The Great Escape
I picked up the review copy of The Great Escape with caution; after the expected failures of movie/programme tie-ins of The Matrix and The Hulk (to name but a few) I had the distinct impression of bad things to come. Saying that, Starsky and Hutch had a good launch and was rated quite highly by yours truly, but still that feeling of disappointment grabbed my stomach. Prisoner Of War, released earlier in the year, was a good take by Codemasters on life in war camps. Whilst not the WW2 take on Metal Gear Solid like most had anticipated you were allowed to move around the camp, monitor guard positions and trails, find blind spots and plan routes for the objectives. These ‘missions’ were essential to get out of the camp but you had ample time to do it; wonder round talking to the other prisoners, examine other huts and stick to a rigid schedule which included lights out, dinner and breakfast roll calls. You were free to ponder your escape, think through tactics and soak up the atmosphere. Skip on over to The Great Escape, the next big ‘thing’ based on the POW engine, and all of this freedom is taken away. Forget exploring; you are pushed to escape as quickly as possible. With next-to-no storyline (the developers expect you to have seen the film) you bash through each objective one after the other. No roll calls, no tactics, no nothing. This just isn’t like Prisoner Of War, more like that weirdo at school who wants to be like you.
Before commencing into the world of Steve McQueen let me talk about the beauty of the menu screen. With the infamous tune blaring out you can’t help but smile, the feeling of Proud to be British flowing through your veins like a man possessed and a hatred for the French even more apparent. Suddenly all hell brakes loose in your mind; the feeling of being British goes into overload. Gritting your teeth at the thought of Argentinean-midget Maradona ‘heading’ the ball into the goal, watching The Dambusters with pride; rejecting foreign meat in favour of diseased British beef; the madness goes on. Waking up in a cold sweat the menu screen has vanished and the game gone into a loop with the developer and publisher logos shooting across screen.
Starting a new game kicks in the opening FMV. A poor German-speaking general is having a go at the British officer, just like the film. ‘It is a sworn duty of an officer to escape from the enemy’, or something like that. Whilst the flicks of film involving super Steve are a nice touch, the poor facial expressions of his and others game counter parts detract from the experience. Looking surprised all the time won’t win me over, Steve always had that cheeky grin and angry looking eyes. Not here, for sick puppy is the order of the day. After the average FMV we come to the first ‘level’, more a quick tutorial to get you used to the awkward controls. Short glimpses of the action shows allied bombers flying over Nazi Germany, and are currently failing. With planes going down the commander is screaming for his troops to keep the flying formation. Some very nice lighting effects from the AA-guns light up the sky and the explosions from bullets hitting aluminium look great as well as the planes themselves capturing some good comments. If you were to see this in the shop I couldn’t blame you for trying it out as the FMV really does earn its Cub Scout badges. Sadly this is the start of poor gameplay and awkward controls. Starting up in the cockpit of an un-known flying machine the pilot gets shot (cue over-the-top screams and pleas for all to tell his mother that he loved her, etc). As he goes to investigate the damage a fire breaks out, killing him rather quickly (cue more screams) and you need to grab a fire extinguisher and put it out. Whilst this may seem fun, all you are doing is turning round from the front of the plane, pressing the A button to ‘grab’ the fire hose and holding the trigger to put out the fire. Next incoming ‘Fokkers’ (you heard me right!) attack from the rear, knocking out the tail gunner (cue yet more screams and pleas) which forces you to take control and shoot down the blighters. Now this is where the controls become a serious issue- you have to aim with the right analogue stick instead of the instinctive and most commonly used left one. Also, the planes you are shooting down arrive like flying bricks on a rail, much unlike the one that took out your gunner. Rather than screaming down all guns blazing, banking to one side and flying off these ‘Fokkers’ glide out of no-where and slowly make their way across screen, leaving you to aim like a blind man with your handicapped controller. Space Invaders had better control and better AI than this, and that was at the beginning of Videogames history. The gun you shoot with could have been better too; sounding like an AK-47 you end up shooting out 3 rounds per half-hour if you’re lucky, further detracting from the experience. After shooting down five or more enemy aircraft (it won’t take long once you figure out the way they come on-screen) you have to abandon aircraft. Running a few inches and grabbing a parachute it’s time to jump into the night sky and hope you land safely. Another stunning cut-scene takes place in which ‘Jerry’s’ capture you on landing and shout ‘for you, zis var ist over’. Stop laughing, come on. We have a review to write you know.
