Whenever a story is adapted across numerous different mediums, it's impossible to avoid debates about which version of the story is the best. The consensus tends to weigh in favor of whatever the original source material was, but there are exceptions. The Godfather is generally considered to be a better movie than a book, The Dead Zone is better served as a television show than any previous versions, and even though Battlefield Earth is one of the worst films ever made, it's still better than the novel it's derived from. What I'm getting at, in a rather roundabout way is that, perhaps for the first time ever, a videogame is actually better than the book or film that preceded it. That game? The Da Vinci Code.
The Da Vinci Code is a third-person adventure game. That's an amazingly broad term, of course, so I'll be a little more specific. Since the death of the point and click adventure, developers have struggled to decide what the new prevalent adventure/puzzle game format is going to be. The Da Vinci Code combines Shenmue's naturalistic movement and investigation with Indigo Prophecys simulated physical actions and, oddly, a version of Hybrid Heaven's fighting system.
The game follows the course of the book fairly closely, with the player controlling both main characters as they travel throughout Paris and London solving riddles and ducking both the police and evil monks. What differentiates the game from the book and film is not just the player's involvement in it—in the book, at least, the reader was invited to solve the mysteries as they went along—but just how seamlessly all of the mythology and backstory is integrated into the gameplay itself. Unlike the novel, which stopped the plot dead for pages at a time while characters lectured at one another, or the film, which dumbed things down to a nearly insulting degree, the game metes out information in small, digestible packets, each one relating to one of many puzzles. Every time they come across an anagram, cryptex, or mysterious statue, players are only a few button presses away from can access a wealth of historical information providing background, context, and even a few broad hints. This causes players to focus intently on the information as it's presented to them, making them feel like they're actually learning something while playing—something that rarely happens with games.
This game would have been completely acceptable had it just focused on the puzzles, but the developers over at The Collective made the interesting and somewhat controversial choice to pad the game's length out with a few fighting sequences. While this seems like a perfunctory sop to the videogame crowd (who ever heard of a game without fighting?), it plays much like Shenmue's Quick Time Events to provide thrilling actions sequences for game players who aren't good at action games.
Whenever an enemy spots the player, the two of them switch into fighting mode. The two combatants circle each other, with the player trying to land a punch on his opponent. After making contact, the player decides what kind of attack they want to launch, and then, depending on his choice, he's required to press a series of buttons quickly, or repeatedly tap one button. Then an animation of the characters fighting plays out, which varies depending on how successful the button mashing was. Top-notch character animation and the brevity of these fights keeps them entertaining the entire length of the game, a fun diversion from all the puzzle-solving. As fun and accessible as the combat is, most of it can be avoided through a neat little stealth mechanic that allows the player to sneak up on potential enemies and clonk them nonfatally on the back of the head. The game even features a move allowing the player to hide around a corner, then pounce on his prey as they round it—something that none of the big stealth franchises have had the wisdom to implement.
Due to its nature as a cross-promotional cash-in, The Da Vinci Code needed to be as accessible as possible to as large an audience as possible, and with its simplified combat and traditional puzzles, it succeeds at that in spades. The unexpected thing is just how well everything hangs together. The lowered writing expectations of the videogame audience allow the story's many, many plot holes to slip by unnoticed. The gameplay transcends mere functionality and accessibility to be an actual pleasure to play, barring a few handling hiccups caused by the game's undoubtedly rushed release schedule. I had a lot more fun playing The Da Vinci Code than I did reading the book or watching the movie, and before the wags amongst you jump on that statement, allow me to clarify: I in no way meant for that statement to be damning the game with faint praise.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.