Life can be strange. I find it fascinating that you can see someone (or something) for years and not know a thing about them. It's true of the myriad people you pass everyday, each with rich lives you'll never be a part of. But it can also apply to games. I'm sure everyone reading this article has seen the ubiquitous Project Eden and walked right by it dozens of times. Why wouldn't you? With generic cover art and not much to recommend it on the back cover, it seems just one more random stranger you won't ever become familiar with.
I've ignored the game myself for a number of reasons, but in a strange twist of fate it came to my attention while discussing Brute Force for the Xbox. Oddly similar but emphasizing completely different aspects, the two titles are like mirror images of each other. Both share unremarkable character designs and the concept of instant cloning, neither has much story to speak of, and both have four-member team-based play. Where they differ is the implementation. While Brute Force feels like 90% action and 10% strategy, Project Eden is the polar opposite with ego-shattering puzzles and combat that's more resource management than adrenaline rush. Opposite sides of the same coin, to be sure.
Set in the dystopian future (hopefully the cliché isn't a self-fulfilling prophecy), the world is completely covered with infinite layers of urban sprawl. Like today's big-city society, the wealthy and privileged savor sunlight and fresh air at the tops of posh skyscrapers. The lower classes are literally lower, living like rats in polluted, dark slums left hidden by decades of vertical expansion. Following a violent disturbance in a factory where "Real Meat" is made, a team is sent from the Urban Protection Agency (UPA) to investigate crime bubbling up from below.
Your role in Project Eden is to take charge of the responding UPA squad, using each member's individual strengths to get to the bottom of things. You can switch between all four at any time playing solo, or have up to three friends join the story mode or other multiplayer selections. Playing four-way split-screen isn't recommended, but I appreciate that the option is there.
Under your command are team leader Carter (with access to locked areas and equipment) and Andre, an engineer who can repair broken technology. Minoko is a hacker whiz manipulating data systems and automated defenses. The final member of the team is Amber. She's technically female, but her brain was implanted into a hulking cyborg body after a severe accident. Built to withstand hazardous environments and able to deliver harsh punishment via her on-board weapons systems, Amber is the backbone that supports the team in the most dangerous situations.
Essentially, the future world of Project Eden is one immense labyrinth. The meat of play is getting each member of your team in the right place at the right time to advance, but this is far easier said than done.
All areas of the game are intricate and vast, the concept of endless construction clearly expressed in the haphazard jumble of buildings randomly piled atop each other. In this richly realized setting, I found some of the best environmental puzzles I've ever had the pleasure of solving. Rarely is an obstacle as simple (and boring) as bringing a key to a lock since most barriers are cleared in multiple steps—often involving the coordinated actions of your entire team. I'll give just one example from a virtual world full of them:
To ride a certain elevator, Andre must repair its circuit panel. But before doing so, a reinforced steel door must be removed from his path. Minoko can hack into a laser platform and use its beam to cut through the door, but after finishing the job it's revealed that a pipe has ruptured and leaked poisonous gas into the next chamber. Amber then gets the nod, wading through toxic vapor unharmed to shut off the safety valve, clearing the way for Andre. After riding the patched-up elevator, the final exit door between your team and the next level requires a high-level clearance provided by Carter.
If that sequence sounds contrived, let me assure you that the approach taken in creating such tasks would have failed utterly if not for the astounding care and vision put into the Project Eden world. At several places during your search you'll notice wildly clashing architectural styles. An ornate cathedral juts from the dregs of a submerged shopping mall, and a filthy gang flophouse bleeds from the edges of a high-tech laboratory. The clash of mismatched architecture resembles nothing so much as a voracious steel and concrete cancer, perfectly representing the darkly corrupt future.
At one point while exploring the skeletal frame of a building, I looked down through jagged glass to see total blackness past the foundation below me. Turning skyward, I was greeted with the same infinite night, interrupted only by thin rain unable to wash away the world's accumulated filth. Core's vision for Project Eden crystallized for me at that exact moment, and my respect for the game became as great as my immersion.
This stratified megalopolis is the perfect setup for this kind of gameplay, and Core takes advantage of it at every turn with a sophisticated sense of design and cohesion far, far superior to anything they've ever achieved with Tomb Raider. (Needless to say, I was quite shocked.) These puzzles make perfect sense and never feel repetitive, which is the highest compliment you can give to a game of this kind.
It's easy to buy into this man-made purgatory with its countless little touches and abundant creativity. Project Eden's ambiance cannot be overstated. At the same time, an imbalance of design becomes apparent when examining the formula from outside the catacombs. The disc's strength—the necrotic environments—are also its weakness. So much effort was put into creating this slow-burn reality that some players may find themselves suffocating under it.
Specifically, there's more game here than the average person can reasonably handle. The eleven levels are quite long, and there is no respite once you descend. In other words, all elevators go down. The arc of progression makes perfect sense in the context of the story, but as a person playing a game it can be oppressively dense, extremely slow, and thickly deliberate. The levels are magnificent, but with some sections taking two hours or more to complete, the game is the definition of the word grueling. Project Eden is definitely one of the most soul-draining games I've been through.
Some of the puzzles are extremely hard as well, adding to the pervasive heaviness. Keeping a mental picture of complex three-dimensional areas, locations that need to be revisited, and the placement of each character is quite a task. However, the game's technical side unnecessarily compounds the formidable difficulty at times, making a tough game even tougher.
Project Eden was originally designed for the PC, and in making the transition to the PlayStation 2, it employs the now-standard "left stick moves, right stick looks" control setup. (Both first- and third-person views are available.) It works perfectly most of the time, but a quirk specific to this game is that you must maneuver your "look" crosshairs over exactly the right spot before you'll be able to activate a switch or item. Sometimes you won't even be aware something usable is there. Good console titles rarely require you to be so pixel-perfect, and you'll be screaming insanity while running for an FAQ only to find the answer was staring you in the face—you just didn't have the crosshairs on it. Besides that issue, the game is still fearsome regardless. It takes real thought and perseverance to get over each hurdle, so you'd be well advised to don your thinking cap and eat some brain food before starting Project Eden.
There are other issues bogging the game down like the incompetent artificial intelligence. of computer-controlled characters (your team will often get stuck behind obstacles—be prepared for some shepherding) and the lack of any significant characterization (three sentences between levels doesn't cut it). But in spite of this, the game has an undeniably amazing world to take part in, and I never once stopped marveling at it from start to finish. For gamers coming to the table with an open mind, patience, and determination, Project Eden is a unique Sci-Fi adventure that's both extremely demanding and highly rewarding. Like those people you pass by every day, it can be hard to get to know someone you don't, even if you've seen them many times. In Project Eden's case, the effort of making the acquaintance is well worth it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.