How do you reward the best use of psychic powers in a game since Psycho Mantis made your controller move? With a B, of course! You were just going to read the first few sentences anyway and skip right to the end, so I did you a favor there. How did I know? I've been playing Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, and so my mental powers are at their peak. I will prove this to you by writing the single greatest review ever written. Don't believe me? Read on.
The first rule of making a game with a really cool gimmick in it is, "Don't make me wait too long to use whatever power or skill the game is based around. You'll just annoy me." Fortunately, Midway realized that and the stretch from the beginning of Psi-Ops to the point where you receive your first psychic power is only a few minutes, so there's no waiting to get to the good stuff. There's just enough time to get a feel for the basic combat controls, practice some stealth, and giggle while you kick the shit out of a wooden bench. Almost everything in the game can be thrown, bashed, or set afire, and that's where one of the best parts of Psi-Ops lies. If you can see it, you can use it, so as soon as you receive Telekinesis, the first power in the game, you're off and interacting.
With each new power, you're taken into a brief tutorial level masked as a flashback. You're briefly shown the long and short of each power and then thrown back to the present to use it. So, in no time, you'll be lifting crates with your mind and hurling them at your enemies or lifting the enemies themselves and bashing them up against the walls until they shuffle off this mortal coil. Telekinesis is not only the first power you receive, but also the most important, and the one that makes the game as fun as it sounds. Taking out three enemies in the same room in three different ways is as satisfying as a game gets. When you're riding down a small lift and three enemy soldiers enter the room below you and you throw one onto the electrified track, throw a crate into another to knock him out, and then toss the third into an explosive barrel and he flies through the air on fire, you might need to pause the game and smoke a cigarette.
Second on the list of badass powers is Mind Control. Yes, you can take control of any enemy and make him do your will. Turn him into a traitor by using his shotgun to turn his pal's head into meat, use him to trip switches that you can't get to, make him jump off a high building, or even force him to end himself by eating the business end of his gun. It's particularly useful in areas with snipers, as you can generally possess one of them and take care of the rest before your Psi Meter runs out. Yep, you have a Psi Meter, which means that although you occasionally find power-ups that refill it and although you can steal Psi Energy from anyone, alive or dead, you have to be picky at times when it comes to using your powers.
Luckily, the developers managed to not only introduce a new kind of gameplay, but make it easy to learn and fun to use. By the time you're an hour into the game you won't have to think twice about which button does what or what the best way is to get past a certain situation or battle. Everything is instinctive and the controls are tight and very nearly flawless, and are supported by bright, sharp graphics and adequate sound effects. The only downside to the gameplay is that there are a couple of moves like sidling against the wall and jumping which almost never serve a purpose. I don't remember needing to actually sidle once. That's hardly a big deal, but if you're going to bother including something, you might as well let me use it, and that goes for a couple of the Psi powers too.
There are a few more Psi powers to be learned aside from Telekinesis and Mind Control - or remembered if you prefer - but I won't ruin them all here, except to say that you won't use them much, simply because you're never put in situations where you really need to. One of them even makes the later levels more annoying than they need to be, which is an awesome segue to where I tell you about what's not so good about Psi-Ops.
The worst part is the level design, which at times is needlessly complicated and vague. Although the game gives you brief flashes of what to do in each section, à la Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, they're nowhere near as helpful. Sometimes, they don't really show anything at all, and usually that's in spots where the level design is so bad that you really, really need to be shown what to do. I spent fifteen minutes in one level looking for a switch that I was never even aware needed to be flipped. It's that kind of thing that keeps Psi-Ops from living up to its potential.
Another is the story. Not just the story, but everything that's supposed to keep you emotionally invested in the game. The voice acting is pretty robotic for the most part, the dialogue is forced and incredibly cliché ("I know everything about your past, you are...uh....uh...*dies*" or something to that effect) and the story itself seems like it was included at the last second. There's nothing that makes you care that you can't remember your past or why you're doing what you are. Add that to the fact that Psi-Ops has one of the worst endings I've ever run into, and you have a game that's driven completely by it's gameplay. And I can think of worse things for a game to be.
Despite the lack of an interesting story and the fact that I feel the need to emphasize that Psi-Ops has the worst ending I've seen since the 8-bit days of "Congratulations! You saved the World! The End!", I had too much fun actually playing the game to not recommend it. With enough to unlock, including bonus levels and new skins to play through the game with (like Scorpion OMG OMG OMG), there's enough to keep you interested enough for one play through, if not two or three.
There was the possibility here for one of the better games of the generation, and while this game is fun in itself, Midway now has an obligation to make a sequel which lives up to the potential it fell short of here. An interesting story, a good script, and a Half-Life-ish physics engine would make for one hell of a good console game. Keep your fingers crossed that Midway gives the sequel which it will undoubtedly make the love it deserves, and in the meantime, play Psi-Ops and enjoy it for what it is.
· · · Derek Durham