Platform: X-Box 360
Also On: PS3, PC
Developers: EA DICE
Genre: First Person Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: November 12th, 2008
This game reeled me in on premise alone. I'll admit to anyone who asks that I'm something of a sucker for Cyberpunk - Blade Runner is easily one of my all time favorite films, and let's not even get into the work of the man who inspired it, Phillip K. Dick - and this game is definitely playing with some of the trappings. So I checked it out.
Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed; but it has to be said that it wasn't an entirely smooth ride.
What initially got me to try the game - the story - is ultimately where the game finds some of it's faults, which I'll get into later. You play as Faith, a runner in the utopian city. Runners are basically what you might expect; your modern day message courier delivering messages the old fashioned way. Any other way is monitored by the cities government, meaning any attempts to organize any sort of rebellion in the modern ways is little more than a good way to get yourself caught. Suddenly, the cops begin actively pursuing runners - whom they'd mostly left alone - with guns blazing. Faith's sister is framed for murder and before you know it Faith is in hot water too, trying to escape capture and figure out the conspiracy at work. It's pretty distinctly cyberpunk in a lot of ways; you'll recognize the oppressive government, a clean, future-esque city, overzealous government monitoring folks and common citizens rebelling against this oppresive regime in the only way they know how.
The graphics are clean and crisp. The city really does look futuristic in it's own way. You're not going to see any major technology leaps beyond what we have today - you're not going to be seeing any flying cars, for instance - but the city itself looks unnaturally bright and clean. So colorful and eye-popping that the city looks as artificial as you know it is below the surface. Everything looks smooth and there were few to no glitches in the game graphically. The game simply looks pretty, without a shadow of a doubt.
The sound is give or take, however. You can hear Faith panting and grunting as well as the sounds of the city quite clearly. Voice acting is perfectly fine and inoffensive to the ears. But music-wise the game doesn't have a lot to offer. Quite a bit boils down to variations of the main theme, muted mood music or no music at all. It's rather telling to me that as I write this review up, I can barely even recall any of what I heard; that's not a good sign of a great soundtrack at all.
Controls are great. The general scheme takes some getting used to - whenever any game takes the jump action off one of the face buttons I'm thrown for a loop for at least ten minutes - but the learning curve is far from steep; once you get the hang of it, which should take no longer than the tutorial, pulling off even advanced moves slowly begins to become second nature. Everything is responsive and tight, allowing you to pull off sweet moves with the right timing and find quicker ways to a goal than you might have thought possible. "Running" never really gets old in this game, which is a signal to me that what they've got works.
If the game has shortcomings, it lies in the story. The general job of the runners - transferring messages by hand - is literally all but forgotten directly after the prologue level wraps, barely to be more than referenced again. Also, the general naivety of the principal characters is somewhat off-putting. It doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out why the police might suddenly start opening fire on runners - yeah, a totalitarian government is really going to allow people to actively resist it forever - yet it seems like a great big mystery to the characters, whom can't seem to put two and two together. The same thing goes for the framing. It's not much of a secret conspiracy if the folks at home can guess the gist of what's going on by the end of the first real mission. Also, many of the side characters are cookie cutter; you can pretty much tell who the backstabbers are as soon as you meet them and anyone without that sort of importance to the story are around for short bits before being dispatched.
Adding insult to injury, the game literally ends when things have finally progressed to a point where everything has gotten interesting; this is the kind of thing that absolutely pissed me off with the PS2/X-Box generations BLACK and the annoyance for such things hasn't lessened in the meantime.
Then there are the cut scenes. This one's kind of baffling. For story related bits between levels, the game switches over the simplistic anime cutscenes to tell it's story. It's a pretty jarring transition; the in-game graphics don't even look remotely like the 2D animation used. I'm not sure why this was chosen; the in-game engine and graphics are just fine, so why isn't that being used? It simply sticks out as something that should not have been.
On top of that, this game is impossibly short. There are only nine actual levels, not including the prologue. Most of the levels aren't really all that long either, especially when you're perpetually moving forward as you do in this game. The first playthrough can literally be finished in an afternoon. Obviously, this isn't an RPG, but a game with a length like that just shouldn't happen; this isn't the days of the Sega Genesis, where games of that sort of length for full price were perfectly fine.
For any normal game, the length would have killed it; but there are plenty of things that save this game. It's actually nice to have the "level" structure of old back; in an age where everything is free roam these days, it's a welcome change that I didn't realize I'd missed until I played this. Why this is important is that much of the games best parts outside of the story rely on distinctly old fashioned fun.
Speed runs in particular are a pillar that this game celebrates. One of the modes outside of the story is, well, speed run. Basically, you pick a story level and you use every trick you've learned to blaze through it as fast as possible, aiming to finish under a target time. I'd forgotten how ridiculously fun this sort of thing can be; the addition of leaderboards - a common and usually insignificant thing in most games these days - hits home an old school, arcade feel that is often missing from todays games. The same thing goes for the "Time Trials", which are small sections of the games stages with goals attached. The fun that can be gleaned from these modes cannot be understated; the old fashioned desire to beat your own score or a friends score really extends the life of an otherwise short game.
The reason these modes - and the story too, in fact - can also lie in the level design. Truth be told, the game is somewhat linear; sometimes there's no choice in path to take and you're always running towards the same goal. However, the structure of the game makes everything feel a lot freer than it should. While you're always going towards the same goal, each level is like a giant parkour playground; the ways to get there feel more plentiful than they are thanks to vaults, jumps, ziplines and walls everywhere that can springboard you towards these goals in new and sometimes faster ways. You rarely have time to consider linearity or even recognize it.
One other thing I appreciated was the lack of emphasis on guns. Let's face it; we're overflowing with First Person Shooters. You can't fire a nine millimeter in a game shop without hitting the latest First Person gorefest. Thankfully, this game is not about that. If anything, disarming and using the guns your enemies take is somewhat discouraged. With almost any gun aside from a pistol or an SMG, your movement is limited and you cannot do most of your parkour tricks that get you out of the jams you find yourself in. This is not a shooter and the game really plays that up in it's basic structure; it really helps the game feel fresh in a game market overflowing with first person games.
The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up
This game has a lot of potential. It seems to be set up as a new franchise and I truly hope that's the case. This game is held back by it's shortcomings, but there's plenty there to build upon in a sequel. The core mechanics are there and there's a framework for success, it just needs a lot of polish and thought. Hopefully a sequel releases and can take advantage of the promise inherent. Recommended for a rental at the least; if you can get it for a bargin though, it's worth the money.