Living in any city for a long period of time is bad for your health. For all the pubs and clubs in stumbling distance and the array of ponced-up snack bars offering half-cooked animal flesh, there’s one aspect of living in the sweaty groin of England we call London that eventually can drive you to despair – and that’s the lack of open countryside. Sure we have parks, filled as they are with wide-eyed human wrecks and flanked by grey glass monoliths. But, as anyone who wears a flat cap and drinks real ale will tell you, there’s nothing like standing atop a windswept hill, drinking in the view of a countryside that rolls into the distance while breathing in the fresh aroma of cow dung.
Likewise, ever since the genre was invented, games where you roam around trying to line up crosshairs with foreheads have been set exclusively within built-up urban jungles, across which for years we have been poked and prodded. Places where we are forced to tread across levels that form a continuous hallway of bleakness, punctuated only by windows that serve to let light in and little else out. Sure we’ve had fun playing them and occasionally still do. But, as all game players should know, it does us all good to get out a little, even if in the case of Project IGI, we don’t get to rub cheeks to see what the world outside our windows looks like.
Unlike the big guns of game development (id, Epic, Valve etc), Scandinavian-based Innerloop Studios is pretty new to this shooter lark. Creators of the mighty fine but somewhat dated Joint Strike Fighter, its flight sim heritage has in this case given them a different perspective on such games where the action takes place at arm’s length and ground level – and nowhere is this more evident than in the engine that powers Project IGI. Using a heavily modified version of the Strike engine, IGts levels are somewhat immense -32km sq each, across all of which you are treated to some of the most spectacular views ever seen through a monitor. Through a pair of binoculars or the scope of a sniper’s rifle, you can literally see so far into the distance that you half-expect to zoom into the back of your own head. And what is particularly impressive is that the mountainous backdrops to the military bases you are sent to infiltrate are all rendered in realtime. Unlike other FPSs, you can if so wished throw your mission objectives aside and go hiking instead. It’s almost as if Innerioop has handed us a return ticket out of town, away from the crowds of brain-dead shooters, to a place where we can stare into the horizon and eventually reach it.
It almost makes you want to strip naked and run unencumbered into the great beyond and never come back. But, unfortunately, there’s a job to do and, besides, the Baltic States that you’re dispatched to are so cold that running around exposed is likely to fuse old man jack to your thigh.
Think Before You Bunk
Throughout Project IGI you play gaming’s first ever Welshman, David Llewelyn Jones, ex-Para, ex-SAS and now freelance behind-the-lines loner for the West’s counter-nuclear terrorist unit. Being a specialist when it comes to the former Soviet Union, Jones is sent in to bring out Josef Priboi, an Estonian arms dealer who seems to be the only lead in the case of a stolen Russian warhead. Tracked to an old military airbase in the rugged hills of Estonia, your job is to bring Priboi out alive with the minimum of fuss. But, as usual, things get complicated as you race across Eastern Europe to find the man.
Billed as a ‘thinker shooter’ (a genre publisher Eidos seem to have sole license on after two fantastic Thief games), Project IGI widens the pace set by less thoughtful games in that as well as violently dispatching your foe, to succeed you must also outwit them in true Bond style. Expertise in espionage and chatting up babes, however, is no guarantee for success, but a modicum of common sense – when to run for cover and when to run to mother -should see you through what is a very challenging game.
The general run of the game is familiar in the sense that it’s you versus the world. And from the outset you are made well aware that you are anything but superhuman. Kill an enemy guard within sight of another and he’ll run to raise the alarm, bringing dozens of red-capped and well-armed soldiers from their barracks.
Sneaking around the periphery, watching the patrol routes of guards and keeping an eye out for strategically-placed security cameras is what differentiates IGI, gameplay-wise from the likes of Delta Force and Soldier Of Fortune – and it’s a mighty refreshing change.
While your enemies can to some extent rely on cameras to keep watch, they aren’t the only ones who have technology on their side. To help you as you dart from pillar to post is a map computer that offers a satellite link-up. Call up the 3D overhead map and not only will it show you any guards that happen to be in the open, but each and every security camera and their detection ranges as they sweep the area. You can zoom in and see which way the enemy soldiers are facing and even follow them as they make their rounds of the base. But inside buildings you’re on your own, in familiar FPS territory once again and you must rely on your sense of timing and reflexes to surprise those guards that are inside.
