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The Occupation review - a brilliant, if broken, British BioShock

The other Turing Test.

A tense, imaginative thriller that buckles under the weight of its own ambition.

If this review was nowt but swear words - and by that, I mean just an endless rant of disgusting words glued end-to-end ad infinitum - I still wouldn't be able to properly convey how much The Occupation frustrates me.

Because the worst thing about this - the most egregious thing, the most toe-curlingly infuriating part of it - is that I love The Occupation. I love its premise and art style. I love its killer 80s soundtrack and novel real-time conceit. It truly has some of the finest voice-acting I've heard for a while. But it is also broken, glitchy, buggy, and nonsensical, and for every one thing that colours me impressed, another five makes me scream at the screen in frustration - usually when the game bugs out completely, taking an hour's worth of my progress with it.

BioShock, but British.

The premise of The Occupation is that you control the narrative. As the journalist Harvey Miller, you explore your environments, scavenging for leads and collecting evidence. Consequently, you control how you conduct your interviews with the people of interest, and any additional evidence you uncover can be used to surprise your witnesses. You get to decide whether you sit politely and await your appointed time or whether - when the security guard's back is turned - you slip silently into the Staff Only section to do a little digging. Turns out everyone has a slightly different version of events, and it's up to you to discern which account is truthful.

The interviews take place in the wake of a horrifying terrorist attack that claimed 23 lives. On learning that the attack was carried out by immigrant Alex Dubois, the country knee-jerks with a controversial new act intent on deporting all non-nationals. Your interview subjects worked with the vilified Dubois, and your story is scaffolded around the explosive events of that night.

This is, undoubtedly, where The Occupation shines brightest. The very real pressure of a real-time time limit coupled with many different paths means every playthrough can be unique, depending on whether Steve the I'm-really-an-actor security guard catches you, or where this secret vent spits you out. Notes and cleaning schedules will intimate when people will - and will not - be at their desks, enabling you to better plan your subterfuge, and there's plenty of real and red-herring objects with which to interact and secret away into your briefcase.

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This open exploration only applies to a couple of chapters, though; usually, you'll follow a pretty constrained route that leaves little opportunity to explore. That's not to say they're not enjoyable segments - thanks to the astonishing voice cast, any time spent in a character's head is typically well spent - but it's interesting how bland your protagonist, Harvey, feels against the otherwise three-dimensional cast.

The open segments are usually where the game becomes unplayable for me, though, and it wasn't a single issue isolated to a single place or area, either. Sneaking through vents saw me levitate into the ceiling without any means of getting down again (much to Steve's dismay). Sometimes, I got snagged and then intractably trapped by the environment which, again, rendered me immobile and forcing me to reboot. This, coupled with a lack of manual save - and only auto-saving at the end of each chapter - meant I ended up replaying one particular chapter five bloody times before I managed to hit that blessed savepoint; not remotely enjoyable, particularly as I had to wait a real-time hour for my appointment on each occasion.

Sometimes, though, Steve would inexplicably "catch me" in public areas, which is blatantly unfair. And creeping around the staff-only areas became ever more fraught as moving in and out to cover - not to mention vents - is a puzzle in and of itself. Sometimes our kid Harv does as he's told but mostly he bobs up and down like a kid in a deathmatch game who's just discovered the delights of teabagging. Moving the reticle itself is a special kind of torture that I suspect is waiting for me in hell, I don't understand why "examining" a cassette player or answerphone makes the play button suddenly inoperable, and trying to jump down from someplace even a pixel beyond the designated spot will see your character tremble and shake pretty much like I am right now, having to relive all this and tell you about it. The abysmal mechanics are forever fighting the player's progress.

Hiding under desks might offer a brief reprieve, but you won't be safe forever.

Every now and then game shouts "CHARACTER NEAR YOU DRONE PLAYING" and "CHARACTER LEFT STING AREA PLAYED" in cap locks at you, usually in the middle of a tense sequence. I (much) later realised these were environmental subtitles informing me of music cue changes, which was particularly perplexing given the main subs themselves are tiny and essentially useless. Towards the end, I'm increasingly unclear what to do, and even my dossier of "leads" is baffling cryptic. It's not that I want a story spoonfed to me - by all means, make me work for it - but I can't resolve an issue if the game hasn't properly telegraphed what that issue even is; I want my ending to be as a result of my actions and choices, not the side-effect of a lack of clarity.

Despite this? Despite all this? You're going to enjoy The Occupation. You're going to care about its characters, ponder about its conclusion, examine the items, and worry about how the story ends. There's a brief but delightful sequence in which two characters converse in British Sign Language (which is accurate, I hasten to add - in another life I used to be a BSL communicator), and the propaganda posters and overheard snippets about immigration are authentic enough to make you shift uncomfortably in your seat. It's a dystopian tale that stops short of being alarmist and it's all the more effective for it, weaving subtle but effective world-building through its interactive props and set-pieces to build mood and atmosphere - something at which The Occupation indisputably excels.

But as long as its shockingly poor mechanics and lack of polish stand in the way of progression, it's hard to approach - or recommend - The Occupation with anything but caution. At the time of writing, I'm advised a patch will address localisation and "minor fixes", but it's going to take a smorgasbord of "huge effing fixes, actually" to beat this game into any manageable state - a shame, really, given how much this admirably ambitious thriller does get right.

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