Experiment succesful, patient dead.
Entry 1713 posted in: 3. Gamebits
PC Jeux is a professional French gaming magazine that gives away a free game every month. Of course the previous sentence contains at least two mistakes. First: French and professional don't go well together, but that we will discuss further on. Second: there isn't such a thing as a free game. In Belgium the magazine costs about 8 and a half Euro and I have always thought I actually bought a game and received the magazine for free. Most of the time I take the DVD (it used to be a CD before) immediately out of its shrink-wrap and the magazine itself lands in a dustbin before I arrive home. There's another computer gaming journalist's dream I've shattered to pieces.
Not that I have bought plenty of PC Jeux magazines. I tried last in 2007 but the game refused to start-up because it was expecting a French PC, with a French keyboard and a French windows version. I don't recall the answer anymore the editors gave me when I complained, something along the lines that they were very sorry I was using a Belgian keyboard and an English windows version and that I could bugger off if I wanted a refund. Tough luck.
I had been playing Penumbra: Black
Plague recently combining a fairly decent story with some horror
elements and puzzle solving and wanted something more of the same at:
a) a decent price and
b) if possible from a small but innovative software company.
In a Brussels' railroad press shop I saw that PC Jeux 149 had eXpérience 112, the ultimate adventure game if I could believe the blurb, which of course I didn't. I still remember the catchphrase for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989): "Why are they putting seatbelts in theatres this summer?" Soon as I watched the movie, I knew why, simply to prevent people from sneaking out before the end credits.
But reviews for eXpérience 112 weren't that bad at all and as the game was generally praised for its uncommon steering system of the avatar (more about that later) I was willing to halt my 3 years old PC Jeux boycott.
I nearly immediately regretted my purchase.
The game starts on an abandoned freighter that contains a secret military base. This means a lot of corridors and small rooms to investigate. After the introduction and the exploration of the first rooms, basically a tutorial how to control the protagonist and the various devices in the game, the first real assignment starts. In order to enter a laboratory, containing one dead body, you have to find the access code. To get the access code you need to browse through the personal files of the deceased. So far so good. Typical adventure style stuff that you either love or hate. Here is how you have to proceed:
Open a computer session.
Type the dead scientist's name.
Give the password.
(That password is written on a piece of paper, stuck to the wall, also a
typical adventure game trick).
Open his personal folder.
Quite some information can be found on the ship's intranet, so most of
the time you are mimicking on your computer that you are using a
Read a file that seems to contain some valid information.
An error screen jumped on. These things also happen regularly in adventure games. But the error screen seemed a bit too genuine when I took a closer look at it. It read:
ERROR: UIDocumentTool::import: Can't open file 'interface/documents/interface\documents\part_codes_nichols.xml'!
(For computer geeks: there is a mixture of forward / and backward \ slashes in the code, and perhaps that is where the error comes from. All in all it is sloppy programming.)
It seemed I was not the only one with the problem and the PC Jeux forum received several complaints from other gamers. PC Jeux contacted Lexis Numérique and 39 days later - an eternity in computer land - a patch was offered that took care of most, but not ALL, of the problems (as the programmers are French professionals the patch made other information files illegible that were readable before, but passons).
I still had another huge problem, making it impossible to continue the game, and contacted creators Lexis Numérique en direct but they didn't even acknowledge my demand. I suppose they are of the opinion that a game sold is a game sold, not that it has to be actually played. Thank god for Internet fora and gamer didi75ma for offering me a solution as otherwise it would have meant another PC Jeux freebie in the dustbin. Now I could politely tell these goody-goody, lah-di-dah-di, hoity-toity, know-it-all, prim-and-proper, up-your-arse frog eaters from Lexis Numérique to fuck off and finally start playing. (The attitude of the consumer service of Lexis Numérique stands in shrill contrast with those from Frictional Games, who designed Penumbra. They answer so fast and thoroughly on every, even trivial, question that you feel rather ashamed for taking their time. The obvious result is that they have a loyal fan base.)
In eXpérience 112 (The Experiment in English) you are an operator of a closed circuit TV control room with access to all surveillance cameras on a top secret military ship. The freighter is abandoned, if you don't consider the dead bodies, with exception of a slightly undernourished Lea Nichols who happens to wake up just when you switch on the camera. The question what happened before is ignored and, just like trying to find out who triggered the big bang, it is better not to fry your brains on it.
Here is where the so-called innovative guidance system kicks in. In about 99% of contemporaneous 3D games the player immerses the protagonist and steers him or her through an artificial world. The avatar can be first person (Penumbra: Black Plague) or third person (Mental Repairs Inc) and some games will let you switch between both systems (UFO: Alien Invasion). Usually an avatar will do absolutely nothing when the player doesn't give orders, although a notable exception are The Sims who will carry on with their own business when they are not told to do a certain action. Most of the time you feel like a kindergarten cop correcting The Sims when they are up at their own.
eXpérience 112 is a mixture of all the above. The first person avatar is an anonymous surveillance camera operator who watches third person avatar Lea Nichols strolling through the ship while she is looking for clues. As she has no idea where to go looking for the operator has to guide her by activating lights, switching on electrical devices or opening doors from the control centre. Whenever a trigger has been activated, Lea will walk towards the X-marked spot and starts investigating the area. The operator has got no influence on Lea's direct actions and she decides for herself if she will be looking in cupboards, consulting notes or letters, operating computers and so on…
The result is awkward, alienating and voyeuristic at first but soon becomes strangely familiar, although not that familiar for Lea to change clothes in front of you. She will ask you to guide her to a secluded spot away from the cameras before she ever attempts that.