Inevitably, of course, the time will come when the alarm is raised and, unless you can find an override switch within 30 seconds, the barrack will be emptied of restless soldiers eager to brighten their day and bring in your head. Although near impossible to complete once this happens, to abort and reload the mission at this stage would be to miss out on some wonderful action. Pinned into a corner, with soldiers all around picking away at your cover and bullets ricocheting around you, there is a tangible feeling of panic and dread as you try to think your way out of the frying pan and, inevitably, into to the fire. Not being much of a gun fetishist, I can’t vouch for the realistic way in which the weapons look, sound and react. But they certainly do the trick, look suitably real and make all the right noises. Particularly impressive was the different kick each weapon had in the hand. And, after playing every first-person shooter, including Diakatana, in the last five years, I can officially announce that the Glock 17 is the best pistol I’ve fired in a game to date.
But, unfortunately, the effects the weapons have on the enemy aren’t quite as satisfying. Pinging off metal, gouging plaster and smashing through glass, the sound effects are wonderful and the graphics fairly convincing, but the movement of the enemy soldiers is far from impressive. Unless hit with a shotgun, enemy soldiers simply crumple to the floor when hit and have a very limited repertoire of death animations. After playing Counter-Striked so long – a game that was made and released for free – rfs unfortunate that those with more resources can’t make a game that looks better in similar departments.
Run To The Hills
For the most part, the missions are engrossing and varied, and unlik
e so many games these days, actually get better. The aim in each is simply to reach a certain point on the map, although your options on how to get there are generally limited. Because of the vast terrain and the dynamic way that your enemies react to your actions, you are tricked into thinking you have a great deal of freedom.
Although realistic in setting, Project IGI isn’t a particularly realistic game. Unlike, say, SWAT 3 or to a lesser extent Rogue Spear, IGI is far from being a simulation of small arms conflict. As previously mentioned, guards react on sight and sound, but none of them it has to be said are particularly attentive. Miss your target with a silenced sniper rifle, for instance, and he’ll stop in his tracks to figure out what the sound is. And rather than deduce that he might soon have a colossal chunk missing from his head, he’ll shrug off the threat much as he would as if he’d heard a twig snap from behind the bushes. Then, within a few seconds, he’ll continue patrolling the compound with fearless abandon.
Likewise, if you let loose a few shots from a stolen AK-47, a particularly noisy weapon. You’d expect that the entire base would be alerted to the threat from such a racket. But for the sake of realism, what happens again is that usually only those under fire react. Although, if others are near enough or if they see you, they too will join in the fray.
As you progress, however, this aspect of annoyance soon fades once you realise IGI has sacrificed, quite rightly, realism for gameplay. It’s a trade-off that evidently the developers have wrestled with ever since the game was first conceived. Although I remember not too long ago when enemy reactions were notched far higher than they have actually ended up and the game was nothing short of impossible to complete. Whether they have got the balance right is difficult to gauge, especially since the bulk of the game is set outdoors, but once you become used to what you can get away with, the game begins to open up considerably. What is impressive is the way your enemy will try and search you out if after detection you manage to find a hiding place. On one level, where a tank was patrolling a burnt-out village, I was darting from wall to wall trying to keep out of sight as the turret scanned the landscape. Eventually it moved on, and as I ran across the mountains, a helicopter gunship appeared from which I managed to escape by tumbling down a cliff face and breaking my neck.
As with most 30 shooters, IGI treats you to a lengthy 3D cut-scene before and after each mission. But where most attempts at dragging out a story are just small treats to reward our time and pabence, Id’s 3D sequences are small cinematic gems. Some are superbly directed to the extent that the game feels like one continuous whole rather than the series of linear missions that it is. The close-up views of the characters aren’t particularly great. But to counter this, we see superbly modelled helicopters, fighter planes and trains weaving their way across the same terrain you have been or will be fighting across later.
