Version tested: PlayStation 2
Espionage careers are glamorous, dangerous and thrilling pursuits. Just ask Bond, Bourne, Fisher, Hunt or any of the teams from Hustle, 24 or Spooks. It's a life of cocktail dresses and poison lipstick, deep cover and hoodwinking disguises, hi-tech gadgets and quick reflexes.
The Plan features seven specialist agents all working together to pull off the most audacious heist the criminal underworld has ever seen. Unfortunately, they seem to have been trained by the Chuckle Brothers, their disguises consist of joke shop glasses complete with plastic nose and a flapping moustache, and their most hi-tech gadget is a Gizmondo.
The hook of The Plan is that there are three playable characters during a mission, all on screen in their own little window, and each is controllable whenever the player sees fit. Objectives are completed through the interaction of the three team members as they pull off supposedly slick jobs using their signature skills. Breaking out of prison, swapping diamonds, stealing blueprints and leaving nothing but an expression of bewilderment on the faces of their foes.
What it actually amounts to is distracting a guard by sending one of the team to chat him up, while another slips past unnoticed. Or maybe you need someone to hold their finger on a button in order to keep a roof hatch open while another member of this elite gang nips through it. That's the excitement right there - opening doors for other people. Switching off lights so someone else can sneak through the dark. Pick-pocketing keys and twisting a door handle at the same time as your colleague. Is this it? Three controllable characters, all highly skilled espionage agents, and they're politely leaving doors open and boring guards to death with mindless banter?
There's no excitement. It's supposedly a game of stealth and cunning, immaculate timing and well executed cons. In reality it's as dull as walking through three doors. That's actually an objective on the first level; walk through a corridor and out of the main prison doors. It's not exactly Prison Break. If it were this easy in real life I wouldn't have spent three months in borstal.
There are no thrills, no tension. Will I make it to the final hurdle only to be thwarted by a quick-witted guard or my own last-minute drop in concentration? To be honest, I could skip past whistling Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, and so long as I'm not in the guard's 45-degree cone of vision no-one would notice. Will I be dangling precariously above a motion-sensitive security device that will unleash nuclear winter if I so much as brush a nose hair up against it? No, but I can put some glasses on to see coloured lasers if I want to. Blue lasers and red ones.
Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, Hitman, even ropey old 24: The Game, ropier Shadow of Rome and the ropiest Without Warning managed to get some aspects of stealth and espionage right. The Plan is the equivalent of the movie stakeout where the fat detective sits outside a marks' house in a busted up motor, chugging on a litre of coffee and slapping half a burger onto the dashboard in disgust when he realises he's on the wrong street.
And if the gameplay isn't up to scratch, is there at least the odd piece of eye candy to keep the graphics whore in us distracted for a couple of hours? Even those who don't feel the exciting tickle of Splinter Cell can appreciate the awesome lighting, the intricate detail and the smooth animation, right? The Plan is one of the flattest, greyest, ugliest games we've seen. It became a cliché in 2001 to put down a PS2 game with the line, 'it looks like a PSone game'. Well, five years on we're resurrecting that phrase right here, right now. It looks like a poor man's Syphon Filter.
The enemy AI is no challenge. Guards have that four-stage field of vision where they pivot north, south, east and west, even if that means staring directly at a wall. Your team will dangle along the outside of a moving train, avoid numerous guards and inquisitive hostesses and then stand at the end of a room photographing a meeting between criminal masterminds who won't even notice you standing there in plain daylight. You may as well ask them to vogue for the camera.
It's easier to spend your time watching icons on a mini-map than watching the action on the main screen. And wait until the game goes all 24-style split-screen, with three different views squashed onto your TV, then you'll know the true meaning of horrible controls and awful camera. You can cycle through each perspective to bring the controllable character into the main view and there are basic controls over the other guys, such as having them follow you or execute an action when the time is right. It works, just, but at this point you won't want to control one character, let alone three of them.
You can probably guess what the characters called Boomer and Headshot specialise in, while Cat's special ability seems to be to talk about her hair as a means of distraction. Honestly, it's that mind-numbing. The distinguishing skills feel completely nondescript. There may as well be one character who makes a mean tofu salad, another who specialises in woodwork and a bloke that once met Jimmy Saville for all the difference it makes.
And there's one more mighty stamp on the nuts of pleasure too. The dialogue keeps dropping in and out of the game. One minute you'll be listening to a script being read by Hollyoaks rejects and that bloke from the Cillit Bang advert, and the next, it just disappears. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not. This is finished code we're playing here folks, complete with Ghostlight, Eko and Sony's seal of approval on the disk. It's nice to know you care, guys.
Recall all those poor Splinter Cell and Metal Gear clones that came out a couple of years ago, when making a Splinter Cell or Metal Gear clone was at least a trendy thing to do - Mission Impossible: Operation Surma, Rogue Ops, Cy Girls - and know that this is worse than those. It's not so broken it's completely unplayable, but it's not even basic enough to warrant trying to satisfy an hour's curiosity.
3 / 10