Acclaim brings us yet another crossover tie-in game aching to wring the last bit of support from its fanbase. Run-of-the-mill rubbish or trend-shattering iconoclast? Read on to find out.
Lying is fun. Come on, admit it. You've always wished that you were good enough at it to blag your way into parties you're not supposed to be in or meet people you're not supposed to be meeting. Human beings are interesting and complex creatures; we have an intrinsic desire to be somebody else, even if it's only for a little while. Lying to people is just one of the many ways that we do this. No surprise then that games are so popular as a mechanism of escape as they allow us to pretend to be someone we're not, to do things we could never do, and visit places...well, you see where I'm going.
Alias-the-TV-show takes this premise and combines it with espionage and beautiful people to create the basis for a venture you'd be safe betting the farm on. Sydney Bristow, played by Jennifer Garner (DareDevil, boo, hiss) is the daughter of CIA director Jack Bristow. Each week she takes on a new (and of course dangerous) guise to massage solutions out of missions to make the world a nicer place for cats and children. Alias-the-videogame picks up the ball and runs it straight down the safest line. Unlike the edge-of-your-La-Z-Boy premise of the IP, there's no risk to be found in Acclaim's Alias. There are times when you might be baffled to find yourself enjoying the game, but generally you'll just be anxious to see the ending credits roll.
Not quite a stealth-'em-up or an actioner, Alias tries to be several things. Aping of Metal Gear Solid is inevitable, but at least Acclaim's Cheltenham development team have tried to throw some of their own skills into the mix. While the controls stumble into the sludgy end of the spectrum, some of the lithe secret agent's moves are a joy to perform.
Straight-out action is a haphazard succession of button mashing, with scarcely the illusion that you're directly responsible for how your opponent is having his ass handed to him. Far more interesting is the stealth mode, accessed by a tap of a shoulder button, which allows you to stalk and pounce with glee. Sneak up behind an unknowing victim, press the special move button, and your prey is brought to the ground for a vicious neck snap. Even better is when you hug a corner as a henchman approaches, only to grab, throw, and break, all in one smooth motion. While there's little action on your part when doing this spy business, there's a sense of satisfaction that comes with successfully sneaking up on someone before taking them out.
Thing is, it doesn't really matter which approach you prefer. The game will try to guide you down the past of least resistance, but going in arms at the ready is as effective and usually much quicker. The atrocious AI of the patrolling guards doesn't help matters either. They trundle about with limited visual range so that you can walk straight at them in the same corridor without fear of being spotted. And even when they do see you, you can simply run and hide (even after killing one of their compatriots) while the make a perfunctory once-over of the situation and return merrily to their pre-defined patrol routes. Not very suspenseful.
Other essential spy moves include computer hacking and lock-picking. The former pops up often enough to make the ham-fisted password cracking quite an annoyance. 3-D cube puzzles are deciphered by choosing the right sequence of button presses, but the visual clues given as you try are confusing enough as to make the simple brute-force approach of testing each alternative a more inviting prospect. Lock-picking helps to complete the spy facade, but it involves little more than shifting the analog stick in the right direction.
No entry into the spy canon would be complete without a healthy dose of gadgetry, and Alias is no different. Gadget-guru and all-around annoying person Marshall serves as your guide through the high-tech world of espionage accessories, explaining each of your new toys as you get them. Sadly, the majority of the gadgets are pretty pointless one-time-use items, and the hand-holding screen pop-ups telling you when to use them take most of the intrigue out of the whole affair. Even worse, most of the time you don't even have a real weapon you can call your own, leaving you to resort to using the semi-automatic machine guns dropped by the generic guards. On the up-side, there are plenty of non-firing weapons to be found in the levels, from bottles and flasks to swords and brooms, and using them is a cinch.
Rather surprisingly, the ostensible selling point of the show--Sydney's adoption of myriad personas--gets very little attention at all in the game. Each level sees Sydney don new attire, mostly to gain access to forbidden locales, but you can revert to the normal black cat-suit spy gear (available at the press of a button) as soon as you want with very little consequence to speak of. Your suspension of disbelief also takes a beating by the relative lack of fashion reality on offer. The first level begins with Sydney in a white waitress outfit, complete with short skirt and high-heel shoes--not exactly the most functional of outfits. Why then is gameplay not affected by your choice of wardrobe? Surely it's considerably more difficult to scamper around in fashionable shoes than in worn-in spy boots? Apparently not.
All this spy-play needs something to hold it together, and the so-generic-it-could've-been-on-TV script is that glue. In a wonderful piece of post-Cold War humdrum hysteria, a madman has stolen a nuclear missile and it's up to you to thwart his no-doubt-dastardly plans at all costs. If you consume any entertainment outside of the videogame world (and why would you be reading this if you didn't?) the story will seem hackneyed. The story unfurls mainly via remote communication with your home base, with short cinemas fleshing out the inter-mission scenes.
The game's biggest flaw though has nothing to do with technology. Whether its appearance is the result of catering to the mass market or just poor design, there is an immense amount of hand-holding in the game. Levels that initially look complex seem to filter you through-willing or not-to the end point, so much so that it feels like you have very little choice but to do as you're told during communication with HQ. Removing your ability to figure things out for yourself means that you spend the majority of the game skulking between predetermined save points while offing guards along the way. This deterministic undertone has the end result of robbing you of any sense of achievement as you progress through the convoluted story.
Alias features voice acting throughout, with performances by all the original cast members. There's still a shakiness to the calibre, but it's testament to how far voice work has come that even a relatively shoddy game such as this now features performances of passable quality. Character models vary wildly in quality; the heroine's digitization is probably among the weaker, while the representation of Carl Lumbly (aka Agent Marcus Dixon) is scarily accurate. The rest of the presentation is functional, if not outstanding in any way. Audio is presented in Dolby Pro Logic II for those looking for decent surround sound, and the graphics are on par with the quality of the rest of the production.
Alias is not a particularly good game, but at a time where spin-off titles are ubiquitous--and mostly crap at that--it makes for a reasonable diversion for a mission or two. If you're a die-hard Jennifer Garner nut who feels compelled to support the pouty actress as fully as possible, you'll probably follow the designers' luminous path all the way through the game. The rest of us, meanwhile, will get back to warming up our reflexes for Snake's next outing.