares'. This is partly because its adventure games are almost always drawn from late 19th and early 20th century detective and horror fiction, and that puts them right in my fanboy arena. Mostly it's because there's clearly a passion for detail and a keen understanding of how to craft a fiendish puzzle at work in its games. For all their rough edges, Frogwares is not just making adventure games out of some slavish devotion to the genre's past.
It was somewhat inevitable, then, that it would eventually turn its attention to Bram Stoker's lurid Victorian vampire soft-porn saga. The result bears all the hallmarks of previous games, for both good and ill, but still manages to serve up a decent adventure over its rather short lifespan.
You play as Van Helsing, portrayed here as a stiff and impossibly dull prude. This is certainly in keeping with the original text, but doesn't exactly make for a compelling hero to follow through the game. Dracula, meanwhile, is pretty much the opposite of Stoker's description. Rather than a pointy-eared, bushy-haired, moustachioed monster man, we get yet another effete Anne Rice knock-off, all lace shirt collars and swooning on a chaise longue with the interminable ennui of the undead. Yawn. There are echoes of Stoker's story in the game, but it's mostly a case of familiar characters in a different story. Van Helsing certainly never jaunted over to Egypt before.
The voice acting is, well, let's call it "enthusiastic". I'm not sure what regional English accents are being attempted, but the resulting speech is often laugh-out-loud hilarious. It adds a certain cheesy Hammer Horror air to the proceedings, though, so it's not much of a problem. The make-or-break point for Dracula Origin, apart from its truncated length, is the reliance on puzzles. Now, yes, it's a bit odd to call attention to too many puzzles in an adventure game, so allow me to clarify. I mentioned in the Rhodan review that there are two types of adventure gamers - those who play for puzzles, those who play for plot. This is absolutely aimed at the former group.
The puzzles are frequent and complex, and it seems that there isn't a single door in Victorian London that doesn't require the solution of some complex riddle, which is etched into a nearby painting/statue/small dog. Even a drunken gravedigger's hut is sealed with a combination that must be worked out by doing sums with dates on headstones. Don't get me wrong - these are very good puzzles. They're not the usual random inventory combination problems, but genuine brainteasers that require observation and lateral thinking to get past. These challenges are thrown at the player with such frequency that the plot inches forwards, and it becomes more like a puzzle game that happens to have some story bits thrown in.
Personally, it feels a little unbalanced to me. I like adventure games because of the "adventure" aspect, the blend of a compelling story, immersive dialogue and logical deduction. This game favours the last element at the expense of the first two, and therefore left me somewhat unsatisfied. Your mileage may vary, and Dracula Origin's Brain Training meets Hammer Horror construction may sound like the greatest thing ever. It's as handsomely presented as any of Frogwares' previous efforts, so provided you approach it prepared for more riddling than exploring you'll be well served.
Art of Murder: FBI Confidential
- Developer: City Interactive
- Publisher: City Interactive
And as if to put Rhodan and Dracula into perspective, here's an example of how not to create a modern adventure game. Art of Murder is poorly paced, illogically structured and often downright laughable.
Both the name and cover art suggest a riff on popular shows like CSI or Law & Order. I've always wondered why more adventure games don't use the police procedural framework, since it would seem to offer the perfect template for the genre - searching for clues, accumulating evidence, solving mysteries, it's all bread and butter for point-and-clickers.
To begin with, Art of Murder seems to be headed in that direction. You're playing as Agent Nicole Bonnet, a Clarice Starling rip-off whose partner has just been shot dead in mysterious circumstances. Assigned to investigate a series of ritual killings, the game starts off by asking you to...do your paperwork. Yep. This gripping task culminates in a heart-pounding brainteaser in which you must...find some more paper for the printer. It's absolutely bizarre, and for a while I actually began to consider that this budget title might be a work of subversive genius, using the drudgery of bureaucracy as some sort of sly commentary on, I don't know, something.
Unfortunately not. Once you've finished your quest for office supplies, things settle down into a predictable routine as you embark on your investigation proper. Locations won't let you leave until you've done whatever needs to be done, and the game only lets you pick up items once you've triggered the bit of the story that needs them. Puzzles are rather simplistic, yet awkwardly jammed into the game in a way that completely undermines the concept. I'm pretty sure that FBI agents carry torches, and therefore wouldn't need to tediously work out the correct configuration of broken switches to illuminate a cellar, and I'm positive all that intensive Langley training would mean even the feeblest female agent should be able to move a crate without resorting to an unlikely fire extinguisher and dinghy combination.
