As a fan of the television show NCIS, I've often hoped for a game based on the series, preferably featuring the original cast, an intelligent investigation with puzzles to match, and a chance to interact with other characters in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, now that one is here, I've found it doesn't translate all that well into a video game, at least in this debut effort from Ubisoft. It does stay true to the style of the show, but some disappointingly simplistic puzzle design, a lack of participation from most of the actors, and entirely underwhelming production values make for a pale comparison to its TV inspiration.
Much like Ubisoft’s long-running CSI series, NCIS is divided up into episodes, but there are only four and they're all fairly brief. Each episode features a self-contained storyline, although there's an overarching plot which connects them all. Initially the episodes seem unrelated, but about halfway through it becomes clear that things are more complicated than they first appeared. The game starts off with a seemingly unimportant murder at a casino but soon unravels into a larger plot involving terrorists. A lot of the action takes place abroad, as you’ll travel to such exotic locations as Iraq and Dubai. The stories represent one of the strongest points of the game, definitely standing alongside some of their well-plotted TV counterparts. It’s a shame that they're dragged down by less-than-stellar gameplay and a mixed bag of vocal talent, depriving the experience of most of its tension and spectacle.
Players directly control six investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. With the noticeable exception of medical assistant Jimmy Palmer, all the main characters from the TV show are present. First and foremost there's Gibbs, the coffee-swilling, troubled ex-Marine turned Navy cop who isn't one for chit chat. The TV Gibbs is a deep and complex character, and a charismatic hero who always knows the right thing to say. None of this comes across in the game, as he feels flat and uninteresting, behaving more like a middle manager than a maverick cowboy. Then there's his team, DiNozzo, McGee and Ziva, who are reasonably well adapted. DiNozzo is recognisable as a joker and ladies man, Ziva as the former Mossad agent who can speak seven languages but has trouble with popular American idioms, and McGee as the resident geek and butt of DiNozzo's jokes. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, the talkative medical examiner, is a key character who enjoys more screen time and gets to travel more than he does in the show. And the cast wouldn't be complete without Abby, the constantly cheerful goth forensic scientist.
Anyone who has watched NCIS knows that one reason it's so great is the unique mix of personalities. Unfortunately, only a couple of actors from the show lend their voices to the game. David McCallum as Dr Mallard is the most prominent of the two, and is one of the game's saving graces, delivering his lines as only he can. Then there's Robert Wagner reprising his role as DiNozzo's dad, appearing briefly in one episode and more significantly in another. As for the others, the stand-in performances are varied. On the one hand there's Abby, Ziva, Tony and McGee, whose actors obviously did their homework and do passable impressions. Then there's Gibbs. His performance completely misses the mark, and it's cringe-worthy any time he appears, sounding nothing like Gibbs and lacking all of Mark Harmon's charisma. Thankfully, a lot of the action involves his team, keeping his screen time to a minimum apart from the noticeably poor ending.
Gameplay is disappointingly simple, since most of the time when investigating a crime scene you will either be moving furniture or taking pictures of bullet holes. These activities don't really qualify as puzzles, because an icon indicates any object that can be interacted with and clicking that brings up a meter that tells you how much pressure you need. Most times this just requires moving the mouse quickly in one direction in order to get the job done. In one episode you have to move a set of boxes in order to reach a rope, but it never gets any deeper than that. Taking pictures of evidence takes up a large portion of the game, requiring you to zoom in on the area that needs to be photographed and holding the left mouse button down until the guidelines in the camera viewfinder turn green. Sometimes there’s a safe to be cracked, which might have been interesting if it weren't for the obvious indication which way to turn the dial and how close you are to cracking it.
Unlike CSI, the action takes place from a third-person perspective, and to move around you just need to click where you want to go. The simple interface won't stump anybody, and it’s almost insulting to one’s intelligence that there are constant reminders whenever a task is begun of how to do it, even if it's been done multiple times before, making the whole game feel like a tutorial.
The crime scene locations don't offer much in the way of exploration and are generally fairly small. A torture facility in Iraq is the most interesting area, offering multiple rooms and plenty of objectives. It's also quite a dark location, with various instruments of torture on display. Less impressive locations include a bank that has been robbed and a hotel room in Dubai, which could be anywhere with a view outside that looks more like a British seaside resort than the United Arab Emirates. Of course, there are familiar locations like Abby's Lab and the office, though what you can do there is limited.Continued on the next page...