***Update: I was contacted by Gregory at Interdimensional Games regarding the technical issues that I detail below. He explained that the vision issue was a design choice made to reflect the amount of damage I was receiving. One can argue for or against this being the correct decision but he indicated that he was considering this criticism seriously. He was also very interested in the disappearing injury victim trick as they had not come across or heard of this bug. To my dismay, I was not able reproduce the issue after a couple of attempts. I am willing to write this anomaly off to my aging graphics card. Another possibility is that the updated drivers that I installed between the time this happened and my attempts at recreating it smoothed it over.
As I could not cause this issue to occur again, I have decided to raise my score from 4.0 to 4.5. For those concerned about ethics in games journalism, this decision is entirely my own; no one at Interdimensional Games broached the subject of the score with me. They were more interested in ensuring that a potential bug was squashed. Also, no word on the Daffy Duck conversation option I requested.***
Were I to find myself tied up, blindfolded, and had my feet to the fire (and this was not voluntary “special time” with the wife), I would say that my favorite feature that could be added to a game would be the ability to dynamically affect how a story plays out. I would also question the extremes my captors underwent to gather such basic information, but that is immaterial to the point. The recent Telltale games based on The Walking Dead and Fables are particular stand outs for this, but Interdimensional Games’ Consortium has really raised the bar.
As I began, I was advised through a series of Star Trek-esque techno babble that I would be taking control of an actual person in the future. The year 2042 to be precise. Beaming the signal from my computer to the satellite that rips a hole in the space time continuum is a rather resource intensive endeavor, so the appearance will appear to be on the level of earlier Source engine games. This made me smile. Taking the time to write in an explanation for what might be perceived as a flaw is gutsy. It’s also quite ingenious.
Revealing too much of the plot is risky as the twists and turns of a narrative focused game rely on the element of surprise. Let me tread lightly. You and a small crew are aboard a large military plane on a return trip to Ireland. The feel of the crew and interactions are reminiscent of more recent Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. The way these people converse and get along really does make one believe that they work together constantly, with inside jokes, grudges, and friendships.
Not long after loading into the game, I discovered a body, learned that the wounds suffered indicate a murder, and that as a Bishop, or security officer, it was my job to solve the case. That is just the start. Hull breaches will occur, mercenaries will be out witted, and there is a conspiracy to unravel. Sadly, I had other plans for my character.
Waking up in my private quarters, I was quickly introduced to the conversation system. The answers pop up at the top of the screen and the choices are made with a quick stroke of an “F” key. When I normally play a game with a branching path, I try hard to behave in a noble fashion. I work to ensure I am fair with each character, choose the most reasonable sounding responses, and bend over backwards to try to make everyone like me. I mean, games are for fantasy, right? Due to the narrative conceit, though, I was provided with the chance to break the fourth wall. Repeatedly. To be more accurate, I attacked that sucker like it ran over my wife and impregnated my cat. It was rapturous. I used every chance afforded to explain to the players in this drama that I was just sitting at home at my PC, that the person before them was effectively a pod person until I decided that I was done and logged out. The great thing is that no matter how many people I confused and no matter how many obviously wrong steps I took the branching plot lines were put together in such a way that the story progressed wonderfully.
One complaint about the conversation trees, though. It is not always as robust as I wish it could be. At one point, the captain of the ship sat me down and advised me that there was a deadlock among the crew. To paraphrase, nobody was sure if I was a lunatic, idiot, or garden variety douchebag. Now, the only logical response to this situation would be to pull my underwear over her eyes and run out of the room jumping up and down hooting like Daffy Duck, stopping only to call a crew member fat and failing to divide by one. Come on, Interdimensional Games: we demand a patch.
There is some action here as gun play works into the mix. It works fairly well for what was intended, though the lethal weapons can feel anemic despite that damage being caused to enemies. There are also non-lethal options available. The charge up stun gun did feel more powerful to me and I actually enjoyed using it more. In the end, either works well for however the player wishes to handle things. Since this is an element, though, I do wonder if certain situations can be handled with words, or if some of the action sequences are mandatory. I will be undergoing more runs through the story to find out as the years go by. One aspect I really appreciated is that the game seems to make it impossible to accidentally kill a friendly. As it would be easy to mow them down due to the cramped quarters of the plane, this was a smart step.
As you take damage to your armor and health, it is possible to heal via using utility power that is replenished by recycling junk found through the environment. In game, the system works quite well at balancing old school “health pack” shooter play and the newer “duck to live” style. If one were extrapolate on the “this is real, just the future” story concept, this means that my armor is patched together with pieces of trashcans and toilet paper, and my wounds are covered with other random detritus. I really wish there was a third person view in this game.
One small confession on my part regarding this style of game. The developers put all this work into alternative story paths, and encourage us to play through multiple times to see it all. However, when I finish, though, I am happy to shelve the game for a while because the experience I had was my experience. I love that all the options are here. I just feel a small amount of guilt, like I haven’t gotten all of the enjoyment available out of a game.
Now, as much as I love this game there are a couple of technical issues to address. There was one sequence in which I was to save an injured crew member trapped in a room below the cockpit. I failed this sequence because he never permanently materialized in the room. I did see him and the other character who ultimately rescued him blink in and out of existence while two separate conversations played. I am not one hundred percent certain as it was so cacophonous, but I believe the conversations were simultaneously the success and failure lines. I think eventually the game decided that I failed and moved on.
Also there was a major gun battle sequence that I continually lost due to massive overuse of the “distortion” effect that can pop up to simulate the um… simulation. It was simply too much and I could not see a thing. I am not sure if this was a bug or a design decision. Either way, it was frustrating. Especially since I really wanted to continue the story.
Finally, while I really enjoyed the voice acting, it would be reasonable to state that better voice acting is possible. I would argue that what was here fit the feel of the game, but objectively it ranges from “pretty good” to “barely passable.” I only mention it as it can be a major sticking point for some.
It has been a very long time since I have played through the original Deus Ex, though when I spoke to the developer at PAX, that was a major touch point for their description. Since I can’t vouch for that, the reader may ask why I bring it up. The reason is this: for the few flaws this game has, I have not been pulled into a story like this in a long time. Part of it may be the fact that I played differently than I usually do, but I would also say that the story flexibility afforded, the high quality of the writing, and the attention to detail in the initial lore planted my rear in my computer chair and I did not want it to end. If mentioning Deus Ex will get more people to try it, mention it I will.
Also, if the developers happen to read this, that Daffy Duck option will be in Consortium II, correct?