Reviewed: July 7, 2005
Released: May 31, 2005
If I say "Chicago's County General Hospital," what's the first thing that springs to mind:
B) Twinkly-sounding, dramatic music
C) Endless drama! Endless intrigue!
D) Um, that's in Chicago, right? ...
Working against you will be your own fatigue and lack of practical experience, stingy nurses and a bad user interface. Nope, it isn't very good. Sorry, guys. But for all the gory details, please, read on....
ER is basically a Sims rip-off that trades the broader strokes of that game for a smaller scope and a smaller number of choices. After designing a "doctor" in the anemic character creator, players are dumped unceremoniously into a 3rd-person, isometric view of the hospital made famous in the acclaimed TV series. Vague 3D approximations of some of the TV characters make appearances and chew you out for being five minutes late, and then it's time to hit the waiting room and get a triage going. Or not.
For the first part of the main game, patients are suggested at a leisurely pace by the other doctors. The first patient you will (or should) take is rolled in on a gurney with a broken limb - an easy fix. After that, more patients will be pointed out by the ER staff. Alternately, you can diagnose and treat any of the various other randomly generated patients waiting for the ER.
The problem I ran into was that the second character I was supposed to take, a clown with something wrong with him (besides being a clown), never showed up. I looked high and low where the doctors, with increasing annoyance, kept telling me he was, but there was no sign of him. I'd like to have just said good riddance to the red-nosed nut job, but ER wouldn't let it go. Even ten minutes after the mystery clown was supposedly waiting for me, the game was messaging me with "clever" comments such as "So what's the story with Mr. Yakkety-Yak?" Ugh, TV dialog.
The few times I did actually manage to treat a patient were fairly simple to follow. To perform an initial examination on a patient, just find one and click on him or her. If the diagnosis is beyond your current capability you can send the person to the hospital lab for testing; otherwise, a mini-map will come up showing available hospital beds for treatment. Click one to move a patient there, wait for a nurse to show up, and click the patient again once they've laid down to try to treat them.
The treatment itself is based on a combination of four statistics (intelligence, constitution, dexterity and "charm," or bedside manner) that are determined at the time of character creation. These four stats combine to affect your doctor's ability in six medical disciplines ranging from neurosurgery (high dexterity and intelligence) to pediatrics (high constitution and charm). The specialties then can be leveled up via giving treatment in the appropriate area.
The higher your initial skill in a discipline the easier it is to level that discipline up, and the level of proficiency in a given discipline determines how successfully you'll be able to treat your patients. The game mostly keeps this simple, with a skill number rating that compares directly to a number indicating the severity of an injury. For example, a level 2 skill in Cardiology won't help much with a level 5 cardiology patient. The system is streamlined overall, but between trying to keep up with the game's demands (i.e., that clown) and trying to keep the other patients moving through, the gameplay itself quickly becomes hectic and frustrating at first, then boring. After all, you are just clicking on patients. The game does the rest.
Oh, and one more complaint: when you click to treat a patient, a number of options come up including the option to move them to a bed and the option to view in greater detail the results of your initial diagnosis. Unfortunately, clicking one option apparently forever seals the other. Planning on helping that surgery patient but want to double-check the details first? Too bad. They'll just stand there after you do, and no amount of left- or right-clicking will make them ever listen to you again. This is a glaring oversight and it doesn't help that the game comes without instructions - the tutorial level is woefully inadequate and cannot easily be referenced during play.
As if all that weren't enough, the control scheme for the game is atrocious. Players have a choice between clicking on a spot on the mini-map or clicking a spot in the current area. The doctor will then move to the specified location. However, part of the lower screen is obscured by an annoying, confusing HUD, which makes it difficult to move your character downward more than a few feet. You can't simply hold and drag the mouse button either, as in most games with ER's player point of view. You have to keep clicking... and clicking... and clicking, as your doctor wanders drunkenly about, carefully making pointless detours and bumping into other characters with alarming frequency. And when two characters do bump into each other, they dance around for far too long trying to awkwardly move around each other. Realistic? Yes... a bit too realistic, in my opinion.
Aside from treatment, there are two other things that players can work on. The first is laughably simple: ER keeps track of your character's hygiene, energy level and composure, which all drop steadily as he or she performs operations and whatnot. Hygiene level depends on regular handwashing and the occasional shower in the break area. Energy depends on getting snacks and taking naps when possible, while composure can be replenished in a number of ways, such as lifting weights.
