Reviewed: January 22, 2003
Released: February 14, 2002
Last November I had the wonderful opportunity to preview an upcoming new adventure title from Agetec called Disaster Report. Now, just over a month later, the finished product has finally arrived and this is one game that is going to “shake up” the PS2 adventure genre.
As far as adventure games go, Disaster Report has it all; action, suspense, drama, intrigue, and even a dash of romance, all set against the backdrop of one of the most earthshaking natural disasters since Atlantis vanished from the face of the earth. Excited? Keep on reading.
The game opens with a narration from the main character, Keith Helm, a 25-year-old journalist who is on his way to Capital City for his first day at his new job at the Town Crier Newspaper. In route from the airport, the city is hit with a major 6.0 earthquake taking out much of the city and the huge suspension bridge leading from the airport to Stiver Island, the very bridge your train happens to be on.
Without retelling the excellent story found in the first couple pages of the game manual or giving away any of the incredible plot elements that make up the inventive story, it is important to know that Stiver Island is manmade, a proto-type experiment in government terraforming. While this leads to several questions regarding the cause of the earthquake (perhaps it wasn’t so “natural” after all), it ultimately creates a situation where the entire island is slowly sinking into the sea, creating an “environmental timer” that keeps you constantly pushing forward.
Disaster Report offers a huge city to explore and multiple characters to encounter and interact with. You are free to take several paths to reach the ultimate conclusion, teaming up with various inhabitants to tackle sub-quests and rescue missions. Perhaps the most inventive aspect of this game is the dynamic and continually changing scenery and environments. With frequent aftershocks rocking the city, the levels are always in a constant state of flux allowing you to explore the same areas multiple times under extremely different situations.
Disaster Report plays like your typical PS2 adventure title. If you’ve played Resident Evil or any other third-person adventure game you have a good idea what to expect. Unlike the older 2D adventure games that took place on 2D static or scrolling backgrounds, Disaster Report is a fully rendered 3D game with complex and fully detailed levels.
Controls are intuitive with the analog stick moving Keith around at variable speeds. The triangle allows you to look around in first-person mode while the L2 rotates the camera and the L3 snaps the camera behind you. The R1 allows you to brace yourself during an aftershock. This turns out to be a critical game element since failing to brace during a tremor will send you crashing to the pavement for damage or plummeting from a ledge to your death.
The X button performs routine actions like talking to people or using objects and the circle allows you to run. You can also grab onto ledges, climb ladders, climb over walls, railings, hedges, and even jump over gaps. These actions are all handled automatically based on the level and your current situation. For instance, if you walk toward a gap you will fall off but automatically spin around and grab on. If you run toward that same gap and it’s “jumpable” you will make the jump to the other side – no button press required.
As you explore and try to escape the sinking city you will collect a variety of objects that you can store in your backpack. You will quickly realize that this pack is quite limited in its capacity, although larger packs are available further into the game. You will find all sorts of things you can use to help you along in your journey. Some items can be assembled for additional purposes like mounting a flashlight to your hardhat to create a headlamp. There is no trial or error required for combining items. You simply go to the Assemble menu and you are given a list of possible assembly items and the two or three objects required to make them. If you don’t have one of the necessary items it will show a “?”, and you’ll need to keep looking.
Of course the most important object in the game is water. Keith drinks a disturbing amount of water in this game – so much that I kept feeling the need to visit the bathroom myself, so much that there is even an endgame statistic for the amount of water he drinks. I drank something like 7.5 litres. Water is shown in a hydration meter just below your health/damage meter. This series of blue blocks slowly drains away as you walk around the city, but when you exert yourself with actions such as running, climbing, or hanging the meter depletes more rapidly. If you become totally dehydrated you will start taking damage.
While this concept is fairly original the designers failed to integrate it into the game with any level of threatening success. There are so many drinking fountains, sinks, and spigots scattered all over the city that you are seldom threatened with thirst. You also can carry water bottles of various sizes allowing you to store 1-3 drinks per container just in case you acquire a powerful thirst and there isn’t a water source nearby. What could have been a much more powerful game element simply became an annoying statistic to monitor.
