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Help me out here, readers. I’m not entirely sure what to say about the state of shooters today. There’s no feature or setting that really defines the era. What qualifies as old-fashioned (I’m not saying “skool”, hit me all you want) varies from person to person, and we’ve far too much history of games, even post-internet, to split any genre into such broad ages. Just look at the inevitable argument about RPGs on every forum in the world for proof.
I say this because Necrovision (2009) invites comparisons to Painkiller, a game long considered a celebration of The Old Ways, and now itself a pretty old game. But even aside from the disingenuity of cutting down history so, dismissing Necrovision as just another throwback FPS would be unfair. It’s more novel than that.
A solid kicking option is absent from too many shooters.
We “Be” American soldier Simon Bukner at the Battle of Verdun, where he immediately sees everyone (surprise) slaughtered , and must fight through “German” soldiers to safety. Note that this is no period drama – I enquoted above because those soldiers are absurdly Nazi-esque, uniformly evil sadists or at best violently insane. A few buck the trend, but are invariably killed off in scripted events. It’s basically too hammy and stupid to be offensive or insulting.
Things take a turn towards Deathwatch territory as undead monsters show up to shake their manky bits around and shriek – you know what monsters are like. Naturally, it falls to Simon to re-massacre them, then push on to fight phantoms, ogres, and eventually an underworld of warring vampires and demons. And that’s all very 90s FPS, right?
Not-nazi zombies. How novel.
But while it’s related to (and developed by The Farm 51, founding members of which worked on) Painkiller, it feels less… artificial. The initial historical setting lends it more weight and structure, so it’s less like being locked in a series of fake rooms to mechanically circle strafe around and herd nasties like bloodthirsty anti-sheep (though this does become necessary later, and immediately in the Challenge Room mode, where success at dispatching monsters in specific ways adds bonus weapons to the campaign). There’s some of that from the start, but it’s often about peering down rifle sights and taking cover between potshots. A curious bridge between two styles.
Most human guns disappear early on, disappointingly.
Though the core of Necrovision is absolutely about storming messily through swathes of enemies, it plays more like an experiment in taking some Medal of Honor eggs and breaking them into a drunken Serious Sam omelette. Soldiers use cover and careful aiming pays off, even as you’re encouraged to build up your “rage” by laying into enemies with combined shooting, booting, and uh… bayon-ooting attacks. There are bosses with big health bars and secret areas to ferret out, right alongside partially regenerating health, iron sights, and soldiers’ miserable, despairing letters to serve as audiologs. The opening third in particular could be mistaken for an early CoD campaign mixed with a fleshed out Nazi Zombie mode. But it’s never serious, and the methodical xenophobic Whack-a-Mole style (which is only systematic, with none of the military cheerleading) gradually gives way to gory, over the top hack and slash crowd management as your weapons are replaced by bladed gauntlets, fireballs, stakes, and freezing attacks, and chaining enough combinations regenerates health and energy to power them, turning you into a perpetual murder machine who gains bonuses for taunting enemies.
“Hello, sign my petition?”
What’s surprisingly apt is how the protagonist’s story mirrors what the player is doing. As Simon descends into the depths his outbursts become increasingly gutteral, sadistic, and inhuman. His horror and confusion in the opening give way to fatalistic wallowing in hatred and carnage as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s no mere man with a gun, but an unstoppable force of death. The narrative never soars, but it pulls the game along well. It feels more like a journey than being told outright that you’re special for no particular reason, or it never being clear why you, a regular human, are able to tirelessly rampage through hundreds of battles. You have to earn it, you know? Starting out as a regular guy makes the power you gain more appreciable, and to players who are otherwise left cold by games like Painkiller, serves as a comfortable introduction rather than dropping them in and just assuming constant carnage is enough of a draw on its own.
While it might prove unpopular to say it, that latter point has always stuck for me. I don’t like games based around combo attacks or building chains. I find it distracting and proscriptive. But with Necrovision, once I adjust to its strange pace and style, I find the combos coming naturally, because they tend to correspond with useful attacks anyway. Jabbing an enemy with the rifle’s bayonet, then papping a bullet in while they’re recoiling? That’s not just a fancy combo move; it’s a practical way to use the weapon.
Ooh, it’s a skaven! KILL IT WITHOUT MERCY.
That’s not to say it’s outstanding. There are rough edges and confusing plot points, and while Simon’s earnest, likable Southern delivery is fitting more often than not, much of the voice acting is poor (although in the case of the Not-zi soldiers, this works in its favour as they’re more cartoon villains than anything resembling real victims of war). Cut scenes have a bizarre habit of repeating a conversation with slight variation, sometimes not precisely reflecting events in-game, and worse, for a game dependent on melee attacks, there are collision detection issues with some enemy/attack pairings, and one or two misaligned sights.
