Clive Barker's Jericho can be a tough game to pin down. It's a squad-based shooter, but it's not a tactical action game. It's from Clive Barker, but it's not really scary—just very dark and bloody. The game ushers players from one section to the next to fight one onslaught of monsters after another, interspersed with the occasional cutscene, a simple puzzle here and there, and some pretty spectacular boss battles. It's a ridiculously simple formula, one that's really a throwback to shooters like Doom and even MDK, with tons of enemies coming from all sides and a dark, brooding atmosphere – but it does it with the prim and polish of a more modern pedigree, with all its advanced lighting and motion-blur and high-polygon splendor.
Jericho may not be breaking a whole lot of new ground in the formula department, but it's one heck of a great action game. Not a horror game—an action game. Despite its origins in the mind of one of horror's most renown storytellers, Jericho is not particularly scary. Call it dark, disturbing, call it weird, but the protagonists' staggering array of firepower and unflinching machismo deprives the game of any edge-of-your seat scares. Legions of the undead just don't seem as horrifying when their heads can be popped off with a minigun.
The game follows the “Jericho” squad of the United States government's top secret “occult warfare division” (in something that sounds vaguely like a reference to the movie Hellboy). They are a squad of “warrior mages”, trained soldiers armed to the teeth with modern firepower, but also capable of unleashing hell with some good old-fashioned magic. There are seven of them in all, and while I won't go through the trouble of describing each character individually, they each possess unique firearm and magic skills that will all coming in handy in various degrees throughout the game.
The squad is investigating the appearance of an ancient city called Al Khali in the African desert, which is tied to a malevolent creature called the Firstborn. The story is that before God created the world, he created the Firstborn. But God was disgusted by his first creation, and cast it from Heaven and locked it away tightly in a hellish prison. God then created humans, whom he like a lot better, and the Firstborn has been jealous ever since and, like any ticked-off deity, is bent on destroying humanity and ruling the Earth. He's tried to escape his prison seven times before, and each time he brings a little piece of Earth back with him into Al Khali, The story is actually pretty well done here, despite the fact that it positively oozes B-movie cheese. The voice acting is campy but solid, and the cutscenes do a good job of sprinkling a little character development on what is otherwise a very visceral action game.
In a nice twist—and this is really not a spoiler—the lead character, Captain Devin Ross, is killed about 45 minutes into the game. But in Al Khali, death doesn't work quite the same way it does in the outside world. Ross escapes his bodily form and is now able to possess other members of the squad. This is really just an elaborate, story-driven way to allow players to switch between squad members on the fly. As the game progresses, more of the squad members concede to let Ross possess them—a clever method of gradually introducing the player to the unique abilities of each of the game's six protagonists.
The straightforward gameplay works well thanks to a well balanced squad members, well-designed levels and a great variety of enemies. The enemies start simple, as do the abilities available. As more enemies are introduced, so too are more squad members, and more powers. Enemies aren't what I'd call intelligent—these are monsters, not soldiers—but their attack patterns are aggressive and well-varied. The variety of enemies complements the squad members' abilities nicely, and it's wise to use each of them at one time or another. The faster enemies strafe around and do a good job of keeping out of the player's field of vision, while the contrast of numerous slow, fast, and flying enemies makes for tense and dynamic combat. Of course, no old-school style shooter would be complete without gigantic boss battles, and with the exception of the disappointing final boss, the boss battles are some of the most epic and challenging around. They follow familiar formulas, such as shooting a weak area until a vulnerability is exposed for a few moments, then repeating—but the design of the bosses is so varied and the battles have such an epic feel to them that the formulas never feel cliched or repetitive.
While the game certainly isn't what I would call a tactical action game, there is definitely some strategy to using the squad members effectively. No squad member stands out as being perfectly balanced for all situations. Some are better at short range, others at long range; some against many lesser enemies, others against fewer stronger enemies. Since enemies rarely come in waves of a singular type (particularly later in the game), it's often necessary to rapidly switch between various squad members to effectively fend off the undead onslaught. The characters' various magic powers all come in very handy as well, without feeling like they skew the battle too drastically.
The game uses a unique “revival” mechanic in that the game does not end unless the entire squad is wiped out. When a squad member goes down, players can revive them with a tap of a button. It's a good idea, and most of the time it works. The only downside is that on some occasions, it's necessary to funnel all seven squad members through a relatively narrow area with few opportunities for cover. I found it a little frustrating trying to constantly revive my fellow soldiers in these situations, but overall I feel the mechanic works; even in those more frustrating situations, I was able to experiment with different characters until I found strategies best suited to the situation.
The monochrome levels can be a little drab-looking in some spots, but most often look absolutely stunning. Keeping in mind I played the PC version of the game, at maximum settings the game is unquestionably a stunner. The game takes place in several different time periods—each period representing a time when the Firstborn tried to escape—and each period is rendered with immaculate and subtle detail. Its atmosphere unquestionably lends a great deal of tension and intensity to the gameplay, giving it a dark and cinematic feel that melds nicely with the over-the-top gore.
Clive Barker's Jericho is a game I feel is best enjoyed on its own terms. It is dark and evil, but it's really pretty campy. Its art design is first-rate, and its atmosphere is as immersive as they come. The game is an old school shooting thrill ride with lots of gibs and giant bosses, not to be confused with some sort of tactical action game or a survival-horror shooter like Doom 3. It's unflinchingly bloody, sinisterly atmospheric and almost exhaustingly violent. While the final boss is the weakest of the game, the ending is disappointingly abrupt and the game is relatively short, Jericho stays focused on what it does well and doesn't overstay its welcome. The game is unpretentious and straight forward, one that blends some of the best elements of old and new schools of shooters. One of the more overlooked and underrated titles of the past year, Jericho is a thriller that while not as ambitious as Clive Barker's Undying, is still a fine effort from the renown horror master. Rating:
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.
- Demo roundup — Batman: Arkham Asylum, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, Dawn of War II, Darkest of Days - August 18, 2009
- Why isn’t PC gaming pushing technological boundaries? - July 23, 2009
- ARMA II quick impressions: I’m really trying! - July 3, 2009