Reviewed: December 3, 2002
Released: December 9, 2003
I think many of my generation had Carmen Sandiego games forced on to them by their schools or parents. I was not one of these unfortunate souls but one of a lower tier who bought CS simply to know what everyone was talking about. For those unaware of the series, you played an agent for “ACME” who is forever on the hunt of the elusive Carmen Sandiego, a globetrotting thief out to pillage precious artifacts. At least that was the story. In reality, you looked at maps and “learned” shallow facts about the history and cultural of various regions. The game was tedious, patronizing, and--judging by its sequels and TV show spin-off--very successful.
Much time has passed and Carmen Sandiego, 386 CPUs, and dodging the random dinosaur while walking ten miles to school in ten feet deep snow (uphill both ways, mind you) are now only faint memories in the minds of aging gamers. However, Carmen has returned. Thankfully, she is here to lead you on a hunt that includes heavy combat, stealth, puzzle solving, and platforming elements. It would appear that the years have taught Carmen that making a mental connection between France and the Arc de Triumph is not quite the challenge she once thought it was.
Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums starts off with the main character describing his unconventional and unauthorized adventure to the ACME Chief. Happening upon new GPS information as to whereabouts of Carmen Sandiego, our intrepid hero impulsively heads out to capture her and finds himself embroiled in a hunt that spans the globe. Using a blend of CG, in-game cut scenes, PDA messages, and some very cool comic book-styled cut scenes, Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums has an unexpectedly sizable storytelling element (although nothing in about the plot would qualify as “riveting”).
A “Jack-of-all-trades, master of none”/”sum greater than its parts” curiosity, Carmen Sandiego mixes a large number of gameplay styles and, while none would stand on their own, together, the mixture is quite successful. Betterstill, I find it impossible to point to one gameplay facet as the chief mechanic. Although the puzzle element is nothing major (or perhaps too simple to stand out), the stealth, combat, and platforming elements all play an equally important role in Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums.
Holding up this multi-genre gameplay are Cole’s healthy number of available moves. There is nothing new here but rather representatives from each genre. Shimmying along walls, double jumping, combo attacks, crawling along ledges and all of the common suspects are here.
Melee combat in Carmen is very simplistic and is based around the three hit combo system that every other “combat lite” game features. Aside from mashing on the “attack” button, one can throw in a “jump” here or there to dish out some extra damage but it really doesn’t add much in the way of fun or challenge. Frankly, considering how often I found myself fighting off multiple enemies, the lack of any spin attacks is dismaying. Cole also totes about a blowgun that can be used take out flying enemies so long as they agree to stay perfectly still or you are willing to waste ammo. I know my comments here are largely derogatory but in reality the combat is purely one of many mediocre pieces of a far more pleasant puzzle.
Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drum’s plot has some mystical underpinnings while remaining “family friendly” so the enemies that you will be fighting are generally bulbous caricatures of lumbering beasts and flying dragons. However, some boss fights can actually be very fun (although lacking in difficulty) and Carmen’s Androids are entertaining. The Androids are effectively invulnerable when attacked from the front so stealthy attacks from behind are the only way to take them out. While it may not sound like much, when you have multiple bots in one area, the player needs to time their attacks to avoid detection or be prepared to run, which brings us to the stealth elements of the game.
Like all sleuths these days, Cole has a sensor that warns him when robots are nearby and how likely they are to detect him. He is also able to slide along walls and lean around corners to see what lays beyond. Amazing or revolutionary? No, but it is one more aspect of Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums the helps the game to become something greater than its individual parts. The stealth action itself is almost exclusively used for taking out the aforementioned bots. To throw in a little extra risk, Cole will oftentimes find himself sneaking about pigeon filled rooftops and, should he disturb them, they will fly off, alerting nearby bots to your presence.
Lastly comes the platforming aspects of Carmen Sandiego. A double jump here, a pole-vault there, some tight wire footwork, and a lot of cliff hanging make up the bulk of Cole’s acrobatic feats. While the controls are a bit loose at and the camera, while generally user-controlled, can get in the way, Cole’s platforming is solid. Be it simply jumping from one rooftop to the next or painstakingly hopping from one small, waterlogged pole to the next, Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums generally has the core of most classic platformers.
In fact—and some may view this as being sacrilegious—I oftentimes felt as though I were playing a low-budget N64-era Rare game. Some light collection here and there to open puzzle s (memory games), unlock new, and to acquire weapon upgrades really give Carmen Sandiego a classic platformer feel. Add to that that the fact that, when taken as a whole, the game is good and innocent fun (a rare combination on the Xbox) then perhaps the connection is not wholly unwarranted.
And that’s what it all comes down to: Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums is fun. The game’s varied and sprawling levels provide plenty of opportunities for Cole to put all of his techniques to use and the result is a game that is both enjoyable and diverse.
Of course, it needs to be mentioned that Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums is very “Family Friendly”. If you’re allergic to such things then you may be made uncomfortable by the short bits where you are briefed on your current region. While only a sliver of the game, it certainly does hearken back to old Carmen titles as the information gleaned from these briefings are still hopelessly shallow and will throw you back into elementary school for a few minutes.
The game also has “Gosh darn!” attitude that may cause some older gamers to blush should friends or loved ones be about. Nevertheless, I’m hardly immune to these little bouts of insecure embarrassment and still enjoyed myself so unless you’re a teen who has dedicated your life to letting your parents know just how gloomy and angst-ridden you are, you should be fine.
Carmen Sandiego’s graphics are strictly pedestrian. From dated water effects, to middle-of-the-road special effects, to merely adequate enemy design, Carmen gets by but does little to impress. It does manage to swing to either side of “okay” every once in a while: some excellent animations during cut scenes and a few levels are certainly eye-catching while the appallingly animated talking heads that give you updates on your missions are almost embarrassing. When all is said and done, Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums gets the job done but nothing more and you’ll likely forget about the visuals within the first hour.
For a game whose entertainment quotient is high but whose production values are questionable, Carmen provides a surprisingly good audio experience. The music, while repetitious, is pleasant and fitting for each level. Your enemies’ various grunts and footsteps are distinct enough that you’ll know ahead of time what needs to be done (hugely useful for the game’s Stealth elements). Still, I’m relative to the rest of the game’s presentation; Carmen Sandiego is slightly above average in this department.
Should you take your time and try to collect all the weapon upgrades, you could get around 20 hours out of Carmen the first time around. However, I did not see much replay value. There is a second ending for you “completionists” out there, but, unless you are a huge fan of Carmen Sandiego, this game is simply a strong weeklong rental.
The only major exception would be for parents. Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums will likely pose a greater challenge for younger gamers. Furthermore, the monsters (who are teddy bears relative to what can be found in “Where the Wild Things Are”) should appeal to every kid’s thirst to be scared without actually exposing them to any content that parents would be uncomfortable with.
Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums will set no records nor will it spark a wave of gameplay revolutions. However, as a game that balances so many forms of gameplay successfully, Carmen certainly earns my respect. For younger gamers (especially those with only an Xbox) this is a must buy. For the rest of us, if you have some free time coming up and are looking for an enjoyable distraction that isn’t too intense, it would be hard to go wrong with Carmen Sandiego: The Secret of the Stolen Drums.