One thing I enjoyed was the “friendly” nature of the game design that didn’t punish you for experimenting or taking chances. The game checkpoints itself often – very often, so you almost never have to replay too much of any given level if you unexpectedly die. You can also save your game at any water source, and the game frequently prompts you to save the game between major events.
Character interaction is pretty fun and progresses the story. You meet up with Karen early in the game when you save her in a daring rescue from a train car. In one possible path you can escort her to the end of the game, working together to solve puzzles. As your relationship grows closer you will start to hold her hand and lead her around – fans of ICO will relate to this.
You will also meet other characters that drive the story and offer their own unique mission paths. This is one element that gives this game incredible replay value. My first pass through the game only took me through about half of the possible locations in the city. With plot branches scattered about the story, you can meet up with new characters and explore new locations before ultimately arriving at the climatic finish.
Conversations are a bit primitive with some dialog presented in a menu tree that really isn’t necessary. While it allows you to pick the order of your conversation topics or ignore some completely, it doesn’t affect the outcome of the encounter or the game. One encounter that comes to mind is when Karen asks to climb down a ladder first because she isn’t wearing any panties and doesn’t want Keith to “look up there…” You are given the choice to be a nice guy and let her go first or be a pervert and ignore her request, but if you try to go first she gets all upset and you are presented with the same menu over and over until you finally relent to let her go first. Other dialog trees are the same with dead-end menus that simply don’t affect the encounter other than to provoke an immediate response.
For the gamers who like to collect things, there are 35 compasses you can collect. While they all serve the same purpose (to show you true north), they all have a unique style like a tire, surfer, angel, etc. You can also collect a wide range of hats, but you can only equip one of them, and I found no reason to sacrifice the safety of my hardhat for a stylish bandanna or cowboy hat.
For the most part, gameplay is a sequence of exploration to collect items then using those items to interact with your environment to further the story and progress to the next section of the city. The puzzles are not all that difficult and you can never get stuck, as everything you need to progress is readily available, just not always obvious. There are even a few arcade sequences like riding a makeshift raft down a flooded street and a unique jumping puzzle through an office building that has fallen on its side.
As much as I really like this game (and I mean “really like”), Disaster Report suffers from some disappointingly “average” graphics. The textures are generally low in detail and the characters are created from minimal polygons and simple facial animation. There is a tremendous amount of jaggies and so much shimmering in the wide camera shots that it becomes downright distracting.
I’m not sure if this falls under the category of framerate or not, but I did notice that whenever Keith was “running” and the current view included a large part of the city on the horizon the entire game slowed to a snail’s pace. The strange thing is that the game didn’t become jerky, as you might expect from a framerate issue, but it actually turned into slow motion. I experimented with this a bit and found that as soon as Keith moved into a view where large parts of the city were not in the shot he would return to normal speed, but as soon as the camera picked up the horizon the game slowed to a crawl. You won’t notice this effect at all if you are exploring indoor levels or walking but then again, you almost never walk anywhere in this game unless you are balancing on a precarious ledge, balancing on a beam, or tightrope walking a pipe.
Thankfully, most of the game is played in a much narrower field of vision and these annoying glitches are kept at a minimum. Camera work ranges from good to annoying. I found the constant need to manually adjust my view, either by snapping the camera behind my current position or using the first-person view to aim my character. The game makes amazing use of scripted cinematic camera shots to enhance the intensity of the gameplay. One of the earlier sequences has Keith climbing a ladder from the lower level of the suspension bridge to the top. The camera shifts to a vertical shot looking down at Keith on the ladder as the lower level breaks away and plummets into the bay below. It’s a great effect that leaves a lump in my throat, even on subsequent replays when I’m expecting it.
There are some excellent visual effects ranging from fire, smoke, toppling buildings, crashing cars, buses, explosions, and just about anything you might expect from a big budget disaster movie including a 200-foot tidal wave that chases you through a section of the city and up through a skyscraper.
The cutscenes are all created using the game engine graphics, so you have a seamless integration of gameplay and story that can only be differentiated by the transition from letterbox to full screen. Some of the cutscenes, such as crawling under a door shutter to enter a building can become annoying since they play every time, but they do a good job of concealing the very short load times between indoor and outdoor locations.