“Okay girls, let’s really throw into that degagé, and… er, FOOLISH MORTAL!”
This is hard to excuse, particularly in the Challenge Mode, as are the controls, which are a little uncomfortable, and at times reluctant to respond, an effect which is exacerbated by the way many weapons are grouped together under one button – switching from a shotgun to a flamethrower requires cycling through every weapon in between for no good reason. This becomes a major source of frustration late on, when most of the weapons look very similar.
But none of this is ever distracting enough to ruin the experience, and Simon’s oddly inconsistent attitude – one minute he’s recoiling at the horrors of war, the next he’s snarling “death and death and death and DEATH!” or flippantly mouthing off to immortal spirits – epitomises the reason Necrovision feels like more than either a themed, demi-realistic shooting gallery or a tongue-in-cheek arena shooter: its tone.
Cut scenes are narrated stills, not unlike the early Thief games.
In an age where neither po-faced military shooters nor campy arena larks, not to mention strongly themed genre pieces are particularly dominant, Necrovision bears the strange distinction of being very secure in its identity. It’s neither serious nor flippant, and it’s simultaneously grim and campy. Somehow, the devs captured a real sense of horror and doom without sacrificing the tongue-in-cheek humour or destructive goresplosion fun of yer Bullet Sams and yer Serious Storms. Tonally it should be a mess, but it’s dark enough to be atmospheric, and exactly silly enough to be fun. It’s all a bit nebulous, and purist fans of either subgenre may find that it flatters itself with contrarieties of pleasure, but Necrovision offers a valiant attempt at occupying a seldom-breached middle ground.
First Person Shooters have been a mainstay of video games since their Doom clone ancestors overthrew the tyranny of the platformer in the mid 90s. While the form has developed enormously in just about every regard since then, and genre-bending has become practically mandatory since Deus Ex etched itself into the minds of a generation in 2000, the pace of innovation has slowed drastically in more recent years, and there are few examples that deviate from the concept of “shoot all the dudes to win”.
Simple shooters are fine, of course, but have their limits, and if thought about for long enough lead to some awkward philosophical and ethical ponderings. Just how justified is it, exactly, that this generic avatar of player action is allowed to rampage around another oil refinery, New York subway, or plane of existence, gleefully annihilating every living thing in sight? After all, even the real people we charge with fighting our wars or policing our streets would be hard pressed to explain a body count half of that of a typical FPS. Real police, and even soldiers, would much rather their antagonists simply stop shooting at them and give up.
Fortunately for me, and for you too unless you like completely pointless posts, there’s a whole series of games that confront this exact discrepancy.
The “blazing guns” cover is an outright lie.
SWAT, or to give its full clumsy title, Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT, was spun off from Sierra Entertainment’s maddeningly fussy Police Quest series of the late 1980s. These were adventure games based on real (US) police procedures, and were comprised almost entirely of design decisions so cruel and hamfisted that they might as well have come round your house and called you a useless prick.
However, the Police Quest games did have the distinction of being designed by real police officers Jim Walls and (duh) Daryl F. Gates, and it’s this authenticity that explains much of the appeal to its fans, although personally I would prefer the even more authentic police experience that would result from lunging wildly at a constable. I am not a fan.
If you enjoy hating people you’ll love this guy. He’s a total dickhole.
A common trick in Sierra’s adventure games was to punish you the player at every turn for any deviation from their set list of actions, leaving zero room to take the slightest chance. As a hypothetical example, chasing a suspect to a fork in the road might give you a choice between going left, going right, or checking the ground for footprints. In a Police Quest game, whichever direction you chose would be wrong and result in a game over screen, until you checked for footprints first, even if they led in the direction you chose first.
Distressingly, this very notion was ported faithfully to the first game in the SWAT series, released in 1995 as an FMV interactive movie, before everyone had realised what a god-awful format that was for anything.
For those lucky enough to live in ignorance of these interactive movies, they consisted largely of watching grainy video clips broken up by point and click screens, and apparently dug writers and actors from the same lead-lined trough as Hollyoaks, then spent an hour or two gently concussing them. SWAT was no exception, although the acting is unusually competent for the genre. That is to say, you couldn’t simply replace the actors with life-sized crayon drawings without losing something.
The guy on the left, meanwhile, is the safest guy in the game.
