Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-09-21 03:30:00

Clive Barker’s Jericho

PC

A tale of gods, monsters, and telekinetic lesbian snipers

Of all the most frustrating things in the world, one of the greatest must be when something is so close to greatness, only to fall short. The film with solid actors and ideas, but no spark. The book that doesn’t quite gel together, despite some fantastic moments. In short, The Little Engine That Could, If Only It’d Had Another Six Months In Development. If you were to take this concept, wrap it up into a whole and ship it off for sale, that concept would be shipped in a box labelled ‘Clive Barker’s Jericho‘.

The story opens with the titular Jericho squad being shipped out to the ruined city of Al Khali. The team are a supernatural special ops unit sent out to deal with possible demonic incursions into our reality, and Al Khali is potentially the biggest, as the ruins sit on top of The Box. The Box is a prison, of sorts, containing The Firstborn, God’s pet science project before Mankind. Arnold Leach, a former member of the Department of Occult Warfare is trying to break open the prison and release the Firstborn, and the Jericho squad is sent out to stop him. Of course, when they finally encounter him, they discover that not only has he gone through a few… modifications, becoming a huge demonic entity, he’s also been able to open a breech in The Box. Before they can do anything about that, however, Leach grabs hold of Devin Ross, the player’s character, and rips him to shreds in front of everyone. Of course, The Box is outside the normal realms of the world, and death is very rarely anything more than a minor setback…

Ross’ death opens up the major selling-point of the game. As a spirit without a body, he is now capable of hopping in and out of his teammates’ bodies. Obvious oo-err-missus jokes aside, this is where the majority of the gameplay comes in. Each character is equipped with a main and sub-weapon, ranging from a minigun, an assault rifle/shotgun combo, to a sniper rifle or machine pistol and katana, and you’re free to hop from one to another at will. The team is split up on occasion, but by and large, you’re free to choose whoever you want, whatever the situation. One of the characters, a ‘reality hacker’ with a wrist-mounted supercomputer, also has the ability to ‘rewind’ the team’s ammo reserves, so you never have to worry about running out of ammo for very long. Good thing too, because it’s here that we encounter one of the game’s biggest problems.

What do action games and your characters have in common? Answer: they both live and die by their enemies. Even a bad game is looked upon a little more fondly if the foes are interesting, and with Clive Barker involved, you’d expect something special. Sadly, you’d be disappointed. The enemies start off as blade-handed gimps ripped right out of The Suffering or Soul Calibur. Get used to these guys, as you’ll be seeing them at least once or twice a stage from now until the end of the game, and there’s going to be next to no graphical changes to them the entire time. Ditto the exploding cultists, huge warped blobs of flesh that, funnily enough, explode when they get to close to a character. They have painfully obvious glowing blobs on their bodies that you need to shoot in order to kill them, and, wouldn’t you know it, that’s never an easy thing to do. Anyone who has the patience to do that repeatedly, rather than switching to a character with an explosive weapons and wiping them out in a single shot is destined to reincarnate as the Buddha in their next life. Beyond those two, you’ll be lucky to see more than one or two unique enemies per chapter, and given that this is a game sprawling over five different time periods, that’s a really poor offering, especially when said enemies really aren’t remarkable in the least.

Of course, it’s not made any easier when you’re facing endless waves of foes without respite. The way the game works is like this: you enter a room, enemies spawn, you kill those enemies. Then more enemies spawn. Then you kill them. Then yet more enemies spawn and you kill them and eventually, the game is merciful enough to let you out of the room and into the next one where you repeat the whole thing again from the start. Now, if all this were played at the breakneck pace of, say, Painkiller, Serious Sam or, hell, even Doom, it’d be great, frantically dodging wave upon wave of charging monsters, it’d be fantastic fun. But it’s nothing like that. The monsters come at you one or two at a time, take way too many shots to kill (unless you’re using Abby Black, the sniper, who kills anything headshottable in a single hit) then, once they’re dead, another couple who have been waiting patiently at the side wander in and it all repeats itself again. If I wanted to spend time grinding enemies, I’d be playing an RPG. At least then there’d be some kind of reward for standing somewhere, repeatedly wailing on the same enemies over and over again.