Disaster Report uses the S-FORCE 3D Sound Library to recreate some of the most thunderous earthquake effects you are likely to hear or feel short of moving to the west coast. My sub-woofer was working overtime and things were vibrating and shaking, nearly coming off of the shelves in my game room. These effects range from the subtle rumblings of tremors to the deafening roars of huge buildings collapsing around or even on you.
One occurrence that still stands out in my mind is when I am running through the giant domed sporting arena and a quake hits sending huge pie-sections of the dome crashing down into the baseball diamond. You hear the almost-human like screaming of twisting and tearing metal along with the rumbling of the ground followed by the crashing roar of massive piles of twisted steel as the dome collapses around you. Words can’t begin to paint a vivid enough picture of this event.
Disaster Report is one of the few games that puts the vibration feature of the Dual Shock to excellent use. Not only does it twitch madly in your hands during quakes and crashes you also get these subtle hints of a tremor that you can feel in your hands even before you hear them on the speakers. This is your clue to hit that R1 button and brace for the impending quake. The effect is so perfectly integrated into the gameplay that someone with a hearing impairment could feasibly play this game.
Music is virtually non-existent. You are left with the uncanny silence of a deserted city that is disintegrating before your very eyes, which only makes the rumbles and crashes that much more pronounced. Some sections of the city have the eerie howl of wind ripping through the ruined structures and the splashing sounds of rising water continually drives you toward the center of the island.
Dialog is pretty bad (in a comical way), but no worse than you would expect from any Japanese import that has undergone localization. To their credit, the actors manage to pull of some convincing voiceovers, even if what they are saying is often trite or predictable. The ratio of spoken dialog to text-only is about 50:50, and there never seems to be any consistency in what you must read versus what you get to listen to.
There were a few instances during the game when the sound would cut out leaving me in total silence. I’m not sure if this was a glitch in the game or a cinematic effect to add mystery or suspense to the scene. One instance had me hiding inside a building as a helicopter flew past the windows. During the scripted cutscene the chopper was totally silent, but as soon as the game kicked in to where I had control of Keith I could hear the helicopter clearly and loudly. Since I can’t be sure if this was intentional or a sound glitch I won’t penalize the sound score; especially since that even if this was a bug it managed to indirectly enhance the game.
Disaster Report is admittedly a short game. The average gamer will escape Capital City in 4-6 hours, but keep in mind that you can only take one of several paths each time you play. This means you can enjoy the game multiple times with unique experiences on each journey. Naturally there will be overlapping parts you must replay each time like the opening escape from the suspension bridge, but the branching points of the plot are all located in the earlier sections of the game. If you are clever about your save games you can save before a plot branch and keep that game to reload from later to explore the other paths.
The plot branches are fairly massive and will send you to entirely new parts of the city. One such branch lets you choose between helping Karen return to her house and find her lost dog or go with Greg, a photojournalist you meet up with early in the game, to explore another parts of town and meet all-new characters. Disaster Report is like a special edition DVD movie, but instead of an alternate ending you have an alternate middle.
And for you packrats out there, don’t forget those 35 compasses scattered about the city. Some are hidden very well in out-of-the-way places and will only be found by the most observant of players, while others are hidden in areas that can only be reached after a scripted tremor has altered the level you are exploring.
Even with only 4-6 hours of story-driven content you are going to enjoy this game multiple times and get at least 15-20 hours of intense action and suspenseful gaming. The only downside to replaying the common threads of the story are that the scripted events never change, so that same tremor that sends a bus crashing into a fiery pit isn’t going to be nearly as impressive or scary the second or third time it happens.
It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a pretty game, but this is one of those rare occasions when I’m going to saw “screw the graphics” and enjoy this game for what it is. Even when Disaster Report is looking its worst it’s not terrible. I can name at least a dozen games that look worse and even more titles that look better but don’t offer a fraction of the inventive gameplay that you’ll find here.
Disaster Report is an amazing ride that you will want to enjoy over and over again and even share with your friends. It plays out like an interactive movie with a clever story filled with plot twists, evolving relationships, and unexpected conspiracies. It’s an amazing experience you won’t want to miss and one you will never forget.