If we could engage in some active mind control, it would be to make people buy decent games. You know, stop them in their tracks when they line up to pick up another copy of Driv3r or Catwoman. Or, even better, influence the money men of gaming into making better games in the first place so that we never have to endure some of the ritual torture that regularly masquerades as entertainment. We were thinking of what we could do to Midway, but someone evidently got to its boardroom ahead of us. Until recently it had been stuck in a depressing post arcade-era rut, producing a slew of uninspiring updates to old hits, along with a few forgettable new IPs like Dr Muto and Haven.
At some point last year, mind control got hold of their development chiefs, levitated them clean off the ground, whacked them against the wall a few times and ordered them to stop sucking or die, essentially. Creeping off sheepishly with their tails between their legs, the fruits of that motivational pep talk are there for all to see - not only were we treated to the unexpectedly entertaining The Suffering recently, the signing up of the Unreal franchise from under Atari's nose was another sign that things are on the up for Midway. And next month, Europe gets to sample another quality title waiting in the wings in Psi-Ops - a telekinetic action-adventure that blends elements of stealth, puzzle, melee combat and a fair dose of frenetic shooting. It manages to be both original and familiar, and ticks off most of the check boxes that we require from an action game, keeping us relentlessly entertained, always introducing new moves as the game progresses, and giving us an incentive to carry on.
Psi-Ops puts you in the shoes of amnesiac Eminem/Justin Timberlake clone Nick Scryer, an "elite American Psi-Operative soldier who must combat The Movement". It's very much the usual harmless good-guy fights bad-guy fodder, where you wake up not knowing who you are or why you're there, only that you're banged up and fighting for your life. It quickly transpires that the very people you're up fighting against are your former employers, who turn out to be using their mind control powers for the purposes of evil, and are, in fact a "fierce terrorist organization set to overthrow world order". Yikes.
Naturally, every soldier standing in your way is some kind of brainwashed grunt armed to the teeth, and gradually your Psionic powers reawaken. Cleverly, the game gets around the usual tutorial nonsense by introducing flashbacks every level to a time when you learned that particular skill as a faithful Mindgate soldier. It's a neat and convincing way of handling how to use each new power, and does what so few games ever deign to do - introduce them right throughout the game.
If you were to look at Psi-Ops out of context, it probably doesn't immediately strike you as much different from your average action-adventure. The structure of the game is rarely more than a simple case of hotfooting it from one side to another, picking up a crucial object or maybe flicking a few switches to set things in motion. But it's what happens along the way that sets it apart from the action-adventure sludge out there.
Kicking your arsenal
Kicking things off, it's much the same as any other third-person run-and-gun out there - and with a fairly slim selection of generic weapons at that. Pistol, Shotgun, Machine Gun, Assault Rifle and later on a Sniper Rifle, but that's about it. If that were literally it, you'd have problems working up any excitement about Psi-Ops. What does become an immense amount of fun (and never stops being fun) is the array of Psionic powers that gradually flesh out your arsenal and allow the tasks at hand to be approached in a manner entirely at the discretion of the player.
To begin with, TK, or Telekinesis, enables you to pick things up - be it crates, hard to reach medipacks or pesky soldiers intent on blasting you to a pulp. TK also lets you bust up soldiers by throwing them against walls, or, if you feel sadistic, levitate them high in the air and then blast the crap out of them. This, however, uses up you Psi energy, and if you deplete it entirely through overuse, you'll end up merely being able to fire your gun as a means of defence. Later, though, we get the chance to drain our foe of their Psi energy. Catch them unaware and you'll be able to drain a huge amount to the point where it'll not only almost completely fill up your bar, but actually cause their heads to explode in a shower of grey and brown matter. Nice, especially just after a big dinner.
Later, you can walk out of your body, through doors and beyond to stealthfully observe the patterns of the drones, while Mind Control is another fantastically useful power to reawaken, as it gives you the opportunity to completely take over the bodies of your enemies, allowing you to open previously locked doors as well as use your charges to shoot baddies in a rampage of chaotic scenes. Better still, you actually feel good about making them commit suicide. It's a hell of a change of mindset, and an incredibly well thought out set of moves. Other useful but slightly improbable powers appear late in the game, such as Pyrokinesis, which simply gives you the ability to throw fireballs for some slightly inexplicable reason, but the fact that the game keeps introducing new things at all is rather unexpected and entirely welcome.
Mind the gap
Control wise, Psi-Ops is consistently excellent, with a fluid weapons system that never lets you down, complemented by a camera system that never ever lets you down, giving you control of it, but never putting you in a position where you're disadvantaged or arbitrarily left feeling like the game's been unfair. Psi-Ops is rarely frustrating, giving the player the chance to make steady progress in most cases, with only the occasional incident where an auto-save gave us literally no hope of progression through a lack of health, ammo and psi energy. Sensible planning and thinking your way through the game always wins out, and is all the more satisfying as a result.
Where Psi-Ops lets itself down on the whole is its ostensibly bland styling that gives you the false impression of it being quite generic. It's not. The character models don't look anything special, but are well animated, with subtle details all over the place if you stop to observe them. The levels, though, have that 'seen it all before' feel about them with a very industrial futuristic feel, a predictable layout and a lack of architectural imagination to really engage or immerse you in your surroundings.
Audio, again, feels functional, with bland music and forced voiceovers. The characters - ranging from Nick's permanently rough and tough confused look to Sarah's harsh I'm-helping-you-or-am-I? mystique don't really give the game the edge that it deserves, while the bosses just feel like comic cardboard cutouts to act as a climax to the level. Every female is ludicrously proportioned and every man a caricature of himself. It's all a bit generic in that respect, and with the quality of the gameplay being what it is, you can't help but feel it deserves a more imaginative art, script and audio direction. These small points kind of take away from the immersion of what is otherwise highly competent and worth checking out.
Pay some mind
On the shelves, Psi-Ops stands proud. How it stacks up against Free Radical's similar-sounding Second Sight remains to be seen (review coming soon), but rated in its own right it's undoubtedly a highly enjoyable action romp with a clutch of deal clincher ideas that are well-realised and far from being mere gimmicks to brag about on the box. The player is gradually presented with a whole pile of new toys and effectively told to just get on with it, which makes every level something you can tackle the way you want to. Throw in tons of bonus content, extra unlockable levels (nice isolated one-off challenges, as opposed to full on missions), co-op play (a very welcome addition that comes highly recommended if you have a likeminded buddy...) and you've got a decent value package that will be irresistible once it's brought down from its lofty full price perch. Not quite essential, but the very definition of solid, and the flashes of originality reflect a refreshing spirit of adventure from Midway right now.