The player takes on the role of a new recruit to the Los Angeles SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team, condescendingly referred to as “pup”. You’re introduced to some of the ranking officers, given a few speeches, and then take part in several training excercises while waiting for a call-up. You’re also expected to read up on SWAT procedures for entry tactics, radio discipline, proper escalation of force, and so forth. But most of the time you’ll be training.
It’s not very good. It’s awful in fact. The first SWAT game combines the awkwardness and tedium of sitting through mandatory FMVs (you’re even chewed out by your boss if you attempt to skip some of these – the game takes itself as a serious simulation, so you’re not skipping a cut scene, you’re some idiot cowboy walking out of a life-or-death briefing) with the horrible all-or-nothing procedural puzzles of the Sierra back catalogue, with a horrific UI thrown in for good measure. While the training rifle ranges are relatively forgiving, the punishment for the slightest mistake or hesitation in a mission is either instant death or dismissal.
Worse still, it’s often unclear what exactly you did wrong, even if you’ve read all the relevant training documents. I repeatedly failed the first mission for saying “Level one side two”, indicating that I was on the ground floor, left side of a building, when it was a bungalow, so stating the floor I was on, while accurate, was considered enough of a deviation from the script to cancel out everything else I said, causing my CO to call me a twat and leaving me sat there helpless until I failed the mission.
Or until I passive-aggressively let the inevitable happen. Get ’em, Gladys!
Every mission is like this. It’s killed stone dead by a terrible user interface and rigid adherence to the One True course of action, punishing you mercilessly at every turn, but seldom explaining why. Worse still, this is during the highlights of the game – call-ups comprise maybe half an hour of play in total, with the rest being endless repeats of the same training excercises, and a brief but quite pleasant section before some missions where you’ll question witnesses and relay information to your boss.
Most of the time though, you’ll be repeatedly training, and while there is a little variety here (you can cross train as a marksman, which I’d recommend simply for the sake of variety), it’s neither challenging or fun.
Get used to this view, is what I’m saying.
Having said all this, I do have a strange sort of respect for SWAT. It’s clear that authenticity is its single priority, and SWAT teams surely do spend most of their time training. The campaign is extremely short, but does make some effort to randomise outcomes should you be mad enough to play it through again. The attempt at immersion is fairly strong, and while simple, the brief sections where senior officers applaud or criticise your efforts are quite convincing. The confusion and anger from fellow officers if you fart around would be excellent if they weren’t so inevitable thanks to the horrible controls, and there’s a wealth of information in the training/background sections, giving a brief history of the SWAT outfit, a summary of its goals and principles, and some details on its methods. It’s surprisingly interesting, although admittedly this may only be in contrast to the game itself.
It paints a portrait of the SWAT outfit as very much a policing one, repeatedly emphasising that their and your purpose is to save lives, not kick in doors and kill people. Indeed, the first time I shot someone (well, aside from a confused old woman when the game pissed me off), I was placed under investigation, even though it was a clean shoot and saved the life of a hostage. I didn’t resent this at all, and it’s handled professionally by the NPCs. This is done well – SWAT and their ilk aren’t there to kill scores of cartoon villains like in other games, but rather, as in real life, to train for 300 hours so they’ll know how to exhaust every possible option before firing a shot at anyone.
In explaining what SWAT is and does, and what it’s not, the game is quite a success. Everywhere else, it’s terrible.
Of course, I can’t recommend anyone plays SWAT, as even if you’re interested in police procedures, it’s nearly 20 years out of date and can all be found online now anyway. It’s a frustrating game in a clunky format, sunk completely by plain bad controls, interface, and feedback. The acting and writing is merely okay too, so there’s no comedy value to be had either (although hurling a flashbang at the confused old woman did make me laugh a lot more than I should probably admit). It seems that 1995 agrees with me too, as the game was not a great success.
“You think reading the manual is enough, kid? Ha!”
Have you ever had a weird ‘twang’ in your neck?
So what happened next? Well, nothing for a few years. Developer-publishers Sierra had a lot on their plate at the time, including a bid to break into the Japanese market, a sale of the company and subsequent restructuring by CUC International, and the release of crap-but-profitable Phantasmagoria, which perhaps put SWAT’s lukewarm reception into a rather poor perspective.
Along with just about everyone with a functioning cerebrum, Sierra wisely dropped the FMV format and released a follow-up in 1998 under the name Yosemite Entertainment.
