Reviewed: September 15, 2002
Released: August 21, 2002
It always amazes me how a final release of a particular game can take me totally by surprise. I had been following the progress of Prisoner of War since I saw it at E3 this year. Between what I saw there and a few articles that I had read in other magazines I will be the first to admit I was expecting a third-person action game; something along the lines of a Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Thief hybrid. It only took about 30-minutes of gameplay to realize that POW was something entirely different.
Prisoner of War follows the exploits of bomber pilot, Captain Stone and his co-pilot James Daly who are shot down on a top-secret reconnaissance mission over Germany. After taking some AA fire and safely parachuting from the doomed planed, Stone is captured and becomes the newest addition to the local POW holding camp. From here, the story progresses through five exciting chapters that follow Stone all across Germany. There is plenty of action, intrigue, and even secret plans for a new German weapon of mass destruction.
Even though this game is classified as an action/adventure mix, there is probably more of a “puzzle” theme to it than anything else. Prisoner of War puts you in certain situations (or puzzles), then allows you to uncover the rules of those puzzles by interacting with other characters in the game. Once you know what to do you must perform various tasks – generally item quests that require some substantial strategy and stealth in order to break out of prison.
Prisoner of War introduces you to this new style of gameplay with an introductory level that takes place at a holding camp. Here, security is a bit lax and objectives are more easily met. While this is a great way to get introduced to the gameplay mechanics, it could make for a severe “wake-up call” when you reach Stalag Luft, the first real POW level. The complexity and difficulty really ramp up when you leave the first camp.
In order to effectively communicate how POW really plays, let me recount my exploits in the holding camp. The first thing you need to know is POW follows a semi-real-time clock. This is displayed in the upper-left corner of the screen and indicates where you are supposed to be and for how long. It also indicates where you are supposed to be next and at what time. I’m not exactly sure of the acceleration factor of this clock but from “lights out” to “morning roll call” spans about 15-minutes of real-time. You do the math.
But back to my story. After being dropped off at the holding camp I am briefed on the rules by the commandant and basically turned loose in what is otherwise a summer camp with armed guards. I never really felt oppressed, rude guards and barbed wire not withstanding. I was waiting for the camp counselor…err…guard to announce “arts and crafts” or a “nature hike”. Instead, I get meal time and exercise.
To keep things simple for our fledgling prisoner there are only two other prisoners in camp. Talking to them reveals much-needed information on parts of the camp, possible escape routes, and also initiates your first quest – to retrieve 50 units of currency. Currency is any rare item that sparkles on the screen and you can lay your hands on. It can be used to purchase useful items such as face paint (boot polish), and a telescope (tube with eyeglass lenses). You can also buy game hints if you get totally stuck.
The first thing you need to learn about prison life is when you can break away from the daily scheduled routine for some covert ops. The only two events you absolutely must attend are morning and evening roll call. Failure to be “counted” results in a camp wide search and a night in the cooler when you are eventually caught. Meals, exercise, and free time are the best times to move around with relative safely. Still, you must be cautious not to get caught in areas that aren’t designated for the current activity. If it’s exercise time and you are spotted in the bunkhouse area you will be detained.
Skipping breakfast, I hop the wall behind the mess hall and slip into the infirmary to swipe everything that isn’t nailed down. It conveniently adds up to 50 so I return to my camp scavenger who gives me my first item (boot polish) and more information. Of course doing all this requires careful timing and avoidance of guards who walk predetermined routes and tower guards who graciously turn their back to you for a few seconds. You are also on the clock, as you don’t want to get caught in a particular area when it suddenly becomes “off limits” for the current scheduled event.
Your co-pilot is finally captured and brought to the same camp as you. This leads to all new topics of conversation and a finalized escape plan that takes several steps to complete. These include stealing a key from the guard’s barracks to unlock the tool shed to get the crowbar to pop the lock on the driver’s shack so you can stowaway on the truck departing in the morning.
The previous run-on sentence is actually three smaller quests that you can do all at once or spread out as you see fit. One of the nicer aspects of POW is the ability to do almost any mission during the day or night. Each presents its own unique set of challenges and in some small way offers some minor replay value to the entire game. Night missions offer you greater stealth capabilities but require you to carefully maneuver around bright searchlights, while daytime missions require careful timing around the patrolling guards and your ability to duck out of sight at a moments notice.
