GoldenEye 007. Super Mario Kart. Golden Sun. Grand Theft Auto 3. All these games to some extent were sleeper hits. Sneaking in the backdoor of gaming legend with comparatively slight preview fanfare, these titles grew up to be classics against a modest, secretive or diminutive showing. You could argue these type of games end up being the most valued. Relatively little hype, little attention, mildly large risk; infinitely large reward. And now, Conspiracy is the latest to be listed among - gah, who are we kidding?
Conspiracy: Weapons of Mass Destruction is not that type of game.
To be totally honest, it's an insult to even mention these games on the same page. Because rather than quietly wooing you with its class and whispering sweet nothings in your ear, this first-person shooter stomps up behind you, drops its trousers and starts pissing against your leg, and then wonders why you're looking at it with such total abject disgust. Sneaky? That's what secret agents do...
Not so Sly Spy: Secret Agent
You probably want to know where it all went wrong. Okay, maybe not, given Kuju's game was largely under the radar in the first place. But there has been a glimmer of interest, given the ties to its competent if uninspired stablemate, Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior [poster tag line: "Better than Halo!" How we laughed - Ed]. However, unlike that title, Conspiracy lacks a franchise tie-in to draw in the rubes. Instead, we get a stock 'retired secret agent' story that, to be frank, is so tired you'll be fighting the narcolepsy before the game even starts.
Assuming control of the woefully named Cole Justice (described as "an ex-government secret service agent, trained mercenary and all-round tough guy"... can you feel the edginess?), you have to take the square-jawed hero on one last assignment. This assignment? Why, to take down a rogue government agency, of course. Apparently, under the equally derivative moniker of Hydra, this agency has been developing weapons of mass destruction to sell for their evil means, money and gloating criminal mwhahahas. Cole, with his Intel handler, Cara, who communicates from a nice safe distance (coward), has to infiltrate Hydra's lair and put a stop to their plans. By shooting them all. To death.
There's no irony here. No cheeky wink that lets us know we've stumbled into the realm of hackney. This is stone cold serious. We should have taken heed from the title, which alone shows the sheer lack of imagination on display. It was like Kuju picked out two of the more popular and overused buzzwords/phrases of the last decade and stuck them together, evoking The Power of Cliché in their combination.
Uses real moving graphics!
If the giant flashing danger signs werent going off at that point, you know things arent promising when the game's press release proudly boasts a "full arsenal of weapons including pistols, grenade launchers, sniper rifles and rocket launchers" and "realistic shot wounds and human damage!" Guys, you do realise it's 2005, right? These things are the very least we expect from an FPS now. Even shooters on the GBA have these kind of features as basic requirements. Putting them as examples of why we should buy your game is a bit like a contemporary driving title bragging that it has wheels.
Things kick off with title music that tries to come across suspenseful and subtle, but sounds like the soundtrack to a porn flick parody; almost an oxymoron in itself. Maybe it's intentional in its gloomy minimalism, but as soon as the opening level starts things get worse. The horrendously blurred, featureless texturing doesn't even try to transport you into a world of global espionage, and neither do the almost stop-frame movements of the guards who fight you. Watch them closely enough and you can actually see where their animation frames loop and restart. That's before you shoot them and they fall over and die in the same manner each time. Occasionally you'll get a 'clutching rear end' animation, and if you're really lucky there's an 'instant bloody chunks explosion' one. Variety, see.
It wouldnt be so bad if the level design for this opening stage wasnt so rough. But even disregarding the fact that by stepping backwards from your start point you can die instantly, theres very little incentive to continue playing. It starts off like a shoddy version of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, then after a short while into the second level, a slow realisation dawns. It's not only content with being a half-hearted Turok. It's also a poor man's Rogue Agent. Lord help us.
Conspiracy against good gameplay
For the sake of the review, we persisted. To the bitter end. Only to find Conspiracy got more laughable the further it progressed. The levels remain mercifully short, linear and consist of generally moving from room to room, corridor to corridor, flicking switches, shooting guards, collecting items, blowing up targets and downloading information. All of this is fine in principle, but there's a total lack of interesting pacing or layout, obviously not helped by visually listless presentation - a particular source of frustration when trying to find out what's interactive and what's not. Mostly the answer is 'not'. Some puzzles merely ended up solved by pressing the X button around the badly designed environment until you find something that reacts, only to end up taking damage for your efforts because there's no warning that things are going to start exploding, just to 'keep you on your toes'.
The game mechanics - in keeping with the outdated visuals, terrible soundtrack and third-rate voice acting - are similarly archaic. If you want to change the controls, there's no option in-game. No, you must restart the damn thing and experience freaky porno title screen music all over again. Joy. Want to shoot out the security cameras to stop an alarm bringing a gaggle of guards? Forget about it. You can't shoot the cams; instead you're forced to sneak around in some laboured attempt at stealth.
Thankfully, even when you alert them, the enemies are blessed with intelligence that wouldnt be out of place in an Austin Powers film. Some will spot you, but they rarely ever follow, and then when you come back you'll find them gazing into the badly drawn sky as if nothing happened. Others will just stand there as you blow the blood (which often looks like someone activated a paintball mode) out of them. At times we actually had the woeful guards kill us, but instead of getting a death scene of any type we got a black page with a white lettered obituary, and some sad music. Worse still, you cant skip any of it, no matter how many times you see it. Someone... please... make it stop.
We... it's... *sigh*
It just all comes off as half-finished and uninteresting. Conspiracy really doesnt even try to bring anything new at all to the FPS table. As in, nothing new since the early days of the PS One. If you didnt believe in cryogenic suspension, you probably will after this because it seems the poor dev team were Cryogenically frozen in 1995 and thawed out to deliver this hellish excuse for digital entertainment.
This outlandish theory perhaps isnt too far a stretch given the outdated game ethics and presentation on display. There are so many things wrong with Conspiracy on such a basic fundamental level that it's a struggle to see how it got past initial concept design. It's hard not to feel sorry for the team who probably worked slavishly on this title, but what we're dealing with here is a classic example of When Games Go Really Really Bad. This would be shocking nearly two generations ago. It's the gaming equivalent of seeing a McCarthyist witch burning in 2005.
We're sorry. We're so so sorry. This game is just horrible. If a passer-by were to see something like the forthcoming Black and then look at this they would wonder how it came from the same machine. It's a parody of the genre and a parody of the PS2's abilities; a weapon of mass destruction for any gaming audience unfortunate to play it. That it's not an intentional parody is the only conspiracy present here.