The story really doesn't make sense, and ends up taking you to Peru, where things become even more generic as the game plays out like a limp Broken Sword knock-off. The character of Agent Bonnet is all over the place, one minute grieving and brooding for her dead partner, the next cheerfully twittering away like one of those vapid hags from Sex and the City. The voice acting is uniformly awful, and not in the endearingly naff way most cheap adventures manage. Too many characters sound like they were voiced using the speech function of a word processor, and the cumulative result is a game that is all but impossible to immerse yourself in.
It feels a little cruel to come down too hard on a game that proudly boasts of offering "about 100 difficult tasks" on the back of the box, but endearing lo-fi naivety and a low price aren't really an excuse, especially since there are two far superior adventure games reviewed right here. Heck, if you're so skint that you're contemplating settling for this just to save some coins, just download the SCUMM engine and play some absolutely fantastic adventure games for free.
Crimes of War
- Developer: City Interactive
- Publisher: City Interactive
It can't be easy, working in that low-budget twilight development world where survival depends on taking other people's popular ideas and churning out cheaper versions. Perhaps not quite as soul-destroying as producing knock-off trainers and handbags, but anyone with an ounce of creativity must chaff at having to put out a bargain basement World War II shooter - surely the least essential addition to the gaming catalogue right about now.
The best thing you can say about Crimes of War is that it's not as bad as you think. It's firmly in the Wolfenstein mode, rather than the grittier realism of Call of Duty and all the others, but it still manages to provide rudimentary versions of the sort of things you'd expect from the genre. Physics, for example. Yes! It has physics. Admittedly, it only seems to be there so that cardboard boxes can fall off crates when you shoot them. Sometimes you'll shoot a glass bottle and it'll shatter as expected, sometimes you'll just leave a bullet hole floating in the air. But - hey - physics. It's there.
The game opens with an overlong on-rails shooting gallery as you careen around crude forest scenery in a jeep, swinging your sights in the direction of jeeps that explode with surprising ease. After that it becomes a much more predictable corridor shooter as you investigate a Nazi super-soldier programme. Gosh, never heard that one before.
Perhaps the only fresh idea on display is that of "emotions". Basically this means that if you get three headshots in a row, in a short space of time, you enter Uber-Sniper mode. The same is true of close kills, triggering Berserker mode. Okay, it's not exactly a fresh idea, but it's all the game has. And that's the problem. Crimes of War is functional, but any praise feels rather patronising. Well done, you made a FPS that's almost as good as the best of the genre from ten years ago. It's sort of fun, providing all you demand from a shooter is the ability to point a crosshair at vaguely intelligent enemies.
But technically, it's all below par. The game demands a staggering 5.5GB of your hard drive, yet still requires the disc to play, and still features agonising loading times before each level. Control is stiff, accuracy is inconsistent and the game can't seem to decide if it wants to be a story-driven action game or a mindless arcade fragfest. It's not particularly good at either, and given that the PC is hardly short of budget FPS games - many of them far, far better than this - it's hard to recommend except in the broadest terms for the least demanding player.
Terrorist Takedown 2: US Navy SEALS
- Developer: City Interactive
- Publisher: City Interactive
If Crimes of War represents City Interactive adding another unnecessary game to the World War 2 stockpile, here's its entry in that other overstocked genre - the Middle-East first-person shooter. The menu screen even features a looped audio track of Arabic chanting that is presumably meant to sound like the Muslim call to prayer. Yeah. That should get you in the mood.
As far as gameplay goes, much like Crimes of War, it's just about functional, never particularly gripping and serves only to remind you of other, better, games that you could be playing instead. The presence of physics and AI is touted on the back of the box as if these are still worthy selling points rather than the basic level of expectation for a modern FPS, while the levels are linear, scripted and devoid of surprise or challenge.
Even playing on a rig that far exceeded the minimum technical specs the game was rough, jerky and awkward. Tinkering with the settings managed to smooth things out a little, but it's clear that the problem lies with a game that has been thrown together and shovelled out of the door.
All of the criticisms directed at Crimes of War are relevant here as well - Terrorist Takedown 2 is a shooter for people with very low quality thresholds. It does a passable job of looking like a modern FPS, but when it comes down to the crunch, you'd be better off downloading demo versions of the big boys to satisfy your bloodlust.