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Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy (PlayStation 2) artwork

Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy (PlayStation 2) review

"Cutting away the epic pretension lavished on many other action games, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy boldly relies only on its innovation and competent execution. With lofty ambitions of psychic powers, Psi-Ops had just as much potential for utter failure as it did for resounding success. And while cult-classic System Shock and LucasArts’ fabled Jedi Knight have sheepishly tested psychic power implementation, Psi-Ops bravely brings this idea to the foreground..."

Cutting away the epic pretension lavished on many other action games, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy boldly relies only on its innovation and competent execution. With lofty ambitions of psychic powers, Psi-Ops had just as much potential for utter failure as it did for resounding success. And while cult-classic System Shock and LucasArts’ fabled Jedi Knight have sheepishly tested psychic power implementation, Psi-Ops bravely brings this idea to the foreground. The courage alone is remarkable; that its innovation reaches the height of its potential is unbelievable.

The focus of Psi-Ops is solely the constant use of its psychic powers to create a memorable experience. The introductory cutscene – action-packed though it may be – is unpretentious, doing little more than lending some sense of direction to a heavily gameplay-driven game. Armed sentries patrolling a military installation are suddenly caught off guard when a powerful psychic terrorist organization lays siege, sending waves of impossibly adept psychic soldiers and telekinetically hurled explosive projectiles – even a gasoline truck is flung at them. It’s in the midst of this chaos that our protagonist is revealed implicitly but undoubtedly: with his perpetually angry-looking face (which proves a perfect accompaniment to his no-nonsense demeanor) and obvious combat courage despite the entire situation’s obvious futility, Nick Scryer is a dashing hero. His continued defiance after his subsequent capture solidifies his role as the charismatic protagonist of this vigorous action game.

Psi-Ops is a stylish game that emphasizes substance over style. The inherent stylish appeal of psychic powers is undeniably the principle it was founded upon, but rather than flaunting it, Midway created a compelling, wholesome gaming experience around it. The acquisition of Nick’s psychic powers is incremental rather than instant: explaining this through the tired amnesiac hero plot device, he slowly regains individual psychic powers as fragments of shattered memory reconnect with one another to form a coherent picture of his psychic past. This extraneous plot nonsense just means that Nick’s array of potent psychic powers is gradually unlocked as the game gets progressively harder, keeping an already unique experience considerably varied. New enemies and situations present themselves threateningly, necessitating increased ingenuity and skillful use of each new ability.

This gradual regaining of psychic powers proves beneficial to the learning curve as well: players can focus on learning one new technique at a time. In fact, at the game’s onset, Nick is devoid of his psychic powers, enabling you to merely acquaint – or perhaps re-acquaint – yourself with the non-psychic aspects of the game’s multi-faceted engine. It’s familiar territory for fans of third- and first-person shooters, but it provides ample opportunity to ensure good footing in the familiar before progressing into the unfamiliar. Armed guards are encountered during the initial, non-psychic stint, and they must be dispatched strictly by non-supernatural means: with brawn or bullets. Although structurally sound, this beginning sequence feels slightly clumsy, belying Psi-Ops’ actual intuitiveness and fluidity. Firearms in particular are less effective than you might expect, mainly because their function is supposed to be supplemental – admittedly, until the acquisition of Nick’s first psychic power, Psi-Ops feels like a rough, underdeveloped game.

Fortunately, the initial sequence doesn’t drag on longer than it needs to, and as soon Nick regains telekinesis – the power to move, or even hurl, objects with his mind – Psi-Ops becomes complete. It’s an endlessly satisfying ability, but more importantly, it’s an endlessly useful one: with smoothly engineered controls, Nick can manipulate objects effortlessly and move at the same time. The entire adventure actually necessitates constant use of this ability: nearly any object that isn’t bolted to the ground can be manipulated. Crates and explosive canisters constitute the bulk of Nick’s telekinetic arsenal, but one particularly memorable fight allows him to smash enemy soldiers with an enormous stone bell. If no such objects present themselves, Nick can always lift the actual soldier barring his path, and hurl him into a furnace, an electrified floor, off a cliff – and if such hazards are absent, directly into the wall. Even before you’ve acquired your second of six psychic powers, Psi-Ops is an unforgettable experience.

Five more abilities complete Nick’s psychic arsenal, and while only one of them – Mind Control – features as prominently as telekinesis, all are vital in your approach to each situation. With the odds often stacked against Nick, Mind Control’s intrinsic novelty turns into indispensability. Although vulnerable to attack when employing it, Nick’s ability to control others proves infinitely useful for a number of purposes: activating switches that are otherwise inaccessible, evening the odds by attacking soldiers with one of their own, or simply committing vicarious suicide to avoid the potential health loss of a more direct conflict. Yet again Psi-Ops exudes masterful game design: using Mind Control is as simple as aiming at the intended target and pressing a button, at which point, said target is completely at Nick’s sadistic whim.

Nick’s journey takes him through a narrow array of aesthetically boring locales, from military bases to ancient temples, all of which are realized with technical graphical excellence. As he pushes on, he’ll have to fight against relatively simple, pattern-based bosses, and even a vicious race of psychic monsters that sadly isn’t much fun to fight; Psi-Ops is at its best when you’re faced with legions of ordinary soldiers, where the challenge forces you to make ingenious use of Nick’s psychic powers and his surroundings. Although Psi-Ops may not take itself very seriously, its combination of innovation and execution are rarely paralleled.

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Community review by radicaldreamer (July 09, 2005)

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