Reviewed: July 30, 2004
Released: June 14, 2004
Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy is one of those rare games that comes out of nowhere and blows you away with amazing visuals and stunning gameplay. Well, it actually didn’t come from nowhere. I saw it two years ago at E3, but at that early stage of development I simply dismissed the game as yet another 3D action game. That’ll teach me.
Psi-Ops takes the traditional third-person action genre and twists it into a dozen new directions by implanting both stealth tactics and mental attacks that rival anything your favorite magic user could pull off. It then spins these elements into a fantastic story and takes you on the roller coaster ride of a lifetime.
The game starts off with a stunning movie that sets up the premise and introduces a lot of the main characters. You play as Nick Scryer, an elite Psi Agent of Mindgate, a top-secret government agency that uses mental powers as formidable weapons. Nick’s mission is to infiltrate The Movement, a rogue army of brainwashed soldiers controlled by The General and a few evil henchmen, most of which are ex-Mindgate members who believe their powers should be used to rule rather than serve.
The Movement is quite capable of detecting enemy agents so Nick must undergo a memory wipe in order to infiltrate the enemy base. Now, we’ve all seen the “amnesia ploy” used in countless stories, but it has never worked as well as it does in Psi-Ops. As the game progresses the story is fleshed out with more than 50 minutes of flawless cinematics worthy of the silver screen, and gameplay to match.
When you finally assume control of Nick you have just been sprung from your prison cell and are given a gun with only a few bullets. You have the ability to walk, run, duck, and creep. You can also hug walls and peak around corners. It’s tough going at first but things will get much more exciting in a few minutes.
Psi-Ops is not a game about weapons. Sure, there are pistols, rifles, shotguns, and even rocket launchers, but these quickly become secondary tools, as you start to acquire and master your unique range of Psi powers. These powers, much like Yoda and the Force, are more powerful than any conventional weaponry.
Unfortunately, the memory wipe has also removed all knowledge of your Psi powers and how to use them. After you rendezvous with Sara (your inside contact who sprung you from jail) she will give you a shot that starts the slow process of restoring your memory, a process that literally continues throughout the entire game.
As you progress through the chapters you will start having flashbacks and each of your Psi powers will return to you one by one. When this happens you will be taken back to your Mindgate training for what is perhaps the most ingenious tutorial presentation in the history of gaming. It’s built right into the story and you don’t even feel like you are “training”, but rather playing an interactive movie.
Your Psi powers are few in number but devastating when you figure out how to use them, or even better, combine them for even more creative means of destruction. Some powers are used as weapons, while others are used for recon, restoration, or manipulating the environments.
Telekinesis (TK) is the first power you get. Moving objects (or people) with your mind is not only great fun; it will probably become your most-used power in the game thanks to a wonderful physics system, courtesy of the Havok engine. You can pick up just about anything in the game like crates, chairs, explosive canisters, or people. You can smash these objects into walls or each other. Think, “Force Push” but more sinister. You can now suspend people off the ground while your pump them full of lead, or toss them into a pit, smash them into the wall or toss them into a furnace or spinning fan blade.
Pyrokinesis (PK) is the ability to summon fire and shoot forth a wall of flame igniting anything in its path. Again, this includes crates, furniture, and of course, people who will burst into flames and run around screaming catching other things (and people) on fire. Torching a soldier then TK’ing him into a group of other soldiers is just one fun Psi-combo. Use your imagination for other creative ways to eliminate your opposition.
Mind Control (MC) allows you to possess the body of weaker enemies. You have full control over them, which allows you to flip switches, open doors, or even open fire on other soldiers. Of course once your possessed victim starts acting strangely his friends will often put him down and end your fun.
Remove Viewing (RV) allows you to leave your body and move throughout the level, even through closed doors, to do a little recon. Your body will be vulnerable during this time so you need to be hidden before doing this. This is a great way to check out enemy locations and plan a strategy.
Mind Drain (MD) allows you to suck the mental energy from enemies, which in turns fuels your Psi energy bar. Dead enemies offer a small amount of power while stunned enemies give you more, and if you can manage to drain a fully aware victim you will explode his skull and max your meter in a single drain. Yes, it’s just as sick and fun as it sounds.
Aura View (AV) is your final power and comes into play near the end of the game. This allows you to see creatures and other things that aren’t readily visible on your current plane of existence. You might be able to follow some glowing footprints, detect special colors, or read some useful graffiti on the walls, but most importantly, it lets you see a deadly type of creature than will suck your brain out if you get too close.
The designers have crafted some excellent levels that give you the ultimate freedom to play the game almost anyway you want. While it is quite possible to use conventional weapons for much of the game, you will likely find the thrill of Psi powers overwhelming. You might use that sniper rifle to shoot the guards from the tower or you could TK them and toss them to the ground.
Likewise, puzzles have multiple solutions and unique ways you can tackle them. One area had an electrified floor with four switches required to turn off the power and safely cross. You could TK a few sections of wood panels to make a safe bridge to each switch or you could just stand on a panel and TK it, creating your own hoverboard and glide across the entire floor.
And therein lies the power of Psi-Ops; its unprecedented freedom to explore unique solutions and ways to play the game. Plus the game is just wickedly fun and totally cool.
Psi-Ops uses a checkpoint save system that is quite friendly. You can even locate the checkpoints on the maps then save your progress from the Pause menu. Very seldom does more than 15 minutes of gameplay go by before the game checks itself, so dying and replaying is relatively painless. Just make sure you really save your game before turning off your Xbox, as checkpoints are more of a “soft” save.
