CSI: Fatal Conspiracy review
The heady cocktail of bright lights and easy money in Sin City has never made life easy for the team of the Las Vegas Crime Lab. But the latest series of murders to rock their town isn’t run-of-the-mill crime; most are the handiwork of the notorious ‘Queen of the Hive’, as drug mafia boss Beatriz Salazar is willing to stop at nothing to protect her illegal empire. The introduction of big game naturally means that the FBI too is involved, standing literally over the shoulder of Captain Jim Brass as he and the CSI team race to keep up with the brutal manipulations of Salazar. Unfortunately, for all the added promise of intrigue, Fatal Conspiracy, the sixth PC adventure based on the long-running CSI television series, ends up offering little more than the same repetitive procedural analysis whipped to death by its predecessors, this time in a disappointing series of uninteresting cases.
Any suspense the premise might have generated is spoiled by information overload even before the game starts – the box cover divulges the entire plot in one short sentence. Then, to ensure that no trace of grand scale mystery is left to be discovered, Salazar herself makes an uninvited appearance at the CSI headquarters in the very first case, sneering poorly-veiled threats at the confused duo of Brass and CSI Sarah Sidle. After that, seemingly unrelated murders pile up, leading to about eight hours of pixel-hunting across woefully-few locations, stilted interrogations of the two or three usual suspects per case, unchallenging minigames, and dealing with the shenanigans of FBI Agent Gene Huntby.
As usual, there are five cases to solve, each with a separate member of the CSI team led by Catherine Willows, the Night Shift Supervisor. The investigations are aided by Brass, who coordinates with external agencies and gets the requisite warrants issued, and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Al Robbins, who conducts autopsies on the dead bodies. Besides Sarah, the player teams up in turn with senior CSIs Greg Sanders, Nick Stokes, Catherine, and Dr. Ray Langston to solve the individual cases, thereby leading to the Queen Bee herself. The objective of each case, which range from a seemingly casual drug overdose to the murder of a bedridden hotel heiress, is to search the crime scene and related locations for clues, analyse evidence in the CSI’s state-of-the-art lab, investigate and arrest suspects, and interrogate them until they confess their crimes. Interrogations are based mainly on the irrefutability of physical evidence, and loose ends are tied up neatly – if overly simplistically – to close each case.
Onsite investigation follows the same routine as previous editions: pan the camera across the screen and click on hotspots to check furniture, floors, ceilings and walls for evidence. The CSI toolbox has four sets of instruments – besides the camera, a particle collector and the indispensible Integriswab, the kit also has Luminol and LCV for fluid identification, brushes and Ninhydrin to secure fingerprints, and Mikrosyl and plaster for casts. While descriptions of the tools are flashed randomly on load screens, their use is never directly explained during the game, an oversight that is certain to pose problems for players unfamiliar with the series. Rolling the cursor over an evidence hotspot opens up the toolbox, but only a small subset of tools is usable on a particular item, leaving little to deduce – the player simply has to click the likeliest preselected tool, and then the hotspot. Each item collected can be rotated three-dimensionally and checked from every side and angle for clues. Completely processed items are theoretically noted in inventory, though many items remain unmarked until the end of the case, leading to confusion.
The collected evidence – up to 33 items per case – is listed in a PDA placed at the bottom left corner of the screen. This device also contains the case file and a list of available locations. The case file holds the immediate objective, the details of the case (including a crime scene map marking the positions of evidence items), reconstructions of key events and emailed hints, as well as the player’s score on thoroughness, skill and cunning. The objective is updated with every breakthrough in the case, and there are far too many direct instructions given during the game, the most intrusive of which are your emails, usually from Catherine. There is no deducible pattern to the emails – sometimes they arrive after the task is done, sometimes right on time, and at other times preempt the player’s next move. There are fewer emails offering hints on the hardest of three difficulty settings, but even on the ‘medium’ setting they definitely dilute the gameplay.
Processing the collected evidence is the primary activity of the game. The CSI lab is well-equipped to analyse fingerprints, chemicals, DNA, documents, microscopic objects and photographs. Evidence can be compared with databases or to other evidence. Some of the exercises are interesting in concept – for example, unverified fingerprint fragments have to be marked on five unique points to match existing records, while chemical analysis throws up multiple spectrometric bands that must be combined to identify the compounds in a sample. Unfortunately, constantly repeating the same easy tasks soon grates on the nerves out of sheer tedium. Some analyses involve no activity at all: decoding computers, medical data and videos requires no more effort than selecting the evidence and then clicking the ‘Search’ button, while a few items are processed entirely by external agencies.