The other activity that can be engaged in should appeal to ER's drama-loving fans: players can guide their character into or out of favor with any of a number of individuals and cliques on the ER staff. Liking certain people will put you at odds with others, of course, because this isn't a collection of working professionals, it's junior high. Or a TV drama; whichever. The system is very nuanced but it's also an exercise in patience, as most people with whom you can interact to gain favor will not drop you any hints about their likes or dislikes until it is too late.
Working the social circles in the hospital has tangible gameplay benefits - getting in good with certain cliques and/or individuals will get you better Perks (one-time use items that have effects ranging from a temporary ability increase to flattering a co-worker), as well as drive along sub-plots that could even end up getting your doctor a smooch on the sly from one of the nurses... if you care enough to bother with it, that is.
The socialization system does add some depth to this otherwise flat game, though, and overall it's probably the best thing about it. Just bear in mind that some of the clique benefits don't make any sense: getting in good with a nurses' clique will get you a steady supply of the Moist Towelette perk, which lets you regain some hygiene instantly. But what kind of a maniac nurse would ever withhold a sanitary wipe from any surgeon to begin with?
ER's graphics are, in a word, underwhelming. After a decently quick load time, the hospital appears on your screen sporting a graphical quality akin to The Sims - low polygon count models and static backgrounds abound, while special effects are less than minimal.
The character designer doesn't offer enough options for most people, with three ambiguous skin tones to choose from, six or so faces for each gender, a small array of color selections for hair, eye and scrub color, and the option to give your creation a white lab coat or not. It doesn't help that most of the male faces look like they belong on a rap sheet, and most of the female faces look... less than intelligent, to put it kindly. The creator also neglects some options that seem sensible, while including less sensible ones in their stead: hair color, for example, counts four or five shades of blonde, Corvette red and cotton candy pink among its options, but no option for orangey or auburn hair.
The camera controls are also lackluster. Instead of being able to swivel and zoom using, say, the mouse wheel or right mouse button, ER offers players a little graphic in the lower right-hand corner which, when moused over, will cause the view to spin automatically. This is frustrating and difficult to control. My suspicion is that the developers only made it this way because from some angles, the graphics (which are passable, if only barely) look downright awful if viewed from the wrong angle. As with every other aspect of this game, ER's graphics feel cheap and fail to impress.
Probably the closest thing ER has to a saving grace is its quality voice acting. I've rarely watched the TV show so I'm in no position to say whether the performances of Noah Wyle, Mekhi Phifer, and Sherry Stringfield match those of the actual show, but in the game they do a fine and convincing job. It sounds like a TV show, complete with bad dialog, and every story event is acted.
Other than that, there's some minimal music (again, not sure if it's from the show) that does a nice job of sounding "doctor-ish" and plays while your character is trying to heal patients, as well as at the title screen. Other than that there isn't a whole lot of music. The soundtrack is sparse and average. Sound effects are really not even worth mentioning -- Yoot Saito's SimTower had more convincing background noises.
Okay, so let's say that, for whatever reason, you really end up liking this game. Maybe it's the chance to play as a doctor saving people's lives. Maybe it's the intrigue and drama of workplace romances and double-crossing. Maybe you just always wished you'd saved that injured clown on the street when you had the chance, and want to make up for it. Whatever the reason, you find the game enjoyable. Is there replay value here for you? Yes, and quite a lot, in fact.
Each playthrough, your doctor will have a new chance to make completely different impressions on the staff. You'll be able to specialize in a different discipline and see where it leads you. You can see what's so great about joining a different clique than the one you were in last time, or work your way up to a passionate kiss with an orderly before immediately clicking the "Rebuke" button on him three or four times and breaking his little artificial heart. There is certainly a lot to see in ER.
However, there isn't as much open-ended gameplay as in a title like, say, The Sims, or (for those of you with wicked PC's) GTA: San Andreas. At the same time, the primary storyline of the game changes little from playthrough to playthrough, making the details the only things worth redoing. And in the end, ER just isn't much fun to play. There are a dozen games I'd recommend before this leaky ship of a title. Its technical aspects feel unfinished and it just doesn't offer enough personal involvement to keep your interest for very long.
ER is just not a very good game. It's playable, but even in that aspect it has some strikes against it versus other PC games thanks to bad camera work and a frustrating character control scheme. It does offer up many chances for high office drama, which could be kind of fun if the medical aspects of the game didn't drag it down with their moronic simplicity and annoying repetitiveness.
The sound package is budget all the way, although there's some nice voice acting to be sure. The graphics are similarly lackluster, with few good points to be found amongst the vast sea of generic drabness that is most of the game's look. I can't recommend this game, even to a big ER fan. I'm sure it'll do all right anyway, but it really shouldn't. Who knows? You could end up liking it. But I wouldn't bet on it.