Still carrying the Police Quest name, SWAT 2 nonetheless moved radically away from both its FMV and adventure game roots, instead presenting the player with an isometric tactical strategy game. Rather than playing a specific character, the player takes on a more abstract commanding role, tasked with selecting, training and equipping a team of SWAT officers over a series of linked missions. There are some puzzle-like elements involving communicating with suspects over killing them, again emphasising the life-saving aspects of the operation, and you’re rated based on the number of live suspects and hostages you get safely out of a mission. Each officer is rated on various weapon skills, as well as miscellaneous abilities like dog handling, explosives, and medical know-how. Training and equipping anyone costs money, and this must be managed over the course of the campaign.
There’s also a counterpart in the terrorist mode – this is a full campaign, only here you take on a commander in a charicature of some kind of extremist hippy cult, bent on a campaign of terror and destruction because THE MAN is keeping them down and hemp is like, totally a superfood, dude. Naturally, terrorists are not penalised for killing, but they’re poorly equipped and trained, and their options more limited than their lawkeeping enemies’.
Their profiles are wonderful, however. Whiteboy Jesus Squad: Assemble!
It all sounds quite promising, doesn’t it? The concepts are sound, and the campaign structure could have worked well, but unfortunately SWAT 2 is utterly ruined by bad controls and a terrible interface. Better than its predecessor’s, admittedly, but the faster-paced nature of the missions render the control problems far more serious. The interface is almost entirely mouse-driven, with simple, vital actions such as firing a gun requiring that the player drag the mouse across to a menu, click a gun, then drag back and click the target, and then repeat the process if they want to do something other than stand still and shoot all day.
Want to arrest a guy, but then he opens fire, so you have to shoot? Well, you’ll have to move the mouse back to your gun, then move it back to the suspect… you’re in the open and want to take cover before he shoots you? Welp, you’d better unselect your gun again, then click into cover, then select your gun again, point at the suspect and shoot… but wait, did you leave the “arrest” icon ticked? Because now instead of shooting, your officer will run back into the open to arrest him. It’s pretty close to unplayable.
Can’t see anything? Get used to that.
The tiny graphics make line of sight difficult to judge, and combined with the fairly primitive animations, leave the mission areas lacking any interesting features or character. The terrorist campaign is a welcome addition and is delivered with humour, but feels under-developed compared to the more varied Good Guys one. Player voices are adequate, but flat and unmemorable, and the sound effects are similarly bland. Finally, the AI might as well not exist, so dependent are your team on your constant clicking.
It’s far too cumbersome to effectively control a single character, so carrying out the kind of co-ordinated maneouvres either side relies on is an excercise in futility and soon invites an RSI. It’s not even the kind of micromanagement that fans of early Rainbow Six titles would enjoy, as forward planning is kept to a minimum. Indeed, the overall impression is of a game that’s built like a 2D Rainbow Six, but is controlled like a poor man’s Syndicate.
I can’t help but feel that it would have been far better served in turn-based portions. It would still be a little stale and underwhelming, but missions would at least feel manageable. As it stands, I really couldn’t recommend SWAT 2 to anyone, much as I respect the bravery of such a drastic genre shift. It’s a terrible game, and perhaps modern interface standards have rendered this judgement far harsher, but it’s just not deep or rewarding enough to warrant the time it will take you to get used to its quirks.
Terrorists fail due to player apathy. Poetic.
So what next? Well, onwards, to SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle! The third game in what was now a bona fide series of its own was developed by Sierra Northwest, another subdivision of Sierra, whose ever-changing structure and ownership in the late 90s could be the subject of its own migraine-inducing article. Released in November 1999, less than 18 months after SWAT 2, SWAT 3 took an isometric strategy game, and made it… a first-person shooter.
“Mans spotted! Shoot the mans! All the mans!”
No no, stop that. The pitchfork thing is just so passé, and more importantly, this was absolutely the right choice. Whether the transition was down to sinister executive types insisting that all the kids wanted in 1999 was another Half-life we may never know, but the result was a much better game, and as a bonus, one that was even more effective at delivering the message of “cops are supposed to save lives”.
Works in theory.
Again, the player is offered a campaign comprised of a series of missions. This time, however, instead of managing finances and training your team, you directly control the leader of a five-man “element”, and over the course of the campaign must earn the respect of your colleagues by completing missions and making smart decisions. Medals may be granted for particularly good performance, and better still, the campaign has a story, involving increasing terrorist activity in the buildup to a United Nations conference. Each mission also has its own story, with many being plausible real-life scenarios rather than dramatic showdowns with cartoon villains. Named civilians and suspects are common, with many unique character models appearing, often with a little backstory both for flavour and to indicate what to expect from them.
