Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181375)
Written on  :  Oct 02, 2003
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars4.5 Stars

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Choose your destiny, Tex

The Good

With their groundbreaking Under a Killing Moon, Access Software crossed that border between interesting experimentation and finding their own language. The game's flexible 3D engine allowed detailed interactivity, and the challenging gameplay was complemented by cheesy, yet effective bits of live acting tying into an impressive retro-futuristic drama that also happened to be a good game.

What had been hitherto reserved for first-person shooters became legitimate technology for adventures. From first-person perspective, you can move through the virtual reality, actually feeling the movement - not just clicking and jumping from screen to screen, but physically manipulating the invisible hero - or, better to say, exploring the game world. Of course, instead of 3D characters and objects there are sprites or photos of real people. But those pictures and sprites are situated in a true 3D environment. More important is the fact that the game actually makes practical usage of 3D, so that it becomes an inseparable part of the gameplay rather than mere embellishment. Many puzzles or other actions require flexible camera management and unlimited movement through a three-dimensional world. An integral part of the gameplay is changing the position of the protagonist (which is in fact the point of view of the player himself) and looking at the world from different angles. For example, at certain points you must find clues which are "invisible" when searching the room while standing up; you have to get down on your knees and look for hidden objects under beds, tables, carpets, etc. Sometimes you should also hide from enemies, and in order to do that you have to duck behind covers. Needless to say a non-3D environment would have turned such actions into mouse-clicking pixel-hunting, which is of course much less exciting.

Pandora Directive is basically more of the same - yet clearly better executed and with a few tricks of its own. First of all, it is a bigger and longer game. The playing area has been expanded, and particularly impressive is the immediate surrounding of Tex's office. The new locations there not only make this "hub" environment busier and more interesting, but also enhance the immersion thanks to the illusion of a continuous world. I wish all the game's locations were interconnected; but even with this partial implementation, the exploration feels more rewarding and the nearly grotesque semi-film-noir environment of the futuristic San Francisco really comes to life.

There is more of everything in this sequel: more locations, more puzzles, and noticeably longer playing time. The plot is much more interesting, and its development is more coherent and logical than in Under a Killing Moon. The game loses some of the original's charming goofs, but delivers a more genuinely captivating drama and a more convincing cinematic experience. The acting is better as well, the characters are more fleshed-out, and overall all movie-related material in Pandora Directive belongs to some of the best you'd find in a video game - despite several amateurish traits and a certain awkwardness in the combination of 3D and live actors.

One of the game's coolest feature is its highly touted branching plot. Many adventure games had promised that and eventually shattered our expectations with a few choices before the end sequence. Pandora Directive, however, is the real deal: depending on Tex's behavior pattern chosen by the player throughout the game it will culminate in seven different endings, all resulting from mixing the player's choices and calculating the outcome. Some of the choices include classic scenarios such as sleeping with a certain woman or refusing her advances. There is no way to know which ending you are heading to, which increases replay value and adds almost role-playing-like elements to the adventure experience. I wish more real adventure games though of this device, which is quite prominent in otherwise gameplay-less Japanese visual novels.

Already in Under a Killing Moon there was a typical "triple-answer" feature: when talking to people, Tex could normally choose one of three possible conversation styles. But in that game, those choices were there only for fun; they didn't affect the plot except for those cases when there were obviously right and obviously wrong choices that would cause Tex to die. Pandora Directive uses the same idea, but makes it an integral part of gameplay and story. During the game, you will have to make crucial decisions almost every time you enter a conversation with your love interest Chelsee. You can be rude to her, neutrally polite, or tender. A total of seven endings can be divided into three groups, according to the three behavior types. For example, if you only chose "tender" answers, you'll get the best ending, but if you mixed them with neutral ones, the second ending will take place, etc. The endings range from a typical happy end to a really tragic outcome.

The Bad

Essentially, Pandora Directive is a bigger, more polished version of Under a Killing Moon. Sequels often hesitate between sticking to the roots and breaking new ground to invigorate the franchise; Pandora Directive unreservedly belongs to the former type. It's a good thing that the fantastic engine was preserved, but I wonder whether it was really necessary to set much of the game in the exact same location. Perhaps an even larger area for exploration and a few additional "hubs" would have spiced things up a little more. The engine begins to show its age as well.

The game also shares some of its weaknesses with the predecessor. The story is decidedly less corny, and the acting generally more convincing, but the overall impression is still that of a low-budget drama. Like before, some of the logic puzzles feel contrived, interrupting the otherwise realistic gameplay flow and compelling the player to resort to the temptingly ubiquitous hint system too many times.

The Bottom Line

Pandora Directive isn't strikingly original and owes much of its success to Under a Killing Moon; but it's also clearly a superior game, rendering its predecessor nearly obsolete. Whatever that seminal game did, this multiple-path mystery adventure does better - resulting in a classic case of a sequel staying true to the original while improving upon it in every possible way.