Contrary to what we'd like to believe, video games have become an integral part of popular culture. This means that it's not immune to the pitfalls and perils that come with pop culture as well, including the idea of trends. A few years back all of the developers were falling in love with lens flares, then it was water effects and cel-shaded graphics. If 2004 will be remembered for something it will be the introduction of realistic physics mechanics as an integral part of gaming, and helping to usher in that trend is Midway's Psi-Ops, a highly entertaining action game that features a great gimmick, but manages to succeed on the basis of its own merits.
Mindgate is the government’s name for the agency that utilizes psychic abilities. You’ll play as Nick Scryer, a loyal solider whose memory has been wiped out from the start. As you progress you’ll learn more about yourself and the agency through in-game cinematics and dialogues between the characters. With the reintroduction of the Metal Gear Solid
franchise there has been a renewed interest in plotlines for action games. Midway took that into account and developed a gripping story that’s full of twists and turns. It’s not Hollywood material but it’s compelling enough to keep you glued in the seats from start to finish. Even still, the game can’t manage to avoid many of the clichés of the action genre. You’re cast as the badass with a heart of gold who was betrayed by his friends and left for dead. There’s the requisite huge black guy, the skinny guy with the glasses and even the rogue general who is bent on world domination. Midway even went to the action cliché well and made sure to include ties to Nazi Germany and China as the source of the game’s threats. Aside from one particularly nauseating sequence (which seems to be lifted from the dream sequences in Max Payne 2
) the game moves along quite nicely through the use of intriguing dialogue and decent pacing.
Psi Ops looks and feels like a traditional third-person action/adventure title but it has one distinguishing element that separates it from the rest. The introduction of psychic abilities takes everything we’ve known about the genre and turns it upside down on its head, with some excellent results as well. Throughout the game you’ll encounter a pretty robust arsenal of firearms but the main attraction here are the powers. Right from the start you’re given the game’s most unique and amusing ability, telekinesis. Made possible thanks to the inclusion of Havok’s physics system, you can pick up almost everything that isn’t anchored down and hurl it wherever you’d like. You can hurl crates, tables, stone lions, explosive canisters and other objects at your foes. Hell, you can even pick up your enemies and toss them against walls, complete with impressive rag doll physics. Aside from the offensive element this power plays a crucial role in the puzzle solving process as well. From time-to-time you’ll be called upon to reach high ledges that are beyond your character’s leaping ability. To reach the ledge you’ll have to construct a makeshift staircase out of whatever crates or objects that are sitting around. This might all sound tedious but the manner in which this power is integrated makes it the most fun and unique gameplay element we’ve seen thus far from the year 2004.
To fully flesh out the powers is the ability to leave your body and see through walls, the ability to take control of an enemy and the ability to light things on fire. All of this is governed by a blue bar which sits below the health meter. Whenever a function is initiated the bar slowly drains until it empties. There are a couple of ways to regain psi energy in this game. You can use psi canisters which help replenish the meter or drain it from your foes. Energy can be drained from enemies as long as their minds are still intact. If you by chance blow off an enemy’s head with a shotgun or a sniper rifle you’re out of luck. To reward you for your stealth and complacency, sneaking up on an enemy and draining him from behind will yield you much more power than draining a fallen foe. As a neat reward, when you sneak up to drain an enemy, he’ll be lifted up into the air where you’ll drain him until his head explodes.
Another neat element is the manner in which the game decides to unlock new abilities for you to use. As he enters specific areas, Scryer will spasm as he reawakens one of his psychic abilities. This happens in the form of a flashback where you control Scryer in a tutorial-style training session. Not only is this a practical way to unlock new abilities, but it’s an extremely clever way of introducing new elements and integrating them into the game.
Your foes are pushovers in the beginning, but as you progress you’ll encounter stronger and smarter enemies. In the early going you can generally dispatch an enemy by tossing an object at him and continuing along your way. When you get further you’ll encounter more adept foes that will roll out of the way and avoid your attacks. In addition to being smarter, they generally have more health and stronger weapons. There’s even a foe later on that can’t be picked up via telekinesis and must be dispatched via other means. At the end of each stage is a boss battle in which you’ll take on one of the game’s primary enemies. There are some intense ones that require you to use your wits while some just seem to be crapshoots where you run and shoot everything that moves. I was particularly turned off by a battle with an Asian woman who transforms into a giant three headed creature. To contrast that is an excellent boss battle in a train yard where the boss hurls giant railway cars and other large objects at you.
Midway did a great job of utilizing the PS2’s hardware capabilities. There are plenty of nice implementations of the soft blur effect seen in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
and some particularly impressive lighting and particle effects. When you’re not impressed with the special effects your eyes will be pleased with the architecture and the attention to detail that the game houses within. While the game won’t blow you away with its effects, there are plenty of nice details to be found. Character models are beefy enough for this type of game and the animation in them is superb. Again, thanks to the Havok physics system the characters run, move, crouch and fall realistically. We’re also amazed at just how satisfying each and every kill is. Enemies don’t just fall down after getting shot in the head by a sniper rifle. Their head blows up into tiny Mortal Kombat-esque
chunks as the body goes hurling backwards. Appropriately, close-range kills are just as satisfying as enemies will be sent flying quite realistically.
Anchored by the Cold
track “With My Mind” things hold up quite well on the audio side of the game. Players with surround sound setups won’t get Dolby Pro Logic II encoding, but the sound separation is definitely intact. Most of the audio effects are convincingly realistic although some of the sounds, such as when you execute a melee attack on a wall, leave more to be desired. For this kind of game the dialogue is superbly done and features quality voice acting from a cast of unknowns. There are plenty of nice touches to be found here too. There’s plenty of variety to be found in the enemy’s chatter and perhaps most entertaining is the fact that enemies will laugh at you after they kill you. It’s nice little touches like that which really let the gamer know that the developers had a true love affair with their project.
If Psi-Ops has a weakness it resides in its iffy camera system. It has a tendency to be too close to your character, making the viewpoint far too tight. When the game moves into close quarters it has some trouble when it comes to showing the action. It has a tendency to zoom in too tightly into walls, leaving the gamer disoriented. This becomes especially problematic when you’re being shot at and you turn hopeless only to find that the enemy is standing right next to you. To put it succinctly, it conceals too much of your view and allows enemies to sneak up on you far too easily.
There also seem to be some control issues in place here. I play plenty of shooters, both in the console and PC realm, but still had difficulties when it came to the aiming mechanism. Midway tries to balance this by including a target lock-on system, but unfortunately that function is mapped out to the triangle button. In order to do this properly you’ll have to awkwardly place a finger on the triangle button while maneuvering the character and firing with the R1 button. It’s not impossible to use but it’s definitely strange. Perhaps a toggle lock-on system would have been better here.
Aside from these small gripes there’s not much to dislike about Midway’s latest foray into the action market. It takes plenty of risks and delivers in a way we’ve never before seen in this type of gaming. Realistic physics will usher in the next generation of gaming and if Psi Ops
is any indication of what’s in store for us, we're in for one hell of a time.
When I saw it at E3 I thought it was something special, but now that I've had it in my home I know it's something special. Midway delivers action gaming in a way never before seen. A truely unique title that redefines the genre.