The hits just keep on coming, don’t they? Three games down and we’re still not at the end of the list. I can tell you’re impressed. Let’s get this round underway then:
Second Sight (PS2)
When this game first came out it found itself being incessantly compared to another psychic-powered action adventure – namely Psi Ops : The Mindgate Conspiracy from Midway. Now, as it happens, I ended up buying, playing and enjoying and beating that game at the time of it’s initial release. However, beating that game leaves a sour taste in my mouth as it has one of the worst narrative endings in all of gaming. I am only saving you pain by telling you that the last thing you see before the credits roll is “To Be Continued…”. Awful. Fun whilst it lasted but cheesey as hell.
Now, understandably, I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Second Sight over the last year and it’s been my intention to check it out for a little while now. Glancing around the web I see a fair bit of love for this game and a solid appreciation of it’s method of storytelling. Having beaten the game I can confirm that it really is something quite special for a commercial console game to have achieved. In a nutshell, the story and the storytelling method manages to break linear structure, shift the player’s perspective, maintain interest and deliver a clever wallop at the end.
You are John Vattic: confused guy. The game starts as you wake on a surgical stretcher in a laboratory. You soon realise you have psychic powers allowing you to move objects from a distance and heal yourself. So begins your quest to discover who you are and how you got that nasty bruise on your head.
As the game progresses other powers are made available to you such as the ability to move unnoticed, to fire a wave of psychic energy and, later on, to posess others. Some of these powers become more powerful during the game.
The game plays as a third person action adventure using either a fixed or player-controlled camera. The targeting system is smart and allows for ease of use and for that all important headshot accuracy when you need it. One thing that works absolutely brilliantly is the use of cover. It may take a bit of time to get used to the controls but there’s some superb events in the game when you truly feel like you’re making the most of your environment and ducking out to take precise shots at your targets. They nailed the look and feel of this element absolutely brilliantly and my only gripe is that there weren’t too many areas in the game that really showed it off.
The game offers the player a choice of playing style in most situations. It is possible to run and gun but you will almost certainly want to use a bit of care and stealth (and psychic power) to make the best progress. The mechanics of the game sometimes feel a little contrived in that it’s quite possible to find yourself tripping an alarm and facing endlessly spawning bad guys with no real way out other than to return to an earlier checkpoint. Checkpoints are fairly frequent in the game so it’s not too much of a pain, just a little un-subtle.
The game keeps things fairly simple. You have health and psychic energy. That’s about it. Your psychic energy gets used as you use a power and refills of it’s own accord at a satisfyingly quick rate. There’s enough going on to keep you wanting to use your powers and the fact you can heal yourself to full health doesn’t mean the game is a pushover.
A good example of the game giving players options is a scenario where you’re in some tunnels. You could try to kill patrolling guards with ammo and psy-powers. You could try to sneak past using the psy-power that makes you invisible to others (but not CCTV cameras) or you may prefer to posess on guard and gun down the others.
Later in the game, although your options still remain fairly open, you’ll have probably got a preferred tactic you like to employ that works best for you. I mentioned earlier that the execution of firing from cover was brilliant but under-exploited, the game offers lots of scenarios where you get to flex your psychic muscles however you wish.
The celebrated storytelling takes the form of distinct chapters top and tailed with engine based cutscenes. The game tells two stories at the same time – the story from where the game opens with John Vattic searching for his identity and The Truth and, in every other chapter, the story of events taking place 6 months ago when John Vattic was assisting a military team in Russia. The present-day chapters tend to have a stronger sneaking gameplay in them whilst the 6-months-ago missions feel a little more brazen and action based.
Needless to say, just as you get a juicy morsel of information in one timeline that increases your interest in that part of the story further, you’ll be returned to the other timeline to pick up events from there. It’s not uncommon for the relevance of events in one area of the story to make you question some of the things that you learned elsewhere. In fact, there are some areas where the game appears to out-and-out contradict itself. This is the game narrative trying to mess with your head a little (which it succeeds with great effect in the final chapter) but the final series of revelations make sense of it all and give motivation to review the story all over again to see where the developers were being particularly clever.
If anything, I found my desire to want to know more of the story too strong as I binged on the game over a bank-holiday weekend and beat it in two sittings! Second Sight should be celebrated for making a very enjoyable playable and accessible action game without going down overly cliched routes or spoon-feeding everything to the player. In fact, you may get to the game and still have questions but, with a little bit of thought you’ll find all the answers are there.
For the age and the limits of the hardware, the game looks great. Everything moves at a smooth rate and many of the special effects are really eye-catching. The psychic effects are great and many of the incidental effects (such as when you’re dangerously low on psi-energy or when a camera spots you through your psychic cloaking) are really superb. I’ve also always been very fond of the stylised character designs in the TimeSplitters games and this continues in Second Sight delivering interesting looking, distinctive characters with some brilliant animation. The twitchiness of the main character really helps set the tone at the start of the game.
One thing that I particularly liked throughout the game was the use of computer terminals. It would be very easy to just go to a screen showing the information. However, when you use a terminal in the game, the camera stays in the game engine and the texture on the computer screen depicts a basic windows, pointers and icons type interface (in truth there’s a variety of styles used throughout the game). You use your controller to use the mouse and, assuming you’ve used a PC in the last 15 years, the rest is pretty obvious. What’s really great is that you remain IN the game. You can pan left and right and you’ll see the area around the computer. Your suspension of disbelief isn’t broken and neither is the tension of you feeling you’re on borrowed time standing in one place using a computer terminal when someone might spot you. It could have been a very easy thing to just go to a separate screen or deliver the information through some menu-based PDA but it’s really great to see this choice being taken and I believe it really helps to keep the player ‘in’ the game. I’m not sure it’s something that everyone would care about on the surface but I think the game would have suffered somewhat without such a thoughtful means of delivering important information that was thematically correct and well executed.
I’d encourage everyone who cares about stories in games or appreciates those things that show off extra effort and attention to detail in their games rather than gaming-by-numbers to play through this game. It’ll be cheap as chips these days or, if you prefer, you can probably work your way through it in a single renting.
Unlike Psi Ops, the game delivers a satisfying and clever conclusion that really shows that games, although they may often be filled with death and carnage, can actually be really smart and thought-provoking. A theme I hope we see more of in the future.