Eye-candy, puzzles and mutant dogs
Let's start with Project Eden's best point - Its graphics. They are superb; definitely the best I have ever seen in a PC game. This game is visually stunning at every point, featuring true reflective surfaces, fog, gas and fire effects, amazing weapon effects, beautiful coloured lighting, and some highly detailed, perfectly animated character models. The incredible attention to detail also stands out: When you fire a weapon, as well as an appropriately spectacular blast effect, you also get smoke drifting out of the gun in a completely realistic way. Or if you look into a mirror, you'll see your character's eyes move around as you turn their head slightly, just like a real person's would. If you tilt their head up, their eyebrows subtly arch upwards. The simplest of things delight - I never got tired of watching my characters press their hands on door panels or recharge points. Everything is animated and modelled to perfection.
In contrast to the amazing player models, I started off thinking that the enemy models were not particularly good. However, as the game progresses, you start to come up against more varied (and more wildly designed) enemies, and some of the mutated creatures in later levels are, in fact, some of the most original and twisted enemies I have ever seen in a computer game.
So...Project Eden features a stunning game world which is beautifully animated and chock full of nice mutant bad guys...But what about the gameplay? Well, the gameplay is certainly good, but Project Eden is a strange beast. At first I was unsure exactly what kind of game it was, but by the time I was halfway through the first level, it had revealed its true colours: It wasn't an action-adventure-RPG hybrid (as I had initially suspected). It was a puzzle game!
Indeed, a puzzle game. And as I played through the first couple of levels, pulling switches, opening doors, crossing swinging beams suspended over chasms, turning wheels and crawling through pipes, using the various unique skills of the four different characters, the game I was most reminded of was D/Generation
, an old, but classic puzzle game. In fact, Project Eden is kind of like D/Generation in reverse. Both games are set in towering buildings where you proceed from level to level, pressing switches, opening doors, shooting mutants and occasionally discovering a bit more of the plot - But in D/Gen, you work your way up the building, and in Project Eden you work your way down into the lower levels. The reason for this mission? Well, I'll talk about Eden's plot a bit later.
Once I understood that Project Eden was basically just a straight puzzle game, I found it very engaging. Every level is huge
, and is completely packed with all manner of puzzles. I rarely lost interest, as there was always something else to do. It is a mark of Eden's success that it was able to hold my interest through what felt like about a thousands puzzles. However, I'm not sure it would hold everyone's interest. More on that later...
Eden's puzzles range from the simple (get one character to hold down a button, to turn off an electric floor, so the others can cross) to the complex (turn off and on the blades of a giant vertical fan, so that one of your characters can descend on it). Amazingly, though, the puzzles are never annoying! I think one of the main reasons for this is that there are NO jumping puzzles. There isn't even a 'jump' key. The total lack of jumping is only one of Eden's great design decisions, and it means that you will never be frustrated by any pixel-perfect pillar-to-pillar leaping puzzles. Also, the difficulty of the game is just about right - Well, it's perhaps rather too easy, but certainly never too hard. The variety of puzzles is impressive, and there are several rather original and memorable set-pieces.
Although your crack squad of investigators are loaded up with futuristic weaponary, there is a lot less emphasis on combat than you would think...at least, for the first half of the game. Initially, this seemed like a good thing, as what combat there was felt very awkward and unconvincing, and the enemies seemed boring. However, the focus of the game changes in the second half - The amount of combat increases, until, by the end, there is almost more shooting than puzzling. The way this is done feels like a natural progression, and luckily, once you get used to it, the combat in Project Eden is pretty good. It's definitely different from most other games, particularly in the amount of hits each enemy takes before they expire. But once you get used to it, and you've built up an arsenal of great weapons and are fighting some really cool mutant opponents, I think you'll enjoy it. You obtain more weaponary as the game goes on, and each gun feels appropriately futuristic, with some novel features. Choosing the right weapon for the job is a fun part of gameplay.
Character control is very simple and effective. You are in charge of four characters, but control only one at a time. You can swith between them with a single keypress. There are only two squad commands, which are also simple and effective and are used by pressing the 'Enter' key. You can either order the rest of the team to follow you, or tell them to halt (They will then hold and defend their position). This simplicity works well, and the two commands are really all you need.
Each of the four characters has a special skill, which you will need to use to solve certain puzzles. Usually, it's pretty obvious who you need for each job.
The squad leader, Carter, has the least impressive skill - He can just open 'restricted' doors. Big whoop.
Minoko is the computer expert. Anytime you find a terminal, she can jack in and access cameras, gun turrets, door locks and machinery. When something is security protected, she can using her 'hacking' skills, which involves playing a fun little mini-game. One of the most fun things she can do is hack into powerful, ceiling-mounted cannons, and blast the hell out of enemies while you watch on a remote monitor. Awesome!
Andre is the engineer. Unsuprisingly, he can repair things. There is awful lot of broken machinery around for him to fix, usually identified by the sparks coming out of it. He also has a mini-game to play, which is more difficult than Minoko's, but still quite fun.
The last member of the squad is Amber, a really cool looking robot, who is able to walk, unharmed, through any hazardous environments (fire, electricity, gas, etc.) - Therefore, her main task is generally to go stomping through these dangerous places, to find whichever pressure valve or lever needs to be operated, to make the area safe for her friends to come through.
