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SummaryDifferent; and neither a masterpiece nor a bad game.
The GoodJeez...this one is controversial isn't it? Take a look at the reviews all over the net: opinion is pretty heavily divided. It wouldn't be though, if it was made by a developing company other than Lucasarts. The public, having lapped up the 'Monkey Islands' and 'Sam & Max' like starving puppies, expected more of the same with this title. And why shouldn't they? This is what happens when you get typecasted. Sad, really.
'The Dig' is nothing like 'Sam & Max'; the aforementioned, highly revered, adventure Sean Clark also worked on, and it's to his credit that he's created something so different. The game starts brilliantly: the intro movie is good and the player's first challenge is an exciting one. It shows that this was originally intended to be a film - (it's a common rule in screen writing that the first 10 minutes of the script have to hook the audience. Often they are constructed as a small 10 minute vignette, as is the case here.) Events progress logically up until you've been on the alien planet for a bit, then it starts to go downhill. Typically, the plot starts to disappear until nearer the end. But hey - at least now you're gripped. Sort of.
Character development is very good, and I'm a sucker for this type of thing, so I was most impressed. Especially since Sam & Max doesn't have any. All 3 characters grow and change by the end, furthering the feel that you're playing an epic. The score is also suitably "Wagnerian", as it claims to be, and the dialogue is good, if occasionally overblown.
Graphically, 'The Dig' is very polished. Although it does suffer from being in the period of graphical development where environments and vehicles can be animated in 3D polygonal glory, but not humans or creatures. This occasionally makes the characters look rough and flat against the backgrounds. Although, yeah, wow Ed, big deal.
The 'serious' plot, which is only really developed at the end, is actually quite interesting too.
The BadAdventure gamers come under a lot of stick for being notoriously stifling to the creativity of developers. That's one way of putting it. Another is that they know exactly what they want and yet the developers don't seem to share their vision. I wouldn't call myself a hardcore gamer at all, but I've often discussed the adventure sequels that Lucasarts have teased us with: Full Throttle 2, Sam & Max 2, and the next Monkey Island. We always agree on what we feel are highly important aspects; it is vital, for instance, that a sequel to Full Throttle would attempt to keep that same darkness, that same ugly brutality, that made the original so vivid. It seems obvious. Screenshots of the sequel before it was canned suggest this wasn't even taken into account.
It is also obvious that 'Myst'-style puzzles in 'The Dig' would be unwanted. The legions of people who bought Myst liked the pretty pictures the most, not the puzzles, which hark back to games like 'The Fool's Errand'. Whilst I think back fondly to the time when Lucasarts were willing to go out on a whim and try something different, it doesn't mean all their decisions have to have been good ones. Messing with polygons is alright for a bit, but it soon gets boring.
Can't blame them too much for that though, and to be honest, there isn't too much of that in the game. They deserve to hang for that infamous turtle skeleton puzzle however. I stared at a screenshot of the solution for nearly a whole hour, convinced my version had a bug which wasn't letting my complete it, before changing one imperceptible thing and then it finally worked. C'mon guys, you didn't give us this type of thing in 'Loom' and that was 6 years ago, why give us it now?
Going back to what I said about the game going downhill, the problem is that after you've been on the planet for a while, you'll end up at a central 'hub' and the other characters will suddenly go off and leave you on your own. All of a sudden, you don't have a clue what you're doing. There are some doors which are shut, maybe you can open them, somehow. There is a machine with some buttons, you can press them but they don't seem to do anything. Warren Spector, creator of one of the finest games ever, 'Deus Ex', once said in an interview how desperate he was to take players into worlds they can recognise. Players' creative imaginations are stirred in a game when they see a telephone ("Can I make a phone call"?) but not when they see an alien artifact. Whilst this game deserves no blame for being set on an alien planet, abandoning the player in such a fashion is a very foolish move when this is taken into account. Having few NPCs to interact with doesn't help either.
The situations in 'The Dig' are not humorous, and neither are the characters particularly. Not that this is a bad thing at all, but Lucasarts in the past have rightly concluded that humour equals staying power in adventures. Getting past that %#$*@! puzzle deserves a reward, and a funny sequence does the job perfectly. Ron Gilbert positioned 'rewards' like these perfectly in the first 2 Monkey Islands, and they were often genuinly funny to boot. 'The Dig' doesn't have many of these - your hard work usually just opens up a new area, which is usually empty. This isolation and the lack of cutscenes begins to frustrate after a while. It gets better near the end though.
A personal gripe is that the whole game is spent in one place. I hate it when I find central hubs in adventures - you walk into a place with loads of doors and you just know you're going to spend the rest of the game walking through them. 'Grim Fandango' and 'Full Throttle' were two of the best when it came to this: the latter had you riding all over the country, so you were never in one place for too long. And in Grim, you were journeying all over the world. You never knew where you were going to be next, but you knew it would be completely different and exciting. The first time I saw the transition from the end of Year 1, where you were in a port-side ghost town, to Year 2, where the town had been transformed into something resembling Monte Carlo or Vegas, was the best moment I've ever had with an adventure game. You won't get that in 'The Dig', you're stuck with these rocks and artifacts and you know you ain't leaving any time soon.
I like the ending, but it's implausable.
The Bottom LineNot a typical Lucasarts adventure, but still highly polished and well worth playing. It resembles 'Myst' not just in the puzzles but also in the sense of isolation, but it's an infinitly better game. You should still buy it; all Lucasarts' adventures are worth buying (so far, and since 'Loom' at least).
You won't "feel at home" with the adventure, but why should you? You're on an alien planet.