Hector: Badge of Carnage - Episode 1: We Negotiate with Terrorists review
Note: This game was originally released as an iPhone / iPod Touch exclusive, and the review was based on that version. Since time of writing, the game has been ported to PC, Mac, and iPad. See Page 2 for PC-specific port details.
Remember those old cop movies where the hero is a loose cannon who plays by his own rules? You know, the ones where blowing up a building or crashing multiple cars results in a chewing out by the captain and the threat of suspension rather than a public investigation and forced retirement. We rarely see such flicks now, but while they may not be made as often anymore, parodying them never seems to get old. Enter Hector: Badge of Carnage, the new humorous iPhone/iPod Touch adventure game from Straandlooper. It’s a nod to both the cop movies and classic adventures of yesteryear, and with its stylish art and often hilarious writing, it makes for an excellent portable title, at least to anyone with some tolerance for a bit of raunchiness along the way.
One thing needs to made clear up front: Hector: Badge of Carnage is a filthy game. The streets you walk are filthy. The subject matter is filthy. The language is filthy. After seeing a police sniper accidentally shoot a passerby’s head off (then utter an apology in a crisp English accent), stealing pants from a punk handcuffed to the wall, and then helping an overweight prostitute find a john, I decided this was the most outrageous first ten minutes of an adventure game I had ever experienced. Yet all of this filth is presented with slick animation and comic timing. The cartoony nature of the game makes watching even hostage negotiators die violently more funny than dark. Still, this isn’t a game for the easily offended. You’ve been warned.
For those willing to press on, you play the titular hero, a bitterly gruff police detective in the most crime-ridden city in all of Great Britain, Clappers Wreake. Hector wakes up in his home, a dirty police cell, pantless and nursing a hangover. A phone call reveals that a mysterious terrorist is holding hostages at gunpoint and shooting any police negotiator who tries talking him down. Hector has been chosen to take a crack at it, using his people skills to do what dozens of now-dead negotiators could not. When Hector finally gets to the hostage scene and manages to talk to the terrorist, he is presented with a list of three demands: Fix the town clock, shut down the pornography store, and fund an altruistic citizen’s project to improve the city. The police department in Clappers Wreake has a solid “we negotiate with terrorists” policy, so Hector gets to work fulfilling the terrorist’s tasks.
Badge of Carnage makes a great case for the iPhone and iPod Touch being natural platforms for point-and-click adventure games, though in this case it’s more like point-and-press. Touching a hotspot on the screen will make Hector examine it, while tapping the same spot twice will cause him to either manipulate it or try to pick it up, depending on context. The screen size is limited, of course, which makes it a bit harder to find hotspots, but the game’s interface allows for this. Keeping your finger pressed down and dragging it around the screen will identify any hotspots you pass your finger over. Inventory is handled in a similarly straightforward fashion. Using an item is as simple as tapping on that object, then tapping again on whatever you wish to use it on. Conversation is also carried out the same way. Double-tap on the character you wish to speak to, and if there are multiple conversation choices, a single tap is all it takes to select the specific (in)appropriate dialogue line you wish Hector to say.
While the interface works quite well, it’s not without the occasional flaw. Skipping a line during conversation is easy, with a single tap anywhere on the screen advancing you to the next line, but trying the same method for comments Hector makes when he’s just looking at something becomes frustrating. Instead of skipping the line, Hector will then look at whatever new thing you’ve tapped on, unless you tapped on nothing, in which case he will continue the line of dialogue you were trying to skip. It may not sound like much, but it gets incredibly annoying when you keep attempting to skip the same description you’ve heard multiple times before. Double-tapping on an empty space works, as Hector will stop talking and walk to that space instead, but it’s an unreliable fix that isn’t nearly as intuitive as the method used in dialogues. There are also some occasional bugs in the system, like a hotspot or two that won’t trigger no matter how hard you tap on them, but these are only minor hindrances and none of them affect the game itself. In general, Hector’s touch mechanics are polished to a sheen.
In fact, this is true of almost everything Straandlooper has done with this title. The art and animation is simple in style, but sleek in execution and gives the game a lot of flavor. Everything from Hector’s hefty frame to the trash-laden streets of Clappers Wreake to the heroin junkie sleeping in a packing box is drawn with a cartoony style that makes all this craziness more zany than offensive. There’s only a handful of cutscenes throughout the episode, but they’re animated with the same level of quality. There’s a certain economy of movement in the animation, but this comes across feeling more artistic than cheap.
The sound also reaches a consistently high level, though it features dozens of English characters all voiced by one actor. This fact is a little obvious, particularly when you talk to a female character early in the game, but that doesn’t mean the acting is bad; far from it. Each of the characters is given a distinctive, often over-the-top voice that clearly establishes their personality. From the stiff-upper-lipped police chief to the bitter war veteran manning the clock tower to your wheedlingly polite partner, Lambert, plus of course Hector himself, the voices are solid all the way through. The near-complete lack of female characters makes the actor’s job a little easier. The music is not to be outdone, either. Like the rest of Hector’s production values, it evokes the adventure classics of the early ‘90s, providing each screen with a subtle repeating tune that helps set the whimsical mood the game demands. The tracks are all simple but very professionally executed and never start to feel redundant.
