I'm going to go way out on a limb here and guess that you've heard of The Da Vinci Code by now, perhaps even experiencing it for yourself in one medium or another. Okay, so maybe that's not such a stretch. Judging from the phenomenal sales numbers of Dan Brown's novel, even some secluded Aboriginal tribes have ordered a copy. This despite the fact that it's now become fashionable to bash the book as the lowest form of pop culture schlock. If you're one of the eight people who still hasn't read it, perhaps you've crammed yourself into a ridiculously packed theater to see the recent movie, which has been mercilessly panned as uninspired dreck by most film critics. (Are we seeing a pattern here?) Now the new actio… uhh, I mean… adventure(ish) game is upon us to complete The Da Vinci Code trifecta, and while it proves a generally entertaining ride that may enjoy the same commercial success as its predecessors, it's unable to avoid some critical pitfalls of its own along the way.
In many respects, The Da Vinci Code is tailor-made for an interactive experience. Sure, the plot is sensationally absurd, but the premise is intriguing, and a breathless treasure hunt of cryptic clues and devious puzzles simply begs for audience involvement. And let's face it – even popular literary pap is a step up from much of what we get in video games, not that it requires such lowered expectations. Although it demands an incredible suspension of disbelief, DVC provides a tantalizing storyline with plenty of gameplay opportunities. Unfortunately, it wastes some of those opportunities with ill-conceived design decisions and technical weaknesses, but Brown's story nevertheless holds up well as a foundation.
The basic plot of the game is similar to that of the book, but diverges in several key areas. I'll spare everyone a lot of narrative overkill, but DVC begins with the curator of the Louvre being murdered inside the famous museum. Before breathing his last, however, he is able to leave a series of obscure clues for his estranged granddaughter, French cryptographer Sophie Neveu, and American symbologist Robert Langdon to decipher. When the police misunderstand the clues, believing them to point at Langdon as the prime murder suspect, he and Neveu must flee in order to clear his name and unravel an ever-deepening mystery that may ultimately expose the profound truths about the Holy Grail and the bloodline of Jesus Christ, kept concealed for centuries. While evading the police, Langdon and Neveu must also contend with those seeking to discover these astonishing secrets first, making the path to this hallowed treasure as precarious as it is perplexing.
The latter arises from an elaborate series of complex enigmas, from anagrams to ciphers to riddles that draw primarily on art and religious history as sources. Of course, there would be no surprise for the player already familiar with the story if the original puzzles were simply recreated in the game, so DVC offers up new clues and solutions, and doesn't stop there. By adding several new locations and a whole slew of additional puzzles, the game delivers a steady stream of intellectual obstacles. Designed by Charles Cecil of Broken Sword fame, the puzzles come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of difficulty (not to mention quality), representing a virtual smorgasbord of traditional adventure activities. Along with some fairly simplistic inventory puzzles, the game includes codebreaking, pattern identification, jigsaws, sliders, and even a maze to challenge your wits. While there are some standalone logic tasks, the vast majority of puzzles are intertwined and multi-layered, requiring you to make progress on several fronts to accomplish your ultimate goals.
To call the puzzles "organic" to the story would be to totally misunderstand Brown's premise, as the entire plot is a rather preposterous mental obstacle course. So rather than emerging naturally from the story, the puzzles really ARE the story in The Da Vinci Code. But while this may strain any sense of credibility in passive media, in the game you'll be too busy solving these conundrums to question them too seriously. The sheer volume (I counted at least fifty different puzzles) and variety ensures that there's something for everyone (and probably something for everyone to hate), and in general they're reasonably clued and well-crafted. On the other hand, at times the overall vision feels rather uninspired, simply following a rote checklist of conventional puzzle types. While I didn't find the game always provided enough helpful direction, the self-contained environments ensure that players can't stray too far off course, so it's never long before you find your way. And for several of the puzzles, an in-game hint system is provided with helpful tips from Langdon and Neveu, though this is not done consistently throughout. There was a single puzzle I felt was unfairly obscure, imposing an annoying trial-and-error exercise to overcome, but the puzzles are easily one of the strongest features of the game.
Unfortunately, with the puzzles comes the peril, and it's here that The Da Vinci Code takes a serious turn for the worse. It's also the point where many adventure purists may decide the game moves squarely into the realm of action-adventure, and there's more than a little merit to that notion. But as with all blurred genre lines, that determination will be a personal choice, so I'll set aside any subjective debates for now and deal only with the impact of the action on the game itself.
In an attempt to give the gameplay a little more punch – in this case, literally – The Da Vinci Code requires players to do a fair bit of fighting in between the puzzle solving. While in the book there are a few dramatic, action-packed moments to spice things up, the game wrongly decides that much more of the same would be a good thing. The immediate problem with this decision is that it's completely out of character for the two protagonists. Langdon and Neveu are intellectuals, and it simply makes no sense to have them plowing their way through dozens of security guards, police, and fanatical monks. But that's an abstraction that's secondary to the main concern: namely, it just isn't any fun.
When confronted by an opponent, you must attempt to maneuver yourself into position in real time for a first strike. If successful, you'll grapple with the other person and have the opportunity to dole out some heavy damage; if you fail, the same result will occur, but this time you'll be on the defensive. Either way, what follows is a series of onscreen diagrams showing left, right, or combined mouse clicks. Match the pattern successfully in the allotted time, and your character will chuck some serious knuckles or deftly avoid the same. Mess up, and kiss your precious hit points goodbye, or find yourself in defense mode for the next series. That's right, the next series. Any given fight will require several rounds of these monkey-see, monkey-do combat tactics, making even a single scrap drag out far longer than your interest level. Lather, rinse, and repeat over the course of the whole game, and we're talking some serious tedium. It may seem like a paradox to refer to boring tension, but DVC manages it.
The combat isn't easy, either. You can and almost certainly will die at various times. Even if your reflexes are up to the challenge, the lousy implementation fights dirty. The lowest blow is the insanely responsive nature of the combined mouse click. The controls are so hyper-sensitive that if you don't time your clicks absolutely perfectly, it'll register as a failure. At least, that's what I assume is the problem, though since I could never discern the difference between a pass or fail, it could just as easily be gnomes flipping a coin. In any case, it causes more than its fair share of grief. If you're thinking a quick keyboard re-mapping would solve this problem, think again, as the default configuration is permanent. Lucky DVC offers gamepad support to bypass this problem, right? Wrong. How on earth a game also available for PlayStation 2 and Xbox can not support gamepads on PC is a mystery not even a cryptographer could solve. Nevertheless, it's true, and for that reason alone, I would recommend buying a console version of the game if you own one of those systems.
The other aggravation is that the combat mechanics are designed strictly for one-on-one altercations. This is all very well and good, except DVC routinely throws multiple opponents at you. Theoretically, you'll square off against one while your partner tussles with the other, and occasionally it works that way, but all too often you'll be blindsided in the middle of a fight, which interrupts your own engagement and leaves you disoriented and vulnerable to another attack. Nice.Continued on the next page...