Aren’t big guns and fist fighting enough for you people? Why does your insane lust for violence demand new ways to kill? Well, I hope you’re happy, because now you have the opportunity to pick people up with your mind and smash them off walls. Still not enough? Well, you can also make their heads explode. More (you blood hungry savages)? How about controlling people’s minds and making them jump from tall buildings? Satisfied? Well if you’re not now, you certainly will be once you start playing this game.
Psi-Ops isn’t the most intellectually stimulating game you’ll come across; the plot doesn’t pretend to be anything special, and in fact, will seem fairly familiar to most of you. A General working for a secretive government organization leaves to form an evil cabal of terrorists, hell bent on taking over the world. Only one man, Nick Scrier, can infiltrate these terrorists and bring the General down, once and for all. The key difference is that this evil organization recruited most of its main members from Mindgate, the government’s team of crack psychics. A group that also had a certain Mr. Scrier as one of its members…
As you can see, this isn’t a game you’ll be buying for the, admittedly perfectly suitable, storyline. It doesn’t do anything new, but it doesn’t need to. This game is fun, pure and simple. It certainly shares a lot of old school aesthetics that people who used to play platformer’s on the Mega Drive or SNES will be instantly familiar with. Level > Boss, rinse and repeat. There are obviously influences from some modern games too, such as Halo’s ‘two weapons’ rule. I’ve found that this is put in place merely because ‘everyone else is doing it’, but its used well here as more weapons would un-necessarily complicate matters. So, as with the story, nothing ground breaking, but just fine all the same. However, it’s what Psi-Ops does differently, all the new elements it brings to the table, which it should really be judged on.
The core of the game, the Psi-powers, are tremendously well implemented and very well realized. The sheer range of ways to proceed into a new area is fantastic. Do you use remote viewing to scout the room, then sneak up behind an unaware trooper, mind drain him to top up your psi-powers and then use Pyrokinesis to take out the rest of the bad guys? Do you go in a start throwing them about with Telekinesis, into the crate of explosive barrels in the background? Do you sneak through the door, hide behind a box and then mind control one of the troopers to do your dirty work for you? It’s entirely up to you. Critically, the level design also supports a great deal of this experimentation and the need to use all of your skills, both Psi and non-Psi, to solve many of the puzzles. The developers have been thoughtful enough to include different toys to play with in many of the rooms. Explosive vials, acid pits, and tall buildings- all of these can be used to your advantage, and is another strategy waiting to happen. It’s this experimentation that proves to be Psi-Ops trump card.
Of course, all of this wouldn’t be so good if everything didn’t move so nicely. You know, bad guys arms flailing as they are thrown across the room, barrels exploding and causing a chain reaction- all that good stuff. Here, Psi-Ops really delivers.
The humble physics engine has certainly become the ‘feature du jour’ for games these days. After watching the Half Life 2 videos last year who couldn’t wait to use its gravity gun to start chucking stuff at bad guys? Well sod all this ‘indefinitely delayed’ nonsense; you can throw people about right now. And it looks great, with each item bouncing or moving in a very realistic way (well, it’s how I’d imagine a barrel would bounce when it’s thrown against a heavily armed enemy) with sound effects to match. One problem I came across that does distance you a little from the experience is that the scenery is non-destructible, except for certain defined items. It can make some puzzles more difficult when you’re unsure if you can break that glass or smash that wall panel. It would be extremely satisfying to shoot a wall apart and throw the broken pieces at the enemy. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of things to throw about, but the level of experimentation the game offers just makes you greedy for more. Well, that’s what sequels are for, I guess…
Another issue, (and to some people a major one) that affects many of this generation’s games, is length. Psi-Ops is a short gaming experience. My completion time was just under 5 hours. Now, I’d say with the repetition of sections and the time I’ve spent in the training room, I’ve easily spent closer to 10 actual hours on the game. That’s not even to mention the many un-lockable mini games and treats that you collect throughout the game. However, it will still be considered a short game when you consider titles like KOTOR, which demand around 40 hours of your time, or even other action games, such as Ninja Gaiden, which takes closer to 20 hours. Though this is definitely a case of quality over quantity, so you never get the impression you are playing through a level that has been tacked on to lengthen the game. There is no artificial lengthening here, just well designed levels and bosses.
The game has more trump cards up its sleeve, however. The Training sections for example, are a joy. The actual Psi powers trickle out slowly, getting one or two a level. You see, our man Nick is afflicted with ‘handy plot device 18’ – amnesia, which prevents full access to all of his powers at the start of the game. This prompts a flashback to his training days in the titular Psi-Ops. It’s an excellent way to teach people the control systems and gets around the problem of having a training level at the start of the game. It also ties in neatly with the amnesia sub-plot.
A great game allows you to have fun, regardless of other elements: And Psi-ops excels at this. It blends all these concepts into such an effortlessly playable experience, that using your psychic powers becomes second nature. It’s a testament to this that after playing, I was trying to use my telekinesis as a strategy in the next 3rd person shooter I played. It just felt so right.
Graphically both versions of the game look great. However, the Xbox version does have a generally smoother frame rate which gives the game a nice visual boost. Controlling your powers is remarkably easy on both systems so your personal pad preference will be the determining factor.
If this were just a regular shoot-em up, it would struggle to be seen from within the pack. By throwing some new ideas into the mix, it represents one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences in recent memory. It does something different, and it does it well. Hell, this game makes me want to be a Jedi a whole lot more than Jedi Knight ever did. This game is recommended to anyone, and offers a refreshing tonic to the usual standard 3rd person shooter. The physics revolution starts here.