Mission briefings are interesting and should be listened to carefully, as they can clue you in on what to expect from a suspect. Missions are semi-randomised, with enemies, hostages and bystanders appearing in different places or numbers, and even attitudes altered – the suspect who shot you on sight once might surrender the next time. All this plus the necessarily limited first person perspective makes the game highly tense and far more unpredictable and involving than earlier games.
It’s remarkably humanising, too – a suspect could be a violent extremist with body armour and an AK47, or he could be a confused and frightened clerk in the midst of a tragic breakdown. I’ve a screenshot of a civilian I had to shoot once that still makes me feel sad and a little guilty every time I see it – I knew full well he wasn’t one of the terrorists, but he was armed and panicking, and the angle forced me to shoot him in the head to protect myself. The game acknowledged this as a clean shoot, too.
Pink shirt dude, I am so sorry.
Instead of the icon-heavy mess of SWAT 2, or the arbitrary context-sensitivity of SWAT, you now control your teammates with quick and simple keyboard commands, listed in the corner for ease of use. A typical mission will involve choosing an entrance to a building or area and methodically sweeping every corner of it for suspects, civilians, and sometimes specific equipment or evidence. While you’re free to use whatever tactics you see fit, you will soon find that SWAT’s standard procedures, as outlined to you by the game, are chosen for good reason – they work. Carelessness costs lives, frequently your own, and while the game is tremendously difficult, it’s mostly fair, and frustration is minimal as it’s almost always obviously your own fault for being reckless or letting a situation get out of hand.
You’ll use your optiwand (a camera on a stick used for peeking round corners) constantly, you’ll flashbang and gas everything that might even theoretically be large enough for a gunman, you’ll cover and be covered by a teammate constantly, and you’ll feel like a champion among mortals when you save the day.
The optiwand reveals a gunman lurking round the corner (top right).
Points are deducted for injured officers (who are also out of circulation while they heal up), lives taken, objectives failed, and frustratingly, for any bad orders you issue. The exact system is a little unclear at times, and it can be very annoying to come through a long mission that you thought went well, only for your reputation to suffer for some unknown calls that your team decided weren’t good enough.
Despite these complaints, it’s an excellent twist on the FPS genre, and even with its limited armoury and rather primitive shooting mechanisms, it remains one of the most tense and immersive games I could name. Being forced to consider gunshots as a very last resort transforms the experience. The fear when a door opens and an unknown man walks in is palpable, and the screaming and shouting as hostages panic and your team yell at suspects to surrender are more effective at establishing drama and excitement than any big budget explosion-and-cutscene fest. SWAT 3 does tactics well, and it does escalation wonderfully.
Equipment is rather limited, but it’s not a problem.
The friendly AI is impressive, and will respond to most situations competently, although they can be a little gung-ho, and annoyingly, they mark you down even if they themselves kill a suspect, but it’s a small price to pay. They’re also easy to control for the most part, with a clever windowed camera mode showing you their point of view in a corner for easy co-ordination and commanding, and they will even show a little initiative in handcuffing suspects and securing weapons if you’re busy or can’t be arsed.
The terrorist campaign has been dropped entirely, but the payoff is a varied, challenging, and highly rewarding experience quite unlike any other.
That is, until the next game in the series.
By 2005, Sierra had been through several staff layoffs, been bought by Havas S.A, which was renamed to Vivendi Universal Publishing, and its development arm was no longer putting out very much worth talking about. After a long break, the SWAT series fell into the hands of Irrational Games, rightly famed for 1999’s venerable System Shock 2, and under-celebrated for the marvellous Freedom Force series. Working from the same engine built for Tribes: Vengeance, Irrational took the rather bold step of not drastically altering the entire genre of the game, and instead released another first-person tactical shooter, SWAT 4.
Shock! Tasers are highly effective, but short ranged, and you only get one shot.
It is magnificent.
SWAT 4 dropped the story and reputation elements of SWAT 3, and lost a little of its thematic variety, but in return it delivered satisfying shooting mechanisms, more tactical options, and ramped up the tension to a sometimes unbearable degree. Again, the player leads a team of five SWAT officers, who can be split into groups and ordered remotely using an efficient and flexible context-sensitive menu, into a series of crisis situations, and again, the player must subdue everyone present with as little bloodshed as possible. Causing too much damage or failing to report significant events back to HQ will lower your score, and if too low, you’ll fail to progress.
This would be a clean shoot.
This would not.
