Body Harvest (Nintendo 64) review
"The N64 library contains a reasonable share of classics, considering the lack of software support compared to the titan that was the Playstation. Many of these classics are well known: Zelda, Mario, Goldeneye, and so on. As in any field of entertainment, though, some classics are woefully overlooked. I direct your eye to Body Harvest, a game that may lack the glossy presentation and heavyweight pedigree of a game like Zelda, but makes up for it with imagination and ambition. "
The N64 library contains a reasonable share of classics, considering the lack of software support compared to the titan that was the Playstation. Many of these classics are well known: Zelda, Mario, Goldeneye, and so on. As in any field of entertainment, though, some classics are woefully overlooked. I direct your eye to Body Harvest, a game that may lack the glossy presentation and heavyweight pedigree of a game like Zelda, but makes up for it with imagination and ambition.
The premise is quite simple, but dramatic. Over the course of the twentieth century, Earth was repeatedly attacked by insectile aliens that sought to harvest the human race for sustenance. Each time, the invaders walled off an area with towering energy shields, and harvested everyone trapped within. Now, in 2016, the battle comes to a head; the aliens attack an orbiting space station that constitutes the last bastion of the human race. As the huge insects stalk the corridors wiping out the last remnants of our race, a lone marine, Adam Drake, makes a desperate run for an experimental time-travelling module and launches into the past to try and stop the horror at its source: the periodic body harvests.
The player, of course, is Adam Drake. Your assigned task is to stop each harvest as it happens. Body Harvest doesnít bother wrestling with the logic of time travel (why does Drake land during each harvest, rather than before?) but this just keeps the gaming experience streamlined, and in case the time travel is really only a justification for dumping a futuristic marine into a selection of twentieth century periods and locales. It all kicks off in Greece in 1916, a setting that remains my strongest memory of this game. Drake sets off to stop the harvesting in Greece equipped with only a pistol with unlimited ammunition, some kind of high-visibility orange body armour, and helpful tips from the mysterious Daisy, who just sits in the time-jumping Alpha 1 module like any good in-game mission support character. So far it sounds quite mundane. But fear not; things are about to get better.
When Drake steps out of Alpha 1 into the Greek countryside and the player seizes the analogue stick to direct him, he breaks into a very masculine sprint that moves him at the speed of a slow trudge. You may experience a slight sinking feeling at this point. I did. Fortunately, Drake only has to run as far as the nearest parked delivery truck, motorcycle or suitably period-looking car Ė for this is where Body Harvestís DMA Design origins manifest themselves. DMA were best known for creating the notorious Grand Theft Auto, and freestyle vehicle appropriation is very much at the forefront of Body Harvest too. Vehicles in BH serve, as in real life, primarily as a much faster mode of transport than walking. They also have an important secondary function, however: protection. Pretty much any vehicle, whether itís a tank, a fire engine or just a primitive 1916 car, puts a welcome layer of metal between you and the corrosive-looking globs the aliens spit at you. Other vehicles add their own twist, such as a slow-moving paddle steamer that is for anything except ferrying passengers, or a biplane that represents your only chance of crossing a particular shield wall to destroy the enemy generator. Drake, you see, must balance the demands of the mission Ė taking down shield generators in order to prevent the harvest Ė with simple humanity. He canít just leave people to die, however pressing his mission is. WellÖhe canít leave TOO many to die.
An assortment of puzzles seek to thwart Drake in his task, and though theyíre generally not excessively taxing they do provide a diversion that stops the driving and shooting getting stale. The other thing that keeps you on your toes Ė and drives you up the wall Ė is the distinctive bleep and sudden red arrow that denotes the arrival of a Harvester Wave. Some are scripted but many are random, as often as not requiring you to take Drake way off course or even backtrack some distance. And you donít want to ignore the warning, or even dawdle. Whatever youíre doing, drop it and put your foot to the floor. If you donít get there fast, the handful of aliens that make up a Harvester Wave will eat through the entire population of the target area and completely scupper your entire mission. These interruptions can be frustrating, but they work wonders in maintaining a sense of tension and urgency.
Level design is central to Body Harvestís success. Each time period provides the player with a good-sized area of land to explore, but this area is always divided into smaller portions contained within the alien shield walls. At first this disappointed me a little, since I had looked forward to roaming around the locations I could see on my map, but it actually works well. Each cell of the map is large enough to contain a few interesting features and allow exploration, but compact enough to keep you focused and avoid overwhelming you Ė and becoming overwhelmed would be a very real danger between the puzzles, the Harvester Waves, the occasional natural disasters, and the scale of each map. Indeed, the game is far from easy even with its compartmentalised levels. Greece 1916 isnít so bad, but each time period is markedly more difficult than the last (though the challenge within each level can vary quite widely). I must admit Iíve never actually finished Body Harvest; the United States of 1966 has thwarted me every time. While this can result in frustration, Body Harvest mostly manages to tread that delicate line between being challenging and being downright unfair.
Strangely, the clumsy controls arenít part of the problem when it comes to frustration, but they are far from intuitive. Playing them again, I find many N64 games suffer from unwieldy control, thanks largely to the distinctive controller which seemed so innovative and comfortable at the time but lacks the finesse of more recent controllers. As mentioned above, Adam Drakeís very butch running animation is accompanied by movement so sluggish that slugs should be offended at my use of the term. Vehicles are both quicker and more responsive, but Ďresponsiveí doesnít necessarily mean Ďeasy to driveí. If you play Body Harvest for more than a couple of minutes, you will find yourself plunging into the sea, off cliffs and into ravines with tedious frequency. Distressingly, being immersed in water rapidly, though not instantly, kills our futuristic super-marine. This has a practical purpose Ė it makes careful navigation and preservation of vehicles more important Ė but is infuriating nonetheless. In practice, it is these types of in-game quirk, rather than a poor control scheme, that cause problems. Similarly, while you can view the level map at any time, it often doesnít indicate where impassable ridges or gaping chasms lie, only adding to the woes of trying to chase down Harvester Waves.
Still, the oddities of execution donít detract too badly from Body Harvestís unique idea, and the atmosphere of the game is adequate compensation. Itís not the best looking game (though itís ok, and the Java level looks quite nice in places) but the constant threat of the Harvester Waves, the abandoned vehicles and barricaded buildings, and the occasional terrified person defiantly hiding in some shack or outpost all combine to give Body Harvest an atmosphere that, while full of action, is also menacing. There seems to be a pervasive dread in every time period, and at times Adam Drake really does feel like the sole, lonely hope for the preservation of the human race Ė and unlike many games that use hordes of enemies to delay what the player knows will be their inevitable success, Body Harvest often feels like a losing battle. Itís quite an achievement and for that reason, if for no other, itís worthy of your time.
Body Harvest, then: an ambitious and different gaming experience, damaged by its unwieldy execution in some areas, but ultimately redeemed by an oppressive atmosphere, well-maintained tension and its determination to do something unique.
Community review by SamildanachEmrys (November 07, 2010)
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