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Trauma Center: Under the Knife

I have always had an interest in medical dramas; Casualty, Holby City, ER, and lately House (I’d include Scrubs, but it’d be a funny sort of drama). And now with the NDS and its touchscreen, I could actually play my part in one. The idea of Trauma Center: Under the Knife (TC:UTK) is obscure yet blindingly brilliant and obvious – everyone remembers and loves the ol’ Operation board-game, so getting an updated and more interactive version is nothing to be sniffed at.

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The story takes you from the beginnings of being released as a doctor (having just finished medical school), learning the ropes and the people you’ll be working with, through to operating on various A&E cases of which become more and more obscure as you progress. Soon, you’ll encounter an extreme case of a patient having cuts within their heart even through there was no obvious external markings to indicate entry from outside the body. And then it hits you, the story of the game – you, as Dr Derek Stiles, were never going to have the ‘simple’ life that normal doctors endure day-in-day-out. Nope. You’ll be the first to encounter and treat a case of ‘medical terrorism’ – yep, that’s right, no longer are terrorists content with bombs, bullets and chemical warfare, but they’ve now developed seven strains of a particularly nasty virus which kills in days.

And it’s extraordinary how the story is so well portrayed and put to the player, not giving them much on what is going to happen next, and also supplying the necessary sideline stories of the other characters. There’s a good amount of humour in there too, and a lot of points-of-view on the life/death, including euthanasia, why people kill, is healing everyone a good thing, etc etc. They present arguments from both sides although there obviously is no correct answer to such questions, and it’s all there to make you think about such issues. It’s quite adult, actually, and it’s good – I like it very much.

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As for the gameplay, it is one of the best at utilising the touch screen. I was instantly impressed with the fluidity of the game, the response and the accuracy – the latter two of which are incredibly important because you’re racing against the clock in all but a few of the (many) missions/operations. Before each operation, you’re told of the situation (how the patient came about), what’s wrong with them (if they know), and how to fix them up (again, if they know – but with a new virus around, it’s worrying that they sometimes guess the solutions whilst you’re operating!). Each operation has a modest time limit and a number of ‘Miss’ opportunities. You’ll be provided with a number of classic operation tools (scalpal, suturing, disinfectant, your hand for massaging, syringe, fluid removal syringe, tweezers, laser, and bandaging) but you’ll have to tap and select the right one to use when you need it. You’ll also have to worry about the patient’s stats as for every action you make to reach the start of actually fixing them up, is likely to decrease their heartbeat rate – only when you start to close up wounds, etc. do you stem the decreasing rate and begin the climb back to safety. You can inject some stuff into the patient to increase the heartbeat rate, but this takes a couple of precious seconds – you have to decide whether it’s worth the injection or if you’re better off fixing up the wound first. You’ll be given basic training in the first couple of operations to get you used to the controls and then it’s up to you to work out the rest.

It’s unlikely you’ll ever have to worry about the timer or the ‘Miss’ opportunities as the developers have been pretty generous on both counts. (The ‘miss’ opportunities relate to the number of inaccurate action executions you make, like not slicing in a straight line.) This is especially so when you fail on some of the harder missions but then figure how to complete the operation (at least, that’s what happens when you’re as crap as me). And then the game is made slightly easier for those who find themselves in tricky situations – it turns out that you, that is Derek, has a special gift. Oh yes, this wouldn’t be a game if the protagonist didn’t have some sort of hidden secret. Dererk has – on the edge of your seat? – the Healing Touch! Not quite like Jesus (or whatever), but you can in fact slow down time and operate at normal speed – essentially, Derek becomes more focused and your hands move faster and more accurately – kind of like Max Payne except dealing out life instead of pain. And because you have this Healing Touch, it’s up to you to sort out the world and terrorism, and save the world. Another day in surgery, then.

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I never worked out how to use the Healing Touch until about half-way through the game, and then still ignored it until I had to use it – that is, it’s the only way to complete an operation. I’m hardcore me, and that’s why I failed so many operations so many times. It really does test you mettle and hand-eye coordination (and your ‘patients’ – ahahahah, sorry, I mean you knew that was coming anyway…). It was also nice to see diverting ‘operations’, where you’ve solving puzzles instead of fixing people – it shows that they have thought about it a little bit more than just coming up with a load of obscure ops for you to complete.

Visually, it’s good – the 3D models of bodily innards is nicely done but nothing too spectacular, but the graphics of the characters and their backgrounds are better. Sound is okay, and there is a few snippets of voice which makes it a little bit more interesting (although they don’t cover anything that comes up on the text).

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What makes this game stand out above the others is that it is a perfect example of how to implement the stylus and touchscreen in to a game. Although it’s the only way to play the game, it makes proper use of it and, coupled with your dexterity, it makes for a pretty frantic and exciting game. You’ve got to make snap decisions whether to inject life back into the patient, or laser the bugs, or suture a wound. There’s just so much information to think about, and also the experience to refer back to from the previous operations, that if you manage to get through a rather hectic screw-up you made, you’ll probably think you have the Healing Touch as well.

It’s certainly a strange concept for a game, but then I’ve come to expect such things on Nintendo consoles because they bring innovation and exception – for some reason, they can pull it off well. After you’re done with the main game (or even if you haven’t), you can go back to each operation individually and try and better your score – it adds a little bit of replayability but nothing much to have you play it for a long time. It’s well worth a look just to see how such a game could actually work, so I suggest a cheap purchase or a rent, but you should definitely have a go.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2007.

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