In a genre where innovation comes very gradually it’s nice to see that developers are thinking of new ways to entertain the average player. We all know that the XBOX has a myriad of third-person action game where typically a lone gunman runs around blowing up foes, bandits, monsters, and whatnot. Most of these tend to add one especially notable mechanic, but in PsiOps’ case it turns out above average.
You play as Nick Scryer, a PSI-agent who at some point had his memories wiped so he could infiltrate a terrorist group called “The Movement”. Believing he’s an anti-terrorist tough-guy he helps defend a Middle Eastern oil refinery from an attack by The Movement. Unfortunately Nick is captured, and many of his friends are killed. With the help of Sara, a rogue double agent you’re able to break free from your cell. With very few memories of the past you start digging for clues, eventually leading to the administration of your captors, where a man who goes by the name of “the General” rules. The General also has a handful of very powerful helpers who each has a certain strength that sets them apart, such as being a master of telekinesis, mind control, or even pyrokinesis – but more on those later.
The storyline ties in the two World Wars and how the true reason was to obtain an immensely powerful artifact; one that would give its wielder the power of a God. The snag is that in order to do so a fairly serious amount of work has to be done, so it’s basically up to you to fight not only the army of brainwashed super-soldiers, but also the General’s pack of psi-masters, ultimately leading to the main bandit himself.
At the start of the game you begin closely after you’ve been captured. At this point you also have very limited psi powers, but during the game you’ll occasionally have flashbacks that reawaken these powers. Your most important one is telekinesis. Using telekinesis you can lift, move, throw and manipulate a great number of objects. You may for instance pick up an enemy soldier, throw him into a wall a few times, and then finally pick up a huge boulder and plant it on top of him. Other times telekinesis might be useful to position boxes so that you can reach otherwise unreachable areas. By standing on boxes and using telekinesis you can also do what’s referred to (not in the game) as box surfing, something that can be hilarious if done properly. At the top left part of the screen you have a blue psi meter that drains as you use powers like telekinesis. You can refill this meter by finding psi restoration items, or you may use another psi power called mind drain. By using mind drain on a dead person you replenish a bit of your energy, but if you sneak up to an unsuspecting victim and start mind draining you’ll regain much more, and the victim’s head will eventually explode. It’s not a pretty sight, but effective nonetheless.
Other nice powers are mind control, which lets you tap into the mind of an enemy and control his movements and actions. This can be very effective too, because if you do this with for instance a sniper and first take out two patrolling guards and then jump down from whatever tower he was standing on you’d have a lot less trouble than if you went in with guns blazing. In the later stages you’ll be fighting enemies that are largely resistant to being lifted and being mind controlled, but with a bit of skill you can find other ways of getting the job done.
Pyrokinesis is a power that lets you shoot fire from your hands. Even though it uses a fair amount of your psi power it’s usually an excellent way of ridding the world of bad-guys. The tougher enemies I mentioned are somewhat resistant to fire as well, but using a combination of fire and machine gun bullets works wonders. And speaking of weapons, your arsenal is, as expected somewhat limited. Your most basic weapon is a pistol, which is especially accurate when crouching. Next is a machine gun, then an assault rifle, and finally there’s the shotgun. You can only carry two weapons at a time, or in other words you can only carry your pistol and one more powerful weapon. The shotgun is easily the most powerful weapon in close range, but you won’t find a lot of ammunition for it, so at least I found myself using the machine gun and assault rifle.
The last two powers are also useful, but in a different way than the others. One lets you have a “out of body” experience where you move around without being seen. This can give you an enormous tactical advantage, but it’s very important to make sure your body is well hidden so you’re not killed while being “away”. Aura view is the last power, and it’s also the one that’s the most disliked. Using it you can detect certain invisible things, such as weak parts of a wall that you can break down, and it can also be used to see whether an enemy has spotted you or not. Its most important use may be to spot creatures that are in a different dimension, if you will. These are introduced during the last quarter of the game and happen to be another disliked aspect of the game.
