Reviewed: March 7, 2004
Released: March 2, 2004
I’ve been playing adventure games since before most of you were born. I was playing them clear back when the games themselves were being born starting with the granddaddy of them all, Zork: The Great Underground Empire on the TRS-80 computer.
Adventure games have come along way from those golden days of the text parser and trying to guess the perfect combination of nouns and verbs to make your unseen hero do your bidding. Photo-realistic graphics and point-n-click interfaces have given a new face to adventure games and just when you think there is nothing new you can do to redefine the adventure genre Sony comes along and tries something totally unexpected, voice control.
LifeLine is the latest game from Konami, designed by Sony, and created specifically to work with the USB headset for your PlayStation 2. An interesting premise to be sure, but the theory quickly succumbs to frustrating and cumbersome gameplay before the novelty even begins to wear off.
Rather than just dump you into an adventure game and have you control the character with vocal commands LifeLine sets up the premise with some plausible story elements that make the use of a headset not only believable but rather exciting.
We zip ahead to Christmas, 2029 to the grand opening of the Japan Space Station Hotel, a luxurious creation so immense and wonderfully designed that you’d swear you were planetside rather than in orbit. The big party is interrupted by an alien invasion and when the smoke clears you are left locked in a security room with only a vast video surveillance system and a headset at your disposal.
You quickly establish contact with Rio, a hotel employee who becomes your “avatar”. Using your security access, visual surveillance, and a library of more than 5,000 vocal commands and 100,000 phrases, you command Rio to do your bidding. Sure, it sounds incredibly original and it is in a way, but somewhere in the game design the adventure genre has been cast back more than 20 years in playability.
You play the game as yourself, but since you are locked in the security control room you are powerless to act on your own. This sets up the premise for issuing commands much like any adventure game ever made. The hook is that you get to speak these commands rather than type them in or pick from a menu or point and click, and that is where the frustration starts.
Aside from a few instances where you activate devices from your control panel most of the game (about 95%) is handled through voice commands. While the speech recognition is impressive at times it seems to fail you just as often and when it does the results range from frustrating to fatal.
Navigation is handled by telling Rio to go to a certain location. A pop-up map lists these locations by name so you can say, “Go to Suite 7” or “Go to Hall” and she will go there. As she walks you can say, “Run” and she will break into a jog. These global navigations are fairly easy and work most of the time.
Things start to get more complicated during exploration. You will be in a room that you must search and you know what you want to do but now you must figure out how to say it properly, or at least well enough that Rio knows what you want to do. To help you in the process the game uses an incremental clue system so you can use broad terms in your commands and Rio will hopefully narrow down your options, but this process is probably way too cumbersome for modern day gamers. I was repeatedly reminded of the old days of the text interface where I was constantly guessing the right word or phrase to match what the designers had pre-coded into the game as acceptable input.
A good example is in the very first room. There was a table with several objects on it and one of them looked like a piece of paper, perhaps a notebook, or maybe even a magazine. I tried telling Rio to get these items by those names with no luck. She responded with an annoyed tone that quickly reflected my own despair, “Do what with what?” Finally, in exasperation I say, “Look at white object” and she replies, “You mean this?” and the paper is finally revealed as a “Pamphlet”. Now that I know it by name I can have her read it…finally.
As you might guess, you will be quickly longing for the good old days of point and click where you would have just clicked on that item and gotten the same results in a fraction of the time. But the voice problems don’t stop there. Often Rio will mistake your commands entirely. I say, “Go to the bathroom” and she says, “Go to the hall” and heads off in the opposite direction. I have to wait 2-3 seconds before voice commands are enabled before I can say “Stop”, and repeat my previous command.
After several hours into the game I felt like I was in a foreign land teaching somebody English. I had to say simple phrases over and over, enunciating each syllable to the point where I wasn’t even speaking naturally anymore and when this happens the entire game loses its charm. One of the first things you have to tell Rio is the name of your girlfriend. First I had to thumb through the manual to find out, and then try to say the name, “Naomi” so she could understand it. Seriously, it took me at least 10-12 tries before she finally accepted my pronunciation.
Even in combat, things get a bit quirky. When an enemy appears on screen you are given a list of targets. You can say things like, “shoot left eye” or you can indicate the target first by saying, “mouth, shoot, shoot, shoot” and Rio will target the mouth and fire three times. The ability to queue commands is a nice feature as long as she understands you. You can also issue evasive commands like, “dodge left” but it can get confusing when Rio is facing you and your left is her right and she dodges into danger.
Problematic control scheme aside, the rest of LifeLine is nothing more than a standard adventure game that probably wouldn’t be nearly as original if you were playing it by more conventional means. The combat is mechanical, the item quests, inventory management, and NPC conversations are standard adventure gaming fare, probably made more simplistic than normal to work with the voice commands.
LifeLine delivers some excellent visuals that are probably more stunning in design than overall quality. Pick just about any PS2 adventure or 3D action game from 2002 and you will have a good idea of what to expect. Headhunter comes to mind.
Character designs are nice and Rio is attractive but doesn’t move very naturally, in fact nobody moves naturally other than the alien slugs and other enemies. I don’t think anybody was mo-capped; this is all key-framed animation. The aliens weren’t very original and only two or three were remotely scary. Most of the early encounters looked like hostile Jell-O molds.
The levels are nicely designed and sufficiently detailed although there isn’t much frivolous décor outside of what is required for the game. The presentation, menus, and command interface does an admirable job of immersing you in the gameplay. In fact, there were times when I really got lost in the game and thought I was actually controlling a waitress on a space station, perhaps a deaf waitress or one with a broken headset.
There is a surprisingly good soundtrack in LifeLine with a score than creates and sustains an emotional tone, evoking drama, fear, and eerie tension. It’s very cinematic and works very well. Sound effects are adequate and everything sounds as you would expect it to. There is nothing futuristic or remotely inventive in this part of the presentation.
The voice acting is probably the strongest element of the sound design. She Spies star, Kristen Miller lends her voice as Rio and manages to keep the conversations lively and engaging, even several hours into the game. Other characters perform their parts with acceptable levels of quality, even though there are several cheesy lines of dialogue.
LifeLine can take you anywhere from 8-12 hours to finish depending on how well you can communicate your wishes to Rio. Sometimes the game flows smoothly and other times you will spend 15 minutes trying to figure out what to call those purple suitcases next to the dresser.
It’s a linear adventure with no branching plot paths or multiple endings so once it’s over you won’t likely be coming back for more. At $40, this is a tough sell. You might want to rent if you already have a headset and want to try talking to someone other than your SOCOM teammates or those hoodlums in Manhunt.
If you have undying patience and want to experience a bold experiment in adventure gaming then you should definitely play LifeLine. While I respect the ambition that went into this project the final execution just reminded me of those non-Infocom parsers that never understood my typed-in commands anymore than Rio could understand my vocal commands.
I think LifeLine could have been a far more successful game if the headset control had been an option rather than a requirement. Having direct control over Rio and her environment would have made this game easier to play, but without the voice input the game would have quickly been revealed for the simplistic adventure that it really is.