Reviewed: November 5, 2003
Released: November 23, 2002
For most people, conceptualizing the world of computer game development involves thinking symmetrically, with America on one side of the Pacific Rim and Japan on the other. Gamers often forget however that their favorite digital pastime is a world wide phenomenon, and in recent years the gaming world has been shedding the spotlight on up and coming developers located outside the realm of the “Big 2.” Notables like Spanish based Pyro Studios brought us the highly lauded RTS Praetorians while the FPS hit Serious Sam came courtesy the boys in Croatia, Croteam Ltd.
In an era where both American and Japanese companies are increasingly relying on legacy franchises -pumping out Mario, Link and Solid Snake sequels by the dozen – foreign developers bring a much needed injection of vitality into the gaming industry, taking fresh approaches to common genres and sometimes (as in the case of Serious Sam) reviving its most basic roots. It was with great anticipation then that I loaded up Conspiracies, the first interactive adventure game from Greek developer Anima Interactive.
Set in the year 2063, Conspiracies casts the player in the role of Nick Delios, a down and out private investigator whose propensity for gambling and fast living have finally caught up to him. When outstanding financial debt forces Nick to take a job from his old nemesis, corporate head Dimitris Argiriou, a routine investigation plunges Nick into a web of intrigue and mystery played out upon the stage of bleak 21st century future. Such a story bodes quite well for mystery adventure lovers, but unfortunately as we’ll soon see the techno-noir odyssey of Nick Delios turns out to be more akin to Sam Spoof than Sam Spade.
Players experience the story of Conspiracies in two ways, in-game first person sleuthing and movies. The first mode is where the player will spend most of his/her time, exploring and interacting with objects and the environment through a first person perspective. This is where the game has the most problems, all of which are sufficiently dire enough to handicap the rest of the experience. The most glaring snafu involves the user interface. Conspiracies is set up poorly here, and doesn’t give the player what he/she needs to jump right in and feel at home with the control system.
The first thing players will notice is that the cursor doesn’t change/blink/highlight when interactive objects are encountered. The only way to ascertain an object’s significance is to click on just about everything around you and wait until Nick verbally identifies it. Once the item is in your inventory there’s no text or mouse-over highlight list to identify it either, forcing the player to remember each and every one. Let me tell ya – it’s just not gonna happen, and because of the bad graphics its sometimes hard to tell what the object is. So, in lieu of this you must select it again and have Nick identify it. And boy, does Nick like to talk. From his gold fish to his tennis balls to his Greek Coffee, every single insignificant object holds an intense fascination for this down and out private dick.
Some objects will hold relevance for your quest and others will not, either way you’ll get the lowdown. After twenty minutes of listening to Nick’s chip chip cheerio faux self deprecatory British accent, I was ready to mute the speakers and throw the disc out the window. Nick’s narratives are supposed to offer clues to an object’s importance, but without labels for the inventory his cues go in one ear and out the other, making item interaction and acquisition quite awkward. Hitting the spacebar to bring up the in-game inventory never becomes comfortable, and would have been better served relegating that duty to the right mouse button.
Similarly, combining items and using them with different environmental objects (such as feeding plants or pushing in a keycard) remains a gaggle of left-right mouse click roulette, and never really settles in to becoming second nature. The KISS principle seems to have been shunned with great prejudice here, and the ungraceful interface hampers the fun. An additional frustration comes from the control scheme. While simple enough to move around with the directional keys and look with the mouse, I quickly became uncomfortable having to reach across myself with my left hand in order to reach my keyboard’s directional keys. It would have been much more comfy to re-map the directional keys to W-A-S-D, but the Conspiracies menu offers no control customization, forcing me to play in an awkward and cramped position. The options menu felt only half done, and I had to search around for the save game key, as well as get used to the non-intuitive manual save/load screen.
The second way players experience the game is through the use of Full Motion Video (FMV) cutscenes (Yes, just like Mark Hamill in Wing Commander IV) which further the plot and provide the player with important details. At important junctures in the story, players are presented with three choices: A, B and C, usually to determine Nick’s emotional reaction to another character or to choose a certain verbal approach to take. Unlike other choice driven FMV’s, Conspiracies only gives you one shot, there’s no going back and trying a different tactic. Since the end result is the same no matter what your choice, the FMV options are more for show and depth, and most likely to provide the player with an enhanced sense of control within the story.