This is where you get to grips with camp life, or not as it seems. It is here in the first prison that you learn you cannot explore freely like in the ‘sister’ title Prisoner of War. Forced into meeting the captain you must undertake objectives in order to escape. Finding the items you need (forged papers, shovel and wood) shouldn’t take long as the handy radar on the bottom left of the screen points them out for you, and experienced players will complete the level in less than ten minutes. Onto castle Colditz then.
What suprises me is the history surrounding Prisoner Of War camps is so exciting, exhilarating and down right cool. The guys at Colditz assembled together a glider from lolly sticks, bits of timber, bed sheets etc and kept it out of sight in an abandoned attic. In other parts of Germany tunnels were dug with such precision, and to think that they took over two years to achieve makes them remarkable. These feats were replicated in the film of The Great Escape too, with the famous ‘dirt from the trouser leg’ scene and the technology they used to pump air into the tunnels and wheel escapees along on wooden trolleys. Look into the game version and none exist, instead replaced by a linear set of objectives which go on the basis of get item, report to commander, get other item, report back, replace item, report back, problem happens, find remedy, report, escape. Stealth really doesn’t play a part either. The word so commonly used in the same sentence as Metal Gear Solid means evading the enemy unnoticed, which would have brought a lot of tactical thinking into TGE, but instead the stupid AI of guards and the repeated use of the stealth button calls for lame experiences. For example, if a guard needs to go through an open door then he needs to spend ages walking into the door before sliding past it and through the walkway. Only then does he turn around and come back through to shut the door, re-open it, walk through and then close it from the other side. Countless times I found myself confronted with a guard whilst snooping around, and found it effective to dive behind a crate whilst he thought the whole process through. ‘Must be the wind’ he murmurs. Since when does the wind make a silhouette of a human at night-time? Answers on a postcard please, to the usual ‘Games based on movies and/or programmes always suck’ address.
After getting away from the confines of the camps you find yourself out in the open. Skipping ahead a bit we come to the motorbike scene where you have to steal a Jerry’s transport. Picking the lock on the nearby and conveniently placed hut with your bare hands you manage to pick up- oh guess what- a conveniently placed roll of wire. Running out and attaching the wire to a post (it magically attaches itself to the other end) the Evil Kinevil-wannabe Jerry runs into it and knocks himself off. Running up and taking control it suddenly dawns on you that the controls get much worse than first thought. Once again the right analogue stick steers the un-responsive bike and the left accelerates and brakes. Using this combination is utterly mind boggling and takes ages to get used to, when all the developers needed to do was go with the flow. As a result riding the bike is much more hassle than it should be, and with the bizarre speed of acceleration and annoying sliding when you touch the brake and turn at the same time infuriates me. Oh! And get this! When the guards has you on their magically-better-specs-than-yours-bikes they kick you. Nice touch you might say, but when it takes just three kicks to kill your character the nice touch turns into a bastard of hell.
Visually the graphics are so-so. Whilst some individual techniques such as lighting effects and footprints look great the camps, barbed wire (surely the main aspect of the game?) and huts are dull looking, lacking in detail with the odd knot in the wood. Characters move in a funny way that reminds me of Nathan Lane’s ‘John Wayne’ walk in The Birdcage. Voices are nicely done though, if you are into the stereotyping frame of mind when it comes to Germans and the British. ‘Keep up chaps, that’s good work Biggles’ and ‘Vor you Tommy, zis var ist over’ are the most common things you will hear which adds a nice comedy tone. Unfortunately, whilst these little touches of brilliance shine when picked out they alone cannot save The Great Escape from the inevitable doom that is the £4.99 bargain bin in a Blockbusters somewhere in Doncaster. The problem lies in taking everything that made Prisoner Of War so much fun, throwing it into a skip and concentrating on making Steve McQueen, arguably one of the coolest film starts to have ver graced the screens, like a big girls blouse.
Vor you, SCI Games, zis var ist over.