During each mission the trickery continues, as by engaging in actions such as climbing ladders, hacking computers, picking locked doors, placing explosives or sliding down power cables we again see our hero, ex-SAS soldier David Jones, in third person. Innerloop call this Action Mode, but they are in effect cut-scenes where you can control the camera and as such extend the look and feel of game towards more of a rollercoasting action flick than a simple action-orientated 3D shooter, as was the case in Soldier Of Fortune.
Though there are no multiplayer options to keep you playing past completion of the 14-mission single-player campaign (plans are afoot to correct this omission), IGIoffers a hell of a lot more variation than Soldier Of Fortunes simple concoction of violent real-world action. However, what sets 161 apart is the sense of immersion within a believable storyline and the way in which it all travels along seamlessly at a perfect pace. When you reach the later levels and find yourself standing on a ridge after blowing up an enemy base and finding another up ahead, then you’ll know what I mean.
If something has become obvious in the last year, it’s the way first-person shooters are changing. You can no longer make a game set on a space station or alien planet where all you do is run through corridors shooting everything that moves and getting keys to doors. Gamers are more sophisticated now, they want games with realistic settings (Soldier of Fortune and Kingpin) and games that require a more thoughtful approach (like Thief and SWAT3). The only place for mindless shooters is multiplayer titles such as Unreal Tournament and Quake III, but even in that area you will find Team Fortress 2 and the Half-Life mod Counter-Strike introducing a slower more considered approach to the gameplay.
In fact, gamers are so sophisticated now they want fast cars and beautiful women (and Belgian chocolates), they want to play the roulette in Monaco and muck about with expensive gadgets, they want games like Project IGI.
Shaken Not Stirred
One of the best first-person shooters in the last 10 years is GoldenEye, a game that only appeared on the N64. This is clearly wrong. Consoles are no place for FPSs, as the recent conversions of Quake on the PlayStation prove; you can’t use a mouse for crying out loud. Secret agents are pretty thin on the PC ground, and it’s about time the balance was redressed. On the one side we’ve got the James Bond Tomorrow Never Dies game, on the other there’s the self-proclaimed “thinker-shooter” IGI, where you take on the role of an ex-SAS veteran now working at her majesty’s service. Instead of fighting evil pussy-stroking, nuclear bomb-stealing, power crazy organisations, the plot is grounded on a more realistic Frederick Forsyth-style political intrigue. Without giving too much away, the story takes unexpected and complex twists as you’re forced to choose between your loyalty to the British Government and your loyalty to individuals. Certain things will happen in some levels that are scripted, so you can expect some pretty spectacular scenes while you’re engrossed in the action.
You wouldn’t be a secret agent if you didn’t get to travel around exotic locations seducing a mixture of femme fatales and doe-eyed girls. Well, at least travelling around exotic locations. In IGI you’ll get to see plenty of Europe and Africa, as well as going on a trip to the Rocky Mountains and the frosty Murmansk in Russia.
The game’s structure is mission based and, although the campaign is essentially linear, the developers have worked hard to ensure the gameplay is as open as possible within each one. “You go into
each mission knowing you’ve certain objectives to achieve,” says project lead Andrew Wensley, “but once you’re in there you’ll find out that you’ve got a whole new set of objectives that you can perform.”
There’ll always be more than one way to get things done, and there’s a great emphasis on stealth. “What we want the player to do is to arrive at the mission setting, get his binoculars out, zoom in to the structure and figure out the best way to get in without being detected. So you could sec a guard moving back and forth, and then a security camera you’ve got to check out, so you wait until the guard is out of camera range before killing him silently and sneaking through the door. The missions are usually structured so you can sneak your way in and then shoot your way out.” So, Thief your way in and Half-Life your way out. Sounds good to us.
There’s a lot of interaction with the environment, so the missions should have their fair share of head-scratching. Sysiem Shock 2 players will be familiar with the importance of avoiding security cameras, and IGI has plenty of its own. “You will be able to find control rooms where you can just hack into the security controls and disable all the alarms and cameras for a certain amount of time,” says Andrew. Only this time, tripping the alarm won’t mean a couple of zombies and monkeys will come looking for you, you’ll be alerting a whole base full of soldiers. And helicopters. And guns.