This time the NPC AI is much improved, and terrifyingly unpredictable. Suspects will wander about a level, and if they see you they might open fire, surrender immediately, or run away and hole up with a friend somewhere. Suspects who’ve heard you coming might lie in wait and open fire as soon as they see the door move. They might attack if they see one cop, but give up if five of you kick the door in and scream at them. Even civilians can cause havoc by refusing to submit to arrest, or running in a blind panic.
Or just generally getting in the way.
To compensate for this, you can equip your team with a wider variety of less-lethal items such as tasers, pepper spray and horrendously painful “stinger” grenades. You’ll lose points for any kill (although far less if a suspect is shooting at you or threatening a hostage), so taking full advantage of these is mandatory on higher difficulties.
Just another few incredibly tense stand-offs.
The shooting itself is improved, with two ammunition types having significant pros and cons – hollow points will do less damage against body armour, but full metal jacket ones might go straight through your target’s arm and kill a hostage on the other side of the room. A shot or two in the arm could disarm a suspect, and taking hits yourself will impair your movement or accuracy.
Most of all though, what you’ll remember about SWAT 4 is the shouting. It would not be a gratuitous pun to call it a first-person shouter, such is the importance of yelling warnings and threats at anyone who crosses your path, and they’re not shy about returning the favour. As with SWAT 3, it’s an effective tool and works wonders for the atmosphere, with much more effective voice acting across the board.
Less complex than Rainbow Six, mercifully, but planning is important.
Impressively, there was even an active multiplayer presence, at least until late last year, and a quick and easy mission maker allows you to populate any map with a variety of NPCs, and even remove the embargo on killing, should you be tired of playing nice.
All in all, SWAT 4 is the pinnacle of a series that’s taken more genre shifts from game to game than just about any other. It might be ironic advice to any publisher out there who’s already convinced that the FPS is the only viable genre in existence, but SWAT only got there after trying other approaches first, realising that the core of the series was its completely different attitude to shooting, and then finally refining the process. Both it and SWAT 3 are excellent games in a disappointingly small niche, and ones which deserve a place in any game collection.
My team secure a hostage while I remotely direct another team. SWAT 4’s command menu system has never been matched.
Sadly, with its publisher Sierra absorbed into the Activision blob and subsequently closed, and its last developer not interested in a follow-up even after being explicitly asked, it also looks like it’s the end of the line. What’s the moral of the story? Well, I guess there are two. Firstly, in a time of a million games about shooting, the best one considered shooting to be an admission of failure, and secondly, don’t break the law, because as any cop worth their salt knows, creeping up silently to pepper spray you and scream in your ear is goddamn hilarious.
Let’s face it, E.Y.E:Divine Cybermancy is a terrible name. That the developers were not native English speakers doesn’t really explain it, unless there’s some kind of EU subsidy involved; I’m quite sure that the French also have a phrase for “What the hell did I just play?”.
For this is the question I am still asking. My pad is scrawled with over four thousand words written while playing, and I’ve recorded more videos than my hard drive will ever forgive me for. And still my brain is overflowing with things to say.
I’ve completed it. Except I haven’t. I finished the story, except that I didn’t, and if I tell you what that means, it’ll spoil the ending. Except it isn’t the ending, and aaaaaaaaargh.
“We don’t know any more than you, frankly.”
EYE is an indie FPS with a heavy dose of stat-side RPG, casting you in the role of an amnesiac warrior-monk-alien-human-hybrid-samurai-assassin with psychic powers and cybernetic implants. And yes, that does sound like something a 7-year old would breathlessly exclaim while playing in the garden, but it actually works in context. It is an inbred, bastard descendant of Deus Ex, Half-Life, Warhammer, Painkiller, and Doom. It grew up with The Matrix, Blade Runner, and Syndicate, and had intrepid sex with Aliens, Groundhog Day, Flashback, Total Recall, and The Dark Tower, and you now fully understand it, so I can knock off for the day.
Oh, fine. But we’ll have to separate the game’s structure and story parts first, or we’ll be here all night.
My, what a relevant screenshot.
You’re given objective-based missions stretched across a variety of very large and open levels. They’ll mostly involve shooting things, hacking them, or talking to them. You start with several stats that govern skill at shooting, running, hacking, using psi powers et cetera, which manually increase when you level.
In addition to stats, you can upgrade your robotic body parts, which grant bonuses to stats, protect you, help you run faster or hide better or refill energy, and so forth. On top of this, there are optional cybernetic implants that give you the power to cloak or use echolocation or resist gunfire. These function very much like Deus Ex‘s augmentations. As well as implants, you’re offered psionic powers that act as spells, allowing you to create clones of yourself or teleport into an enemy, bursting them messily open. In yet another feature, the player can collect briefcases of data from fallen enemies and research them in a sort of X-COM/System Shock 2 crossover, which will further augment your powers, or unlock more spells, abilities, and implants.
