Nothing seems to spread faster these days than spin-offs from popular TV series. The CSI series was a big hit when it first aired, and over the years has spawned several related shows. Like Law & Order, another popular franchise, CSI has inspired its own gaming series as well. These games are grounded in the more technical side of crime fighting, but they have tried to balance the practical hands-on nature of the game design with narrative elements, intricate gameplay and even a few puzzling elements.
Each game of the series has a straightforward premise: you investigate a number of cases alongside one of the primary investigators from the show. They buddy up with you, but take a back seat in the “investigative” handling of the cases. There was a nice sense of give-and-take with these characters in the previous two games, as they made comments along the way and were always available to provide guidance if you needed them. Although the game logic was simple enough, there was a static feel to the gameplay and the investigative work was often a pixel hunting slogfest. That being said, the games had detailed plots, featured the full Las Vegas cast of CSI (the original and most popular of the shows) and provided a reasonable level of fun. CSI: Miami is the third game of the series and was rumored to be an improvement over both of the earlier games. Did it live up to the hype? Good question, so let’s see how it did.
Tools of the Trade
The CSI formula casts you as the “newbie” investigator assigned to five sequential cases. In this game, each of the cases once again has you paired up with one of the regulars from the TV show, this time using the Miami cast. One of the immersive aspects of the earlier games was the dialogue and personality-laden comments of your various partners. In this newest game, they take a passive role both verbally and investigatively, and the personality of these characters is non-existent for the most part. They still stand ready to dish out a hint if you get stuck, but you never get that same level of involvement with them that you had before.
When you have games designed in a practical, hands-on style of play, the interface is a prime factor in whether the game succeeds. Here, the focal point of the game is “crime scene investigation.” The challenge for the developer is how to manage getting the gamer to be a part of that process without crossing over from an adventure into just another simulation game.
The basic interface is fairly self-explanatory. You point and click your way through a variety of locales looking for “evidence.” This is classified as document, item, or trace evidence. Items would be bullets, guns, knives and other stand-alone objects. Trace evidence is what you get by applying certain tools of the trade to all of these discovered items. Common trace evidence findings are fingerprints, blood, and DNA material. Locating these key inventory items is one of the better features of the gameplay. Aside from game locales added as the storyline develops, you have three permanent locales that are associated with the crime scene offices themselves: the morgue, lab and police station. These work areas are where you acquire expert analysis, sort evidence, and secure search and suspect warrants.
The playing interface is the best-designed element of CSI: Miami. This is a good thing, as you spend most of your time building your cases here. Not only do you need to thoroughly check a scene for evidentiary items, but you will also want to make sure you examine items after they are added to your evidence list. This is a game where a careful search of your inventory and locales is essential. This same interface, perversely, also contributes to one of the weakest aspects of the game, the game path logic.
Any time you have an inventory-driven point & clicker, you run the real risk of “pixel hunting” gameplay. CSI uses a familiar “smart cursor” that reacts to hot spots to indicate items of interest. Unfortunately, it can be one huge pixel hunt just to locate these hot spots. Then once you find one and are treated to a close-up view, you may have another hunting expedition on your hands to locate all the interactive elements. I am a fan of the optional in-game help feature that causes all interactive items in a place to light up or glow. The developers would have eliminated much heartache if they had included this feature in their game design. Too many searchable areas in this game are right next to one another and it is easy to quickly get bogged down as you labor through the cases. Well, they didn’t have it, so be prepared for some stuck moments and constant treks back to old locales to see what you might have missed.
The frustration is felt not only in your field work, but also back at the lab. The internal logic of how the game recognizes gameplay events is simply not very flexible. You will spend a lot of time comparing fingerprints, DNA samples, footprints, bullets and other items on the lab’s computer and microscopy devices. Now it would seem logical that if fingerprint A, B and C all belong to the same person, then after showing that fingerprint A belongs to the same person as prints B and C, the game would know that prints B and C also have to be from the same person and add this information automatically to your in-game database. Doesn’t happen. You have to cross-compare the same items over and over again in different orders and it gets old fast--very fast. It is easy with all the items being picked up, tagged and bagged to miss one of these critical comparisons and get stuck for a long while. This is something that could have been avoided and should have been planned for in the game design. It takes what could have been a fast-paced engaging interaction and turns it into a pain.Continued on the next page...