Psi-Ops: Clunky Fun

I bought this game YEARS ago. Seriously, I think it was in about 2008, or maybe even 2007, which means it’s taken me nearly four years to get round to finishing it. Yowch. The trouble is, I just don’t have the time to spend on playing games that I used to – whereas at university I would happily while away a whole weekend grinding through Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast, nowadays I don’t have two hours to rub together when it comes to partaking in my favourite hobby (playing video games that is, not grinding through Phantasy Star Online – I eventually got bored of that at around the 60-hour mark).

Anyway, I originally bought Psi-Ops all those years ago after reading an interesting ‘Time Extend’ feature on it in EDGE magazine and, in a happy conincidence, EDGE have recently included it again in a feature of the 50 best ‘obscure’ games you have to play (see issue 231). I have to agree with EDGE on this point – Psi-Ops is a real hidden gem, if a little rough around the edges (but more on that in a minute).

I’ve recently gone back to my PS2 after being inspired by Sir Gaulian’s plan to restrict himself to playing only games released before 2006 – although seeing as he’s recently been raving about Deus Ex: Human Evolution and Resident Evil: Mercenaries, I’m guessing that plan hasn’t come to fruition yet. Still, it’s always interesting to take a look into the past, and the speed at which the world of gaming moves means that even though Psi-Ops was only released in 2004, it feels positively Stone Age when compared to the latest first-person shooters. For a start, the graphics are horribly murky and blurry, which takes a bit of getting used to after years of being mollycoddled with high definition – I had to whack up the brightness on my telly to maximum just to make out what was going on.

Still, considering the age of the game, you can just about forgive murky graphics – what’s unforgiveable though is the utterly dreadful and instantly forgettable storyline. I criticised the hokey sci-fi plot of Assassin’s Creed a few weeks ago, but that game displayed Tolstoy-esque levels of sophistication compared to Psi-Ops. Such bland characters! Such threadbare emotion! Such BLOODY AWFUL acting! My God, why… Plus there’s an awful ‘jump the shark’ moment towards the end of the game, when suddenly you’re faced with invisible floating ‘aura beasts’ from another dimension – I half-expected The Great Gazoo to pop up. Anyway, I can’t be bothered to get into the shakey set-up for the game (head here if you want a plot synopsis) – all you need to know for the purposes of this review is that you’re a soldier with various mind powers, and it’s these powers that elevate an otherwise average shooter into the realms of ‘must-play classic’.

I believe I’m right in saying that this was one of the first games to fully integrate realistic physics into the main gameplay – one of the first ‘psi-powers’ you unlock is telekinesis, which lets you pick up various game furniture and fling it about with wanton abandon. Not only that, you can pick up enemies too, and one of the most satisfying parts of the game is being able to lift up some hapless grunt and casually fling him off the side of a building. Evil, but fun. More and more of these psi-powers are unlocked as you go through the game, and each one encourages you to alter your playing style accordingly – for example, the ‘mind control’ power gives you the option of possessing an enemy and then forcing them to fire on their own side, providing you with a more tactical option than just wading in and lobbing rocks at everyone in sight.

The game is at its absolute best when you’re given the chance to use your various powers creatively: on some of the later levels you’re presented with some large, open plan areas that are swarming with enemies, and these can be approached in a number of ways. Do you opt for the stealth option, using remote viewing to suss out the positions of your enemies before picking them off with the sniper rifle? Or do you distract them using mind control before lobbing a boulder at them while their back is turned? There are loads of different ways to approach the game depending on how you like to play, and I loved the opportunity to exercise some real creativity when it came to planning your way through the enemy’s defences.

I’ll have to admit though, I did struggle in a few places – for a start, the game is rock hard at some points, which came as a bit of a shock after the modern shooters I’ve been playing recently. I’m too used to health regeneration, autosaves, graceful difficulty curves and closely bunched checkpoints, so plunging back into a time when none of these existed caused a few hair-pulling moments. “What, you mean I have to restart ALL the way back there?” was a common refrain throughout the game, along with “Where are all the bloody health packs?” Far from being a bullet sponge, the main character will croak after a few direct hits from gunfire – presumably this is to encourage you to use your psi-powers intelligently rather than wade in with all guns blazing (in fact, your own guns are fairly weak compared to your psi-powers). However, this did detract from the enjoyment a little – the game is at its best when it allows you to feel like some all-powerful demigod, able to toss around enemy soldiers like so many ragdolls, so being humiliatingly brought to your knees by a few shots from a pop gun is a bit frustrating. Plus, the cynical part of me can’t help but feel the fragility of the main character might be a way to artificially extend the lifespan of this otherwise short game – my completion time was about four and a half hours, but if you factor in all of the restarts, I easily spent twice that long playing.

Other points that let the game down are the noticeably wobbly collision detection and the somewhat tricky controls: I actually developed ‘gamer’s claw’ at one point, which hasn’t happened since Street Fighter II. Worst of all though are the one-hit-kill invisible mines that pop up right at the end. A note to all game designers: INVISIBLE MINES HAVE NEVER, EVER BEEN A GOOD IDEA. Please, please, PLEASE do not include invisible hurty things in your games: all they do is make gamers want to hunt you down and post nasty things through your letterbox.

However, despite all of the negative points above, I still really enjoyed Psi-Ops. I briefly contemplated sending it to the charity shop last year, but I’m glad I gave it a chance because the psi-powers really do make for an interesting and (almost) unique gameplay experience. Sure, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but as long as you can put up with the niggles described above, it’s a fun retro experience.

[As dictated by Lucius Merriweather. See The Mantelpiece.]