Psi-Ops is a shooter.
While a writer hates to say this, having read through that first paragraph, you could stop reading this review now. Those four words pretty much sum up The Mindgate Conspiracy
If you play Psi-Ops, you will find that you can break crates. You will find copious amounts of explosive barrels. You will experience the thrill of exploring cube-like environments such as warehouses and factories. You will collect key cards to open doors. You will press large glowing buttons on consoles to open doors and operate machinery (said consoles will, of course, have no other operable control buttons than the giant glowing green one). You will pull switches, levers, pulleys, etc., etc., etc.
Get it? It’s a shooter.
Games to my chagrin are so often compared to movies, yet, its games like these that really do find a parallel in film. That parallel is to B-movies. B-movies offer perhaps a few cheap gratuitous thrills, but largely, they offer a tacked on plot and a lot of ripped off ideas from better films to help us reach those “thrills”. I’d like to believe that Psi-Ops similarities to other games in its genre are merely “homages” (from the very appearance of our hero, tough guy Nick Scryer, who has a strikingly similar mug to the bent-nosed hero of Escape from Castle Wolfenstein), but honestly the designers seemed to have no newer ideas than those based on a game from ten years ago.
For pity’s sake, the game opens with Scryer in a cell; the door opens; and, armed with only a pistol to begin with, Scryer has to fight through a series of cloned Nazi… errr… paramilitary-type abductors, collecting bigger and better weapons and armor while kicking the crap out of defenseless crates along the way.
This sort of tired and hackneyed plotting and game play is exactly why the B-movie comparison must be made. B-movies merely rehash plot devices common to whatever genre it adheres to while tossing in some nudity, violence, and obscenity to keep the viewer interested. This is straight to video material.
The player here feels like a viewer too often as supposedly freeform gameplay provided by the game’s hook—psychic abilities—really leads to linear gameplay, forcing you to solve problems with telekinesis, remote viewing, mind control, etc. as the designers envisioned you doing so, rather than allowing the player to find unique resolutions to problems. I can’t tell you how often I was reminded of playing better games like Deus Ex or even
Metal Gear Solid that would have allowed four or five resolutions to a problem, but I was forced into the cookie-cutter precognitive resolutions hinted at in the game’s cut scenes.
But, to give the game (and maybe its film equivalent) some credit, the game does have some good cheap thrills mostly in the way of the violent antics and that come with its chief gimmick—Nick’s psychic prowess (and every good B-movie has gotta have a gimmick—be it a giant snake or murderous tomatoes). The psychic gifts that Nick utilizes as he collects yet another key card or guns down yet another cookie-cutter goon are a fair amount of guilty fun. Using telekinesis to fling a guard from a tower or hijacking a trooper’s body to gun down his buddies and then throwing said goon suicidally over the side of a tower are a real B-grade pleasure.
Also, the initial levels of warehouses and factories—the same mazelike corridors you’ve seen and backtracked through in games like Wolfenstein and Doom—do eventually give way to more interesting level design like the creepy corridors of the base of operations of an illusion generating psychic opponent. The second half of the game offers some clever misdirection and eerie atmosphere that for a brief moment leaves you actually caring a bit about what are otherwise characters written to type.
These moments are so visceral, though, and fleeting that they seem to highlight the lack of substance of the larger narrative of the game: a nonsensical plot concerning Scryer’s quest to discover who he is, what power he possesses, what dark secrets haunt him, and what the hell all these paramilitary goons and shadow government types are doing to take over the world.
Games like this bother me because they encourage the notion that games are just for kids (despite its M-rating—based seemingly on its head popping brain drains and random “edgy” dialogue peppered with obscenities like “bastards” and “kicking you in the nuts”) or idiots (see my prior parenthetical remark). But at the same time, like a bad (good?) B-movie, sometimes the “mature” do need a few cheap thrills.