Apparently the good people at Midway noticed that there was a genre going unrepresented on the video game store shelves: the Evil God Simulator. To fill this void, they offer PsiOps: The Mindgate Conspiracy. It may not have been intended as an Evil God sim, but that's certainly how it plays, and I for one am ecstatic that it does.
Now, obviously the game doesn't bill itself as an Evil God simulator, but there's very few other ways to describe it. Sure, to the uninformed, it might seem to be a run of the mill third-person shooter with a stunningly well-implemented psychic power control scheme, but it's really something much more than that.
Before I get into the game's terrifyingly Nietzschean philosophy, it's important to mention just how well the psychic powers—the game's central mechanic—work. The powers run the gamut from telekinesis (throwing things around), to pyrokinesis (starting fires), to mind control (which speaks for itself). There are enough powers that practically every button on the controller has one mapped to it, yet there's no overlap in usage so they never become confusing or hard to manage.
The most spectacular thing about the powers is how well they've been integrated into the gameplay. They never feel tacked on or gimmicky the way so many other hyped features (such as "Bullet Time") have in the past. The designers should be especially proud of the level design, and the fact that they managed to create puzzles that never seem arbitrary or contrived, but rather like natural occurrences in the world that only psychic powers can overcome. At one point I found myself facing a precipice too far to jump. Looking around, I spotted a loose slab of rock. I knew that it was small enough to lift with my telekinesis, so I hopped on top of it and lifted both the rock and myself into the air, then hovered to the far side of the chasm. The design was so good that it actually felt like I'd used my natural abilities to get around a problem in a way the designers hadn't intended.
The game also features the best use yet of the Havok real physics engine. The levels are filled to the brim with loose objects that can be picked up and tossed around, used as weapons, solutions to puzzles, or just toys to be enjoyed. Enemies can be tossed about as well, and that's where the real fun of the game begins. The vast majority of my time with the game was spent experimenting with the myriad ways that I could toss the enemy soldiers around. Watching enemies fly through the air, slam into walls, crash into barrels, which then explode and send their flaming corpses catapulting in the opposite direction… The physics engine gives all of this a real weight and realism. It's so satisfying to toss someone off a ledge and watch them plummet to the ground far below that I'm finally ready to crown a new "King of Physics Engine use." For those of you keeping track at home, the deposed champ was 2003's Minority Report It's the seamless beauty and terrifying effectiveness of this system that creates the moral quandary I mentioned earlier. Perhaps it's just me, but generally when I go to play a video game, I expect to play the underdog-the lone decent person waging a hopeless war against impossible odds. Of course, there's no reason that a game needs to follow this formula, but there's something comforting and instantly identifiable about the David and Goliath scenario that it's understandable how many games use the model. Which is why PsiOps feels like such a departure, because here the pendulum has swung the other way, broken off, and buried itself in the inside wall of the clock. Yes, it's true that the main character, the hilariously named Nick Scryer, is horrendously outnumbered, but he's so much more powerful than the enemies he faces that it's basically like watching an army of ants trying to defeat the five-year-old who thinks that destroying their skyscrapers is a fun way too spend an afternoon.
It actually becomes hard to empathize with Scryer as the game goes on—the game's plot is about a secret government Psychic Operations team that has gone rogue and is seeking a powerful mystical artifact that will allow them to rule the world. Nick is the most powerful member of the team, and the only one to have not turned against the government, so he's sent in to stop them. Kind of like (well, exactly like) the premise of Metal Gear Solid. This is a perfect setup for a hero, but during the game's training levels (which are flashed back to every time Nick "remembers" another power), ostensibly set when everyone was still working for the government, a large portion of Nick's training involves slaughtering soldiers in "live fire" exercises. It just didn't scream "heroism" to me, since he never demonstrates any real remorse for his acts. But why should he, really? After all, he's not really a human; he's a new, better, more powerful species, and should all rights be ruling us normal humans like a king.
Even more disturbing is the nature of the enemies that Nick battles. The troops, called "Meat Puppets," are innocent people who have been brainwiped by the evil psychics and turned into remote-controlled soldiers. So all of the people that Nick kills throughout the course of the game are just victims, innocent bystanders in a war between opposing factions of supermen. It's rare to see an action game with violence that's this hard to feel good about.
All that may sound more morally questionable than "evil," but I haven't mentioned the game's primary method of regenerating psychic energy: the Mind Drain. Nick can suck the residual bioelectric energy out of killed enemies for a small boost. The real power though, comes from draining the full bioelectric field out of a living person—a process that ends with the gruesome explosion of the person's head. The bioelectric field in the brain is what allows humans to operate their bodies ("brain death" is the cessation of electrical activity in the brain), and is the closest physical analog to philosophical idea the human soul. So I think it's safe to refer to the game's main character as an evil monster when he spends a good portion of the game killing people by devouring their souls.
Despite all of my moral problems with the game, I can't deny that it's an incredible experience, one that has to be played to be believed. It's worth buying just to get a glimpse at a perfectly designed control scheme—there's even a "free play" level which shows off the fact that even when stripped of the plot and ingenious level design, it's still incredibly fun to just stand in the middle of a small room, tossing around explosive barrels and setting people on fire with a sweep of Nick's arm. It's a great piece of work, one that has me eagerly awaiting the inevitable sequel.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Playstation 2 version of the game.