Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Review: Overclocked: A History of Violence (PC)

Overclocked was released in 2007 by the now defunct German developer House of Tales for the PC. This review focuses on the German language version. The point&click psycho thriller adventure puts the player into the role of David McNamara, an ex-army psychiatrist, who is tasked with finding out what happened to five college-aged teens that showed up armed, disoriented, confused and without memory in the New York. The memory of the patient is explored in the game in reverse chronological order, with the player backtracking through scenes from their escape to the cause of their current condition, while David McNamara has to fight with marriage issues and other troubles in the present.

Mechanically the game follows classic point&click adventure mechanics, instead of the nowadays popular single-click interface, a simple pie menu is used that allows you to perform different actions on an object. Usable objects can be highlighted with a press on the space key and the double-click for running and quick-travel is present as well. The discussion system follows a topic based approach. One annoying issue with the dialogs is that there is no way to skip individual sentences, the player can only skip whole dialogs/cutscenes by pressing Escape twice.

The game is presented with a mix of real-time rendered characters and fully animated 2D pre-rendered backgrounds. It also throws in a few camera movements here and there, which isn't seen often in a mixed real-time/pre-rendered presentation. Split screens are used frequently by the game in phone conversations or when McNamara is interrogating one of his patients. The game also makes use of a physics engine and real-time lighting of the pre-rendered backgrounds, however these technical gimmicks, while neat, are used only in two short situations throughout the whole game and one has to wonder why they even bothered with them. The graphics themselves are a bit mixed, while the pre-rendered backgrounds look impressive and show some great looking weather effects, the real-time rendered characters leave a lot to be desired. Especially David McNamara, the main character, looks a little off and some more work in terms of character design and animation would have been welcome. Lip syncing is solid, but given the low detail on the characters, that doesn't really help all that much. The German voice work is overall very good.

The game comes in a 4:3 aspect ratio, without a way to switch to 16:9 or 16:10 modes, unless of course you can live with horrible distortion. This is not unusual for adventure games, but is something that could have been easily avoided here, as the game comes with an unusually huge inventory bar at the bottom of the screen and a large black bar, used for subtitles, at the top, areas that could have been easily dynamically resized to allow play in proper wide-screen aspect ratios.

The camera placement in Overclocked suffers from the same issues as House of Tales previous game, The Moment of Silence, namely the game tries to hard to present a full 3d environment with interesting objects in every direction and this forces the game to violate the 180 degree rule of film making in almost every room. This leaves the player often a bit disoriented even in seemingly trivially small locations. The game doesn't have any maze like structures, so this doesn't ever become much of a practical problem, but its an issue that could have been easily avoided with a little more care done on the location planing.

The load/save interface also tries to be more clever then it should be, presenting the save games as a single photograph where one has to flip via forward and back buttons to reach older saves, an ability to view a list of all saves at once isn't available.

The puzzles in this game are for most part logical and easy to do, as the game focuses on the linear storytelling a lot more then on the free form exploration. Large locations with free form exploration basically don't exist in the game as the player is restricted to only those small parts that belong to the currently discussed repressed memory. The game however has issues with making it clear what the player is tasked to do next. Communication with patient works throughout the game by a simple technique, each discussion with a patient is recorded, a recording of one patient can be played back for another and provides hints for him to further explore his memory, thus providing yet another recording that can be used on yet another patient and thus slowly unraveling the whole story by having discussions with each patient. Which recording one has to play to which patient is however frequently not very clear and it is very easy to lose track of the people that interacted with each other in the memory scene. What makes this situation worse is that going through the routine of going to each patient room and playing back all the recordings made takes a lot of time, thus trial and error isn't really an option. Every now and then the game also requires the player to do something in the hospital before further interaction with a patient is possible, but again it is not always made very clear. At the very end the game also throws a basic code input puzzle at the player, while not difficult in principle, the player has at this point no longer access to the hint giving object and is thus forced to load an earlier save to retrieve the hint if he can't remember it.

Overall Overclocked is easily one of the most exciting adventure games I have played in years. Its unusual focus on a mostly static location for both the main character and the patients and the reverse chronological unraveling of the backstory works extremely well. The issues with losing track of what to do next are certainly annoying and probably the biggest issue I had with the game, but they can easily be worked around with a quick peek at a walkthrough. The games linearity might put off some people, but it didn't bother me at all. The game, talking around eight hours, is also not the longest, but given the tight and focused story that is not really a problem here. The few polishing issue that the game has don't really interfere with the main story telling, as you simply get used to them rather quickly. The games ending is also decent, something not exactly a given when it comes to unraveling mysteries. It is however not perfect, as I would have preferred it to go into a little more detail, instead of solving major plot points with a quick cinematic, but all the major plot points get answered. In the end this simply is a very well done gripping take on interactive storytelling.

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