In Depth Review: 24: The Game [PS2]
"Due to some questionable game design, player discretion is advised."
Now that you're discrete, let's continue. 24: The Game, published by 2K Games and developed by Sony Cambridge of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, takes place between Seasons 2 and 3 of Fox's hit television series 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland. This game has its heart set in the right place. Primarily a third-person shooter at its core, 24: The Game incorporates driving, stealth and several minigames into the finished package.It features the voice acting and likenesses of several of the show's stars. It showcases an almost spot-on videogame depiction of the show's presentation. Taking place when it does, it actually ties itself into the show's story so well that everything makes logistical sense.
The problem is, 24: The Game just isn't very good.
Oh sure, when you look at it, the game itself is basically a playable season. So to be fair, that alone will make it desirable to any diehard 24 fan, such as yours truly. People want storyline gaps to be filled, and not with some cheesy knock-off side story. In this regard, 24: The Game delivers. One of the show's writers - Duppy Demetrius (forgive his parents, perhaps they were high) - supplies an authentic script that screams, "I am 24! Hear me roar!" The classic twists and turns, the moments that ellicit a shocked response similar to "Oh my god, he's a woman", present themselves with glee. True-to-screen and believable character involvement keeps the action faithful - in other words, you'll never see gun-toting field agent and 24 protagonist Jack Bauer trying to hack an entire computer mainframe with his own (lack of) hacker knowledge.
The sound, too, is remarkable if only for the participation of the show's voice actors. Even when the actors seem to stop caring during recording, which happens a little bit here and there, it sounds leagues better than Capcom's worst Resident Evil efforts. The rest of the show's audio assets appear here in full as well - every clock tick, phone ring and screen fade is identical to what you'd hear every Monday on Fox. The kicker here is that composer Sean Callery's music makes a robust appearance, with well-loved and classic 24 themes sprinkled throughout with utmost appropriateness. The only thing questionable about the tracks' usage is when the music for an incredibly emotional and heavy scene in the show is used during a simple 60-second minigame. I was deeply perturbed.
For the most part though, the audio really holds up its end of the bargain. The overall visual style helps perhaps even more in backing up the authenticity of the game's presentation. The way the camera quick-pans and zooms during cutscenes is frighteningly similar to the show. During story sequences and gameplay, you'll get the multi-paned frames that either show the action from multiple angles or show different events that occur simultaneously.
Take a closer look, though. That's it - nose on the screen, leave an oily schnoz-mark. Beyond the muliple panes, the ticking clock, and Michelle Dessler's oh-so-sexy voice (supplied by the equally sexy 24 actress Reiko Aylesworth), lies a graphics engine that is filled with warts and liverspots. Superficially, it does a decent job of displaying character models with faces that - for the most part - look like their television counterparts. In some cases, Jack Bauer's face really looks spot-on - right down to the wrinkles that show around the edges of his eyes. In other cases, I found myself wondering what Sony Cambridge did to my precious Reiko's face. (Those too-high, blocky cheekbones and plastic-looking skin textures are unbecoming of you, my love.) Close inspection also reveals that the character models end up blocky and unnatural around the shoulders. Carlos Bernard, who plays Tony Almeida on the show, almost looks like a football player.
But those are just shallow quibbles. The real meat of the graphical problems appear when trying to actually play the game during an intense firefight or in a detailed environment. The framerate hurts so good that the Iron Chef couldn't chop like this. This problem is most readily apparent during the driving scenes, whose only redeeming factor is that you're pretty much able to drive freely around the game's limited but large representation of Los Angeles. Seeing as the on-foot shooting sequences make up the bulk of the gameplay, though, framerate polish for just that portion at least would have helped. The biggest problem is that it's wholly inconsistent. One minute you'll be cruising along at something playable, and the next moment the screen fills up and you're watching a flip-book.
However frustrating the framerate is, though, it surprisingly doesn't hold back your ability to shoot thugs dead once you get used to the targeting system. One of the only bright spots of this game's mechanics, the targeting system allows you to lock onto enemies while still having the freedom to control exactly where you aim on their bodies. Tapping the lock-on button and flicking the right analog stick in the general direction of an enemy will produce a wide circle around the enemy (or his location if he's hiding behind cover). A crosshair will then appear within the circle, defaulting to the enemy's chest. From there, you can gently use the right analog stick to maneuver the crosshair to wherever you'd like within the circle. Once you're procifient at this aiming, though, the game becomes way too easy. Headshots become very common, and because the enemy AI is sorely incompetent, no amount of frame-rate irritation will stop you from being a walking tank.
Perhaps I don't give the AI enough credit - you can't just take my suggestion and walk headlong into enemy fire. You'll have to use cover, which is readily available around all stages. But the entire game is so designed around this aspect that you'll think you were playing WinBack for the N64, Kill.Switch or even Time Crisis (in concept only). Enemies hide behind cover. You hide behind cover. Enemy pops out from behind cover. You pop out and shoot. Rinse, lather, repeat - with no-tears shampoo, preferrably. Hostiles are always satisfied to let you do this time and time again. Never have I been strategically flanked. Never have I seen them advance on me quickly from cover to cover. The only semblance of intelligence I see is when they perform a diving roll to get closer to me while avoiding my fire. Even then, that can't redeem the fact that enemies will sometimes surrender literally in the middle of a firefight - when his cronies are still engaging in combat. "Hey, my buddy's still shooting at you, but I surrender! I'll wait here while you two finish firing away, and then you can handcuff me." Yeah. Right. I can tell you right now that my "surrendered hostiles killed" rating is quite low.
