Prisoner of War (Xbox) review
"... Information. "
That's all they ever wanted. They didn't say about what. They didn't say who they worked for. They didn't say just what the Britney Spears that giant white balloon was. Heck, they didn't even say their names. They wanted information, and by hook or by crook, they would get it. Thankfully, Prisoner of War on the Xbox bears little to no resemblance to old-school, psychedelic, incomprehensibly mind bending TV baffle-box The Prisoner. If you are caught trying to escape here, you don't face the wrath of what appears to be a floating beach ball. Here you just get shot at, which is probably a little better for your mental health (though, surprisingly not for your actual health).
Prisoner Of War tells the tale of American Air Force Captain Lewis Stone - your basic World War Two gung-ho hero type - chiselled jaw, dapper hair, dashing good looks, healthy disrespect for authority and such. On a relatively routine mission (for war time anyhow), Lew is shot down and captured. Ushered into a prisoner of war camp, he quickly befriends some of the other inmates, and starts to plan his escape. But that's just the start of it. Something is most definitely afoot in the PoW camps, and as Lewis begins to unearth this sinister plot, he begins to realise that maybe his own freedom isn't his top priority after all....
This is one of those stories that is clichéd, but in a reassuring way. Everything in this merry tale feels familiar - there are mean German guards, shady inmates with dubious loyalties, Nasty Nazis with a sinister plot that could tip the balance of the war in their favour.... really a plot this overused should feel stale and tired. However, it's the fact that the plot feels ripped straight out of the sort of movie you used to watch on a Sunday afternoon that forms the basis of it's appeal - it sets the tone for the game perfectly - right down to the faux-movie-poster style cover art (although the chap that they have portraying Stone in this 'poster' has the look of a man who isn't usually allowed out in public unaccompanied...). You are presented with a version of the war in which the lone hero won't die, no matter what, and in which we know that all will work out OK. That doesn't mean that there isn't going to be the occasional spot of peril, just that the plot creates a very 'safe' atmosphere in this game. And no matter how cliché-ridden and pleasantly familiar, it's a plot that still manages to suck you in and carry you along, and in all honesty, the plot is probably all that's going to keep you playing through to the end of this title.
Those of you who are looking for an all action, guns-a-blazin' World War II game would do better to hunt down one of the Medal of Honor games, or other games of their ilk, as this is a game focused more on thinking than shooting, detonating and all-round carnage-mongering. But those looking for a real cerebral take on the sequel to the greatest war ever, in a similar vein to the fantastic Commandos games, will similarly be left cold by what they find here. There are no enemies to be killed, no undercover search-and-destroy missions to plan, no teams to co-ordinate. Instead you control Lewis in what plays out much like a videogame version of 'The Great Escape'. Of course, now there actually is a videogame version of The Great Escape...
At first glance you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was an action game, though: the third person 'over-the-shoulder' perspective is familiar to anyone whose played pretty much any 3D action / adventure game since the 32-bit era. However, beneath the familiar veneer is a relatively unique style of play (unique until the aforementioned The Great Escape crashed the party on it's shibby motorbike....). When you take control of Lewis Stone, he is waking up to his first day as a PoW. As Lewis you must make sure that you don't make the guards suspicious - that means that for every simulated day in the game, you must stick to the routine set out by the Nazi Scum. You must be at the roll call in the yard first thing in the morning, you must attend all meals and so on. So long as you are at all the daily events like a good little soldier, the guards let you be, allowing you to wander around set areas (at the appropriate times you are free to wander around the mess hall, the exercise yard, the bunkhouses and such) and talking to your fellow prisoners. It's during these times that you can begin to plan your escape. It's all very much like school really, only you get shot at less.
There really are many things that you can do in order to effect your escape: you can get your fellow inmates to distract guards, you can scale fences (so long as nobody spots you), you can hide in all manner of places (under beds, in bushes...), you can use boot polish as camouflage to evade guards at night... you can even dress up as a guard yourself. To ensure that you don't go through all of the preparation just to wander headfirst into a posse of guards, you can take crafty peeks around corners, or even take a peek through the keyhole, like a wartime version of Lloyd Grossman (although less bald). Of course, all you've achieved so far is near on free range of the camp. While it's good to be able to take a stroll whenever and wherever you wish, you're still a prisoner. Which is why you need to formulate a plan for your escape.
