Version tested: PC
[Reviewer stands up, paces the room, lights an imaginary cigarette and stares out the window for half an hour. Returns to his seat, drums his fingers on the table for five minutes, occasionally casting a half-glance back towards the screen where the cursor blinks accusingly. He takes a deep breath, turns towards the keyboard and...]
Okay. Let's put it like this.
Boiling Point: Road To Hell (PC) review
It's easy to forget, in these days of stunted bookkeepers, that once giants walked the Earth. While retroheads will normally describe the eighties so-called golden age as all about the accessible quick arcade thrills, that doesn't tell the whole story. While everyone gives a nod towards Elite as the massive freeform classic, they forget the other enormous, genre-blending games that often somehow managed to contort themselves into 48K memory packs. Think of games like Mercenary or Lords of Midnight. Later, consider the sprawling grandeur of Midwinter. Think of big things.
Boiling Point is very much in the same lineage, an action/adventure game with enormous scope. Its cleverness is that while the concept is small (an Ex-Mercenary father tries to find his missing daughter in a South American Valley), its execution is large. While a more traditional shooter would just throw together a series of levels of blasting until you catch up with your errant child, Deep Shadows has essentially just made a valley and then left you to it.
So what do you do to find your daughter? Well, logically enough, you can start asking people about the town and then go and ask her employee. This uncovers clues and leads, which you can then pursue. Someone needs a favour before they'll tell you what's going on? Well, get in a car and head off to see if you can fulfil the need. Short on cash? Try taking on jobs for one of the representatives of the game's many factions. Of course, these endeavours raise and lower your standing with all the groups, changing how they interact with you later. The simple experience of heading across the map can radically depending on your earlier decisions.
And what a map. The game sprawls across two-hundred-and-fifty kilometres of jungles, villages and hidden bases, and you travel the map freely. After the loading pauses every minute or so of Half-life 2 or Deus Ex: Invisible War, this freedom to roam is the greatest freedom of all, adding hugely to the atmosphere and the sense that this is a real place. It's a genuinely luscious one. While not as beautiful as the verdant flora of Far Cry, its sheer size and your ability to genuinely explore it makes for a very different and immersive thing.
In terms of the amount of things you can do, it stands with no obvious peers. While the actual model for both combat and stealth is relatively simple, they're functional enough. And it's not really about the combat anyway, with the majority of the game spent exploring, conversing and working out what to do next. The most satisfying missions are the ones where, by examining at the situation, you manage to work out a clever solution rather than simply doing the expected. Just because the files you have to steal are in the middle of a heavily guarded Mafia base doesn't mean you have to kill every guard there.
In a world where streamlining (i.e. cutting out all the controls that won't fit on a joypad) is the expected standard, this is so far from that it could be in orbit. There are role-playing game-style stats, which improve through experience. Weapons can be customised to improve range or damage if you have the right equipment. Get drunk too much, and you become an alcoholic. Similarly, you can become addicted to combat drugs or medical syringes. You even get tired, and find yourself catching forty winks in your car before heading off into the undergrowth to complete a mission. You're constantly surprised by what the game offers you, and the wealth of anecdotes you'll want to share with friends around the corner. If you like games that let you tell your own story, you won't get finer. Its more realistic tone (and simple plot) even helps convince you of the reality of your quest.
What holds it back from even higher accolades is that it's one of the buggier games of recent years. However it's important to understand that for this sort of game, that's no real change. Any game which has attempted to be this freeform, this large and merge this many genres has always been as buggy as Boiling Point. If you are genuinely interested in a South-American holiday, you'll forgive the regular nonsense and get stuck into charting one of the most sophisticated and ambitious games the PC has to offer.
9 / 10
Boiling Point: Road To Hell (PC) review
Do note the subtitle. To hell with good intentions. It doesn't matter how many things a game tries to do, all that matters is how well they work. And Boiling Point's many innovations and ideas simply don't work in any acceptable way at all. Abstractly, it mixes Grand Theft Auto with Deus Ex in a South American jungle. In practice...
Let's start with the bugs, because that's the first thing you'll notice too. The game's a mess. An embarrassing mess. In fact, it's almost worth playing for comedy value. It's difficult to pick highlights, but how about the time when reloading caused the car I was driving to become invisible and thus allowed me to hurtle across the countryside in a Wonder-Woman-esque invisi-vehicle manner? Or the time a jungle jaguar flew a hundred or so metres through the air to attack me when I was on the top of a Ziggurat? Or when someone running away got caught in a looping animation, in a Road-to-Nowhere Talking-Heads video manner?
Away from that, there are less amusing examples. For example, if you drop an object, expect to see a standardised box rather than the item you've dropped. Leave your car on the pavement, and you'll come back to find passers-by stuck to it (who all die when you start off again, harming your reputation). Laugh at constant sound errors and random voiced and non-voiced lines. Regularly heaving performance dips, with things entering slide-show-o-vision whenever you reach a major gunfight until your machine has had a nice little think.