Interrogating suspects is similarly limited to asking preset questions, the sole novelty being able to occasionally ‘challenge’ their claims. Each challenge allows the player to choose from three evidence items that may contradict the suspect. These conversations have fixed outcomes, however, and do not demand any particular effort. The dialogues are well-written at least, with a considerable amount of scientific jargon thrown in for good measure, and instructional text is generally free of typos and grammatical errors.
As for the scoring criteria, thoroughness is a measure of how meticulously the locations and items are searched for clues; skill is the efficiency with which evidence is analysed. The cunning score depends on the accuracy of evidence presented while challenging testimonies and providing justifications for warrants. As the game is exceedingly simple, all three scores usually remain in the nineties. There is also a laundry list of awards handed over for wrapping up cases, achieving various levels of performance, meeting episodic milestones, and completing inane tasks such as opening the case file, accessing the options menu and watching any of the numerous reconstruction videos.
Despite its simplicity, the game is often unintuitive if not downright misleading sometimes. For example, while examining a note for fingerprints, clicking on a particular spot prompts the CSI to declare that “there are no fingerprints there”, leading any reasonable player to believe that there are no prints on the note at all. However, there’s another spot on the sheet that does have a print. I located it only accidentally, and missing that detail might have resulted in unnecessary roaming around wondering what loop wasn’t closed. Interaction is also clunky on occasion: it’s quite difficult to use the ‘Close Tool’ button if bottles of LCV or Luminol are held ‘in hand’, and often trying to exit the microscope in the lab pops up the PDA instead. Finally, despite a scene being fully processed, sometimes exiting is not permitted until a particular action has been completed first, even if it’s totally irrelevant to the case.
CSI: Fatal Conspiracy has the same realistic but sparse 3D screens as its recent predecessors. Hotspots are few and obvious, but each scene has multiple red herring locations that can be investigated without yielding clues. This, combined with the fact that scenes can be revisited and hotspots may become ‘useful’ later, leads to a fair amount of pixel hunting in the fear of missing out on something. As with evidence items, fully processed scenes are checked off in the PDA. The game recycles most of the brief cutscenes of Las Vegas from previous editions, but the crime reconstructions are high quality and follow the distinct choppy style of the television series, providing sleek interludes to an otherwise mundane setup.
While the player remains offscreen throughout, your existence restricted to taking instructions and mutely executing them, the CSI team and suspects appear both in action and in close-ups. Facial expressions have improved for some of the characters, mainly the suspects, but key protagonists can still appear fatally Botoxed – most notably Catherine and Dr. Robbins, the former’s frozen forehead and the latter’s dead-eyed stare being particularly disconcerting. Lip-syncing to dialogues is well done, along with the voice acting of the main characters, most of which is recorded by the actors themselves and the rest by seasoned professionals. The supporting cast is sketchy, though – some good and some downright atrocious. On the negative end falls the strident recitation of the tutorial instructress, which is akin to an extra-loud, extra-annoying telephone IVR system and made me reach for the volume button more than once. Music is limited to a few short, disjointed loops repeated in specific locations. Sound effects are underwhelming too: besides the typical noises of the evidence collection tools, there are sporadic additional effects like torn crime scene tapes flapping in the wind, but neither the music nor sound effects contribute effectively enough to create any situational ambience.
Not surprisingly, the most prominent sound is of the anti-virus program completing its test of the lab computers. Fatal Conspiracy continues the CSI tradition of cringeworthy in-game product placement with a prominent anti-virus software being plugged both in conversations and during lab-work. Each time a computer boots – about five to six times per case – the anti-virus runs a scan. It even detects viruses in some hard disks, propelling the CSIs to lecture the player about unsecured Internet downloads. Equally awkward is the fact that every computerised device, including the PDA and all PCs and laptops used by the CSIs, victims and suspects is manufactured by the same company, its logo displayed prominently in literally every scene. While strategic product placement in popular media is commonplace now, the flagrancy displayed in this game is both bizarre and annoying after a while.
There is very little about CSI: Fatal Conspiracy that would appeal to non-fans of the series. It’s less a traditional adventure game and more a linear point-and-click exercise interspersed with ads and repetitive, casual minigames through a sparse world where no criminal wears gloves (or at least disposes of them properly). There are no real puzzles to unravel, no actual mystery to solve, no dramatic revelation at the end that makes the drudgery truly worthwhile. It’s an ultra-ordinary production churned out by an untiring merchandising machine, inferior in storytelling and complexity to both its own more tightly-scripted predecessors and the current crop of quality adventure games, and is notable only for its sheer sincerity of purpose – serving yet another helping of tepid leftovers for those who’ve still not had enough.