While Hector has three tasks to perform, they’re not exclusive challenges, and you’ll have to make progress on all of them in order to finish even one. The puzzles display the same old-school charm the rest of the game offers, albeit with the requisite level of filth. Puzzles are often solved with the clever application of inventory items, but these items include such gems as a used condom and a sex doll. My only complaint is that the puzzles are often a tad too basic; sometimes as simple as using easily-found objects in the most obvious manner. There are a few more challenging obstacles here and there, but most experienced adventure gamers should have little difficulty. If you do, a dialogue with your partner camped back at the crime scene often contains clues about how to proceed. Hector’s puzzles make excellent use of conversation as well. Often you will have to figure out the right things to say in order to advance, and one puzzle relies entirely on a complicated combination of dialogue. This scene may be a bit troubling for some, but the conversation has some well-written humor that should make even the most frustrated puzzler leave it with a smile.
This is the other key aspect of Hector: Badge of Carnage that makes it so worthwhile: It’s actually funny. A bit dirty and crude, perhaps, but I actually laughed out loud a few times. The opening scene alone contains some great comic bits; one favorite being the police captain in the field who needs to slam down his fist on his desk to say a dramatic line, and so has the desk quickly carried out to him. Other visual gags abound as well, particularly in the animations, where the police officers will alternate between keeping their guns trained on the terrorist’s building and licking their soft ice cream cones. The dialogue itself contains plenty of witty, if R-rated, banter, so if this style of humor is up your alley, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
The only other problem I had with Hector was with the save system. The game autosaves whenever you do anything, be it walking to the next room or picking up an object. This is helpful for a portable platform like the iPhone, but it shouldn’t be your only method of saving the game. At one point Hector hinted that clues to my current puzzle had been mentioned during a dialogue earlier in the game, but there was absolutely no way to revisit that scene other than by starting the whole adventure over again. The game should also allow more than one person to play at a time. If anyone wants to start their own game, they can only do so by erasing everything in order to start a new save file.
Overall, Hector: Badge of Carnage is an excellent, if potty-mouthed, experience that makes a strong case for the iPhone and iPod Touch as adventure gaming platforms. $3.99 may be one of the higher price tags for an app these days, but it will net you two to three hours of quality gameplay. This is only the first episode in a planned trilogy, however, and concludes with a cliffhanger rather than a proper ending. Still, if you’re hankering for a classic point-and-click experience like the genre’s golden days, or have been thinking to yourself “there really isn’t enough swearing in adventure games these days”, this game is well worth a look. Clappers Wreake may be a horrible place to live, but it’s a fun place to visit.
Read on for additional details about the PC port...
Addendum by Jack Allin, April 30, 2011
Nearly a year after Hector debuted as an iPhone exclusive, the “fat arse of the law” arrived on PC, Mac, and iPad in an enhanced port. The conversions are largely faithful recreations of the original, but graphically enhanced for larger screens (including full widescreen support, which is useful for someone with Hector’s girth). Audio quality doesn’t fare quite as well, as the voiceovers tend to sound slightly muffled. This can make some of the thick British lingo difficult to understand if you’re not used to it, let alone the slurred mumblings of the town drunk or the mangled textspeak of the local youth, but thankfully there are subtitles for all in-game dialogue.
PC mouse controls work much the same as on iPhone, with a single left-click causing Hector to comment on objects, and a double-click performing any applicable actions. The game’s brief instructions include one error, as it’s not necessary to "click and drag" the mouse to look for interactive hotspots. As usual with point-and-click adventures, simply sweeping the cursor around the screen will result in items of interest being highlighted by a text label in the bottom corner of the screen (though not by a smart cursor, which is a disappointing omission). The iPhone’s comment-skip awkwardness has been fixed here, as simply clicking anywhere a second time will cut Hector off mid-sentence if you want to move ahead. Surprisingly, there is still no manual save option, as the game will simply auto-save your progress at the start of each new room you enter. There's really no need for additional saves, but this feels like an unnecessary restriction given the availability of larger hard drives for storage.
One key port addition is a more fully-featured hint system. Along with the vague tips offered by Lambert, now an ever-present icon provides access to multi-tiered hints for meeting your objectives. While this allows you to limit the amount of assistance you receive, the non-linear nature of the game means there’s a risk of seeing “clues” (in the form of questions) to puzzles you don’t yet know exist, or are incapable of solving at the current time. This isn’t a flaw in the system, merely a byproduct of Hector’s open-ended design, but it does mean that seeking help should be considered a last resort. Of course, the hints themselves do their best to emphasize that point. There’s no penalty for utilizing the feature, though naturally in a game like this, you’ll be ruthlessly insulted for your incompetence in needing aid. So try to figure it out on your own, slacker!
Even if you don’t use hints, We Negotiate with Terrorists is a solid conversion overall. If you didn’t know better, you’d never guess this was an upscaled production after the fact. It looks good (in its intentionally gritty, filthy, hand-drawn way), controls intuitively, and plays as well as ever. As an old-school (if rather modern-minded) point-and-click comic adventure, it feels right at home on the PC. It sure isn’t cutting-edge, but it’s got plenty of cutting edges, and it gives a whole new meaning to the term “dirty cop”. If you like the sound of that, now’s your chance, as you don’t need an iPhone anymore to call Hector for a good time.
Hector: Badge of Carnage is an excellent first episode to a promising mobile series. As long as you're not easily offended, it's well worth grabbing.