Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Game Talk #10: Psi Ops - The Mindgate Conspiracy

Let me start out by saying that I played Psi Ops when it first came out and I was so totally in love with it. I was even planning on penning my own fan fiction sequel but I never even got started on it.

Probably for the best.

I got my hands on a copy last year and played it for the first time in about a decade. I was pretty amped to play this, but almost immediately I began to see some serious flaws in the game as a whole.

The first thing that popped out was the voice acting/scriptwriting. Holy fucking shit, this game is riddled with some of the most poorly delivered, overtly cliché lines I've heard in a long, long time.

I'll give you an example.

One of the first lines in the game is delivered by the protagonist after waking up in a jail cell with no memory and being approached by a mysterious woman.

"Who was she...ugh, she seems so familiar...oh well, at least she gave me a gun and not a kick in the nuts."

Imagine this delivered in a very over-the-top, '80s action movie, poor acting style. Seriously. One of the first things heard in the game. And it doesn't get any better from there.

So, let's start with a synopsis and you'll understand why Psi Ops started out so cool. You are Nick Scryer, a man who has been taken prisoner by an underground, rogue agency of power hungry PSI Elites, or men and women who can use psychic powers ranging from mind control to moving objects with their mind to making fire out of thin air. They have been culled from around the world and want nothing more than total domination of the planet. And they have a plan to get it. Nick's memory has been wiped in order to get him through the detection grid and into the The Movement's network so that he can take them down from the inside. Sara, a woman who frees you from your cell, is a double agent inside The Movement and your contact. But something has gone wrong and you never regained your memory. She awakens your powers and you slowly gain them and your memories back over the course of the game.

Sounds fucking awesome, right?

Well...it was supposed to be.

Right away, I realized that the controls were pretty shit. Movement and aiming, absolutely key functionalities in a third person shooter, are crap. It's hard to aim, it's hard to move and you have to keep moving because people are always fucking shooting at you. I constantly found myself getting mowed down because I was trying to make my PSI powers function. Because, I mean, come on, once you learn how to pick a guy up with your brain and throw him across the room or set him on fire with a flick of your wrist, why bother shooting anyone anymore?

I almost gave up on the game when I realized how bad its controls were, but I persevered and beat it again.

This is a game that could have been great but it falls so, so, SO far short of delivering. Besides bad controls and honest-to-god awful dialogue, the story itself is fairly incoherent. You kind of just get slammed from one segment to the next with very little in the way of explanation. Not to mention the story just feels...rushed. Like, it seems like there was an absolute wealth of potential ideas that could have been added in to flesh the story out a lot more. So much was hinted at and almost none of it was delivered on.

For example, there's this big mystery of your missing memories. It's hinted that you did some terrible things in your past, and they actually have a cool hallucination level where you're in a graveyard and your dead friends are rising from the grave to come after you. There's also a really short cut-scene where you remember yourself doing some kind of fucked up shit, but that's really it. It had no emotional impact at all and the protagonist didn't even seem to care after being upset about it for like two seconds.

Another thing that bugged me was...okay, there's this rule in writing. This might seem like a minor gripe, but it really stuck out at me. So, a lot of novice writers, when they're trying to work in information to be delivered to the reader, or in this case the player, they make a very rookie mistake. They have characters chatting, like in the background or something, and they're stating very obvious facts that, in the real, actual context of the world, makes no sense. Like, there's no reason these people would be discussing these facts in passing conversation.

It be like if say, for example, I wanted to get across to the reader where someone went to high school, and so that person turns to their best friend, who also went to the same high school, and casually states, "I went to Parker High school, you know?" Like, there's no reason for that question to occur, it's merely there for the protagonist to overhear and thus for the reader to gain information.

There's this scene in the game where the main antagonist, some rogue General, is talking with his second in command about another character who just died, another powerful PSI Elite. And the General says, "He was very powerful in mind control...I never had any PSI powers of my own, you know..."

WHY would he say this to his right hand man, who has been working for him for DECADES? Did he think the man had forgotten or something? It's obvious they only had him say that because the protagonist was listening in and thus, the player was listening in, and they wanted to pass that information along.
I would have written it off as lazy writing, but it gets worse!!! Not long before this conversation, your contact plainly informs you, in a far more logical way, that the General has no PSI powers of his own and uses the PSI Elite as pawns to do his dirty work.


Again, a small gripe, I know, but it really stuck out.

So, on top of a poorly written story, they have a gigantic cliffhanger ending. There's a big, mysterious twist that isn't fully explained at all and they even have a TO BE CONTINUED... screen before the credits. I'm not joking. And there was never a sequel.