Options include a cyber-thyroid. I’d settle for a functioning one, myself.
You’re sent off to a series of maps, on which you’re given several tasks to complete as you see fit. There are usually sub-missions from NPCs. Once you’ve finished a map, you can go back there for randomised missions to grind for cash and XP, or if you just want to mess around and kill things for a while. We’ve all been there.
Though it’s up to you how to achieve objectives, you absolutely will be in a lot of gunfights. Cloaking your way through trouble is sometimes an option (though more to change position and choose when to open fire), and you can also attempt to hack your enemies via a fast-paced and often tricky mini-game that sees you balancing three power levels against your opponent’s, be it another cyberbrain or a simple door. Most hostiles themselves can be directly hacked, wirelessly, allowing you to take remote control of enemy agents and make them gun down their friends. It’s worth noting that when you attack something thus, it will hack you back, with the result ranging from harmless through annoying right up to they will make your fucking head explode. Even the ATMs and doors fight back.
Interaction with NPCs is very basic, sadly. The outcome of conversation can vary a lot – most will pay you for a favour or help you out if you sweet-talk them, but may turn hostile if you annoy them. Calling it “conversation” is generous, really – you’re given a list of badly written, poorly translated responses, and picking the right one too often feels like pot luck. Occasionally you’ll be asked to make a big decision, but this is where I have to step across to the story section. Back in a bit. Enjoy some clips while you wait.
This is what your base has instead of corridors. Because why not?
Oh, God help me.
You’re part of E.Y.E, an organisation ostensibly trying to investigate and stop a mysterious force of monsters that’s popping up all over the galaxy, but secretly trying to overthrow the Federation, a government spread over hundreds of planets. Meanwhile, E.Y.E. itself is split into two factions, with your leader ordering you to wipe out the other faction, but your mentor urging you to work with them. It’s a fanatic holy order, so this isn’t the kind of rivalry that will be settled with a cup of tea and lengthy chat. You’ll have to decide what to do about the other faction, how to deal with your conflicting loyalties, and, perhaps overthrow a galactic empire. Easy, right? Oh, you’re also an amnesiac troubled by a recurring dream in which you’ve just killed your Mentor. Or not. Or it’s a premonition. Or a warning. Or not. Um.
Let’s go back to structure, shall we?
Screw you, Phil. Our dystopian future has a pool.
So, there’s a Big Decision there, and it’ll come sooner than you expect. I can’t tell you how much the plot diverges because I’ve only seen one path. I’ve only seen one path because this game has the worst save system I’ve ever seen. You can’t save the game. Ever. It autosaves whenever you change your character, complete an objective, or die (death lasts a few seconds, after which you resurrect on the spot – which often will mean you die three or four times in a row. Every time you die, there’s a chance your stats will suffer. Yeah). Quit the game before leaving a map and you’ll have to do it all over again, but you’ll keep your stats and gear. Essentially, it saves whenever you don’t want it to.
This system is AWFUL AND OBJECTIVELY BAD AND WHAT THE HELL HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN OH MY G-
Interceptors are a nightmare, but an open invitation to a hacker.
Once I’d made that Big Decision and seen the result play out, I realised why the game does this. It helps that before this, I ran out of “resurrections”, but instead of getting a game over, my resurrections topped up, and my recurring dream now featured a strange man who told me everything was just a premonition of how I might fuck up. Then I was sent back to where I’d just left, with a slight stat loss and hopefully some cool scars.
So yes, that save system. And that “resurrection” thing. It’s not explicitly stated, but by the end of the plot thread I saw, I realised that it’s tied to the story. You can’t save because you’re not supposed to see ahead via the magic of saving. It’s a choose your own adventure that forces you to actually choose, and not just eschew the dice altogether because seriously, screw dice. You’re supposed to live with your mistakes. To understand what it’s all about, you’re meant to keep trying until you reach an ending and get another chance to do it again the right way. All with the same character, getting stronger and better the whole time.
Some objectives must be searched for manually. Good luck with that.