Which leads us neatly on to the massive flaw in this game. For a game which sells itself as an open ended escape-'em-up, in which you form a plan, and you work out just how to get out of the camp (the box even boasts that there are, and I quote, ''thousands of possible solutions''), it turns out that you don't have to do all that much thinking at all. Criminally, there appears to be only one way to solve each particular challenge the game throws your way. And you don't even have to work out just what that particular way may be, as more often than not other characters tell you just what it is you need to be doing that 'day'. Hell, if you still can't work it out , then those thoughtful people at Codemasters decided to give you a phone number for a ''full walkthrough''.... in the instruction manual! It's made painfully obvious that the charming developers don't think that us mere mortals have a kiddies hope in Neverland of solving the game on our own, and as such you can't help but feel not so much guided through the game as pushed through it at a relentless pace. This is hugely disappointing, as surely whoever is buying this game actually wants to play a game where they have to work out how to get out of a prison camp.
Despite this, it would be possible to enjoy PoW as a linear adventure. After all, even though you're told where to go and what to do, you still have to actually do it yourself (which is almost a surprise....). And at first this can be great fun: sneaking into the guards' bunk house, only to hear someone approaching; diving under the bed in the hope that they don't notice you; escaping with whatever it was you went in to get... it can all be fantastically tense stuff at first. However, as the game progresses, it becomes apparent that being caught by the guards is really irrelevant: they point a gun at you, yell a lot, then lock you up for the night. Yes, the night. Then you're free to carry on wit whatever misdemeanour you were endeavouring to undertake. They don't even have the decency to kill you if you're busted. Once again, it's hard to shake the feeling that the developers thought up a game that sounded really challenging, and then decided to remove anything that might make things too difficult. As such, what could have been a complex and tense game becomes something that would pass the weekend (but no longer) if all your mates are out of town and the pub is closed for fumigation. It really is the sort of game you'd play if there's nothing better to do, rather than one you rush home from work / school etc. in order to play.
That said, there are still some nice touches in the game. In order to bribe prisoners into going along with 'your' crazy plans, you need 'currency' - various crap that can be traded among the prisoners in a barter system (the Middle Ages alive and well in 'Forties Germany...) Some of this currency is just randomly lying around in bushes and under buildings, but - and here's the good part - other times it must be gambled for, in games such as dice. This adds a great deal to the game, as for brief moments it really feels like you're in an actual environment, rather than just being the only person in the whole camp who's really doing anything. Another nice little feature is your ability to get hiding places in which to stash your various items around the camp. So you don't forget where you've dumped your various treasures, there's a section in the game menu that actually tells you what you've stashed where. Again, it's one of the few little touches that makes it feel like you're in an actual PoW camp.
Presentation wise, this game serves it's purpose. Although graphically some levels do impress (Colditz looks very easy on the eye), on the whole it's all very workmanlike, from the fairly bland environments - in the unintentional sense... obviously things are supposed to look quite shoddy (it's a prison!) but the textures are all quite poor and uninspiring - to the quite blocky look of the characters, right down to some ugly, ugly faces, it all looks very much like a multi-format game that was designed with the technically inferior PS2 in mind, and then just stuck onto an Xbox disk as well, with no attempts at polishing it up (a frustration common in first year Xbox titles, unfortunately). Voice acting fares a little better, although occasionally the characters sound quite camp (I assume that this, too, is unintentional).
Really, this game is an absolute disappointment. It promised so much, and the basic idea of the game is one that is still full of amazing potential, but just ended up being a completely run-of-the-mill affair. While it doesn't strictly do anything wrong, and it's blessed with a great plot, it just feels utterly average. Rent it, play it then forget it. It's as simple as that.
What are we looking for? Inspiration, and neither by hook nor by crook will we find it here...
Community review by tomclark (February 02, 2004)
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