Call us cynics, but we can't help but feel that developers too often take the paint by numbers approach to videogame design. As a result, genres sometimes become saturated with formulaic clones of the same basic idea. Ask yourself, how many games have aspired to be the next Grand Theft Auto? Probably more than you can count on two hands. Unfortunately, one of today's most overpopulated genres is the first-person shooter, and again many of these games are so similar in theme and design that it can be difficult to tell them apart. Which is why some software houses have done whatever they can to ensure that their so-called "FPS" stands out from the pack.
Sometimes, we end up with a far better game and a more robust genre for their efforts. Few would argue with the stance that Valve's Half-Life series paved the way for smarter, more immersive FPSs than ever before, for example. Occasionally, first-person perspective games stray so dramatically from the shooter template that they can't accurately be contained under the conventional definition of an FPS. Retro Studios' fantastic Metroid Prime series, with its emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving, is one.
Geist, from developer n-Space and Nintendo, is another. Which is not to suggest that you abandon any notion that the game functions like a shooter, because that isn't true. Like Prime, there are shooter elements in this original take on the genre. You will pick up a gun and blast enemies away and you will do it on a regular basis. But Geist is much more focused on the act of possession -- of figuring out who or what to inhabit and then taking hold of the person, animal or object in order to continue progressing through the adventure. It's during these moments, which are commonplace, that the game proves to be surprisingly inventive and enjoyable. Unfortunately, a game engine incapable of matching n-Space's ambitions occasionally hampers the experience.
- Play as a ghost and haunt the hallways of a mysterious corporation
- Possess inanimate objects, humans and animals and use the abilities of each to advance
- Complete a variety of environmental puzzles that revolve around possessions
- Unravel the dodgy secrets of the Volks Corporation and stop a deadly threat
- Real-time cut-scenes move the storyline forward
- Rated M for violence, blood and gore, and partial nudity
- Four-player split-screen modes available; equip up to four additional AI-controlled bots
- Play deathmatches by yourself against up to eight AI-controller bots
- Play through the single-player mode to unlock multiplayer maps, characters and items
- Progressive-scan compatible
- 16x9 widescreen enhanced
- Requires four memory blocks for saves
In Geist, the first major development is a death -- and it's yours. You are John Raimi, a biological and chemical threats specialist contracted by the Center for Disease and Control to investigate the Volks Corporation, located in Southern France. You're part of CR-2, a counter-terrorism unit trained for combat situations, but you leave most of the gunplay to your comrades; you've come to get to the bottom of the suspicious company's dodgy exploits.
Geist makes a mediocre first impression, due in large to underdeveloped shooter mechanics, which are sometimes worsened by a sporadic framerate in high-action battles. As the CR-2 squad progresses through the beginnings of the Volks Corporation, you are thrust immediately into a basic first-person shooter, gun drawn, and challenged to blast through as many Volks goons as you can as you make your way to the exit. Control initially feels sluggish when compared to other typical FPS games, especially titles like TimeSplitters Future Perfect, whose precision aim and movement rivals that of PC shooters. But it's still very functional, and thankfully, not wholly representative of events to come.
Adequate real-time cut-scenes show your drop from helicopter into the facility, and also spotlight integral developments during your mission. For instance, in one particularly moody sequence, your team is ambushed by an unidentifiable monster, which springs from the ceiling, clamps its fang-filled mouth on the head of a teammate, and decapitates him. Later cut-scenes feature similarly well-crafted sequences that serve to move the intriguing storyline along.
Raimi downloads onto his PDA proof that the Volks Corporation has been dabbling in questionable cellular mutation, and then the team hightails it out of there. Except, something goes terribly wrong before they can escape. An unseen force takes possession of a squad member and forces him to shoot everyone in his vicinity, Raimi included. Soon afterward, you're treated to a cinematic that shows the character's soul being ripped from his body. Death is Just the Beginning
Geist really comes into its own after Raimi dies because you are allowed to be a ghost, which opens up a wealth of fun new possibilities. Nintendo's master designer Shigeru Miyamoto worked closely with n-Space on the title and, according to the studio, he really wanted to emphasize the main character's ability to possess inanimate objects, animals and people. That focus springs to life from the moment you learn to drift through the hallways and suck the life force of plants for energy.
Raimi's ghost form can only survive outside of a host for a limited time and so he must constantly be on the lookout for someone or something new to possess. He can inhabit inanimate objects any time he likes. But when it comes to living beings, there's a catch: they have to be scared before he can jump into them. That truth presents you with two major goals: first, devise a way to frighten animals and people and second, use their bodies to accomplish other tasks and advance. The concept is refreshingly inventive and Geist is propelled into something much greater than a FPS clone as the intricacies of Raimi's possession abilities are unraveled and successfully tied into environmental puzzles.
We'd prefer not to spoil too many of the possession-based puzzles, as these challenges truly are entertaining, but we feel we'd be doing readers a disservice if we didn't cite at least a couple of examples. Some of the possessions are on the basic side. You might, for instance, need to jump into a paint can and splatter the ink, or into a sentry gun to shoot down guards. It's worth noting that when you possess something, you literally jump inside of it and take on a first-person view of what it must be like to be the object. So, if you inhabit a computer terminal, you will actually be able to see through the screen (and all of the text and images will be backward). The presentation is clever, to be sure.
