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Disaster Report (PlayStation 2) artwork

Disaster Report (PlayStation 2) review

"Each subsequent step in Disaster Report can prompt an aftershock and a split-second decision. There are instances where Keith needs to ignore the shaking ground and just run like hell. The rush from knowing Death is following one step behind – always – is something that we game-players savor. In the middle of a catastrophe, there's no shortage of ways to be caught."

Disaster Report is best when it soaks the player in panic, and it opens the floodgates right away. We barely see everyman Keith Helm, a reporter ready for his first day on a new beat, peacefully riding the train towards Capital City. Instead the game cuts to the station that lies ahead, where a grainy security camera captures the beginning tremors of an earthquake tossing people about. It's a day later when we rejoin Keith waking in the overturned railcar, evidently left for dead by the other passengers. As soon as he emerges onto a cracking suspension bridge, pavement ready to fall beneath his feet, the magnitude of this unique adventure takes hold. Stiver Island is sinking. Harness your survival instinct, or Keith is going down with it.

Each subsequent step can prompt an aftershock and a split-second decision. There are times when our hero needs to remain still and brace for impact, lest he tumble into the path of a sliding bus or slip off a precarious ledge. Yet there are other instances where Keith needs to ignore the shaking ground and just run like hell. The road may crumble into jagged platforms; lightposts, trees and entire buildings will fall in his path. He can't take too long to climb the uneven terrain, much less stop, because the briny blue ocean laps at his feet, threatening to sweep him away. Usually the slowdown that plagues the entire game deserves to be cursed, but in these moments it affords a few extra seconds of sweet apprehension. The rush from knowing Death is following one step behind – always – is something that we game-players savor. In the middle of a catastrophe, there's no shortage of ways to be caught.

The control mechanics force you to put your faith in Keith's elusiveness. It's impossible to fight the elements, so running and stabilization are his only maneuvers. When he needs to make a leap, you just sprint full-out over the edge and hope he clears the gap. If you've guided him in the right direction, he'll grasp the opposite side and pull himself up to solid ground.

The game, along with human nature, compels a similar show of trust towards the other people you meet in this dire situation. Most of the population has evacuated – you'll only find a couple of corpses along the road – but a handful of survivors remain on Stiver Island. Some of them, though, would gladly step on your fingers. Take Greg, a freelance photojournalist who's constantly snapping pictures. He's in no hurry to escape until he breaks a big scoop, but he's frantic to survive. When danger hits, he'll barrel over anyone in his way. You'll also meet a cop who, after sending his wife and kids to safety, stayed behind to do his civic duty. He's the perfect symbol of honor and devotion, up until the second he completely loses his mind. Out of abject desperation, he starts waving his sidearm at a rescue helicopter, determined to steal a seat at any cost. Clearly, not everyone is getting out of this alive.

As the world goes mad, it's up to you to provide compassion. During his adventure, Keith can save two ladies from certain death. Karen is blonde damsel-in-distress, forlorn that she didn't make her flight out before the destruction hit. Kelly is a high-school student with a lot more spunk; she steadfastly refuses to leave the island without finding her little brother first. Depending on your dialogue choices, one of the pair will escort him through different sections of the city (providing a reason to replay). It's during these exchanges where he can offer his companion encouragement and support. Build up enough trust, and they'll eventually clasp hands, Keith practically dragging her behind as they race towards refuge.

Or he can try to ignore her completely. In a merciful decision, the designers made Karen and Kelly invulnerable, meaning you don't have to babysit a life meter or worry about AI suicide. Wherever you go, she'll somehow manage to scamper close behind. It's her constant presence that builds a connection, whether you like it or not. When the game tempts you with a single ticket off the island, only the most cynical blackheart would seriously consider accepting. For everyone else, the bond (or a sense of common decency) should be so strong that leaving her behind to die is not even an option.

Disaster Report is more than a five-hour adrenaline injection, however. Sometimes, it's about simple exploration, one step at a time. Keith can climb on certain objects, which leads to unusual pathfinding. When he's stuck in a structure turned sideways, that means skipping up exposed girders, using a collapsed wall as a makeshift bridge, and ultimately clambering to an open door that serves as a the only stable floor.

