Fans of the TV crime series CSI know what to expect every time they watch the show. Most episodes stick to a long established format slavishly: a main case and a subplot, with six forensic investigators somehow managing to cover every major infraction of the law in the entirety of Las Vegas. Followers of the CSI games have found themselves in precisely the same situation, and will do so again as they play through the new instalment, Hard Evidence. Everything you’d expect is here, with no upsets, or, for that matter, pleasant surprises to speak of.
To wit: the player, as themselves, are cast as the newest investigator to join the CSI team, then dispatched to solve a series of five cases, the last of which has some links to one or more of the others. The gameplay consists almost entirely of scouring each crime scene for evidence, selecting the correct tool to detect or collect it, then “processing” it in the lab, which normally constitutes matching the evidence to another specimen or a sample from a database, plus interviewing suspects until one of them is demonstrably guilty. In this fashion, the game does an admirable job of mimicking the show.
Similarly, the game also looks and sounds like CSI, with much of the show’s music and trademark extreme close-ups of forensic procedures making the jump to interactive form literally intact; many clips are cannibalised from the show itself. Most of the television cast lend their voices here and partner up with the player for each case, replete with plenty of “criminal” puns about the current investigation, and their character models are some of the most detailed and well crafted elements of the game’s graphics.
In other respects, the game’s general appearance is perfectly acceptable, but hardly stunning. As in the previous installment, the game is in real-time 3D, but it doesn’t match up to the gloss of many current games. Perhaps to make sure it runs on as many systems as possible, the polygon counts are rather low; outside locations in particular suffer from the simplicity (especially the dated attempt at a water effect). The inherently simpler geometry of the interiors fare much better, letting the artists' craftsmanship come to the fore.
Its presentation feels authentic, then, but does the game play right? The short answer is, it plays simply. Although Telltale Games, at the helm of their second consecutive CSI title, have made a few minor additions to the formula, Hard Evidence feels very much like the first game in the series (released a surprisingly short four years ago). Even the jump to 3D, first introduced in 3 Dimensions of Murder, makes very little difference in gameplay terms, as the only real consequence is eliminating the irritating pixel hunting that plagued the first three games, thanks to the higher resolutions and controllable camera movement that provides a better view of obscured objects.
Each case is a strictly linear affair, and with little puzzle solving to speak of, you won’t get much of a feeling of accomplishment. Searching for evidence is a simple test of observation. The controls never allow you to freely explore each environment, and almost all evidence is in plain view, leaving an inescapable feeling that you’re looking at stage sets, not visiting locations, even moreso than simply watching the TV show. This feeling of disconnect is what permeates the game, and although the problem may at first appear a lack of difficulty (most players will sail through the majority of the five two-hour episodes) it’s more a lack of agency. With no real puzzles, choices, or even possibility of setbacks, it’s hard to feel like a crime scene investigator. It’s telling that the most significant new gameplay advance from the previous game is the bizarre side-task of collecting insects for entomologically-obsessed supervisor Gil Grissom.
There is really no sense of pressure in the investigation, either, as suspects will never work against you to hide evidence very effectively, although about once every case you’ll have to move something to reveal new items. Further simplifying matters, there is no risk of compromising evidence (thus making it harder to solve the case), or tipping your hand too early to a suspect. No, the key to this game is generally clicking on everything, with little thought or planning. Even selecting which of your arsenal of collection (tweezers, gloves, adhesive tape, etc.) and detection (camera, fingerprint powder, luminol...) tools you want to deploy is extremely streamlined; the hardest difficulty setting only provides half a dozen options to choose from, and there are no consequences for selecting incorrectly.Continued on the next page...