Death is not an issue in this game, so you never have to worry if you accidentally fall down a chasm or get eaten by a mutant pterodactyl. Anytime a character dies, they reappear at a 'Re-Gen' station. These stations are scattered liberally throughout each level, so you will usually reappear just a short way from where you died. There is no limit on regenerations, and they don't decrease your energy supply. There are also ample recharge points for your weapons. Both these features mean that all you really have to worry about is solving the puzzles at your own pace.
In addition to the weapons at your disposal, there is also some neat equipment, which brings a whole new dimension to the game.
The Rover is the coolest of the tech devices on offer. A tiny wheeled vehicle with a low-powered pulse gun, it can be sent out on remote-control, to go through small openings in otherwise impassable doors, go through ventilation tunnels that are too narrow for your team members or travel along narrow ledges. It's a lot of fun to use, particularly when you send it through winding underground ducts, and come up against rats and leeches. The Rover is able to flip switches, pick up items and shoot away minor obstructions in its path. It plays a part in solving some of the most clever and enjoyable puzzles in the game.
In addition to the Rover, you also get the Flycam (similar, but able to fly around for a limited period of time) and the Sentry Gun, which can be set up wherever you like and will fire at enemies who come into range. Needless to say, all these things come in handy, and underline the inventiveness of this game.
At any time, you can between first and third-person perspective. Both have their uses, and both provide gratuitous dollops of lovely eye candy at all times. Generally, I found the third-person view to be the most useful, especially in combat. First-person is often better for some puzzles, and it also showcases one of the coolest little features of Project Eden: Feet! Yes, that's right! In Project Eden, when you look down in first-person mode, you can see your feet! This is amazing, after being stuck as a floating head in so other many first-person games. I was utterly awestruck the first time I looked down and saw my shiny boots staring back at me, and I don't think the novelty value ever wore off. Not only this, but if you look down while moving, your character stops running (the default movement mode) and begins to walk. This feels totally natural, and is also very useful - For instance, when you want to walk along a narrow ledge or beam. This is just another example of the many small, but impressive, design features that you will discover throughout the game.
OK, time for the bad section!
The main problem with Project Eden is its slow pace. I honestly don't see a huge audience for a game that is this slow-paced. The puzzles are certainly engaging, but rarely exciting or devious, and the combat could be seen as sluggish, compared to many other action titles. Although I enjoyed playing this game, it never rose to 'great' status, in my mind, and after I finished playing a session, I wasn't left thinking, "Wow! That was amazing!" (like after a session of say, Deus Ex
). The game is solid and engaging, but never becomes thrilling. Also, due to its length (I've heard people saying it can be easily beaten in 20 hours, but for me, I'm sure I took about twice as long), I think a lot of players may lose interest before the end.
Then there's the problem of the story. For much of the game, the story is almost nonexistant, and what there is is bad. The initial premise is hardly great ('Find some engineers who have gone missing'), but then each level ends with the same ridiculous plot 'development'. You've spent the entire level working your way towards the source of the engineers' signal, but when you finally get near the signal, you get a message from Control saying that the signal has just disappeared to the next level. Then you get in the lift, and down you go. This is such a poor excuse for justifying the next level, especially when the gameworld that Core have created offers so many possibilities for more interesting ideas.
After a while, the plot does develop a bit, but this is no improvement - It just gets worse, and a lot more stupid. The story behind the game is less than half-baked, has been done many times better before, and I am really disappointed that the designers couldn't come up with anything better.
The next problem is the voice acting, which I can definitely say is the worst I have ever heard in any game (even including the early days of 'interactive movies'). The first group of undercity dwellers you come across are so terribly voiced that they actually made me cringe. Two of your team members (Carter - tough black guy! and Minoko - stuck-up English-sounding gal!) are so bad I had to laugh at them, and the lines they utter are so poor that I couldn't tell how tongue-in-cheek it was meant to be. A lot of the mercifully rare NPCs speak in regional British accents, and they're shudderingly awful beyond belief. Oh, and don't get me started on the voices of the gang members you'll spend the first several levels fighting. Don't they ever shut up?! No cast are credited with the voice-overs (It's just credited to a company, 'All In The Game Ltd.'), and it's easy to see why.
The lack of plot also extends to lack of character for all four members of your team. They really do have no personality at all.
And the A.I. sucks. I mean, I can understand why your fellow team members stand still when you order them to halt (You don't want them running off and getting lost) but I wish they would just move a bit when a creature gets up close and starts biting their legs off! Sure, they do OK, blowing away creatures from a distance, but if anything gets up close, they'll just stand there like idiots and pretty soon, you'll hear the happy fizzing of the Re-Gen station, bringing them back to life. The other option is to have them follow you all the time, but they also suck at running and shooting, so it's really best to just leave the rest of the team somewhere relatively safe, then go off on your own and engage in some solo-shootery. You're much more likely to survive.
The Bottom Line
I really enjoyed Project Eden. It's pretty, it's long-lasting and it's different. But be warned, it really is a slow-paced game, and it won't appeal to everyone. However, if you can get into it, I think you'll enjoy it.