Chris Jones and Aaron Conners proved themselves to be major players in the adventure genre during the ‘90s with Tex Murphy, their successful sci-fi detective noir series. Spanning several entries, from 1989’s Mean Streets to 1998’s Overseer, these popular games pushed the envelope of what adventure games could be, helping to usher in a host of technological and design features that were well ahead of their time. Now that time has caught up with the long-dormant franchise, the down-on-his-luck private investigator is back in a brand new case. Highly anticipated by the many fans who helped fund the game through Kickstarter (and even by those who didn’t), Tesla Effect is a sequel that continues the series’ high standard for tongue-in-cheek humorous storytelling, and satisfyingly pays off a setup over a decade-and-a-half in the making.
Spoiler warning for the ending of Overseer
When gamers last saw Tex, he and his girlfriend Chelsee Bando had just accepted a ride from a stranger when Tex’s speeder was stolen during a dinner date. Speeding through the smog-filled futuristic skyscape of 2043 New San Francisco, everything goes wrong when the driver turns to the pair, a gun in his hand. The gun pops off first one, then another shot, as Chelsee and (presumably) Tex are hit; the screen turns black. For years this cliffhanger ending left players desperate for resolution, and Tesla Effect provides it at long last. Picking up, as Tex believes, later that same night, Tesla Effect sees the P.I. awaken on his fire escape from what proved to be a tranquilizer dart, a bloody scrape on his forehead and nursing one hell of a hangover.
As Tex soon learns, it is actually the year 2050, and he has no recollection of what happened that fateful night or during the seven intervening years. Setting out to regain his memory and find Chelsee, Tex becomes ensnared in his biggest case yet, one which involves memory manipulation, reanimation of the dead, a cult bent on world destruction, and, at the core of it all, the scientific experiments of the 19th century inventor, Nikola Tesla.
The doctrine of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” lies at the heart of every design decision Jones and Conners have made. Apart from the technological advances in graphics and sound (and the inevitable 16-year age bump evident in the actors’ faces), Tesla Effect could well have been made on the very heels of its predecessor. It stays faithful to its roots by implementing the same classic adventuring gameplay, 3D first-person roaming, and extensive FMV sequences that drive the story forward. Branching dialog trees are also still present, and, as with The Pandora Directive, decisions made during conversations influence what path Tex finds himself taking and which of several possible endings the player gets.
The better part of the game’s first half is spent on and around Chandler Avenue, familiar to any series veteran. Essentially the game hub, Tex’s office is located here, as are several shops where you’ll run into both old and new faces alike. Louie LaMintz, Rook Garner, Zack Williams, Archie Ellis, and Clint the chocoholic bum all make appearances, and serve to get Tex back on his feet in the early stages of the investigation, providing background information and filling in the gaps in his memory somewhat, while a much greater yarn begins to unravel.
Tex’s initial investigation into a shootout that occurred outside his building soon leads him to a literal dead end, corpse and all. As more bodies pile up, a tale of dual identities emerges, and soon Tex is not just dodging assassins but is fielding advances from a mysterious femme fatale. Each trail leads into unexpected directions, with Tex falling further and further down the rabbit hole. Has Tex truly stumbled upon a dark secret buried over a hundred years in the past? And is he able to let go of his one true love overnight? Tex must try to reconcile the pre- and post-amnesic parts of his life while retracing his own steps and being forced to decide what’s more important: the possibilities of a past he can’t recall or the certainties staring him in the face here and now.
Moving around (using the preset WASD keys to move and the mouse to tilt and turn the field of vision) is painless and intuitive, and an improvement over the sometimes clunky and cluttered interfaces of past games. Tex can examine objects in the environment, usually causing him to quip or crack wise with his trademark dry humor. Especially in the early stages of the game there are several flashback scenes, culled from the series’ previous releases – little video segments to remind players about a particular bygone plot point or character, or even just a humorous moment. After all, 16 years is a long time to remember every single detail. More fun than practical, these segments relate, for example, how Tex once got a hole shot in his hat, or explain his penchant for getting cracked in the skull with blunt objects. These touches nicely reinforce that Tesla Effect does not exist within a vacuum, though the story it tells fully stands on its own.
While time has left its mark on some of the returning cast (though surprisingly little on Jones himself as Tex), the 3D graphics show a marked improvement. I no longer had to concern myself with rotoscoped furniture, characters, even decorative household plants that eerily turned as I did, always facing me no matter what angle I was looking at them from. Smoother and more detailed than before, the graphics are far from photorealistic, however, marking the one aspect of production that doesn’t quite seem at peak performance. Still, objects can now be made out from afar, and no longer look like vague puddles of color in the distance. Explorable areas, especially Chandler Avenue, have grown in size and scope as well – there are more buildings to investigate than previously. Apart from Tex’s old stomping grounds, other environments include a luxurious glass-walled beach house, a creepy abandoned mansion in a swamp, and a quiet monastery atop a snowy mountain.
Cinematic sequences were once again shot on green screen with backgrounds digitally inserted. The actors themselves do not appear in the exploration segments of the game; if Tex enters an establishment or triggers a cinematic featuring an actual actor, the game switches to the full-motion video segments. The digital set extensions look great, and it’s often hard to tell where the real props end and the digital realm begins. The camera isn’t afraid of plenty of close-up shots, either, and while this gives the more believable actors the chance to really convey unspoken emotion through facial gestures (Steve Valentine’s Johanssen in particular is a joy to watch), it also exposes the grotesque make-up effects used to transform ordinary humans into post-fallout mutants. Plenty of care clearly went into seemingly inconsequential things, like including a spinning ceiling fan as part of the scenery, or faithfully adjusting the backgrounds to match the camera’s field of view.Continued on the next page...