In the mid-90’s, many games incorporated Full Motion Video or FMV. This format featured live actors in lieu of animated characters, thus turning the games into more of an interactive movie experience. These games were pulled off with varying degrees of success. Most of the games were complete flops and only a very few of them even came close to the realm of being considered good, much less great. The Tex Murphy series, along with Gabriel Knight 2, were truly the only ones to get it right and show that FMV games can in fact work just as well, if not better than the more traditional animated or 3D games.
Luckily for adventure fans and FMV fans like myself, Access Software released three consecutive Tex Murphy titles that were all of excellent quality. The series began with the groundbreaking (at the time) Under a Killing Moon and then moved on to the nearly perfect Pandora Directive. After those two hits, expectations ran high in the community for the next title, Overseer. While the reception of Overseer was good, it didn’t quite reach the critical heights that the first two games did. Upon re-examination six years later however, it has proven to be a game the stands up very well on its own and the passage of time has actually had a positive effect on many of the top complaints at its time of release.
Overseer was largely funded by Intel as a project to showcase upcoming technologies like DVD and AGP. With that in mind, Access had originally intended for Overseer to be a DVD-only game. The DVD format, however, didn’t expand to households quickly enough for Access to justify a DVD-only release. So, they chose to release a CD version alongside the DVD. The CD-ROM videos are interlaced and the frame rate is fairly low, but watchable. The DVD has superior video and audio quality (as should be expected) and also negates the common annoyance of disc swapping. Unfortunately though, most people were stuck with the CD-ROM version, as the DVD was just impractical for most systems at that time.
Another major problem with the game, at the time of its release, was that the 3D engine ran incredibly slow showing only a few frames per second on the majority of machines. Very few 3D cards were supported and so in most cases all of the processing was done through a software renderer, which caused movement to be choppy at best.
These problems understandably soured the experience for many people, but these shortcomings just reinforce how far ahead of its time technologically the game actually was. Playing it now, I am hard pressed to find a dropped frame anywhere and the video quality is excellent.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have any glitches today. The game was not built for Windows XP, so if that is your platform you are going to have to jump a few hurdles to get it installed and you will certainly need to download the patch available on Microsoft’s web site. You may also need to find a different MPEG2 software decoder for the DVD version, if yours isn’t supported by the game. At the time there were very few MPEG decoders out there and most have been replaced now by other more advanced ones. These usually are not too difficult to find and use.
This game is of such high quality, that it really is worth going through these few things in order to get it to run correctly today. Now that the technology has caught up with this game, you can pop the DVD disc in and enjoy it the way that it was meant to be played.
Now that I have gotten through all of the technical aspects that so marred the experience of the game the first time around, I can get to the heart of this game – the story. Overseer takes place mostly in flashback and revisits Tex’s first case. For many, like myself, this is a brand new story but for the few that have played the first Tex Murphy game Mean Streets, the plot covers familiar territory.
Through these flashbacks, we see what we have only heard about Tex--that he was once a clean cut, optimistic, by-the-book detective. In this game, fans of the series learn why and how Tex turned into the hard-boiled, dry witted, down on his luck P.I. that we all know and love.
The story begins as Tex has just opened up his P.I. business and the first client through his door is his soon to be ex-wife, Sylvia. She hires Tex to look into the apparent suicide of her father, but what Tex finds is far from an open and shut case. It soon leads to a vast conspiracy reaching up to the highest levels of the government. As with the previous Tex outings the story is serious and epic, yet presented with Tex’s certain brand of irreverent humor that keeps things from getting overly dramatic. The game designers (the brilliant Aaron Conners and Chris Jones, who plays Tex in the game) successfully tell a story that is suspenseful, interesting, engaging, humorous, and fun all at once--elements that really are staples of every Tex Murphy story.
The interface has received some major changes since Pandora and it does take some getting used to. No longer do you have to switch between movement and interactive mode--both have been melded together. While I’m glad that the two modes have been combined, overall this interface just isn’t as easy to control and I still find using it awkward. The movement in the game is controlled by using the arrows of your keyboard or holding down the right mouse button and then moving the mouse around. You then use the mouse to locate inventory items. Your cursor will turn into a plus sign indicating that you can get information on the item or manipulate it. It is important to thoroughly search every location; some things can be easily missed.
