CSI: Miami review
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.
South Beach Chic
Lately I have felt like in every review there lurks a rant. Here’s a weird burn on graphics, ambiance and all those little extras. I have always been forgiving, or at least appreciative, of budget realities and the choices developers have to make to get a commercially viable game to market. Since few games are ever made with outside financial assistance these days, high-end applications for adventure games have to be carefully weighed. Now, it used to be that graphics was one of these “high end” areas that had to be fudged a bit if the game was ever to release. However, with the proliferation of technically savvy, free or low-cost engines and application software, many games with even a non-existent budget can look pretty darn good. It has gotten to the point that sometimes I question how much we have to oooh and aaah over a game for having reasonably good graphics. With the number of skilled people out there and the relative ease of use of the new engines, any adventure game from a large commercial outfit that doesn’t have superior graphics deserves to be smacked.
So yes, CSI stands up well enough to the games being released right now. It uses pastel hues that make you think of South Beach and related areas, and in general looks pretty good. It is too bad that the graphics quality is uneven. For example, the graphics in the first case seemed grainy compared to later portions. The game characters were equally uneven in style. I am not sure why his character was poorly done, but David Caruso’s game counterpart seemed more like a caricature than a well-rendered model. Like the overall graphics, these characters weren’t badly done, just not even near the caliber achieved in the recent Law and Order 3 game, and certainly not what I would have expected from Ubisoft on this title.
This rubs the wrong way for one main reason: the previous CSI game has ranked in the top-selling PC games list, not just for a few days--but for twenty weeks. Given the greater profitability of this series, I expected a bit more eye candy and character subtlety in this game. But it seems higher sales didn’t trickle into the graphics budget for the game. Now, the graphics aren’t terrible; they just looked dated in places. Bottom-line is that they made enough money on the earlier games to have spread a bit more around in this game.
CSI does have a scene transition visual that is both a positive and negative design feature. FMV cinematics are used as a visual transition when traveling from one place to another in the game. This is kind of nice except when it turns bizarre, like when you go to an estate resident’s bedroom and get a boat shot leaping across Biscayne Bay as a transition screen. I mean, exactly how far apart are these bedrooms, anyway? But in general the flashy views of Miami nightlife, the famous Biscayne Bay and other landmarks were a nice touch. Sadly, that impact was shattered when you got weird results like the visit to the bedrooms.
On a more positive note, ambiance within the game was a definite high mark. There was real attention given to sound effects and these were layered very effectively. On a dock scene, the sounds of lapping waves, sea gulls, distant boats and such provided a subtle richness to the scene. Truly, the game looks decent, gives more than a passing nod to general atmosphere and I can’t say it failed on any major measure in the graphics department. It just didn’t thrill, either.
Facts of the Case
I normally mention storyline at the beginning of a review, but since the game underwhelmed in so many ways, I decided to leave the best for last. CSI: Miami has noticeably improved the narrative aspects and bonus materials offered by its predecessors. Initially I was less than thrilled with the first case, but my interest picked up as the storylines improved along the way. The cases themselves are considerably longer, with more locations involved and a wider variety of potential suspects on hand. The subject matter itself runs the gamut from infidelity, greed, serial killing and even a suggestion of necrophilia. This is not a game for kids, but that is a positive development. Games with more adult subject matter are never a bad thing. If you travel through the steamier side of life, behind the façade of good manners, you might as well get down and dirty. Lending substance to these stories is an excellent host of voice talent. Not only do the show actors translate well into the gaming universe, those chosen for the game-based characters are equally talented. As with the other CSI releases, the format is four seemingly unrelated cases that all dovetail into one grand finale stumper. Since the entire game is more detailed, this time the end case is extremely twisty. It is a bit campy in tone at times, as you work your way back and forth between the varied jailed murderers and potential new suspects, but the game finally feels completely engaging at this point.
The extras are also expanded and ease of access is vastly improved. The scoring system itself seems generous, as finishing a case successfully gains you a master rating, which is all you need to open the bonus features. There are nine bonuses for each section of the game, and two items in each set are additional puzzles--one involving a simple substitution code, the other a jigsaw-type puzzle. They provide some small variety to the gameplay, though after the fourth run through, they start feeling on the stale side. The other incidentals are a bit more interesting and prove a welcome enhancement.
I would have liked it if this game lived up to even a moderate amount of all the hype. When the final case was wrapped up, all I really felt was unimpressed overall. The lackluster character animations, inconsistent graphics and mildly improved gameplay added up to a rather mediocre outing with the crime scene crew. Though I did enjoy the mysteries at the heart of the five cases, the narrative aspects of the game weren’t enough to overcome the shortcomings of CSI: Miami. The worst thing of all is there is little justification for shortchanging this license. With the profit margins on this series, it should have looked as good as Myst IV and played equally well. Bottom-line, unless you are a dedicated fan of the show, you might want to skip Miami and wait for CSI: New York, or better yet, tag along with the Law & Order guys.
Mediocre offering for a series that deserves better. The poorly designed game logic, lackluster characters and frustrating pixel hunts are flaws that can’t be ignored. Only dedicated fans of the Miami-based show might find this title worth the price of admission.