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November 13, 2005 ・ Blog

Psi-Ops is a strange game. It has one foot in dull American action videogame convention and the other in glorious sandbox, toy set invention. In other words, underneath the presentation, the anodyne action man picture on the box, the clodding intro movie, the plodding plot, there’s a lot of fun to be had with it.

It’s the first game I’ve played that features realistic physics as part of the gameplay (my PC doesn’t have the grunt for Half-Life 2, OK?). You play as a soldier (hence the guns) with psychic powers. You can throw things about using telekinesis, mind control enemy soldiers, blow their heads up and create walls of flame. All this takes place in a game world that gives you great latitude over how you accomplish tasks and fight.

Mind control that soldier and use him to attack his friends? Or pick him up and violently throw him at them in a great, exaggerated cartoon parabola? Burn him alive? Or just shoot them all? You have incredible power in Psi-Ops. You’re like a malevolent god, toying with your foes, enjoying the ragdoll physics of their bodies as you throw them across a room into a wall.

The environments are solidly designed so that your freedom to choose rarely screws things up, making it too easy or stopping you from achieving missions. That freedom is remarkable, given the extent to which you can use your powers to “break” the game. You can, for instance, stand on a crate (more on them in a minute) and use your psi powers to float it – with you on top of it – across chasms.

It’s a wonderful feeling, one that videogames are rarely able to generate: the freedom to choose for yourself how to accomplish a goal using a varied and well defined toolset.

As I said, however, the environments are solidly designed – and that solidity comes at the expense of true surprise and imagination. Get ready to see a lot of crates and a lot of exploding barrels. Those videogame clichés are here for a reason, granted. They’re a standard building block for your telekinesis powers, for lifting, throwing, making piles to jump up. But they’re boring.

That lack of imagination matches the dull plot (the game’s subtitle is “The Mindgate Conspiracy”), which apes Metal Gear Solid’s but with a less characterful rogue’s gallery of bosses and less endearingly silly twists and turns. You find yourself wishing that the developers had stripped out all this fluff and concentrated on the sandbox. Maybe structured as a set of challenges – time attacks, completion only using certain skills, not killing enemies and so on. But the fact remains that there’s a lot more to this game than the box cover might suggest.