The team themselves are an interesting bunch. Essentially, everyone plays pretty much the same, barring their weapons and special powers, so you don’t have to worry about the typical fast-but-weak/strong-but-slow shenanigans. Some, like the TK Push and fire shield are situational and used solely to progress, the latter being used in all of one section. Others, like Cole’s Temporal Loop (bullet time effecting everyone but her) and Ghost Bullet (a guided sniper round) are infinitely more useful, and will probably mean you spend most of the game using those characters more than anyone. Most powers take a while to recharge after usage, to keep you from spamming them at every opportunity, and the computer has the foresight to actually use most of them to a decent degree. That’s where the AI pretty much begins and ends, sadly, as the computer will derp its way through every encounter in every other way possible.

Here’s an example for you. In the squad, there are two characters who can resurrect the rest of the team: you (i.e. Ross in the body of whoever you’re controlling) and Father Rawlings, a Texan preacher who dual wields a pair of big-ass handguns. Now, common sense would suggest that you should keep a fair bit of distance between yourself and Rawlings, assuming you’re not controlling him, in case of explosive death, something that happens all too often in the game. But no, both he and everyone else in your group will cluster together at every opportunity, no matter what’s going on, forcing you to drop whatever you’re doing and revive their dumb asses, if only to get them to shut up about how someone or another is hurt. Likewise, they they never, ever think about positioning or actually aiming. Take the cultists and their ‘shoot here to kill’ weak spots. If any of your team actually hits one, it’s nothing more than a fluke. Sure, they’ll unload bullet after bullet into them, but never at the painfully obvious squishy bits, oh no. Enemy is heavily armoured everywhere but a suspiciously large space at the back? Sounds like a perfect opportunity to – you guessed it – fire randomly into its front, then shout at you for letting everyone die, while you’re desperately trying to hack away at its arse. Then complain that they’re running out of ammo because none of them have learned yet that aiming is not necessarily the same as hitting a target. I know it’s there to keep the game from becoming too easy, and to make the player feel like they’re the single most important person on the team, but it feels less like you’re the centre of the universe, and more like you’re the only one in the universe capable of eating anything more complex and dangerous than mashed banana.

As for the script and the story, if Michael Bay were to direct a horror movie, this would be the result: tough-talking macho men who don’t give a fuck, sexy kick-ass chicks who don’t take no shit and explosions technically measured in kilotons. It’d be interesting to see how much input Clive Barker had with the game beyond the storyline, because if he had any, it sure as hell wasn’t with the script itself, filled wall to wall with with every action movie cliché you can imagine. Try searching for any more depth than that, and you’re going to be left very disappointed indeed. Try incorporating it into the game as a kind of buzzword bingo, ticking off a list of one-liners as you go, on the other hand and you’ll have a lot more fun.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’ll probably be wondering why I played this game at all, since I haven’t had much nice to say about it. Well, here’s the thing, for all the stupid mistakes it makes – and it makes those in spades – you’re left with the impression that somewhere, deep inside, there’s a far better game waiting to get out. The combat is genuinely great fun, but it’s slowed down to a laborious crawl because of the constantly spawning enemies. The few times you’re allowed to maintain a kill-and-move rhythm, the gameplay improves no end. The cast are a bunch of one-note assholes, but some of them are surprisingly likeable, indulging in banter and the like. The idea of seeing the same area from different time periods is an absolutely fantastic one and woefully underused. Last game I can remember playing that trick was Eternal Darkness back on the Gamecube. Just a crushing pity that the graphics exemplify everything wrong with the current generation: very pretty, very shiny, physically incapable of displaying any colours other than brown, grey and bloom.

And as for the ending, what ending? There’s a brief 10 second uncontrollable cutscene after the complete non-entity of a final boss (“Oh no! It’s immune to our weapons! Let’s all fire wildly in the hope that will change!”), and then the credits roll. That’s it, so long, thanks for all the fish. A lack of an ending is a complete kick in the balls after spending any decent length of time of a game. I know studies have shown that only one or two in ten people will ever reach the ending of any given game, but getting a decent ending should be a reward for our diligence and appreciation, rather than an afterthought, the equivalent of the dev team walking in and saying ‘what, you’re still here?!’ then doing some half-assed shadow puppetry until we get bored and go home.

There really is a good game in here, and there are occasional flashes of that greatness to keep you playing. Whether these flashes are actually a sign of something special, an idiot savant showing off their smarts, or heartless cockteasing is up to the player to decide. In my mind, this could’ve been a superior game if they’d been able to fully realise what they have on offer here. But, for whatever reasons, they couldn’t and all we’re left with is a basic shooter with some great ideas and occasional glimpses of something better. Clive Barker himself has spoken of a possible sequel, though whether that will appear as a game, a book or even possibly as a movie, is something we’ll have to wait and see.

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