This is structure stuff, but I’m writing it under story because it was the story that (eventually) explained the absolutely insane save system. This is arguably a spoiler too, but it’s worth it because, well, there’s a point to it. EYE Cap’n Sah isn’t well written or anywhere near as fleshed out as it deserves to be, so instead of spelling things out for you, it’s the way it plays that gives it meaning. And that isn’t clear until the end, and even then, all you know is that you’ve found the wrong way, bringing you closer to the right one. It’s all rather Zen (or Samsara, or Moksha, or … look, I was raised Catholic, okay? You’re lucky I even know Zen is a thing).
Is this Zen? This doesn’t look like Jesus. It might be Zen.
I’ve never played a game like this. Not the “play it over” thing – God no – I’ve played and resented many games that expected me to play 300 times before I can do anything fun (hi Japan!). By contrast, EYE: Bovine Hyperdancey lets you have tonnes of fun right away, however your real potential will never be reached if you don’t try again. And of course I’ve played games that tried to be about something, or had a twist, or a moral, or some face-punchingly awful fourth-wall breaking twattery (hi Kojima!), but this really caught me off guard. It’s nothing spectacular, and the plot remains rather simple and poorly told, the characters barely there, the world an untapped mystery, but the fact that I’m now defending the save system that I’ve just spent two weeks constantly swearing a blood oath to destroy is remarkable. It’s absolutely about the bizarre and sometimes thrilling experience above all else, and the older I get, the more appreciation I feel for that.
I’d still like a save option, mind. I could have reviewed this in half the time with that.
EYE, Invisible Killer Robot Priest With a Minigun has many other flaws. You’ll get used to the UI, but it’s still bad. The hacking minigame is neat but imperfect – it’s sometimes far too tedious to hack multiple targets when a bullet ballet would sort them out in seconds. The possession script is wonky. The AI is rather simple. The difficulty forms less of a curve and more of a strip-mined mountain range. There are long stretches (and the entire “special missions” bit, as far as I can tell) that are not possible to complete without being Robocop’s less subtle cousin, and you get no indication when this is about to happen. Character generation is an esoteric mess. There are bugs, most notably one that switches around weapon hotkeys; you’ll frequently draw the wrong weapon because the keys have changed again. The translation really is awful, and the writing can’t have been much better in the original French. There are no interesting or memorable characters at all.
Hacking is easily understood once you try it, but can be laborious.
All this plus the ballsed up save system that only makes sense if you’ve played the game for dozens of hours should add up to a game I loathe. But I just can’t. This game pisses me off, but I love it. It’s ambitious. It’s original. It’s insane. It evokes countless games and films and books without being a clone or rip-off of any (although the Aliens-inspired level cuts it close. It’s a homage, really). The game is awash with references to other works, both explicit and thematic, but remains independent.
The gunplay is enormously exciting, and combat dances you back and forth wonderfully over a fine line between being a total badass cutting a path through dozens of mooks, and being a desperate man with his back against the wall, fighting for his life. Mooks go down with a shot or two, but armoured toughies are a bloody nightmare. You start the game with free access to shotguns, sniper rifles, dual swords and miniguns. The levels are intricate and frickin’ huge.
<PERSUADE> … GOING … <PERSUADE>
The levels! Some of them are wonderfully realised. There’s a whole map that is more Syndicate than anything we’ve seen for 15 years. It oozes atmosphere. You can hack into a man’s mind. Bite off more than you can chew and the trauma can leave you paranoid and hallucinating. You can wield a pistol and sword at once. You set people on fire with your mind. You can counter an ambush by leaping thirty feet in the air and attacking it from above with a rifle. You can hack into a gunship and watch it strafe rockets all over your enemies. Have a look at this:
See what happened there?
Land. Jason Bourne can eat my hole.
Trapped on a staircase with the feds coming, I suddenly remembered I’d invested in cybernetic legs. So, I leapt off the stairs, and spun around 180 degrees in the air and shot a man in the head before landing and killing another. Because I could.
I still haven’t finished EYE: Sublime Fillerpantsy. I’ll be back to write about it again. It is rough, weird, confusing, needlessly fiddly, and at times infuriating. There’s a lot that will put people off, and frankly, they’re right to be. I wouldn’t blame you if you thoroughly hated this game. I’m honestly surprised that I like it so much, and there’s still a chance I’m completely wrong about the “keep doing it” thing.
But it’s so utterly unique, and the combat is such a damn joy. If you’re at all interested in games that are odd or ambitious, and you’re not troubled by some major flaws or mechanics and a plot that keep you in the dark, you might enjoy it too. Go into this one with gritted teeth and both eyes open, and you’ll find something that reminds you what games are all about, and what incredible potential they have in the hands of people with a little imagination, and the lunatic force of will to do something with it.
EYE summarised in one image: Lofty heights with broken stairs.