While you can't expect a game that mixes genres to match a game that concentrates on a single one, you'd hope they'd do better than this. While you can crawl and crouch, the actual sense of physicality in your guns is entirely lacking. Sure, there are plenty of weapons, but none of them match even the least of Halo's arsenal. The vehicles are equally as lumpen, with none of GTA's tactile pleasure. And the enormous map? Not actually that good a thing, since the majority of it is simply empty jungle. You'll spend most of your time driving between two distant checkpoints, along windy roads, forever.
All the good ideas in the world can't save this road-accident of a game, and it's obscene that it's been released in its current state. If you buy this you're doing the equivalent of jamming a tube in your mouth and paying someone to pour silage down it. For God's sake, don't encourage them.
3 / 10
Boiling Point: Road To Hell (PC) review
And that's the problem.
The reductionist argument tends to either over- or under-rate Boiling Point. Start listing its good moments and it sounds like one of the greatest games of all time. Start listing its failings, and it sounds like something that should be sharing a cell with Rise Of The Robots in the Great Crimes Against Gamerdom Prison. Understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with either of the above arguments, and you'll hear people making them sincerely. Hell: you may even hear yourself making them, and if the person you were talking to was being honest, they'd admit to seeing your point.
Boiling Point's greatest strength is that it manages to keep an atmosphere and tone even despite all the bug-based hilarity that surrounds you. That's mostly down to the technology, which keeps everything in a single explorable context. As you head into the fog-covered areas, heading toward an unknown waypoint, there's a genuine sense of discovery, heightened by the fact that you know you could have gone there any time you wanted. When looking at the map and planning, what influences you are the constraints in the world rather than the constraints of the game. So, for example, where in System Shock 2 you would go almost anywhere on the level you're on rather than use the elevator to go down a floor to get something due to the loading times, here you only look at the distance you have to drive. Since you're thinking purely in terms of the game as an explorable environment rather than a theoretical space, it really seduces you. Even if another car has just crashed through a security barrier due to getting its braking distance wrong.
It also stresses that there's more to games than fun. There are other ways to enthral the gamer than the jocular laugh-a-minute approach. For example, the long drives across the countryside, with the relatively basic driving model, can't be considered that much fun in the standard sense, prove perversely enthralling (though when something goes wrong, you turn off road and you're swerving between tree-trunks to try and escape pursuit, it does hold its visceral charms). Yet again, it's an atmosphere thing. Having to go somewhere makes the destination more important, and increases your sense of it being a real place. It's the price you pay for immersion. It also helps that even in its Boiling Point incarnation, driving long distances down roads is more interesting than walking (as in Morrowind) or flying them (as in Elite). Because, in driving, each second is at least a low-level test of skill, instead of just heading in a straight line and holding a button.
Most importantly, when it's good it's genuinely great. In terms of both beautiful gaming moments and teeth-gnashing pain, you'll have more mini-narratives from Boiling Point than any half-a-dozen recent blockbusters. It's also rife with throwaway ideas. To choose my favourite example, when you're spotted by a guard you have half a second to press F1. If you manage it, you'll cough out an excuse, claiming that you're only here to deliver a parcel. And there's a chance of it working. Madness. Inspired madness. The game's so feature-rich that you get the feeling Deep Shadows are the sorts of people who'd spend time working on a theme tune for the game to play during install rather than any one of the assorted bugs. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered if they were given another six months to polish it off, as they'd have just used the time to add some kind of bread-baking feature or a fully functional kazoo.
However, yes, it's not finished, and that does impact your enjoyment. Putting aside the bugs, there are sections where the lack of polish in terms of missions is all too clear. Even things like the script, which is painful in almost being well-written. There are jokes aplenty, and with a decent rewriting they could have actually worked well, instead of seeming a little babelfished. Despite the lack of polish, nothing actually stops you playing.
Put it like this: This is probably one of the most enjoyable piece of early-Beta code that I've ever played. You want to damn Atari for releasing it like this. However, you also want to hail them for spending money on something of Boiling Point's ambition rather than the safe option. After all, if this sells nothing, the lesson publishers will learn won't be "Don't release unfinished games" but "Don't invest in ambitious ones".
That said, none of those ideological musings should really impinge on your buying decisions. All that matters is whether you're going to enjoy it enough to be worth the money. Hopefully, by looking at yourself and understanding your relative need for a freeform action-adventure game versus your willingness to put up with a lot of unnecessary crap, you'll now know whether this most bemusing of games is for you.
Me? Despite everything, I like it a lot. When talking to someone about this, he asked how can you give something this broken a fairly decent mark? Well, if you still enjoy it.
I enjoyed it. Many of you will too. But don't say you weren't warned.
8 / 10