Review for CSI: Dark Motives
Thank goodness for journalistic integrity. I had it all figured out for this review. I was going to pull up my, if I do say so myself, fantastic review of CSI, make a couple changes, copy, paste, BAM! Instant review. Yet this nagging feeling, which I’m told is called “conscience,” is telling me that I still have to write a brand-new full-length review.
Surely though, after playing CSI: Dark Motives, you’ll see my dilemma. After all, we’re pretty much talking about a slightly-improved expansion pack here.
When CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the adventure game, burst onto the scene in March of 2003, it overwhelmingly smacked of a typical licensed game: designed to appeal to fans of the license, but all in all a fairly mediocre game, and a rushed one at that (somehow the game got out the door with a bug that never allowed the player to get a 100% score on a case). (Note: I have since been informed by the developers that the bug did not make it impossible to get a 100%, just very difficult, and this was why the bug was discovered post-release. I apologize for the incorrect information.) The result? A debut at #3 on the sales charts, an altogether smashing performance at retail stores nationwide, and—surprise, surprise—a quickly announced sequel, to be pushed into store shelves on March 23rd, 2004, exactly one year after the original’s release.
Not much has changed in the past year. C.S.I. the television show is still cleaning up in the ratings, even after being matched against phenom The Apprentice for most of the recent television season. It remains one of the most consistent shows on T.V., for better or for worse; it should come as no surprise, then, that the second PC game adaptation is remarkably consistent as well—for better or for worse.
You certainly know the drill if you played the first game. You, the rookie Crime Scene Investigation detective, will take part in five cases. Each of your cases pairs you with a different C.S.I. team member, all of whom are voiced by the television actors. Your cases take you to the morgue and Dr. Al Robbins; to the police station and Lt. Jim Brass; and to the evidence room and Greg Sanders, the uber-geek evidence analysis guy. These three characters are also voiced by the authentic television actors. I use the word “voiced” a bit generously here; yet again, the voice acting is miserably and uniformly understated, performances all delivered with the urgency and energy of a sedated tortoise. I watch the show, I know that these guys are capable actors, and I know they don’t sound half this bored investigating brutal murders when they’re on TV. William Petersen, who plays Lt. Grissom and serves as executive producer, makes over six figures per episode; certainly he could have been convinced to take his daily nap after recording his lines, rather than during.
Besides the voice acting, another main complaint of the first game was the fact that it basically boiled down to Hotspot Hunting 101. Well, guess what; no changes here. Your investigation is still very much a matter of slooooowly mousing over eeeeeeevery inch of the crime scene, waiting for that blue arrow to turn green.
The primary complaint from hardcore gamers, though, was a simple “It’s too easy.” Part of this problem was the length of the game; I completed the first game in under six hours total. This is definitely an area of improvement; the cases are much more substantial and each one will likely require at least two hours of playing time. There is more complexity, and some more interesting twists—so much so, that I felt one of the cases (the third) just collapsed on itself trying to twist around. Points for trying, I guess, but this was definitely the weak case of the bunch. Most of the cases have just the right amount of intrigue and the “aha” factor to please fans of the show; the fifth and final case has a particularly devious and unseen twist that serves as a nice cap to the game as a whole. As a result of the greater length of the cases, there is a great deal more evidence; many cases will load you up with seven or eight different fingerprints or DNA samples. I would imagine this much more resembles real detective work than the first game.
Length alone does not make the game any more difficult though; the developers at least attempted to remedy this by offering some difficulty settings. One of them is to turn hotspot detection off, so your pointer will always remain blue, and you guess where the hostpots are. I played on this setting for about ten minutes, and after breaking the left mouse button on two separate mice, I wept miserably and vowed to never play adventure games again. I’m sure this would be okay if the hotspots were more, y’know, hot, but they’re positively frigid, considering you’re often looking for a vinyl flake or a strand of hair, and considering there’s sometimes no indication at all from the art alone that a hotspot has any significance. Unless the idea of clicking everywhere, and I mean EVERYWHERE, on every background, and I mean EVERY BACKGROUND, is appealing to you, I recommend ignoring this setting.
Other, slightly more feasible settings include the option to turn off automatic questions (you instead are forced to drag evidence items onto suspects and witnesses in order to elicit responses), and a fairly useless option to turn off “yellow tagging” evidence when you have learned all you can about it. Still, it’s all a fairly weak attempt to fix lack-of-difficulty problems through simple on/off switches, when the answer really should be to fix it through gameplay mechanics.