It's a pity though that Lea doesn't do a thing if you don't give her a clue. As with The Sims, I would have liked it if she would rummage on her own, occasionally even finding something, but she just stand there, like a puppet on a string, awaiting orders from the puppeteer. But perhaps that is what military life does to you.
As you may have figured out by now the operator spies on Lea using a closed TV circuit. The operator screen can multitask and open several windows at the same time. Here the programmers missed a few opportunities that would have turned the game into a top-notch experience.
The camera windows can not be seamlessly resized. You only have the choice between small, medium or large windows. A new camera window will either clutter on top or hide behind the other screens. As most of the time you are looking at three camera windows and a map, tile and cascade buttons would have come very handy indeed, but they are absent.
A radar monitors Lea's position on the boat but it fails to scroll automatically when Lea moves outside its borders. It would have been a handy gimmick. Often you are so busy adjusting the map that you don't have time to look at the cameras.
As in real life, the surveillance cameras can be set to follow Lea and to switch on when she enters their radius. Unfortunately this has been so appallingly designed that they do not recognise the walls (or other objects) in between. A long shot camera, at the end of a hall, will be constantly interrupted by others switching on - filming the wall inside the rooms - when Lea passes by. This is not just quite annoying, it is lazy programming. But as this is a military set-up perhaps the awkward functioning is just standard procedure.
Throughout the game you (or better said Lea) will find software upgrades. After a while the cameras will have night-vision, thermo-graphic function and an auto-focus, but some are obviously broken beyond repair and will only transmit garbled images. It adds to the weird voyeuristic realism as well.
By hacking into the accounts of the crew and reading their personal files and correspondence you find out that the members of this top secret military base were acting like Big Brother game show contestants. The avatar browses through pages of gossip, quarrels and amorous frivolity and finds out that even Lea Nichols had a fling with at least one crew member, suggested in the obligatory shower scene. Another flash-back has Lea sunbathing but those hoping for a Jacqueline Bisset's The Deep clothing show will be disappointed.
The crew had one thing in common, they all had the itch to steal passwords from others and pass these on to their friends. This makes it relatively easy for the player to read through everyone's personal files that contain everything from trivial (an invitations for the next card game evening) to top secret. Although these personal files are designed to contain video and audio messages this has only been scarcely used by the programmers, a fine example is a spy camera zooming in on yet another password. (Also in the Penumbra series the information was mostly passed through written files and not through moving images. Small companies don't have the time nor the resources to program these extra features.)
The puzzles are not extraordinary difficult for people who like to play these kinds of games, but they are not always realistic or logical in a real-life situation. I quite enjoyed the decryption puzzle following the Vigenère cipher method, but why would someone encrypt a password if he uses it on a daily basis? These are classic adventure game traps, just like in Black Plague where a scientist still managed to hide a tape after he was murdered.
But despite all the bugs, the inconsistencies and the flimsy story (an amnesic girl on a barren boat, a spy in the camp, a secret society, an extra-terrestrial threat) the game works. One of its cute unexpected details is that Lea will reprimand you and mentions the hours you left her alone after you load a saved game. Typical female: here is this chick who has been vegetating for 34 years in suspended animation on a ghost ship and the first things she does when she wakes up is complaining to her saviour that she doesn't get enough attention. (The fact that she has been sleeping, without ageing, for over 3 decades on an empty ship is one of the biggest inconsistencies in the story and will never be properly explained. Who took care of her (food, hygiene, muscle rehabilitation) during all these comatose years?)
After you have explored the ship, in search for some medicine Lea urgently needs, you honestly wonder what will happen next. It is then when the adventure goes underground, or better said, underwater. Lea changes into the kind of wetsuit that would make the extra-terrestrial lizards of V vibrate their tongues with lust, but to humans it looks rather tacky and nothing like Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss (to name just another underwater classic).
After a thrilling submarine sequence Lea discovers a second secret base, the size of London Heathrow Airport, located at the bottom of the sea but there the game drags as if the programmers were out of breath, inspiration, resources or all of the above. The map didn't help either and I was hopelessly lost for a while. But the base is just a temporary transit zone as it opens a gate to the final part of the adventure.
The idea of opening a door to an extra-terrestrial world by means of a holographic key, projected by 5 strong laser beams that all need to be exactly positioned, is sublime. Now if only I could make it work as this is where the game halted a second time on me and this time for good. Exit Lea Nichols. I will never know her secrets.
The above review is based on the PC Jeux (French) version of eXpérience 112. Apparently gamers who have bought the normal retail version do not have all of the above problems, especially after applying the (French) patch that can still be found on the official website. As eXpérience 112 sells at 6.14 Euro on Amazon France one can ask why the (more expensive) magazine version was altered unless it was to keep in line with the tradition to make PC Jeux free games unplayable. I have bought about 10 PC Jeux magazines (and their games) in my life and 7 of these gave up at one point or another.
I suppose I will not buy PC Jeux magazines anymore for the rest of my life.
Some reviews I consulted:
Puzzle vs. Experience.
The Experiment overcomes its clichéd beginnings with original gameplay.