The rest of the interface in Overseer consists of menus that are hidden on the four sides of your screen. The top of the screen hides your options, such as saving and loading, quitting, and controlling the in game settings. Settings such as sound, graphics, and window size can be changed. The left side of the screen conceals the locations that you can travel to. Simply click on the location and you are there. The right side of the screen contains the inventory. Here you can examine and combine items. The final pop-up is at the bottom of the screen. It contains arrow keys that allow you to use your mouse to navigate by clicking on the arrows in lieu of pressing the arrows on your keyboard. I found this feature to be pretty useless as you can already control your movement by mouse by simply holding down the right mouse button.
Though the interface has been completely revamped, one thing that hasn’t changed is the ability to look at and learn about practically everything on the screen. In this respect the Tex games have always stood out from other FMV games. As cinematic as Overseer is, you don’t get the feeling that you are just watching a movie. These truly are the most interactive FMV games out there--no question. Not only can you look at and interact with countless items, but Tex also always gives you a description with his own personal touch of cynicism and sarcasm that fans have come to know and love.
There are two modes of play in Overseer--Entertainment and Gaming. The Entertainment mode is perfect for first time adventurers and even veterans will probably want to play through the game for the first time using this mode. In Entertainment mode, hints are available if needed as well as a way to bypass the puzzles all together if you really get stuck. However, a certain amount of points are deducted from your total score for each use of the hint system. The hint system in this game is excellent – no one would ever have a need to go read a walkthrough, it’s all available right inside the game. The Gamer mode allows for no hints and keeps track of how long it takes you to solve a puzzle. The less time you take, the more points you are awarded. Both modes are basically the same, minus the ability to ask for help. Most gamers will want to start out at the Entertainment level as even the most experienced puzzle solvers are bound to get stuck at least once in this game--the puzzles can be very challenging.
The graphics in Overseer really have to be looked at on two different fronts--the FMV and the 3D. Overseer uses the same Virtual World Engine that was used in both Pandora and Under a Killing Moon and here it shows its age a bit. As a result the 3D graphics are good, but nothing to write home about. In some locations the graphics look very well done, but in others look somewhat less detailed and incomplete. The FMV on the other hand is excellent quality, so long as you are viewing the DVD version. These really are the best-looking FMV sequences that you are going to find in a game.
The music in Overseer is equally as well done. The score is played throughout many of the cut scenes and always adds a lot to the atmosphere. Also, like Pandora Directive, a new closing song has been written and performed by Ritchie Havens that captures the feeling of the Tex character extremely well.
In a game that relies so heavily on FMV, much of its success hinges on the quality of the acting as well as the production values and ever since Under a Killing Moon, both have been getting better and better and have hit their pinnacle in Overseer. Outstanding performances are given by Michael York as J. Saint Gideon, Henry Darrow as Sonny Fletcher, and of course the aforementioned Chris Jones as Tex Murphy. It is certainly interesting to see how he has grown as an actor throughout this series--keeping in mind that he wasn’t even an actor to begin with, but the Vice President of Access Software. That, along with the professional directing and editing by Adrian Carr, and the great writing of Aaron Conners, truly makes this game a memorable one.
As interesting and exciting as Overseer is, it doesn’t match the masterpiece that is The Pandora Directive, but few games do. In Pandora's case, the execution of the plot, combined with the strong acting, music, and gameplay all just fit perfectly together to create a truly rare gaming experience that is just too high of a mark for Overseer to meet or surpass. However, Overseer is a great game based on its own merits, with overall excellent acting and a great story that ends on a huge cliffhanger--the kind that has had fans analyzing every second of the last scene for years. Three more games (Polarity, Trance and Chance) were originally planned to wrap up the series but Overseer’s relatively weak sales combined with the downturn of revenue from adventure games as a whole have put those titles on what has now become a very long hiatus. One can only hope that someday, somehow a new full fledged Tex Murphy game will be released to clear up all of the loose ends that were left dangling in the excellent Overseer.