By far the most frustrating thing about this game, for me, was the fact that when all was said and done, I sure felt like the single most useless detective in the history of the Las Vegas police force. It is absolutely comical the depths that the game stoops to in order to hold your hand. Your comrades, apparently, can’t be bothered to help you hunt for evidence (other than always telling you when you need to “try a similar tool”)…but once you find that evidence, don’t worry, they’ll take it from there. First, you take it to Greg, and show it to him. He’ll tell you everything you need to know about it, process it into whatever machinery it needs to go through, and take care of any pesky research that probably would have enhanced the gameplay experience for many. Once you’ve reached Greg’s conclusions, you may have some fingerprints or DNA samples to compare. Your partner, of course, will tell you when you do or don’t have an actual match. You know what I would have loved? An option to say “I have a match,” and then bring in the wrong guy. That would have ruled. But no, your partner is sure not about to let a rookie think independently.
The patronizing only gets worse from there; Detective Jim Brass is probably the biggest cop-out (excuse the pun) ever in a detective game. Any logical gaps not filled in by Greg, or by exhausting dialogue trees with witnesses and suspects, Brass will take care of. This extends to background checks, general research…and ADDRESS LOOKUPS. Yes, that’s right, this decorated Las Vegas detective gleefully takes time out of his day to look up addresses for you.
This wouldn’t be nearly as funny as it is if not for the fact that a suspect from the first case, during interrogation, tells you where he was and says, “If you want the address, look it up yourself” and makes a comment about how certainly smart cops like us know how to use a phone book. Well, apparently we don’t, because I had to march into Brass’ office and say, “D’uh, sir, where’s this place at?” and watch him punch it into his computer all smug-like, as if he also didn’t have a phone book in the bookshelf behind him. There is no excuse for this; if I’m really going to solve murders based on stomach contents and severed toes, I would like to know that I can somehow find it within me to LOOK UP AN ADDRESS. But no, throughout the game I’m treated like Detective Moose from Riverdale, scratching my head and saying “D’uh, what next boss?” Games like this can’t be good for my self-esteem.
An attempt has been made to add replayability by rating your performance at the end of each case, and unlocking a certain amount of extras based on that rating. The problem is, the game requires you to find everything before finishing a case, so there’s no way to ever get a rating other than Master! “Detective, I know that you have the primary suspect’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, his footprints on the balcony where the weapon was fired from, his note threatening to kill the victim, and his college medal for sharpshooting…but it’s just not quite enough for a warrant until you’ve matched the water drops on the balcony floor to his residential water supply.” Oh yeah? Well, why don’t you just look up another address for me, Brass. I tried as hard as I could to cut corners on a couple cases; I even asked for hints from my partner more than I should have, and still walked away with the maximum Extras. Not much replayability there.
It’s also important to note that there was a patch released to address some minor bugs that creep up throughout the game, and reportedly this enhances dialogues and other aspects. This patch was released, of course, the day after I finished the game, and after pondering whether to play through the game again I decided it’s only fair to rate the out-of-the-box product. After all, if the bugs and other problems were that well-known that they could be patched within two weeks of release, would it really have been that hard to just delay the release and put out a patched final product? But in any case, the bugs aren’t crippling at any point, just minor annoyances.
I’m being pretty hard on this game; the 2.5 star rating implies a solid thumbs in the middle, which means I’m not discouraging you from buying this game. To be sure, this is a worthwhile playing experience for fans of the show--especially with all the unlockable extras and the authentic script, which is written by the writer for the show. The cases are substantial and interesting enough that even those who have never seen the show might enjoy it if they like these sort of real-world detective games.
But in the end, CSI: Dark Motives doesn’t feel like a full-fledged sequel complete with innovation and improvement. It feels like a glorified expansion pack with five new, better cases, lots of new extras, and some tweaks to the difficulty options. The mechanics, the inherent difficulty, and the gameplay progression are all pretty much the same—for better or worse. I’d like to say that I hope these issues are addressed and changes are made for the better by the time CSI: Miami makes it to the PC screen. But license properties like these don’t cater to real hardcore gamers and genre devotees; they cater to casual gamers, who are far greater in number than us, and far less critical than crusty editors like me. There are improvements to be made, but when these games are opening up at #3 on the sales charts, why bother?