Written by  :  micnictic (391)
Written on  :  Aug 09, 2008
Rating  :  2 Stars2 Stars2 Stars2 Stars2 Stars

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High aims, deep fall

The Good

The German developers from House of Tales – the name implies it – place emphasis on storytelling, when they create their games. Always sticking to the adventure genre, they gained some popularity with "The Moment of Silence" in 2004 – a game, that didn't tap its full potential, but was nevertheless a quite enjoyable affair. "Overclocked" is their next big project, after they released some mini-adventures for mobile phones and helped converting the awful German telenovela "Verliebt in Berlin" into a video game.

The story of "Overclocked" is filled with violence and despair and doesn't sound uninteresting on paper. It takes place in the city of New York and casts you as a psychiatrist named David McNamara, who's an expert for post-traumatic amnesia. Your job is to reconstruct the lost memories of five young people, who seem to have shared a traumatic experience. When the police found them, the three men and two women were romping through the city, shooting with pistols, confused and unpredictable. As McNamara, you have to visit them in an old and run-down hospital on Staten Island to find out what happened. It's no safe job: some of them still behave aggressively and one patient even attacks David in the beginning.

There are two interesting aspects about "Overclocked". The first thing is, that you actually control six different characters – as soon as the patients remember certain events, you adopt the role of the respective person in an interactive flashback sequence. The second, perhaps even more outstanding aspect is the reverse storytelling, that starts with the most recent memories and goes on to the earliest. The concept is in some regards similar to Christopher Nolan's movie experiment "Memento", where Guy Pearce is unable to store new memories. The narrative structure of "Overclocked" is arguably even more complicated, since parts of the story are not only told in reverse chronological order, but also from different perspectives. Basically we have two lines of narration: the present one, where McNamara speaks with his patients, and the flashbacks, that slowly reveal past events by moving backwards in time and using five different viewpoints.

McNamara still remains the lead character of "Overclocked", not only because you control him more often than the others, but also because he's much more fleshed out than his patients. He's in fact a quite despaired person, who's constantly on the brink of collapse. I'm not spoiling anything, when I tell you, that his wife is going to leave him, as it already becomes clear in the very first scenes. And this is not the only problem, that troubles the poor psychiatrist. He's a quite ambivalent character with many good sides and many weaknesses. My impression is, the goal was to create a protagonist, who appears more human than other stereotypical video game heroes. The idea is good, but doesn't really work out, due to his often noncredible behaviour.

The 3D graphics aren't spectacular, but do a solid job in reflecting the game's dark atmosphere. Some well made cutscenes show important events and even the interactive parts create a cinematic feeling with their frequent cuts and panning. Music is rather sparse, but sound effects are put to good use and the voice actors do a more than solid job in the German version. The atmosphere is almost depressing: the game portrays an utterly cheerless New York, where rain keeps coming down in sheets. What we get, is arguably just McNamara's pessimistic view of the world – a character, who's ultimately tired of his own existence. The bitter taste of urban life reminded me a little of David Fincher's "Seven", but "Overclocked" is still far away from reaching the same level of intensity.

The Bad

The biggest flaw of "Overclocked" is quite simply its horrible gameplay. It is streamlined, unimaginative and boring. For the sad trend, that so many people seem to have lost their confidence in adventures, I tend to blame games like this one.

Most of the puzzles, McNamara has to solve, center on making his five young patients remember memories of their past. You usually run from one patient to another, talk to them and let them listen to audio recordings of what their colleague's said in earlier conversations. When a patient remembers something, you take over his/her role in one of the interactive flashbacks. During those scenes the five characters all stray around an abandoned military base – how they got there, is unclear. What they do there, is also unclear. What you have to do, is mostly just finding ways to open countless doors, air grilles and crates. Therefore you have to find keys, guess numerical codes and use the good old crowbar. The inflationary use of this worn-out stuff is sometimes really hard to believe.

I didn't have to think, while I played "Overclocked". I moved through it almost mechanical, as the gameplay becomes a matter of routine quite quickly – one standard task after another. It's a rare thing, that you're obliged to tackle a problem, that has nothing to do with opening things or jogging memories. As one of the patients, you have at one point to repair an old radio set to transmit a distress call. And as McNamara, you once have to darken a room and dazzle a patient with a flashlight, to make him recall a situation, he had in a dark corridor. I'm no expert, but I guess, a real traumatized man would rather wet his pants than share a suppressed memory, if his psychiatrist suddenly behaved like this...

The sad truth is, that the game is neither imaginative nor interesting, even when it breaks away from the routine, it establishes. And I haven't even talked about the oppressive linearity, that troubles the whole thing from start to finish. Progress can only be made, when you trigger the event, the designers had as next step in mind. What you have to do, must be done in a strict order. Further, the restrictive interface simply prohibits wrong actions. Hotspots become inactive, when they have no further use; characters refuse to go to places, that aren't relevant for the time being; you can neither move nor act freely. If you ever wanted to know, how your dog feels, when you put a very short leash on him, try "Overclocked". The game just drags you along without ever asking for your initiative, cutting down your activities, your movement and your thoughts. If this isn't a step into the wrong direction, I must be really disoriented.

However, even when you can live with the streamlined and unimaginative gameplay, I still wouldn't recommend "Overclocked". That the story puts your freedom in such a tight corset is even harder to forgive, when you take in account, that the story isn't even great. I have to nag about it as well.

"Overclocked" lacks a quality, that's vitally important for every game, that calls itself a thriller: it's called suspense. Almost nothing exciting or interesting happens during the slowly paced first half of the game. In the second half the story accelerates a little, but the whole mystery is far too obvious. You will likely anticipate the secret behind the traumatized patients long before McNamara does it, whose deductive skills appear rather slow. In fact, the protagonist's relation to his wife is the only somewhat interesting facet in a boring and predictable story.

The unorthodox narrative structure – the fact, that the story moves backwards in time – may sound interesting on paper, but doesn't benefit the game either. Behind the unusual structure hides an ordinary standard plot with lots of fundamental drawbacks. The credibility of the story is ruined by numerous plot holes and inconsistencies. The characterization of the patients is as superficial as their talk is silly. The writing, one of the strengths in "Moment of Silence", becomes unbelievably pathetic in "Overclocked". Some of the worst examples happen during McNamara's pub crawls, where he weeps on a poor barkeeper's shoulder about how miserable his life is – here it gets painful.

The Bottom Line

"Overclocked explores an archetypical, yet actual condition of mankind: violence", says the press release. Sounds quite intelligent and profound, eh? However, countless other video games deal with violence as well and the approach of "Overclocked" is hardly more philosophical. PR and product have at least something in common: they both try to sound sophisticated, but consist only of hot air.

There are enough people, who see "Overclocked" as a keen and interesting work, just because it dares to be a little different. But concepts are only as good as their execution. I don't think, the story is good, just because it tries to deal with some uncommon themes in some uncommon ways. There are numerous games with classic fantasy tales, that achieve their own goals more convincingly. It's obvious that House of Tales sacrificed the gameplay for storytelling ambitions, they couldn't realize. The result is streamlined adventure boredom at its worst; a disappointment, that fails in both disciplines.