Mind over gray matter.
At their best, video games are playable daydreams. You flip on your system and suddenly go from Ordinary You to Buff Government Experiment who can throttle enemies with your mind while a skinny, psychic blonde coos and purrs about how potent you are. In this sense, Midway's new Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy is a dream come true.
The game puts you in the crew-cut of Nick Scryer, an agent of the benevolent Mindgate program who has been captured by agents of the evil Movement. In a twist straight out of Total Recall, Nick was mind-wiped by Mindgate and allowed to be captured so that his captors wouldn't sense his psychic abilities, therefore treating him like just another captive set to be processed into a Meat Puppet, the standard Movement combat unit. Once inside, Nick receives psychic IMs from the sultry Sara Blake, who eventually injects him with a serum that gradually restores his memories'and God-like powers.
From the outset, Psi-Ops seems like a very typical third-person shooter. You have a gun and can lock on with it. You use both analog sticks to move, sneak and stealth kill, and you can peek around corners with your back to a wall. Don't expect much platforming, though, because you can barely jump and are as agile as you probably are in real life. Unless you're the Star Wars kid.
The fun really begins after Sarah shoots you up and you remember the sweet, sweet power of Telekinesis. This plays out as a flashback to your days in the Mindgate academy and your tutelage under the humongous Edgar Barrett, a cross between The Kingpin and The Nutty Professor. Barrett guides you through a Telekinesis crash-course in which you hurl boxes and gas tanks at "well-paid' test-subjects. If only real school was this cool.
Every time Nick remembers a power, he will be treated to a similar training course to teach him its basic uses. Telekinesis is the big star here, allowing you to move things with your mind. With Remote Viewing, you leave your body and can sneak around as a ghost, a great way to scout ahead. Mind Drain allows you to suck the mental energy out of enemies and transfer it to your own pool. Mind Control allows you to inject yourself into an enemy's mind, thereby completely controlling him. Pyrokinesis sets things and people on fire, and Aura View allows you to see things invisible to the naked eye.
One of the coolest aspects of Psi-Ops is the ability to use your powers in conjunction with one another. For example, you can set boxes on fire and hurl them at foes, or knock enemies down with Telekinesis, and then as they struggle to stand in a daze, suck their minds out until their heads pop. The combinations are many and deadly. Your daydream is your enemy's nightmare.
The level design greatly accommodates vulgar displays of psychic power, as nearly every room has several crates and at least one canister of pressurized, flammable materials, while others contain naked electric-fields, furnaces and pulverizing pistons. Thanks to ludicrously short loading times, it's not a pain to play segments over and over again as you attempt to inflict ever-increasing amounts of pain and woe on your hapless foes.
What really makes psychically kicking ass so much fun in Psi-Ops is the incredible use of the Havoc 2 physics system. Never have rag-doll physics looked and functioned so well on a console. As opposed to folding over on top of themselves or simply going all limp, enemies react appropriately when dashed against walls and flung down stairs. Einstein would be proud.
But enemies aren't the only obstacles between Nick and his reckoning with the members of the Movement. Nick will also have to solve lots of puzzles, some of which involve mind-control, many of which involve key-cards, and nearly all of which are well integrated into the context of the game. Instead of playing some retarded version of Pipe Dream to access a computer, for example, you'll use Aura View and read the code off a white board.
However, sometimes you'll get stuck on what should be an easy puzzle due to a programming glitch. In some cases, you'll need to Mind Control a guard and use him to open a door or drop a ladder for you. If you kill him before realizing this, another should respawn in his place. But this doesn't always happen, nor do guards always drop key cards when they're supposed to. During one particular boss fight, for instance, the boss completely disappeared. I know she went somewhere nearby because I could still hear her screaming about how I "Make mama hot!!!" But she completely vanished from the arena. Although Psi-Ops isn't remotely infested with bugs like this, it doesn't seem like an entirely finished product, either.
A couple unfortunate design decisions also might temper your enthusiasm for Psi-Ops, the foremost of which is enemy spawning. Simply having enemies pop into a room, while adding a distinct degree of difficulty, is lazy. Other gripes revolve around the control, which is essentially the same in both the Xbox and PS2 versions. Since you use both psychic powers and guns, the control pads run out of room quickly. You have to move, lock on and shoot at the same time, which involves some crazy finger action because in both cases the lock-on is mapped to a face button rather than a trigger. Custom button-mapping would have been a great feature.
Psi-Ops is an unusual looking game. It definitely bears the mark of Midway, especially in the violent, exploding head animations and nice little flourishes here and there. The physics and animations, of course, are some of the best seen to date. But Psi Ops can also look pretty bland due to the drab, gray environments and little enemy variety.
As good as Psi-Ops can look, it doesn't have the music to match. The main theme is sort of a hokey romp, while the puzzle music sounds as if it were ripped straight from the Resident Evil series. The voice acting is bad primarily due to lame script, so I won't really harsh on the actors.
There's a lot to do in Psi-Ops, a ton of ways to do it and a healthy amount of difficulty. However, once you've beaten the game there's little replay value. The first time through Psi-Ops should be at least a fifteen hour experience, though if you have a macho chip on your shoulder and love to speed through games, you could probably beat it in under ten. Once that's done, an odd co-operative mode can be unlocked in which one person moves and melees while the other aims and uses powers and guns. Instead of doubling the fun, this halves it. You can also battle any boss you've beaten any time you want, which is pure masochism, since the bosses are hard as hell.
Psi-Ops is a solid action game made better by some awesome, well-implemented powers and a sweet physics engine. While the glitches and design problems hold it back significantly, this is still a daydream well worth taking.