In other instances, clearing an obstacle involves finding a helpful object in the immediate area. Knowing the tool – be it a length of rope or a jackscrew – often dictates the answer, so the game will also throw in relatively useless items, ones that would only clog Keith's limited inventory if he picked them up. A coat hanger seems to fall into that category, until you need a handle for a makeshift zip line. Everything must be considered when you're just winging a solution to stay alive.

The problem, though, is Disaster Report would have been a five-hour adrenaline injection, except the designers misused one of their own constructs: thirst. Keith has 'quench points' that steadily decrease as he exerts himself, especially when he sprints or climbs. When these dissolve his life meter starts to drain, and ultimately he falls comatose from dehydration. Imagine the urgency of dashing around the rubble, futilely searching for anything useful, and knowing your liquid reserves will only last a few minutes more. Since the puzzles aren't always taxing in and of themselves, a water shortage would serve perfectly as a natural time limit.

Instead, the designers made sure the well never runs dry, most likely because rejuvenation spots double as save points. They placed a working fountain on most every street and a faucet inside every building, fresh liquid freely flowing despite the infrastructure's absolute collapse. In the rare case where a tap isn't present, Keith can fall back on an army of bottles stored in his rucksack. At the end of my first escape, the wrap-up screen reported I had forced 8.8 liters down the hero's throat. Of all the ways to die, water intoxication should have been one of them.

These eternal springs are a security blanket in a game where you should never feel safe. They lose the thread of the game's appeal, but there comes a moment when Disaster Report rips its fabric of urgency and camaraderie asunder. Keith decides to show up for work. When he wanders into the newspaper office, not only does he find the editor calmly typing up a storm, but his new boss hands him an assignment: steal some files from a nearby office building.

This wrinkle is supposed to ramp up the excitement another notch with a dose of intrigue. After all, Stiver Island isn't ordinary; it's a manmade mass intended to solve the world's overpopulation problem forever. There's a chance its demise isn't an accident. In theory, it should be exciting to uncover evidence of a conspiracy before it winds up 20,000 leagues beneath the sea. Instead, it completely fractures the momentum. Keith and his companion are supposed to be running for their lives, straining to reach the last rescue station before the evacuation ends. It feels unnatural for both of them to readily agree to an extended timeout. The game gives you no choice, though, so Keith sets out on this distraction alone. She stays behind to file papers.

Even when the pair is reunited, the focus doesn't return to solely eluding raw, detached danger. Rather, it substitutes some shoddy stealth. There's a lengthy episode where Keith must sneak through an empty mall while avoiding a goon with a bazooka and a sniper with no aim. This involves hiding behind neat stacks of cardboard boxes and ducking under beds to avoid enemy detection. If you do somehow get caught (like, say, you press the trigger to yell “Hey!” rather than the one to duck), then the moron moves a few inches from his target and fires his shoulder-mounted rocket into Keith's face. Pretty sure that's not the best idea. Here's a better one: keep your ultralite Metal Gear Solid out of my heart-pounding adventure.

It doesn't help that an evil-just-because bureaucrat lies at the end of this escapade. Each rip and snag in Keith's clothes recalls a harrowing getaway from Mother Nature, so it feels wrong to wind up at the feet of some empty suit. Thankfully, the destruction never completely disappears. The ground still shakes, buildings still collapse, and as a finale, a tsunami approaches to swallow you whole. Disaster Report is worth playing for these numerous moments where you ride the current of chaos and uncertainty. Just be ready for when that tension, like the doomed city itself, begins to fall apart.


woodhouse's avatar
Staff review by Benjamin Woodhouse (August 28, 2009)

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zippdementia posted August 29, 2009:

Holy shit a great review! It first made me want to play this game then told me why I should stay the hell away! I love it! A happy ending wherein I don't have to spend more money! One of those rare reviews that makes me feel like I've played the game. A definite winner at the TT.
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bluberry posted August 29, 2009:

Sportsman, if you're feeling burnt out then Zipp will gladly agree to judge the Woodhouse/True match in your place.
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woodhouse posted August 29, 2009:

Thanks, hopefully everyone in the known universe agrees with you Zipp.
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JANUS2 posted September 02, 2009:

Just read this. Fantastic review.

I spotted a mistake: "...the excitement another notch with a dose a intrigue"
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woodhouse posted September 02, 2009:

Thanks. I fixed that error.

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