While fans of the Star Wars movies have been blessed with the Holy Grail of sequels, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, along with an abundance of licensed videogames, fans of George Lucas' other brainchild, Indiana Jones, have not been nearly as lucky. Despite actor Harrison Ford, director Steven Spielberg, and writer Lucas all having openly expressed interest in doing another film based on the adventuring archeologist, a script has yet to meet with approval and actual production is not within sight. Simultaneously, videogames bearing the Indy moniker have also been scarce over the years. Making matters worse is a young upstart equipped with bigger guns and more estrogen by the name of Lara Croft. Currently starring in her own series of games dubbed Tomb Raider, she has essentially stolen all of Indy's fortune and glory by replacing him in his videogame absence. Thankfully, there's a ray of light for all the fans in waiting because the developers at LucasArts are no longer taking it lying down and have decided to recapture the adventurer's cap by creating a new high-profile game based on original material called Indiana Jones And The Infernal Machine.
When I say that this is a game made to compete with the likes of the Tomb Raider series, I'm not joking. The Infernal Machine is not a bold attempt to redefine the 3rd-person, 3D-exploration genre pioneered by the original Tomb Raider. Instead, it's a massive 17-stage exercise in transplanting the body of Indy into a Tomb Raider-style game complete with all the flaws that have typically plagued the genre. Expect to have unresponsive controls, which makes timing and executing jumps an unnatural task that never performs to expectation. Awkward camera positionings around walls and in claustrophobic areas is another mainstay. Gunfights also feel disassociated comparable to Tomb Raider due to the way enemies are automatically targeted and the way the Indy handles so poorly under strenuous circumstances. Making matters worse during these combat situations is that he isn't endowed with the ability to quickly turn and face the opposite direction the way Lara can and it is nearly impossible to do combat with enemies without taking significant amounts of damage regardless of your skill or your evasive maneuvers.
There are many attempts at interjecting distinctly Indiana Jones' trademarks into Infernal Machine, but the results are a mixed bag. For example, the backdrop story involving Indy trying to thwart the efforts of the Russians (rather than the Nazis) in recovering a powerful ancient artifact to tip the scales of the Cold War is fairly in line with his usual exploits. Yet there's little effort put into the actual storytelling. Cut-sequences and vocal narratives are sparse and there's barely an effort to fully flesh out the plot and events that transpire. Right from the beginning, Indy starts in a stage with virtually no explanation as to why he's there and from then on, he's dropped from one location to the next due to some vague semblance of a plot with little or no reasoning.
The same confusion can be said of the visual style of the game which is very authentic considering Indiana Jones' timeframe (which takes place around the late 1940s) and Indy's visiting locales. But again, in spite of all the artistic efforts to digitally recreate the Indiana Jones universe, it's all presented through the aging Dark Forces II graphics engine, which isn't up to the task. Everything from the environments to the characters look too blocky and primitive. The visuals are reminiscent of older games and severely lacking when compared to today's technologically cutting-edge offerings. The only positive offshoot of using an older engine is that the game runs great even on older systems. Aural efforts suffer similarly. The inspiring, trademark John Williams' theme is present, but throughout stages, consistent background music is non-existent (a la Tomb Raider) and I can't begin to explain the awkward-sounding voice actor that portrays the role only fit for Harrison Ford. Couldn't they have found a better imitation?
Even with what has been said about the maligned efforts that went into the story, graphics, and sound, these faults aren't what does Infernal Machine in for good. It's the overly contrived level designs that are too unnatural and never had me believe that this was anything more than a traditional 'solve-the-puzzle' videogame. Little effort was put into the ambience and in the notion of making a world where gamers can lose themselves in its subtle beauties. Instead, power-up items are unbelievably scattered throughout and in the strangest places. Gaps in the floors and between structures are always sized disturbingly the exact distance that Indy can leap and hang from. All the ancient excavations are reduced to nothing more than blocks that need to be pushed or climbed and puzzles that need to be unraveled. Everything ends up being more work than play. Can anyone say, "Jumping through hoops?"
Not all is bad with Infernal Machine and there are a few bright spots here and there. There are a few puzzles can be quite engaging. The stages involving whitewater rafting, driving a jeep, or riding the mine car can be quite a hoot. I also can't deny the overall quality of the game. Despite the dated graphics, LucasArts is renowned for having first-rate production values and Infernal Machine is no different. When all is said and done, I think what symbolizes the game best is the way the game tries to incorporate one of Indy's most famous trademark, his whip. You'd think something so characteristic would be integral to the gameplay. Instead, the whip is useless as weapon. The slight delay when he draws and cracks it makes it impractical for disposing of quick-witted snakes or disarming quick-drawing soldiers. What it is reduced to is little more than a elaborate ladder or swing vine that can only be used at a few specific locations (Don't get me started on how particular the game is for events like that to happen) and I never once felt 'in character' when using it. Indiana Jones may have been an action trailblazer in films like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Temple Of Doom, and The Last Crusade, but in Infernal Machine the videogame, he's more like an imitator. A Lara Croft wannabe with only Indiana Jones' characteristics tacked onto the surface rather than ingrained into the gameplay.
Somewhere between all the gaming, Chi some how managed to finish high school and get into the New York Institute of Technology. At the same time, Chi also interned at Virtual Frontiers, an Internet software consultancy where he learned the ways of HTML. Soon after acquiring his BFA, Chi went on to become the lead Web designer of the Anti-Defamation League. During his tenure there, Chi was instrumental in redesigning and relaunching the non-profit organization's Web site.
Today, Chi is the webmaster of the American Red Cross in Greater New York and somehow managed to work through the tragic events of September 11th without losing his sanity. Chi considers GameCritics.com his life's work and continues to be amazed that the web site is still standing after the recent dotcom fallout. It is his dream that GameCritics.com will accomplish two things: 1) Redefine the grammar of videogames much the same way French film critic Andre Bazin did for the art of cinema and 2) bring game criticism to the forefront of mainstream culture much the same way Siskel & Ebert did for film criticism.
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