, Midway has managed to create a well-rounded third-person shooter with an optional stealth component. It's a game that necessitates the use of its initially gimmicky psionic slant, but also provides gamers the option to approach situations with a little more finesse than its mundane competitors would. Unfortunately, boasting the most well-developed psychic brain in action (a brain that's even better than those of the super-powered Jedi
in games of a similar nature) doesn't imply perfection within the genre. Psi-Ops
still suffers from baffling design decisions and is an ultimately short-lived experience. But in this case, the benefits of a lethal cerebellum far outweigh the negatives of being a brightly burning flame that's perhaps a bit too ambitious.
Nick's a normal guy, only he can kill you with his brain. Trained by the Government's Mindgate department, Nick is a telekinetic telepath who can also disembody himself and float through doors. In order to crush The Movement, an army of brainwashed meat puppets controlled telepathically by ex-Mindgate personnel, Nick is memory-wiped and dropped into a hopeless battle. The plan is for him to be captured by The Movement, which he'll then infiltrate after his memories are restored by another operative. Of course, there are a few twists along the way.
These twists are of the typically predictable videogame variety, but the acting isn't half bad and the characters are laughably evil/seductive. We're especially fond of the nefarious Michael Clark Duncan clone -- former pizza devouring trainer of Nick who now spends his off hours playing with gasoline trucks and the massive crates of every shooter's obligatory warehouse levels. He's so Kingpin in design we can't help but chuckle, especially when he stumbles between Jov, the telepath that commands legions of men with his mind, and The General, who has seen it fit to tyrannically lead The Movement but also to appoint himself a variety of superfluous accommodations he probably created just to make his jacket look cooler. It's an eccentric cast of unnecessarily power-hungry lunatics, but their appeal is not because of their absurd character, but rather because of their absurd abilities.
Throughout the game, each villain will eventually double as a boss fight of sorts, and add a bit of spice to the occasional non-interactive cutscene. In combat, Jov appropriately "urges" enemy soldiers to attack Nick and "insists" some of them eventually explode on contact. The only way to survive his assault is to toss these enemies about with your mind. The bullet-proof Michael Clark Duncan uses telekinetic powers Darth Vader would be envious of to throw a bunch of garbage around a room until he bores and focuses on hulking train cars and gas tankers. Since he's impervious to small arms fire, you'll have to throw little boxes and crates at him. It's pretty fun.
Thankfully, this emphasis on using the game's psychic selling point to overcome bosses carries over to mid-mission play as well. Not only is it necessary to stack boxes to reach higher places, float on crates and grates like Magneto, mind control enemies to flick switches, and sometimes separate mind from body to scope out the next area, it's also damn fun to just throw people around and sadistically soak in the ruthless results only this exact liberal combination of telekinesis and pyrokinesis can offer.
Psi-Ops is the only game I've played in many, many years where I actually don't mind the abundance of generic crates and explosive barrels.
Levels are designed in such a way that they sometimes feel more like elaborate deathtraps for enemies than real-life factories or secret bases. We're cool with this. The excess of crushing machines, poorly placed spouts of flame, electrified grates, furnaces, and pitfalls makes snatching and tossing villains about like a madman that much more engaging. The result is empowerment...It's a sensation that makes Nick legitimately feel like the ultimate killing machine he's supposed to feel like. Havok 2.0 powered ragdoll physics bathe every limb, collapsible crate, indestructible steel box, and exploding barrel with mathematics and make psychically slaughtering men and things a satisfying visual experience that's borderline sinful. But, the simple notion that at any moment you can take control of a man, force him off a building, land on a can of dynamite, propel him back up into the air, and knock two compatriots off a ledge is just freaking awesome. And, if you ever run low on the brain juice, just suck it out of living or dead men with your drain maneuver until their heads pop.
While most titles bombard their audiences with bullet-time, Psi-Ops' refreshing combination of Messiah and Wild 9 done right puts the focus back on combat. You'll feel and appreciate this when smearing the blood of the wicked around a room by smashing crates into their faces, or when distracting an automated turret by levitating human shields in front of it, or when running through a collapsing building and frantically trying to push aside fallen debris. It's a combination of enjoyable combat, relentless AI, and some heavily scripted running moments that play out rather well, but come interspersed by a bit of back-tracking, aimless wandering, and a few more pressing problems.
While having fun torturing foes with the old levitate and shotgun combination, it's impossible not to notice some completely unfathomable design decisions. Enemies, for instance, don't always logically attack players from logical areas. They often mysteriously appear at preset dead-ends to capitalize off a gamer with his or her back turned to the action. An alarm may sound and we could be staring directly at an enemy spawn point, the second we turn away, a stupid soldier will immediately appear in that point and immediately begin firing. This, "drop 'em from behind because we can't think of anything better to do with 'em" enemy allocation technique really hampers firefights that are otherwise immensely enjoyable. On certain occasions enemies do need to re-spawn to afford gamers the opportunity to trigger special sequences they are required to take part in, but if you're just going to generate bad guys on the trigger of an alarm, at least have them pour through a freaking door and not warp into a corner or some crap. If only this weren't worsened by a clumsy camera system that sticks to objects and a main character with some questionable collision detection issues, lighting crates on fire and then throwing them at scientists would be near perfect.
Despite these qualms, the game's most obvious fault would have to be a complete lack of multiplayer. Simple deathmatch wouldn't have done this one justice, but a slant on Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow's spy vs. merc gameplay would have been ideal. Imagine a small group of psychically endowed super soldiers equipped with nothing more than a pistol and their uncanny mental prowess tackling a group of heavily armed mercenaries with benefits of their own. That would incredible. Instead, we can unlock a two-player mode that forces one character to move Nick and the other to control his abilities... That totally sucks.
If you are nevertheless content with playing solo, you'll find the game to be a graphically competent, if short-lived experience. Levels are collections of intricately laid out clutter, smoothly textured walls, superbly animating foes, and soft lighting. The physics, of course, make the experience. Not only does it look good, animate well, and offer a high level of interactivity, Psi-Ops also manages to run remarkably well, barely even stuttering for loads, which remain impressively short considering the size of certain areas.
While an inconsistent collection of original tracks does not impress as much as the graphics do, the simple gurgling, screaming and muttering noises soldiers emit whilst being tortured more than make up for a not-so epic score.
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