Each FMV has been dubbed from the original Greek with British voiceovers, and they are quite painful to watch. The introduction for instance, where Nick gambles away his fortune and is wisked away to the office of his arch rival Argiriou evokes memories of the most awkward blue screen acting from the days of WestWood’s Command and Conquer or Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight. Once considered unique and inventive, the days of FMV acting are now quite thoroughly numbered. In all fairness, the actors do try to maintain character, but the veneer of believability remains awfully thin throughout the game and ultimately, perhaps inevitably, the player’s suspension of disbelief succumbs to the silliness of it all.
Word on the internet has it that quite a few adventure gaming websites have given Conspiracies rave reviews. Based upon the criteria of gamplay alone, it’s hard to see why. As an adventure game, Conspiracies ignores some of the most basic tenets of user interaction, forgoing intuitive controls, denying the user basic customization options and utilizing a style of narration whose sun had set long before Kari Wurher decided to play Tanya in Red Alert 2.
Unfortunately Conspiracies doesn’t have much to offer here either. Using Anima’s proprietary ‘Whisper Engine’ to detail the futuristic environment of 2063, Conspiracies offers a colorful, if quite dated looking environment. Eschewing the pre-rendered background approach used so successfully by Myst, The Longest Journey and Syberia, Conspiracies’ in-game graphics suffer from overly enthusiastic color schemes and old-school textures that lend a very stiff, doll-house feel to the entire game.
My first experience in Nick Delios’ apartment (the first level) was typical of the rest of the game. Walking through the interior I noticed rather unpolished (graphically speaking) furnishings whose bright colors seemed to proclaim latter day Simpsons-esque inspiration. Sharp delineating lines formed drawers and closets, while opening them up revealed coats, cups and even plumbing which displayed a flat one dimensional look taken directly from Duke Nukem 3D’s engine. On the whole, while pleasant enough to look at, the game really does appear as if it was made in the mid-90’s, rather than 2003.
There’s a certain artificial feeling created here, something I just couldn’t shake as I continued to play. The old school charm doesn’t last, and when the game segues out to an FMV, the contrast highlights Conspiracies graphical deficiencies even further. If Nick Delios is to have future Conspiracies adventures in the form of sequels, let’s hope that next time the in-game graphics are up to par with it’s futuristic setting.
Music has always been a strong point of adventure games, and Conspiracies does an admirable job of continuing that tradition. In the opening sequences Conspiracies makes good use of moody violin strings and piano to create a soap operatic ambience, and in-game midi sequences round out the package for a nice variation, slightly reminiscent of adventure titles during the heyday of the Commodore 64.
Each midi tune helps to enhance the mood of the game, whether you’re sleuthing down a dark alley or just lounging about in your run-down apartment. Players may or may not like having background music playing all the time, but the sprightly original tunes help to distract from the not-so stellar graphics, and in most cases seem to complement gameplay rather than detract from it. Ambient sounds in-game are sparse, and don’t really do much one way or the other.
Play through it once and you’re done. This in truth is the bane of all adventure games, but as I mentioned in my review of another adventure title, Journey to the Center of the Earth, the intrinsic value of adventure games lay in the present moment, finding yourself drawn into the story and enamored of the journey itself. Playing through the game will probably leave the player with one of two minds, the first (and probably most dominant) being that the overall arc of the story and experience isn’t that good.
The second thought however, which may linger just under the surface, is that this is a game into which quite a bit of work went into making the adventure worthwhile. In other words, there is quite a bit of potential which manifests itself as a flawed product in its execution. The basics of a compelling adventure-mystery saga are all in place, but hampered by the interface, graphical exterior and extremely post-mortem dated FMV acting. Of course, this “Porsche engine inside a VW Bug” analogy does have its limits, and in the end a diamond in the rough is still, at the end of the day, well…in the rough.
Conspiracies reminds me of that good natured guy in high school track who never managed to win a race, but always had a smile on his face and a joke on his lips. He wasn’t very good at what he did, but you nevertheless admired him for his humor and persistence. At each juncture of the game experience, Conspiracies exemplifies this ethos, taking older facets of adventure gameplay and presenting them in a style that never reaches its full potential. It elicits our sympathies rather than our scorn. The result for the end user however is a mixture of frustration and bemusement, but even during its most redundant moments, one can sense brimming potential in this game, and it would not be too far fetched to imagine a whole new franchise based upon Nick Delios mystery adventures.
To do so will require quite a bit of work – the game needs to become much more user friendly, the story needs to be deeper, the graphics updated, and well, just about a whole facelift will be required. But the kernel of a great adventure series is there, and while gamers should probably skip this incarnation of Conspiracies, if Anima can focus their talents on a dramatically bigger and better Conspiracies 2 then it just might have a winner on its hands.