We've discussed some of the biggest no-no's in games today, and haven't even gotten to how the game controls yet. The basic act of running in the game is severely hampered by a hyper-sensitive left-analog stick. Tilting the analog stick from up to up-right makes your character swivel almost wildly to the right, making precision turns require the use of the camera stick. Since sprinting requires you to press the X button on the controller, using the camera stick for precision turning while going at top speed is nigh impossible.
Must I speak of the driving? Do you want to see me go insane? The car physics are some of the worst I've encountered. I suppose Halo's vehicle physics has spoiled many a gamer, but thunking to a halt when hitting a lamp post is not my idea of chasing down a perp. When I crash into two cars, I expect things to go flying. I don't expect to crawl to a halt, and furthermore I don't expect to "nudge" the cars, vans and trucks out of the way by keeping my foot on the gas. If you're in a sedan, what business do you have pushing a big SUV to the side to continue your ride? By the same token, if you're in an SUV yourself, why aren't you just bowling over that dinky convertible over there? Add the fac that the same analog sensitivity problems are present when driving, and you'll be more frustrated than when you tried to get around New York City in a car.
It's fortunately not just driving and shooting. There are stealth missions that - while no one would mistake them for Splinter Cell caliber - actually work decently, surprisingly enough. There's no use of the lighting in the environment, so all you've got to go on is cover and the radar in the corner that shows which ways enemies are looking. Rudimentary stealth, yes, but it's playable. The wild control sensitivity and framerate problems become far less problematic here, since you'll mostly be tip-toeing around slowly. In a pleasant and shocking - considering the garbage AI - move, Sony Cambridge has made your pursuants smarter than you'd expect. In many stealth games, alerting enemies is not a huge problem if you can find a faraway desk to cower under. In this game, however, security guards will alert the rest of their squad and tell them where your location is. They'll close in and find you. Sure, this robs you of many second chances - but I've always felt that stealth missions rarely offer you second chances.
Kudos then, Sony Cambridge, for getting one out of a thousand things right in this game, because unfortunately the same can't be said about the "minigames" scattered throughout the game. In truth, the minigames are an effort to better emulate the show. After all, it's not all just shooting, driving and sneaking. There are plenty of episodes where big problems are resolved by computer hacking and code decryption, and these actions present themselves in the game in the form of various activities. In one, you try to find the shortest path between linked nodes from one point to another. In another, your job is to press the correct face button that corresponds to the colored block that appears on screen - like Indigo Prophecy without the fun. In still another, you're faced with the daunting task of entering keycodes as they're recited to you over the phone. It goes on like that. Cutting edge stuff, I tell you.
In fact, the only minigames worth getting the least bit excited over are the interrogation sequences, and that's mainly because you get to see Bauer pull a gun on the people you're interrogating as you imagine them gratuitously losing control of their bodily functions all over themselves. It's similar to the free-throw shooting aspect of NBA Live (thanks for the reference Dave) where you try to time your button press such that a moving icon comes in contact with a highlighted area on screen. This emulates the "stress level" of your subject, so you have three icons "Calm", "Coax" and "Anger". The icons waver like a heartbeat in accordance with how stressed the subject is, so you'll find it harder and harder to succeed as the interrogation requires more anger out of Bauer. Really, it's nothing to shout about, but it's the most tense minigame and the one that doesn't feel like a nursery school task.
24: The Game tempts you to replay all of these segments - shooting, driving, stealth and minigames - by giving you a percentage score at the end of each stage. You're given certain goal amounts of, for example, hostiles killed, accuracy, headshots, and the like. Score above 90%, and you're awarded with an unlockable every stage. The vast majority of the unlockables, however, are pretty much lame. Oh my stars, I get to look at the character model of a security guard in 3D! Or a generic thug. Or a lab professor. You can see where I'm going at with this. There are lame, low-resolution pictures to look at, which are by far lower quality than the unlockable artwork you'd find in Soul Calibur and the like. Thankfully, there are some unlockable behind-the-scenes videos which kind of make up for the tripe you're "rewarded" with for a job well done, but it's all akin to fishing for a piece of gold in a pile of horse manure.
Beyond the unlockables, the game doesn't have any lasting value. Heck, it's not even 24 hours. It clocks in at around seven to eight solid hours, meaning that you get far fewer hours of actual storyline footage - disappointing, even though the overall story is still great. Once you've finished the game, all your value goes into your memory card. When you're in the mood to run through all of your 24 Season DVDs, you'll want to plug 24: The Game into your PS2 between seasons 2 and 3 just to get the few hours worth of content. The disc wouldn't be worth keeping around otherwise.
Trying to sort sort this mess out is a messy process in and of itself. "If you love the show, you'll love the game," some say. "If you love videogames, you'll hate the game," others might say. What if you love the show and love the game? Aye, there's the rub. The most harmless recommendation to make is buy the game, except a turd-wading experience, and enjoy whatever it is about the game that doesn't directly tie into your controller input. Through the choppy framerate, try to enjoy the multi-paned windows. After that crappy driving stage, just sit back and try to enjoy the cutscene. But above all, don't expect the gameplay to rise above the other mediocre licensed games out there. Enter the Matrix this is not, but Sony Cambridge certainly could given us a lot better. In the immortal words of Jack Bauer, "Son of a .....!"