The suspense, conflict, and human drama of German P.O.W. camps has been the source material for a number of excellent films, not the least of which include the classics The Great Escape and Stalag 17. Of course, television buffs no doubt remember Hogans Heroes six-season run. With such a rich pallet of adventure and drama intrinsic to the setting, its somewhat surprising that so few games have been based upon it. Pleasingly, developer Wide Games has taken on a rather ambitious approach to this uncultivated palette. Rather than attempting to only mimic certain aspects of a P.O.W. camp (such as constructing linear levels), theyve constructed a series of fully simulated prison camps based on real-world locales. Prisoners must adhere to a strict regimen of daily activities; they eat, have free time, report for a twice-daily roll call, and sleep at strictly specified times. In real life, Germanys signing of the Geneva Convention for the humane treatment of prisoners meant that P.O.W.s were usually treated well, and to some extent the portrayal of the camps in Prisoner Of War is historically accurate. And while its certainly no substitute for a good history book, the game is usually executed, in both its setting and its gameplay, in a fairly believable fashion.
The greatest surprise and pleasure for yours truly has been that Prisoner Of War is completely non-violent. Thats right, not a drop of blood is spilled, and not a curse word uttered. Interestingly, although in reality prisoners were allowed to escape under international law, the Reich often shot and killed escapees as a warning to other prisoners. In Prisoner Of War, being captured simply means time in the cooler or, should you be shot, a short stay in the infirmary. Wide Games has deliberately avoided violence and, although sometimes at the expense of believability, I applaud the move.
Gameplay runs on a continuous clock cycle that simulates a 24-hour day. Players take on the roll of Captain Lewis Stone, a pilot shot down and captured but fervently intent on escaping. Players rise early and report for morning roll call, eat on schedule, and have time during the day to interact with other prisoners. At any time, it is possible to wander off the beaten path at the risk of capture, but such daring-do is of course essential to the game. But even the most daring player must keep a close eye on the clock; fail to show up for morning and evening roll call, and the entire camp will be alerted and hunt you down. Each stage (there are five) is a fully simulated camp, with a set of sequential objectives that culminate in an escape attempt. And while evading guards through crafty stealth is key to the game, understanding the workings of the camp is equally essential.
A colorful and eccentric cast of professionally acted Allied prisoners and German soldiers populates the camps, effectively portraying a real sense of humanity. The challenge of Prisoner Of War is bigger than evading guards. Like successful P.O.W. films such as Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, Prisoner Of War succeeds because it portrays a believable sense of humanity within its cast. I like to believe that the gameplay is more than just completing the level (escaping) or sneaking around. I believe the core of the gameand the greatest benchmark of its successes and failuresis the way the player must develop relationships with other prisoners. Some can be trusted, others cannot. Some prisoners are helpful while others are wary of you and remain tight-lipped, and even guards may be bribed on occasion. The player develops a rapport with prisoners and can gain their favor by bribing them, doing favors for them, or establishing connections with other prisoners. Each step toward escape will undoubtedly incur stealth sequences, which is unfortunately where the game takes a step back from its ambitions.
The stealth sequences are effective, but largely confined to clichés due to a steadfast reliance on conventions set forth by Metal Gear Solid. Captain Stone can take cover behind objects, use disguises, and tip-toe his way past guards who repeatedly tread the same course in a predictable fashion. As in Metal Gear Solid, the guards have a limited cone of vision and can be easily evaded. This isnt to imply that the stealth sequences are a walk in the parktheyre not. However, there are times when the stretch on realism interferes with the suspension of disbelief. Again borrowing from Metal Gear, guards will first become alerted and investigate should you pass in front of them or make noise by bumping into objects in the environment. Should you be spotted, they will command you to halt! or attempt to gun you down should you try to resist capture. It is possible to use noise-making objects to your advantage, such as throwing rocks at glass objects or knocking on wallsguards will investigate the noise and can be evaded. But aside from overtly borrowed ideas, the stealth sequences lack ingenuityany real attempt to build on those conventions. Real-time lighting and shadowing could have been used to enhance the stealth gameplay, but is not even present cosmetically (disappointing considering the technology available to developers today). Captain Stone also has a rather banal repertoire of moves that, while they do not leave the stealth play lacking, do nothing to build on what other developers have done previously. The stealth sequences work, particularly with their excellently integrated audio. They are suspenseful and challenging, but the lack of new ideas leaves them feeling utilitarian.
Prisoner Of War takes an ambitious approach to a unique concept and comes out with mixed but mostly effective results. The simulation of the camps and the interactions with the animated cast are top-notch, but sub-par graphical presentation and unimaginative stealth mechanics prevent this title from reaching its full potential. If anything, perhaps Prisoner Of War will serve as a framework to develop a more fully realized interpretation of the concept. It does so many things right that its a shame it doesnt complete the package. But for what it does bring to videogames, Prisoner Of War is worth a closer look.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.
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