Other tasks are more intriguing. In one sequence, you are required to possess a keypad in order to figure out the password to a locked door. After you've jumped into it, a guard approaches and punches in the password. In your view, the numbers are reversed, which in turn makes his code a little more difficult to ascertain. Discovering what to do in situations like these is extremely rewarding.
Just as satisfying is the process of scaring individuals -- and for two reasons: initially, because figuring out how to do it is fun in and of itself, and secondly, because you are rewarded with access to the body of the animal or person you are trying to frighten. In the beginning of the game, you are challenged to scare a dog so that you can take hold of its body. To do it, you jump into its food bowl and rattle it. Pretty simple stuff and had the challenge never increased in difficulty, the entire concept might have gone to waste. Luckily, though, the possessions get harder. In a later case, you need to possess a rat, crawl through holes in the wall, dispossess the critter, float through a facility, find a scientist, jump into a nearby soda machine, rattle it so that soda cans fly out, possess a soda can and make it explode, and then follow the scientist when he runs to a bathroom, inhabit a water faucet so that it sprays blood, and finally take hold of the man. It's pretty smart design and our example is only part of the puzzle. You'll have to continue on as the scientist and accomplish a variety of other tasks, all of them just as interesting, before you can finally complete your objectives and exit to the next area.
To be unabashedly honest, we weren't expecting all that much of Geist based on play tests with early versions of the game. But it's the title's many scenarios like the one above that surprised us and made us reconsider our opinion of what it is -- which is, as it turns out, a game about possession with secondary shooter mechanics. And as a game about possession, Geist is a success.
Unfortunately, there are still shooter elements to contend with. Possession puzzles and areas are oftentimes separated by bits of gunplay, which as we stated before isn't exactly poor, but it certainly doesn't compare to better shooters on the market, either. The reason has little to do with design and everything to do with technology, which is too bad. Metroid Prime and Geist share similarities in that they are both original departures from the templated first-person shooter model. But whereas Retro Studios' tech equaled its genius, n-Space's has a long way to go. The framerate, which never quite runs consistently, can take a hit during scenes with lots of enemy soldiers on screen, and this has a bearing on precision more than anything else.
Further, while some of the boss fights revolve around Raimi's possession abilities, and as a result are a lot of fun, other boss encounters rely strictly on your ability to aim and pull the trigger, and these are less entertaining. They can, on occasion, feel unbalanced. The first snake-like boss in the game can be beaten without much effort and yet, a giant-sized critter a few levels in proved to be incredibly frustrating because aiming and strafing was not as smooth as it might have been.
Finally, the game could have done with some more bug testing. In one scene, the character we were asked to escort through a level got himself stuck in a doorway and was unable to continue following us. After a half hour of wondering if we needed to do something else in order to trigger his movement, we gave up and reset the level. The second time through, we had no such problem. Despite these technical shortcomings, Geist does bring to the table some graphic and audio accomplishments. First of all, the game runs in both progressive scan and 16x9 widescreen modes, both impressive and highly welcomed extras. Second, the title delivers a host of different environments, each unique for different reasons, a wide variety of in-world objects to possess, sharper than average textures, especially up close, and some well-done lighting and particle effects. On top of everything else, because you can play as so many different creatures and persons, n-Space has designed different viewpoints. In some cases, you see in black and white tunnel vision in order to reflect an animal's vision. In other cases, you are exploring fog-covered hallways from the inside of a decontamination suit, and most of these perspectives are believably developed.
The More, The Merrier
GameCube owners won't be playing any online deathmatches, but nevertheless Geist features a robust multiplayer mode that's sure to extend the game's replay value. There's good and bad news to detail here so let's get the bad news out of the way first. As far as we can tell, there doesn't appear to be any LAN mode in the title, as initial reports suggested. We believe that some reviewers were misled into believing the title boasted a LAN option because it supports "up to eight players." What that really means is that you can play against three friends and four additional AI-controlled bots in the multiplayer modes. Disappointed? Don't be. The split-screen action is still entertaining.
Geist features three major multiplayer modes, including possession deathmatch, capture the host and hunt, and all of them are unique. In possession, you take control of hosts and square them off against friends. You can also jump into objects and kill the enemy. In capture the host, you manipulate hosts and then exit their bodies on a base in order to score points. And in hunt, teams of humans and ghosts battle against each other; humans use anti-spirit weapons to gun down ghosts and ghosts possess the bodies of humans and then force them into hazards such as pits, spikes and fans.
You can incidentally open more characters and arenas in the multiplayer games by playing through the single-player mode and finding hidden unlockables.
The multiplayer modes move smoothly without bots, but can chug up a little with four players and AI-controlled opponents, too, which is disappointing. But despite any technical drawbacks, control is tight and arenas varied. Meanwhile, most of the arenas are well designed and accommodating whether you're playing alone (which is a possibility -- you can fight up to seven bots) or against friends. The pacing and weapons even remind us many ways of GoldenEye and Perfect Dark for Nintendo 64. There's even a gadget that enables you to fly a missile through the arenas and ultimately explode it near your enemies.
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