During the eight to ten hours you’re likely to spend playing through the game for the first time you’re supposed to balance the use of action and stealth. It is possible to sneak past certain enemies, but the levels don’t given you much an in incentive to do anything except mauling enemies in more or less creative ways. You also have a nice number of puzzles that need solving, but to me it’s understandable if you grow a bit tired of the gameplay after you’ve played around with all the psi powers for a while. The thing is though, just when you’re starting to grow tired of the repetitive gameplay some golden moment happens, like when you lift an enemy, throw him on an explosive barrel, and he flies right above your head. PsiOps uses the Havok engine for physics and AI Implant for AI, and these two play very important roles. The dynamic nature of the game, which the physics engine creates, adds tremendously to the fun factor, while the player will be kept on his toes with the fairly smart artificial intelligence.
The boss fights are, like in most games, the culmination of a level. The General’s posse is at first somewhat big, so you should expect a boss fight about once an hour or so, depending on how long you get stuck at some point. The first few of the boss fights are lots of fun, but they lose a bit of their fun-factor near the end. When fighting the master of telekinesis it feels a bit like Painkiller, but several of the bosses in PsiOps’ can’t hold a candle against those found there. I should mention that one of the bosses found in the later hours of the game is in my opinion one of the most annoying bosses of all time, but I must add that he’s considerably easier if you fight him again the morning after.
Graphically it’s also quite good. The levels are reasonably varied and quite detailed, but they’re not entirely without bugs – some small, some not so small. PsiOps uses a checkpoint system for saving, and it’s not really flawless. With a checkpoint system the game should ideally save right before a notably difficult area. It does this most of the time, but not always, and if you’re like me you’re not too fond of replaying difficult areas that you spent valuable time clearing. Additionally, let’s say you’re playing on some fairly large level (most of them are). If you made it to the seventh of ten checkpoints and decided you wanted to quit it’s absolutely essential that you choose Save Checkpoint in the main menu. If you just turned off your XBOX you’d have to start over from the start of the level.
The characters are also in general well done; in particular the cast related to the cast. Generic soldier #1, #2, and #3 look good, but there could’ve been a lot more variety. Thanks to the physics engine they also move really well, particularly when thrown against something.
At the end of the day PsiOps is a game about action and the psi powers are illustrated with some pretty great special effects. Nick often has this cool blue aura around him, but the explosions, fire, and lightning effects are all quite well done. The only downside is that the performance isn’t perfect at all times. The biggest framerate drop is when you’ve lifted something and you have it close to your screen. I assume it’s the aura effect that’s to blame, and it’s a bit unfortunate that they couldn’t get it to run a bit smoother, because it has to be an issue they’re aware of. And finally, it would’ve been great if a few more lighting effects were used. You can’t destroy any lights, and except the dynamic shadows on Nick the lights are quite static.
In terms of audio it’s also quite solid. The alternative metal band Cold did the theme song for the game, a pretty decent song called With My Mind. It does get played a fair bit during the game, but much of the rest is mainly ambient music, but of a fairly high standard. The voice-overs are also perfectly fine, and with a couple of exceptions they’re also quite fitting to their character. The sound effects aren’t bad either, but some do sound as though they’ve taken from a library of sounds, a library used a lot of other action games.
When you’re done with the single player portion of the game there are actually a few things worth checking out. Throughout the entire game you unlock various extra content – some simply by finishing a level, and other by finding hidden items. This extra content may for instance be movies of concept art, movies of deleted scenes, extra game modes (boss fight and so on), skins to use in these modes, and more. There’s also a pretty interesting behind the scenes documentary that explains the research that the developers went through, and more. I really wish more developers would go the extra step and include such footage, because I suspect most gamers would be interested in taking a sneak peek at the people who make the magic come together.
The only multiplayer in the game is the co-op mode. However, instead of splitting the screen or whatever you work together to control one character’s progression through a pre-defined level. From the menu you choose what level to play, and if you’ve inputted cheat codes you can also choose to enable these. When playing one player controls the movement and the other controls everything related to weapons. I can assure you that this is a good source of hilarity, or frustration, depending on who’s playing and who you’re fighting.
In many ways PsiOps is just another third-person action game. It is, however a small gem. The sheer fun factor alone will keep you entertained for hours, and the large amount of unlockable content may even make you finish the game several times. PsiOps doesn’t have mind bending graphics or audio, and it’s not exactly an awesome online experience, but it’s worthy of a purchase provided you like the psi power aspect. If the psi powers don’t appeal to you much then you’re probably better off looking elsewhere.