Stealing the key from the guards can be done with pure stealth or you can have your co-pilot create a diversion so you can more easily slip over the fence and into their barracks. If you choose to perform this task at night you have less guards to avoid, but you add the threat of searchlights and there are sleeping guards inside the barracks requiring silence and stealth on your part.
With the key in hand I must now slip past half-a-dozen guards, four probing searchlights, and tiptoe past a sleeping guard to get the crowbar from the tool shed. Now it’s on to the driver’s shack which requires me to scale two fences rather quickly to avoid two guards, crawl under the guard’s barracks (where you can hear them snoring above you), scale another fence, wait for the patrolling guard to get far enough away then pop the padlock with my crowbar.
My final “run” to the truck includes tiptoeing past two sleeping drivers, exiting through the back door, and crawling under four jeeps to avoid the “parking lot attendant”. A dash to the truck ends the mission. My time in the camp – 190 hours with no captures and never getting shot earning me an A rank. I would brag, but that was my third time playing chapter one after screwing it up so badly I had to restart the game.
The interface of POW is fairly simple. You move with the left stick and look with the right. The A and X buttons do various actions that are indicated with clever icons in the top-right corner. Approach a door and the X button lets you peer through the keyhole while the stick lets you tilt your perspective. Approach a mirror and the X button lets you apply your face paint provided you have boot polish in your inventory.
Inventory consists of up to five items you can conceal and one large item that you can’t. This makes for some challenging gameplay when you have to sneak across camp with a crowbar (that you cannot hide). One time I inadvertently dropped my telescope on the ground and a nosy guard came to investigate – BOOM – one night in the cooler.
Whenever you get busted all of your items are confiscated. Mission one eases the hurt by allowing you to get them all back by simply talking to the scavenger who gets them back for you quickly and at no charge. Don’t expect things to be this easy later in the game.
One of POW’s biggest achievements is the sheer number and uniqueness of the cast of characters you will encounter. Everyone has their own personality, accent, and even uniform. This has to be the best prison ensemble since Hogan’s Heroes. As you meet each person you have to earn their trust and learn who can help you and who is just wasting your time. Key people to locate and meet are the camp scavenger and the escape committed. Every camp has them. While there is no true time limit in POW, you are graded on how fast you escape and how few times you are shot or captured. Earning high ranks earns you bonuses and secrets for future games.
The final thing to discuss is the AI, both in the prisoners and the guards. The prisoners all seem to have established relationships and congregate in their own little groups in the proper place at the proper time. When someone gets sleepy you will see them enter their shack and take a nap. Everybody moves around with a purpose and it really gives this game a life of its own.
The guards appear to have been lifted right from Metal Gear Solid. Featuring the classic “vision cone” that appears on your radar, you can always tell where guards are and where they are looking. The cone is color coded so you can tell if they are alerted or hunting you down with extreme prejudice. It’s always up to you whether to run or surrender. Getting shot means a lengthy stay in the infirmary, while giving up is just an overnight stay in solitary. If you are quick enough, and the guards didn’t get a look at your face it is possible to avoid capture and wait for the guards to give up.
On the whole, guard AI is quite good. Sure, it’s easy for them to spot a prisoner in the wrong area of the camp, but these guys can actually detect and follow footprints in the snow, or investigate strange noises – something that can be used in your favor once you learn how to distract guards.
I have to say I am quite disappointed with the graphics in Prisoner of War. Movies and gameplay resemble an animated comic book with flat, washed-out graphics, low detailed textures, and stiff animation. To make things worse, the camera tends to zoom in for extreme close-ups on characters during conversations. This would be fine if the characters looked good and there had been some attempt at lip-synching. As it is, you merely get a close-up of a goofy low-detailed face with a hinged mouth that moves like a ventriloquist’s dummy. This is not Xbox-quality stuff.
There are some nice things about the graphics such as excellent lighting effects during the night missions. Searchlights and the flashlight beams from the guards are realistically rendered and create a sense of tension I haven’t experience in a long time. There is a great rain effect that not only streaks through the sky obscuring your vision, but also splashes on the virtual camera leaving water drops.