The walls of buildings are real objects in the game world, not just cut off points in the maps, as demonstrated by the fact that bullets tear holes in them. “Bullets really hurt in this game, although it’s not quite as irritating as in Delta Force where it’s a ‘one shot and your dead’ situation, _ which can be very annoying at the end of a mission just because of one guy you didn’t get.” To make sure they made the bullets and weapons in the game as realistic as possible the developers went off to a field in Finland (don’t ask us why) to fire as many guns as they could get their hands on. To demonstrate, Andrew tripped an alarm that caused a chopper to appear firing its machine gun as he ran into a building. The bullets lanced through the walls as if they were paper and whistled across the room. They looked as if they hurt, they sounded as if they hurt, hell these bullets do hurt. After smugly tapping in the godmode codes, Andrew ran out and gave us a good look at the chopper; it looked as detailed and realistic as you’d expect in the latest and best looking helicopter sims out there. And what’s more, there are missions where you actually have to get on to them to fly to other parts of the map. “Vehicles are used frequently in IGI as insertion and extraction methods.” says Andrew. “Also, some of the objectives will be to reach a certain ERV (Emergency Rendez-vous) and you ain’t gonna get there on foot.” And while you won’t actually be able to control any of the vehicles, you can use the mounted machine guns and start hosing down the enemies.
A Whirl Is Not Enough
Of course, choppers aren’t the only vehicles in the game, there are tanks, jets and trains. There’s even a scene on a train similar to the one in Soldier of Fortune. “In this mission you jump off from a helicopter on to the back of a speeding train. We were really pissed off when we saw Soldier of Fortune’s train level, which looked very nice. But it was a cheap way of doing in. The train was stationary and it was only the ground that moved to give that realistic impression. What we were able to do in IGI was to actually model a moving train which you move on as it speeds through the countryside.” We’re particularly looking forward to the mission where you get to jump from cable car to cable car at a dizzying height.
Andrew wasn’t joking about not getting to certain places on foot, either. The engine is so advanced they have managed to create a truly massive world, ten million square miles, with some of the maps measuring up to 20 miles long. If you thought the big open maps in Delta Force 2 were impressive, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This is a game where sniper rifles and binoculars aren’t just cute items in your inventory, they will enable you to see very far into the distance.
The Man With The Golden Silencer
Another aspect IGI intends to impress in is the AI. Enemies will react to both sight and sound, and fighting them should provide as much of a challenge as the black ops did in Half-Life. They will cover, retreat, duck and all the other things we’ve grown used to in Valve’s modem classic. “Fire an unsilenced weapon and guards will come in swarms. Shoot a guard in plain view of another guard and the (live) guard will either open fire, sound the alarm, or both, says Andrew. Conversely, if you use a silencer and ensure there are no surveillance cameras around to see the deed, you could move around unseen and unheard. Not making a sound and hiding dead bodies is all a lot of fun in Thief 2, but imagine how much more interesting it becomes when you’re introduced into a modem setting, in broad daylight, with soldiers carrying Uzis instead of swords. “Each level is a big puzzle,” comments Andrew on the way Interloop conceived the missions. “The player will have to find answers to questions such as ‘how am I going to get past that guard ?’ and ‘how the hell do I get into the compound unseen?”‘
Naturally, once you’ve done what you went in to do (steal some important documents, disable a nuclear warhead, or whatever dirty tactics your government has employed you to perfomi), alarms will go off and you’ll have to fight for your life. “The build-up of tension and its sudden release is a major factor in IGI”
There will be no other characters inside the missions to interact with as such, but you should never lose the sense of working for a higher power, because Anya, the person who informs you on the missions, keeps in touch constantly, sending warnings and updates of both the overall political situation and the changing details of each level. We’ve also been promised a mission in which you have to escort another character through a level, so expect plenty of variety to keep you on your toes all the time.
With so many titles always being announced it’s quite difficult to pick out the real gems of the future, but (and you can trust us on this one, we’ve seen it running) Project IGI is definitely one of to watch out for.