Version tested: Xbox 360
Slovenian developer Zootfly doesn't have the best luck. The studio first came to prominence when it floated a gameplay video of a Ghostbusters game online to excited responses from gamers and the sound of Hollywood lawyers swiftly shutting down their unauthorised tech demo. Needless to say, when the Ghostbusters game did arrive, it wasn't Zootfly behind the code.
And now here's Prison Break, scheduled for release in February 2009, but arriving at the arse end of March 2010 after the original publishers went bust. Zootfly financed the development internally until a new suitor could be found in the shape of Deep Silver. Applause and shiny gold stickers all around for dedication, but the downside is that the game is now based on a TV show that has finished, with the final episodes hitting US airwaves last summer.
The delay also has the unfortunate side effect of putting Prison Break in the same release window as Sam Fisher's stealthy return in Splinter Cell: Conviction. Comparisons to Ubisoft's Clancy-themed juggernaut are therefore inevitable, and sadly unflattering to Zootfly's cheap and uninspired offering.
Creeping around Fox River penitentiary as Company agent Tom Paxton, your mission is ostensibly to follow Michael Scofield, star of the TV show, to see what he's up to. We, of course, know what he's up to. He's got himself sent to the prison he designed so he can bust his brother out before he gets sent to the electric chair for murdering the vice president, which he didn't really do. Got that? Don't worry if not, since the plot of the show is little more than background noise in a game more concerned with sending you on menial fetch quests.
Almost immediately you run into one of Prison Break: The Conspiracy's most crippling problems. Set during the first season of the show, there's just not enough room in the story established on TV for an eventful videogame to squeeze into. Fans of the show, who must surely represent the game's main audience, will know how this ends, and that whatever tasks the game asks of you have already been made redundant by episodes that aired five years ago.
The player is always many steps ahead of Paxton's investigation, which lends proceedings the awkward air of meaningless filler. That's when the game actually lets your experience cross over with Scofield's. Such moments are rare, and serve only to remind you that there's a more interesting story happening elsewhere.
Having made itself inessential to the people most likely to overlook its shortcomings, Prison Break's videogame incarnation goes on to offer up a catalogue of poor gameplay features. There are just two main gameplay elements - stealth and hand-to-hand combat - and neither stands up to scrutiny. There's enormous potential in a jailbreak game, as Riddick proved, but Prison Break isn't interested in anything that might deviate you from its narrow path.
Objectives appear on your mini-map, and just in case the giant X isn't enough, you can hold down a trigger button to zoom the camera in on where you need to be. Every jump, every switch, every door reminds you which button you need to press. This isn't so much a game that holds your hand as puts you in a baby buggy and pushes you around.
Sneaking is what you'll spend most of your time doing when the game gives you the freedom to roam, but the woolly AI of the guards makes for a frustratingly inconsistent experience. There were moments when I was squatting in plain sight of a guard, mere feet away, yet he somehow never made the connection between the human-shaped object in front of him and the prisoners he was supposed to be watching. Equally, there are times when the game drops you in front of a sniper and gives you a split second to react to one of several clumsy quick-time-event prompts.
There are no takedowns or attack options, context-sensitive climbing commands are flaky in their response and every encounter is crudely scripted to the point of absurdity. Guards will only move from a particular spot when you stand in a certain place, while janitors mop the same six inches of floor for eternity, funnelling you down the solitary correct path as obviously as any brick wall.
Combat is even more simplistic, with just two attack buttons and a sluggish block manoeuvre on offer. You can use the weights and punchbag in the prison yard to beef yourself up, but the game doesn't have the sort of depth to make such half-hearted RPG flourishes necessary. No matter how much muscle you pile on, punches feel as weightless as throwing cotton wool balls at wet tissue paper. Most of the time you and your opponent simply swing wildly, arms passing through each other, until the other guy is weak enough for one of a handful of finishing move animations.
There's the chance to earn cash in underground fights, and you can get tattoos for each area you visit. Clearly, neither is essential since it was only when I was doing a study of the game's Achievements and Trophies during the final chapter that I remembered such distractions were even on offer. There's also a flimsy multiplayer component, which simply pits players against each other using the horrible fighting engine.
Fans may scrape some thin slivers of pleasure from unlocking characters from the TV show for use in this shallow brawl, but the atrocious graphics are sure to disappoint. Faces are bloated, while movements are robotic and stiff, and everyone walks around like they're holding in a really hard poo. The TV cast return to supply the voices, but the lacklustre performances suggest it was a contractual obligation rather than a passion project for them.
Prison Break stands little chance of making its mark against the current generation of ambitious stealth games. Usually, spin-off games can fall back on their inherited audience of existing fans, but with a pointless story that adds nothing to a tale already completed, it's hard to see how even the most devoted follower could get more than an evening of mild amusement from such a scrawny experience.
3 / 10