They're so well-executed that it’s surprising that it took someone this long to think of how cool it would be to have psychic powers and be able to unleash them at will on the environment around us.
Psi-Ops is one such game. It has truly unique ideas for players to use psychic powers and intuitive ways to control them. The game looks good, and the physics are spectacular. The main premise and plotline are too generic for the game’s own good, which brings the experience down a notch, but without a doubt, Psi-Ops is the beginning of something great.
Gameplay - Psi-Ops looks in ways like your standard third-person shooter, and in some ways, it plays like one too. As Nick Scryer, you’re a psi agent who is attempting to infiltrate a terrorist group (who also happen to be psychics) to put a stop to their obviously nefarious plans. Your memory will be completely wiped clean, so you’ll have little to go on, save for a couple of guns and a melee attack. It’s not long though before you unlock the first of your many psychic abilities, which is the real meat of the game. Telekinesis, which is far and away the best of the psychic powers at your disposal, is just such a joy to use, that the game just wouldn’t be the same without it. In fact, the game’s design is obviously built around this power. Because of the use of the Havok physics engine, using telekinesis allows you to do many things within the game, whether that is ridding yourself of enemies or solving puzzles.
Psi-Ops contains a very non-linear way of playing, where there is multiple ways of solving puzzles or doing combat. For example, you can simply levitate your foe into the air and blast him at the same time, or maybe you fling him against the wall a few times. What’s nice about these powers and gameplay mechanics is that you can get very creative. Use another of your powers – pyrokinesis – to set enemies ablaze, and then levitate them with telekinesis into a group of others to set them all on fire. Or maybe use your mind draining ability to sneak up on unsuspecting idiots and suck their brains until their melons explode Scanners-style. Or maybe practice your power of mind control to take over the body of an enemy, have him blast every one of his buddies, then run him off a high platform. The possibilities are endless just using the powers themselves, but the environments are equally littered with objects than can be thrown or blown to smithereens. And there are even things in the game that don’t move, but can still be utilized, like electricity-charged areas that you can telekinetically throw an enemy in to. It’s evil yes, but extremely fun.
Besides the powers mentioned above, there is also remote viewing, which allows you to see through walls and doors, which can be used in a multitude of ways, from studying enemy patrol patterns to simply viewing for some extra information. All of these powers are equally accessible on the controller, though it should be noted that the Dual Shock 2 is a bit more ergonomic than the Xbox controller in terms of button layout. But in all, controls on both versions are extremely easy to get the hang of, especially considering everything you can do.
Psi-Ops has only one major flaw, but unfortunately, it’s significant enough to dampen the experience. The premise, the story, and the characters are all very low quality. The story is a very typical military-style shooter, with a clichéd main character that – surprise – lost his memory. It seems that star characters losing their memory is the standard in story setups in games today. But in a game like Psi-Ops, which is brimming with creativity, the generic overtones are almost unbearable. The plotline is completely unappealing, largely because you pretty much know where the story is going. There are plot twists to be discovered, but they hardly make up for the predictability of it all. And the characters are equally boring. Nick Scryer couldn’t get any more unexciting, and a villain who goes simply by the name “The General” is far from electrifying. The more we played, the less interested in Nick’s story we became. That’s a problem.
Graphics - Psi-Ops is a good looking game, but isn’t fantastically thrilling to look at due to the environments, which mainly consist of metal, walls, pipes, and the like. It’s certainly not that the settings aren’t detailed because they are well done, sporting crisp textures and differing color palettes. But since the environments never really get much of a chance to open up, you’ll feel like everywhere you go will consist of the same ol’ thing. The character models look pretty good and have lots of detail themselves, but the designs are generally as boring as the environments. The Havok physics engine is really the star of the show, as the most realistic rag doll physics bring the world of Psi-Ops to life. Objects and enemies both animate with stunning realism, and this physics model, along with the creative use of Nick’s psychic powers, is what makes the game fun to play.
The blood effects are nice, as they realistically splat against walls. Other effects are nice too, but there aren’t any that stand out as being sensational. If you own both the Xbox and PlayStation 2, the Xbox version has better visuals, getting rid of the jagged edges and sporting smoother, cleaner texturing. As for the PS2 version, it too is a good looking game, being only slightly inferior to its Xbox cousin.
Sound – When it comes to audio, there’s really nothing special to be found here. While the voice acting is adequate, the dialogue is pretty bad at times, and the extremely generic story makes things only worse. As a result, even though the game is trying to take itself seriously, it’s almost impossible to really buy it from the get-go, and as the plot progresses, it doesn’t get any easier (a villain simply named “The General”?). The music and effects are good enough, though again, there isn’t much here to stand out, leaving an underwhelming (but not incompetent) audio showing.
Bottom Line - It’s a shame that the story and characters aren’t better, because a lot of developers are going to be stealing from Psi-Ops. The psychic power-based gameplay opens up endless possibilities, and the Havok physics engine works so well that it alone can keep you playing well into the wee hours.
But since the storyline and uninteresting characters adorn the experience almost as much as the physics, the game isn’t all it could’ve been. But in the end, it’s the gameplay that counts most, and what’s found in Psi-Ops is good enough to keep you playing. Let’s just hope that Midway drops the whole premise for the next game, and starts anew.