The camera perspective for most of the game is pretty good but there are times (usually life threatening circumstances) where the camera will just screw you causing you to curse and throw your controller. These often include transitions from crawling to crouching to standing where the camera enjoys reversing angle and thus the direction of your movement.
The architecture and level design consistently improves throughout the game giving you larger and more challenging environments to conquer. It’s just a shame that the quality and detail isn’t consistent with the capabilities of the hardware and the obvious vision the developers had when creating this game. I’ll be curious to see if the soon-to-be-released PC version steps up the graphics quality.
Codemasters claim a “revolutionary audio system” and I must agree. The music and sound in POW is one of the best features of this title. The cinematic score takes its cues from the onscreen action. It gets tense when you are sneaking around and it gets exciting when you are caught or being chased. It really compliments the game and immerses you in the story.
Sound effects and speech are superb. As previously mentioned, everyone has their own unique personality and accent to reflect their homeland. The conversation topics are plentiful and include topics outside the normal confines of the puzzle/mission at hand. This allows you to get involved with the other prisoners on a social level if you so desire.
One of the nicest features is that when you ask a question for the second or third time it is reworded just like you would do in real life. For instance, I tried to buy the telescope and didn’t have the money. It would have been easy to leave that option out of the dialog menu, but I was allowed to ask it and the scavenger replied with something like “You don’t appear to have 20 currency”. When I did finally get the currency instead of simply asking the exact same question over it reworded it to something like, “I’ve got that 20 if you still have the telescope”. Sure, it’s a minor detail, but I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice or appreciate the effort.
Sound plays an important part of any stealth game and the sound effects in POW are all excellent. There is nothing more spine-tingling than creeping around at night only a few feet from a guard then accidentally bumping into a barrel or kicking over a can alerting the guard. There is even a subdued heartbeat sound that grows louder as you do something you aren't supposed to be doing. And there are the everyday sounds such as the session alerts that sound like clanking cans, the creaking of doors and floorboards, the snoring of guards, or the murmuring of prisoners engaged in their own day-to-day activities and conversations.
The designers have used sound to bring the world of POW alive in a most realistic fashion. There is excellent use of surround sound (not true Dolby 5.1 unfortunately) to render these sounds in a true 3D environment. When you hear a German voice getting louder on your left speaker you know a guard is approaching from that direction.
Prisoner of War has only five chapters; four really since the first one is more of a lengthy tutorial. Gameplay is admittedly linear by design. You have a certain sequence of goals that must be performed in a certain order; although you are presented with a few variations on how you can complete each objective. The night vs. day concept is a great twist and offers suitable challenges for those who enjoy stealth or those who prefer timing and avoidance puzzles.
I never really got stuck in POW. Everything you need to know can be found by talking to everyone about everything or if you get totally stuck you can always buy a hint. It took me about 23 hours to finish POW and that was with me doing most of the tasks at night – also known as the “easy mode”. Many missions take considerably longer and are more complex when done in broad daylight.
The bonus secrets you can earn for excellent gameplay are only moderately tempting and probably not reason enough to replay the game unless you are a perfectionist who must get the highest rank for each chapter. At best, you might want to replay the game a second time to tackle the missions at a different time of day just for the experience.
And while I never would ridicule the inclusion of a “save anytime” feature, the fact that POW allows you to save your game anywhere takes any and all challenge and threat out of this game. Unless you have tremendous willpower and refuse to use your bunk to save your game, there is no excuse for not getting an A ranking on every chapter. Even the menu allows you to “quick load” your last save when you get shot or tossed in the cooler.
Once I got over the initial shock that Prisoner of War wasn’t an action game, I settled into my puzzle-solving mindset and really started to appreciate what the developers were trying to do with this title. But the further I got into POW the more I realized the game wasn’t really doing much more or expanding upon the opening levels. Once you get into the pattern of making friends, finding objects, dodging guards, it all becomes pretty routine and mechanical.
The story is excellent and the diverse cast is fleshed out with charming and often humorous personalities. POW favors thinking over reflexes, and if you enjoy a slower, more strategic experience then this is a decent alternative to most of the other games in the third-person genre.