There are some excellent boss fights, at least in theory. Most of these fights become quite simple when you figure out the patterns, but what boss fight doesn’t. It’s usually a matter of dodging their attacks while finding their weak spot and TK’ing stuff at them. Of course when you’ve got a guy throwing train cars at you and all you can throw back is crates…
For a game like this to work there has to be a functional control system and Psi-Ops excels with one of the best. The left trigger uses its wide range of travel to give you a variable degree of lift with your TK power. You can even double-click the trigger to boost items even higher into the air. The D-pad gives you access to your other powers and the white button activates PK for some fiery fun while the black does the brain drain. You can activate and use these powers while running around and using weapons so the creative possibilities are endless.
Enemy AI is fantastic with three types of soldiers fondly referred to as Meat Puppets. You have your weaker grunts (MP1) that will still do a respectable job of hunting you down but they are no match for your Psi powers. Then there are the MP2’s who are a bit sneakier. They will take cover or even worse, snipe you from impossible distances. The MP3 unit is the toughest enemy next to a boss battle. These guys are in body armor and impervious to TK and normal weapons. You either need to blow them up or set them on fire with PK, and then while they engage their fire suppression system you can finish them off.
Even the environment can become an ally. In one level you are headed down an airshaft with a huge fan sucking air at the end. You need to turn it off to get past but when you do a bunch of soldiers stream into the shaft. You could fight them, but simply pushing the button again sends them all into the “grinder” for some sickening results. You can also toss exploding barrels at the enemy or casually toss soldiers into radiation pools or off a cliff.
Regardless of your style of play, Psi-Ops is going to appeal to just about anyone who picks up the controller for more than ten minutes, and that my friends is the mark of a great game.
I get chills when I think about the graphics in Psi-Ops. Not only are they gorgeous on a technical level, but the entire presentation works as a whole. The environments are fantastic and they all function individually and as part of the entire story, even when you head off to the stone temple ruins. It might seem like a stretch for new content at first but the story quickly ties in the locale and it all makes sense.
Given the fast nature of the gameplay and the third-person view the camera has to be flawless and it is. This is partly due to some clever camera coding but also the command system that gives you intuitive control and relative movement based on the current view. The ability to hurl objects in any given direction at any given time, even when you are guessing the enemy location, is an amazing achievement.
The special effects are beyond words and screenshots hardly do them justice. Lighting and shadows are excellent, and fire is a living entity in this game; perhaps the best rendered fire in gaming history. Nick glows when he uses his powers and energy arcs from his hands as his expressive movements and animation give the illusion that he is summoning some supernatural power. Using RV, the screen takes on this fisheye look with streaks on the edges. AV shifts the pallet and causes special features to glow, as if under a black light.
Even so, the effects never look like “magic”, which is something the designers were careful about maintaining. Everything has a very organic and flowing feel to it. Combined with the rag doll physics as bodies flail and crumple to the floor after leaving a bloody smack on the wall, you have some of the most immersive physical combat you can engage in without ever touching your opponent.
The movies are unbelievable, especially the opening cutscene that looks like something we would see in a Square or Capcom title. If this movie doesn’t get you pumped up then you are already dead. The rest of the movies along with the “awakening” flashbacks and tutorials are all just as good.
Psi-Ops comes equipped with a suitable soundtrack that ranges from film-like score to military themes for the oppressive Movement organization, to hero themes for Nick and Sara as they race to the closing “To Be Continued”. The music appears when needed then fades away to atmospheric sounds for the gameplay.
Sound effects are dazzling and fit the supernatural visuals perfectly. Fire whooshes and crackles and men scream and yell. Mind Drain sounds like a generator on overload right until the sickening splat as pink brains erupt from a shattered skull. Metal barrels clank with a hollow thud, water splashes, and wooden crates splinter and break apart. Every sound is perfect in quality and placement.
The script is very good and does a great job of telling an intriguing story of betrayal, corruption, and all those other nifty elements that make for a compelling plot. The voice acting is surprisingly good considering there are no big names doing any of the characters. I can certainly think of several actors who would have shined in these parts, but kudos to the existing cast who turn out convincing and professional performances.
My only complaint with Psi-Ops was that it was over too soon, but perhaps that is more of a regret than a complaint. It’s certainly the mark of a great game, and the “To Be Continued” at the end promises future adventures of Nick and Sara. You can certainly expect 8-12 hours of quality gaming from Psi-Ops, perhaps more if you get caught up in the thrill of experimentation.
There are also some hidden “gnomes” scattered about the game that you can collect to unlock some secret bonus items. There is also a nice collection of videos including a lengthy “Making Of” movie as well as the Cold Play video, “With My Mind”.
You have several modes of play including a Training Mode, Arcade Mode, Boss Battle, Hover Challenge, and while there is no conventional multiplayer mode to allow two Psi-Agents to face off, there is a clever and surprisingly addictive cooperative mode that allows two gamers to control Nick. One person moves Nick and aims while the other player fires weapons and uses Psi powers.
As games find themselves straining to be more than clones of the games that have come before them, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy rises to the top of the Xbox library as one of my favorite and most original Xbox titles of all time. Ranking right up their with Chronicles of Riddick, this is one of those games that once you pick up you just can’t put down.
In a world where third-person action shooters are a dime a dozen, this is one game that breaks all the rules. The intuitive controls, addictive Psi-Powers, non-linear design, and immersive story will keep you glued to your Xbox until the very end and have you stalking your game store for the inevitable sequel. Don’t wait another moment. Get this game now and let the fun begin.