Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
While at a crime scene, you can only talk to other characters and comment on objects which are directly relevant to the investigation. Occasionally conversing with another character yields a mildly amusing one-liner, or in some cases a less-than-subtle hint for the current objective. Unfortunately, there are no objects to collect, as any evidence discovered goes into the evidence inventory to be used at a later point to solve the case. Such items appear automatically when needed, either when it's time to solve part of the case or force information out of someone in an interview.
When not out in the field you'll be somewhere in the NCIS office. In in the main area you'll be at McGee's computer “hacking” into phone records and emails, or using a satellite to track down enemies who conveniently have their phones switched on or are in a car. This doesn't sound too bad, but the implementation is poor due to unconvincing graphics and puzzles that are too simple to make it feel like you've achieved anything. These include things like remembering a series of symbols and then entering them after they've been displayed. There are several other methods of hacking as well, all in a similar vein and repeated throughout the game.
In Abby's Lab you'll either be pulling a piece of tape off evidence, identifying bullets, fingerprints, footprints and tyre tracks or analysing chemicals and blood. Again, there's no real challenge in matching up a pair of prints by dragging and dropping images on top of each other. To make it slightly more challenging, sometimes the image needs to be rotated. There's also the morgue, where all you get to do is X-ray any deceased victims with mechanics similar to taking pictures. There is a 3D model of a body which you drag the mouse to rotate as you try to find damage pertinent to the case. It would have been much more interesting to actually help with an autopsy, but you do at least get to hear Ducky talking to bodies.
A frequent device used in NCIS is the “deduction board”. This is where evidence is displayed and pieced together in order to progress the case. A collection of clues is paired up by dragging icons onto each other, gradually whittling down to two options that will lead to a break in the case. This usually isn't very challenging and could easily have been used to better effect.
At various points you get to interview suspects or anyone who may be holding relevant information. There are no options when it comes to dialogue topics, but a meter comes up after an important question has been asked which begins to count down. The objective is to let it run down as much as possible before you click to stop it in order to get the most information out of the interviewee. Let it run down completely and the interview might start over, but if successful they'll spill the beans. Selections sometimes need to be made from the evidence inventory in order to prove a suspect wrong.
It's impossible to die in NCIS, but certain challenges such as codebreaking and analysing evidence on the deduction board come with a Caf-Pow symbol in the top right corner indicating the number of tries remaining before the puzzle needs to be restarted. Even if your quota of Caf-Pows is used up, however, it won't take long to redo the puzzle and get the correct answer.
Graphically the game is another disappointment, looking like it was made in a hurry and on a tight budget. There are lots of low resolution textures, awkward character movements and unconvincing scenery. While backgrounds look average at best, the cinematics are the worst. Any scenes involving action, particularly at the beginning and end of each episode, are usually sparsely animated with images that slide across the screen and contain little or no motion. The likenesses of the characters are alright, at least, clearly identifiable as their television alter egos.
The visual style of the show is captured with similar camera angles and black-and-white previews of scenes which will appear later, and the soundtrack has been transplanted with familiar music like the upbeat techno rhythms associated with Abby's Lab, the ambient music that accompanies the crime scene investigations and the musical cues related to each main character. There are no complaints in this department and it helps to make the game feel more NCIS-like, but overall the presentation is a far cry from the high production values of the series itself. If you make it to the credits, you can enjoy an extended version of the main theme.
It shouldn’t take long to reach that point, as all in all there's about six hours of play time here. Though the difficulty does gradually get harder throughout the game, progressing from childishly simple to slightly challenging, it's ultimately an unsatisfying experience that will make you groan louder than at one of DiNozzo's jokes. Once completed the episodes can be replayed, though with no awards or achievements to pursue, perhaps the only reason you would is that the game uses a checkpoint save system, so you'll only ever be able to resume the game from the last checkpoint reached.
As much as I like NCIS, if this game were a cup of coffee Gibbs would spit it out and throw it in the bin. Perhaps a fairer analogy would be one of his famous head slaps: it may hurt a little but you know it's coming from a good place. At best this is a bit of diverting fun to pass the time, and should offer a few smiles if you can stick it out to the underwhelming ending. For anyone who doesn't know what a Caf-Pow is or that rule number nine is “always carry a knife”, I wouldn't recommend this game at all. This is only for the most forgiving fans looking for an added NCIS fix between seasons when you've had enough of watching the re-runs.