Also, one of the absolute worst transgressions against gamers happens during the end of the game. In one of the levels, with literally no warning, no tutorial, not even a HINT, suddenly, there are invisible mines that instantly kill you if you touch them. The only way to see them are to use a power that gives you a kind of second sight (that you hardly ever use anyway!). The only way to disarm them is to throw a body into them, and bodies are kind of in short supply. Seriously, there was ZERO reference to these things abruptly cropping up in the gameplay. I was walking along suddenly BOOM I turned to a flying wave of shredded flesh and blood. It took me like three times to figure out what the fuck was happening.

I get adding new challenges to the game but what the fuck?! How were we supposed to figure it out? Every single time a new layer was added to the gameplay or a new feature or element of any kind was added in, there was some kind of tutorial or warning or even a simple dialogue cue by another character. This time, flat out NOTHING.

Finally, this isn't necessarily bad so much as it is ridiculous and embarrassing and sometimes hilarious. Facial expressions. Holy shit, they needed to do a better job on these. I mean LOOK at this:

They look a lot more ridiculous in the actual cut-scenes. Pics don't do these faces justice.

So that about covers the bad things. Or the big, obvious bad things. There's a lot more.

Psi-Ops had a lot of good ideas and I have to say, the ability to pick people up and throw them across the room with a flick of your wrist makes the game worth playing at least once. The other abilities range from fun to annoying to 'you'll use them literally once and then never again' unless you're really into strategic gameplay.

I feel like there were a lot of potentially good elements here. Unfortunately, they are assembled very poorly. It's like someone had a kick-ass model set and they lost half the pieces and put together the rest with haphazard care and spit.

I mean, take the amnesia angle. Overdone, sure, even in 2004, when the game came out, but there's always the potential to make it interesting. And...it just felt like it hardly went anywhere. I suppose if you comb through the game and compile a list of every recovered memory, every mention of his memory and past and every result that could be tied to Nick Scryer's memory, you'd get an appreciable list.

But that's just the problem. None of it felt like it had any impact on the game.

The boss battles were decent and some of the effects were just cool. You have the ability to make people's heads explode. You can do this almost on command, though you have to do a bit of set-up.

There are also cool environmental kills. You can fry guys on exposed machinery, throw them into incinerators and blow them up with explosive barrels, also, you can throw them off of buildings or into each other.

Easily the best thing to come out of Psi Ops is, inexplicably, the excellent band Cold made one of their greatest songs and a badass music video for this game! Check it out here.

Ultimately, this was something I should have left in the past. I was in love with this game when I played it back in '04 and I was so looking forward to a sequel. Unfortunately, one never surfaced. I imagine it had to do with a lawsuit that someone slapped Midway with. You can read about it here, but basically someone claimed Midway stole copyrighted material to produce Psi Ops. I don't know if it was true, I wouldn't put it past them, but the judge ruled in favor of Midway. Not that it mattered since they were slapped with another, much larger lawsuit of lying to their investors. Obviously they fucked up on that one because not much later, the whole company went bankrupt.

Honestly, I'm confused as to why the idea of brain powers as a game mechanic has never taken off. If there was one thing that was at least somewhat satisfying in that game, it was the mind powers. Why isn't 'psionic abilities' its own genre in video gaming? The only other game I've ever played that had mind powers was Second Sight.

Psi Ops probably could have been a half-decent franchise and I'd honestly like to see a modern remake, though it would have to be significantly more fleshed out and the controls would have to be upgraded a great deal because, even for 2004, they were shitty.

I guess I can recommend this game, but only if you can borrow it or find it for really cheap. I managed to beat the game in three hours. Now, granted, I kind of knew what I was doing and I was playing on the easiest difficulty, because I don't get off on difficulty like other people apparently do. I'd rather just have fun and experience the story first and foremost.

On a little side note here, I don't think difficulty should factor significantly into the length of the game. How many times have I heard about an FPS that has a 'solid, 10-hour campaign' and I beat it in five hours and the defense is, "Well, uh, you only played it normal, YOU CASUAL FUCK!" And it's like, seriously, you expected me to spend FIVE hours dying over and over and expect that to be fun?

For me, going back again and again and again until I finally get to the next checkpoint is like trying to read a book, and someone keeps forcing me to read the same page over and over and over again until I 'get it right'. I know it's not a perfect analogy, but it's how it translates for me. I just want to experience the fucking story! There are some games where I like beating it on the hardest difficulty setting, because the gameplay gels well enough with me, but it's pretty rare nowadays. Probably because I don't have a dozen hours a day to pour into games anymore, I've got books to write.

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