Doctor Jones!?! - I presume
After the release of 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' it's difficult to rate any Indiana Jones spin-off on the grounds of believability, but still The Infernal Machine is the most absurd I've played so far.
It's easy to see why the game is the way it is. Point and click adventures were on the wane, coupled with 3D becoming the norm. Maybe The Infernal Machine would have been a much better game if it had followed the path of Grim Fandango, but another blockbuster franchise had appeared since Indy's last outing. Tomb Raider. It borrowed many of Indy's stylistic elements and also appealed to the films action-orientated fan base. Of course it was natural that Indiana Jones should appear in a game to retake the mantle of adventure archaeologist. But why the ridiculous storyline?
It's 1947, the war is over and with it the Nazis. Good thing too, to avoid over-using the same enemies. Naturally they've been replaced with Soviets, so far so good with a chance for interesting developments. Except it's not used, instead it's an almost straight swap with the Soviet interest in supernatural historical artefacts going against Soviet anti-religious doctrine. Instead the Soviets are played the same as the Nazis were. A more interesting story could have had Indy racing to stop the destruction of history, such as when the Soviets smashed the monasteries in Mongolia.
The mystical force being fought over is even more ridiculous and puts the game to shame. It's a stretch too far that a demon from another plane of reality had the Tower of Babel built for him, and it's actually a giant machine with a strangely steam-punk styling. Furthermore this machine needs four key-like elements which are easily hand-held and each have their own amazing powers such as levitation and invisibility. Maybe it's because we know Indiana Jones as a real-life person as seen on screen, so it's difficult to shake off that realism. If Lara Croft had to face off against four different inter-dimensional monsters then I think I'd just write it off as computer game silliness, but I expect more of Doctor Jones.
The reason behind all the plots silliness is really the games strength, the puzzles. Every level features beautifully intricate physical puzzles that will require persistence and care as you gradually tease every nook and cranny out. It really is fascinating when you come to the end of a level and realise hardly any space has been wasted, you've had to use every room and every corridor. It's like film sets where a scene is shot from a different angle it becomes a new location. The game will have you on the look out for any ledge, hole or moveable block to proceed. Whilst it's not very forgiving physically, there are many opportunities to fall and die, it does also make sure that you can never proceed without collecting that all-important item so you'll never be in a dead-end.
The engine, whilst dated, also performs well and is solid. As with many 3D engines clipping occurs but that was common at the time and generally the engine will never allow you to get stuck. Enough key points have been put in to allow you to play pretty smoothly, though a free-look system would have been good. Often it was difficult to find a ledge if it was above Indy.
You would have thought all this action would tire out the 48 year old Doctor Jones? Well apparently not. He's more sprightly than he was twelve years earlier in 'The Temple of Doom'!
This shows off the main let down of the game. It's not Indiana Jones. The story is ridiculous, there's little humour, and little drama. The level design is a fantastic example of game level design, but is terrible at creating a realistic environment. Temples have rooms which can only be reached by a series of treacherous leaps or use of special keys. It must have made life hell for the Tibetan monks who originally lived in the Kazakhstan levels. Indy finds himself having to constantly run, jump and move massive lumps of stone to solve ancient puzzles which have all their parts in easy reach. It's all too contrived, as are the puzzles which can only be solved with the aid of machine parts which you've previously found in a set sequence. In Indy's previous outing, 'Fate of Atlantis' often you'd reach a dead end in one area only to return back later once you'd solved a different puzzle. Here the strictly linear progression makes it impossible, also as Indiana only learns the machine part locations one at a time. The levels are just giant jungle runs rather than believable locations.
Played from a 2nd person perspective behind Indy's head all dialogue happens in scripted cut-scenes, which do little but set up the next challenge. It's the only time we see Indy interact with other people, giving no time for wit or comic pacing. The only hint of wit comes from Indy's dry remarks, often no more than hearing “well what do we have here” for the hundredth time as he discovers some 'Medicinal 'erbs' in another unlikely spot. Being an action game it also has to scatter anachronistic power-ups such as the ever flowering herbs and medicinal packs on long dead bodies, to recharge after fighting off waves of angry animals.
Not that the drama increases when you face off against the Russians. Unlike the sneaking around we see Jones doing in the films and other games, here he becomes a walking one man army forced into creating a high body count. No room for the fast-talking Jones, just an ever increasing arsenal. It's such a shame after 'Fate of Atlantis', with it's fists or wits option that here not even a dialogue tree is available. The developers must have been too much in the thrall of Lara Croft.
I think the less mentioned about the games otherworldly finale the better, Suffice to say that by the time I played it I just didn't care and had the end in sight. The game is certainly too long and the middle feels like padding as you negotiate another locale for another treasure. If they could have cut to the end from the Russian freighter section, it would have been improved. I am one for short, concise games.
The Bottom Line
Interestingly the best level of the game is the bonus level. If the whole game had been that level it would be a better game. It's a sequel to the intro of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and does a fine job of setting puzzles that aren't too hard for old Dr Jones' body and takes place in a naturally physical puzzle rich location. Unfortunately to play it you have to complete a substantial portion of the game.
In the process you'll be exposed to a storyline of epic silliness without an air of feasibility. You'll lament the lack of character interaction and comedy in the vast empty locations. You'll be satisfied at getting to the end of a level only to then question why anyone would have built such a place. You'll wonder how Indy can survive five bullets without a limp, and where he keeps an AK-47, machete, pump-action shotgun, rifle and bazooka at the same time.
I can't think of a way of improving the story, short of just starting from scratch, which is a shame. Still if you forget any thought of story and treat it as an action puzzle game, it can prove some fun.