Reviewed: November 7, 2002
Released: September 27, 2002
If GCM were to rate games for cleverness, Prisoner of War (POW) would receive a perfect 10. From concept to execution, the developers at Wide Games have to get credit for having the imagination and courage to build a different kind of game.
Part action/adventure, part puzzle solving, POW places you in the boots of a, well, POW in a German prison camp during World War II. You play the role of Captain Lewis Stone, a good-looking all-American hero type, who flies reconnaissance missions for the allies. You know the type, he sasses his superiors but he gets away with it because he gets the job done; by himself thank-you-very-much.
Shot down and imprisoned during a crucial mission, Stone is determined to escape so that he can report his findings to his superiors. Escape becomes a greater imperative as the game progresses, since an engaging storyline develops during which Stone uncovers a secret Nazi plan that could affect the war’s outcome.
POW is different not only because of its unusual prison camp setting, but because of the type of game this setting naturally leads to. Gameplay in Prisoner of War is based almost entirely on stealth, problem solving, and in-game planning. While games like Ghost Recon might mix thinking and planning with traditional shoot ‘em up gameplay- the shooting is still part of the mix. Not so in a prison camp.
Unfortunately Prisoner Of War’s required play style, along with its many flaws, translates into limited appeal; only gamers who are both patient and forgiving will truly appreciate what this title has to offer.
Played from a third person perspective, POW is best described as an action/adventure puzzle hybrid. The action/adventure comes from Stone’s activities in the POW camps. He explores his environment, has conversations with other prisoners, acquires objects and buys information.
The puzzle aspect of the game concerns how Stone will achieve his objectives, which include obtaining objects such as keys or a crowbar, creating a diversion, or reaching a certain location. The game consists of five missions, each divided into four objectives. There are many ways to accomplish each objective; your choice of the route Stone takes, or the time of day he makes his attempt, will affect how the game plays out, and possibly his success as well. But even with these various considerations, the game gets repetitive after a while.
Because of its focus on stealth, one might be tempted to compare this game to Thief, but don’t be fooled. The games each have a different feel. For one thing, Thief has its share of weapons and fighting, making stealth only part of the picture. For another, Thief has a more positive spin. The simple fact of changing your focus from “breaking in to steal a priceless artifact” to “getting the crowbar so I can escape” gives the game a different flavor, not quite as pleasant or rewarding. That having been said, if you enjoyed Thief, you will probably like POW as well.
Another gameplay device in POW is an on-screen game clock which keeps the player apprised of the time of day. Prisoners must be at set locations during certain times, for instance, morning and evening roll calls. Stone must work his exploring/object acquisition/intelligence gathering activities around his required schedule, otherwise the guards will be alerted to his absence and come looking for him.
Speaking of guards, the AI in POW is inconsistent. This is one of the game’s aforementioned flaws. There are times when the guard should see you, but doesn’t, and times when you should be safe, but the guard suddenly “spots” you anyway. Combine the faulty AI with some awkward third person camera angles and quirky controls, and you have a recipe for frustration.
But aside from the AI, and the control and camera angle issues, the game is fun to play for those with patience. POW presents a welcome change from “guns blazing” shooters.
The graphics in POW are good, but nothing special. We’ve seen visuals at this level of quality for quite some time now. The camps look and feel real, with an appropriate drabness to them.
In terms of characters, there is a feeling of cookie cutter sameness even when distinguished by different clothing. Lips move, but not completely in sync with spoken lines. The characters could have used more personality, though to be fair, some attempts were made at humorous and interesting dialogue.
In terms of the on screen interface, all the information you need is nicely laid out at all times. There is a “radar” type mini map in the lower left corner of the screen which looks amazingly like the one in Metal Gear Solid. You can see the guards moving around on this map, with vision cones (like flashlight beams) showing their areas of awareness.
In a lapse of good judgement, a designer or writer chose to refer to this map in the manual as a mini-radar; this suspends the game’s realism because face it, World War II POW would not have his own personal radar. Think of it instead as an aid to “situational awareness”- a good officer like Stone would have an idea in his head of where the guards are at all times, because he timed them, and because of visual and auditory cues he would have access to just by “being there”. Calling the map a “mind’s eye” view of the area would be more credible. (In fact, a nice touch by the designers could have been to make this map slightly inaccurate- objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear.)
The press release for POW touts an innovation called “interactive sound”. To quote the blurb, it “scales the volume and tempo of in game music and sound effects to coordinate with game action”.
Once again the developers have to be credited for a clever concept. The idea is to use sound in a game to create tension the way it would in an action or suspense movie, for example by having the music intensify as a guard on his rounds approaches your hiding spot.
Although the execution of this idea did not quite live up to the hype, it was a good start nonetheless. There were few musical selections, but they were suitably mood evoking and appropriate to the onscreen activities. In a nice touch, you can hear your heart beating when you fear being caught. Your heartbeat gets louder and faster as your fear (and your danger) increases. This was no doubt the main implementation of “interactive sound”, and it served to increase the player’s “fear” as well. I hope to see this idea expanded upon in the future.
Future game designers take note: sophisticated sound algorithms could be tied to “modular” music segments that would fit seamlessly together in many combinations. The “sound AI” would determine the music segment appropriate to the onscreen activity and add it to the “playlist” on the fly, creating one continuous music selection that’s completely in sync with the action. This is definitely the next evolutionary step for music in computer games.
Voice acting for the most part was a bit melodramatic and cheesy, reminiscent of the acting in older war movies. This could be either a plus or minus, depending on your tastes. I for one enjoyed the “old movie feel”.
With only five missions and a total of twenty objectives, Prisoner of War is a relatively short game. There is no multiplay, (presumably the game did not lend itself to multiplay, but some type of cat and mouse scenario might have been interesting), so the single player mode is the entire package.
While POW encourages you to replay missions by rewarding high scores with game tweaks, these “prizes” are arbitrary and should never have been awarded to begin with. A player should not be required to “win” a first person view mode. In any event, one run through of the game is enough.
Prisoner of War is a refreshing concept which may appeal to those looking for something different, provided they can get past the AI, control, and camera angle issues.
Gamers with a lot of patience, who would enjoy a game that focuses on stealth and puzzle solving, will find Prisoner Of War to be a nice change of pace from typical shooters and adventure games.