Art of Murder: FBI Confidential review
Ever wanted to hunt down a serial killer, only without the painstaking adherence to rules and regulations required from the Police Quest or even the CSI games? Perhaps Art of Murder: FBI Confidential, a rather gritty modern crime thriller with a blatant disregard for proper procedure, would be more your thing. For fans of mystery adventures it's a fairly entertaining pursuit while it lasts, even if the thrill of the chase isn't all it could be.
The first adventure from Polish developer City Interactive tells the story of FBI agent Nicole Bonnet, thrust into the role of lead investigator of a series of murders despite her obvious youth and inexperience. Prominent citizens of New York City are being killed, and the deaths all involve similar ritual methods and a recurring pre-Columbian theme. Without revealing anything to spoil the mystery, suffice it to say that the story is interesting and well presented, with the victims' connection and killer's motives slowly unfolding, while always leaving doubt as to who exactly the culprit is until the last moment.
The majority of the game is set on the city streets, although Nicole jets off to the jungles of Peru for maybe a third of the game following a lead in her investigation. Don't expect to be seeing the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building, though, as the game takes place largely in a variety of seedy apartments buildings and abandoned subway stations, with the odd library and museum used for research along the way.
Wherever you go, art in the game is of a high standard and done in a realistic style. Characters and backgrounds are clear and crisp, though not overly detailed. One thing that does detract from the experience is the distinct lack of animations. The game world is pretty much static, whether indoors or out, and aside from a few small things like an updating computer screen nothing much ever changes in the backgrounds. Most of the environments are also noticeably devoid of people, and those you do meet aren't very active, as aside from Nicole none of them ever moves around, with fade-to-blacks used when they need to walk around or leave the room. Nicole can be directed freely around the screen, of course, but on the rare occasion she needs to do something more than reach for an object, a pre-rendered cinematic is used. Unfortunately, the cutscenes have a tendency to run very poorly, hampered by choppiness, which naturally diminishes their cinematic effect.
The music is well done in an orchestral style, with a different score for every scene. Voice acting is also pretty good, with most of the actors sounding suitable to their roles, aside from one Hispanic character who sounds more like he's from the Soviet bloc. Nicole herself is the one partial exception, occasionally coming across as sounding a little like, ya know, a ditzy Valley girl type, which isn't appropriate for a highly-trained FBI special agent. The dialogues are adequately written for the most part, which helps, though not without a few translation missteps here and there.
Where the writing does break down is in its depiction of legal procedure, as Nicole rarely acts like an elite law enforcement official should. In fact, she seems to follow no procedure at all, regularly handling evidence with her bare hands (which she's later chastisted for and stops doing, but you'd think they'd have taught that at Quantico), blundering into dangerous situations with no backup and at one point willfully ignoring her boss' orders. Admittedly, a completely faithful recreation of FBI tactics would probably lead to a very boring game, but a better balance would have made the game feel more believable.
The game's other characters are generally interesting, displaying a clear personality and not-so-clear motives. Among those you deal with regularly, there's your stressed boss who only wants results and has no time for coddling recruits, his kindly secretary Ruth, and the snooty museum curator who goes from being helpful one moment to clamming up the next. Talking to people consists of simply clicking through all available dialogue choices, though you sometimes need to click on the characters again to make sure that all topics are truly exhausted.
The rest of the game is also controlled using a simple point-and-click interface, with the cursor changing to the appropriate action over a hotspot (interact, talk, travel and so on), a left-click performing the action and a right-click looking at the object. There is also a handy hints icon which highlights all the available hotspots in a room. Double-clicking an interaction even makes Nicole run to perform it, a nice feature sadly lacking in a lot of adventures. Nicole also has a PDA that acts as a notepad for important details, a cell phone, and a camera. The phone is used quite often to contact your coworkers and suspects, but the camera only gets used once or twice overall and feels like an underused utility.
Puzzles in Art of Murder are mostly fairly straightforward inventory puzzles. They're rarely difficult, and mostly make sense if occasionally contrived. At some points you need to use some scanning equipment with pieces of evidence to get further leads, but this doesn't really involve anything more than combining inventory objects with hotspots as usual. There is the occasional standalone logic puzzle, and a few more that require more trial-and-error than logic to solve. For most of the game it's impossible to die, but at one stage at least you almost certainly will. Reflexes are not required, however, as this involves a turn-based minigame where if you make a mistake one time too many, it's game over. It takes a few errors to reach this point, and the game autosaves right before the scene anyway, so you're not likely to be hung up for long.
In fact, you won't be stuck anywhere for too long. Art of Murder isn't a difficult game by any means, as most scenes only have a few hotspots, which limits the number of possible options. The game is also divided into smallish sections and is incredibly linear, with Nicole needing to get everything done in one area before she can continue her investigation in another. While some might consider this feature limiting, it removes the possibility of 'walking deads' and the need for excessive backtracking. I appreciate this streamlining, because I'm not fond of going back and forth between locations trying to figure out what to do next. Knowing that when I'm done in one area I won't need to come back (at least not until necessary later) is far preferable. Plus, as you leave a location, the inventory items you'll no longer need are also scrapped, which leads to less of the random combining of objects that some games inspire.
All told, the game took me about 10-12 hours to finish, with very little time spent stuck on any puzzle. For the most part, I enjoyed my time with Art of Murder: FBI Confidential. Although the game rarely excels at any particular aspect, and the loose characterisation lets it down, the presentation and story are solid enough to atone for any rough edges, and will keep you guessing until the end. It doesn't offer much that we haven't seen before, but if you're a fan of the detective mysteries, it's certainly worth investigating a little more closely.
Fans of crime fiction should find Art of Murder a solid serial murder mystery, though it won't exactly knock 'em dead.