Jack Bauer's internal clock is probably shot to hell. As director of field operations for the Los Angeles branch of the Counter Terrorism Unit, the agency that is at the core of Fox's hit TV show, Bauer has worked more 24-hour shifts than most of us can count. It's Jack's intense sense of duty, and the numerous precarious situations he finds himself in from week to week (or from hour to hour, as the real-time story goes), that has attracted legions of fans to the show. 24's unique concept seems tailor-made for game treatment, as we recently found out during our hands-on time with a near-final build of 24: The Game.
For those new to the series, 24 focuses on Kiefer Sutherland's Bauer, a tough-as-nails antiterrorism expert who annually seems to find his way into a full day of complex tribulations while saving the good citizens of Los Angeles from bad guys intent on causing mass chaos. Bauer heads up the CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) and his team is composed of some of the best minds in the baddie-busting business, all of whom make appearances in the game--some are even playable during certain missions.
For the 24 faithful who is ever mindful of the continuity of the series' chronology, 24: The Game takes place between seasons two and three--which explains the appearance of Jack Bauer's daughter Kimberly (played by the lovely Elisha Cuthbert, who has since left the show yet just may return this season). In addition, Chase Edmunds, who made his debut in the third season, makes an appearance in the game as Jack's Washington DC CTU counterpart working an undercover gig to try to unearth a terrorist plot.
The game's plot initially opens up with Jack invading a cargo ship with a crack team of CTU team members at his side. As we learn in the opening cutscene, the ship is carrying a shipment of the deadly toxin ricin, and madmen have planted a bomb on board. Should the bomb explode, the toxin will seep into LA harbor, killing many already brain-dead surfers in the process. As Jack, you're just not going to let that happen, so you storm the ship, gun in hand, dealing lead to any sucker stupid enough to get in your way.
The mechanics of 24's shoot-em-up gameplay are easy to learn--you move your character with the left analog stick, aim your weapon with the L1 button, and fire with R1. The ability to switch between targets while aiming with just a flick of the right analog stick is a handy addition, and you'll be using it often as you take down multiple enemies during 24's frequent gun battles. Reloading is accomplished by clicking the R3 button, and you have access to either your items or weapons in your inventory by pressing up and down, or left and right on the directional pad, respectively. Inventory items can include things like Jack's ever-present cell phone, which will keep him in contact with the folks at CTU HQ, or his PDA, for keeping track of mission objectives and environment maps. There are many different types of weapons to wield in the game, from shotguns for close-up work to long-range sniper rifles, and a host of pistols, machine guns, and submachine guns in between.
Part of the charm of 24: The Game is its intention to be more than just a standard third-person shooter. Determined to keep the player engaged, the development team at SCEE are throwing a lot of different gaming ideas against the wall to see what sticks, all wrapped around the various conundrums faced by the CTU team over the course of the game. Early on, for example, Jack and his team will have to defuse the bomb using a simple minigame that requires you to choose the correct path along the bomb's circuitry in order to deactivate the switches. Another minigame has you decrypting a password within a certain amount of time in order to gain access to a room or elevator. Then there's the interrogation minigame, in which you put the screws to an enemy to gain crucial information. It sounds gruesome, but it's actually pretty tame. By choosing one of three interrogation approaches--aggressive, coax (neutral), or calm--you control the suspect's stress level. He'll give you what you need only when his stress level is hovering in a certain zone, so you'll need to adjust your questioning techniques accordingly.
But there are more than just minigames to play here. Several missions during 24's dawn-to-dawn plotline will have you driving through the highways and byways of a pretty faithful re-creation of Los Angeles, whether tailing suspects or avoiding bad guys hell-bent on turning your ride into scrap. Unfortunately, the driving model felt a bit slow and stiff in our time with the game--and the missions were too short. Luckily, even if there's one portion you don't like in the game, there's another--such as a fun sniper game that has Bauer picking off bad guys while perched on a rooftop--that makes up for it.
In terms of presentation, 24: The Game borrows liberally from the show on which it's based--from the familiar hourly chapter structure to Kiefer Sutherland's gravitas-laced intonations of, "The following takes place between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.," all the way down to the split-screen effects that define 24's visual style. All of the major cast members in the show take part in the game, lending both their likenesses (including some truly impressive-looking models of Sutherland's Bauer and Reiko Aylesworth's Michelle Dressler) and their voice talent to the numerous cutscenes that move the plot along. As the game progresses and the conspiracy against CTU unfolds, you'll take control of nearly all the major players--be it Bauer storming a cargo ship, Chase Edmunds battling his way through an underground compound, Tony Almeida as he tracks down an informant, or Dressler as she protects Bauer's daughter against a CTU-office invasion.
Time being such an important factor in the TV series, you can expect it to play an important role in the game as well. While untimed missions eat up a portion of the game's hour-by-hour chapters, you can expect plenty of timed scenarios to keep your blood pumping. In the interrogation minigame, for example, you have only so much time to get the information you need before--well, we're trying to be spoiler-free here--something really, really bad happens. Similarly, time limits on other minigames will give you only a handful of minutes to escape a building, figure out a passcode, or run down a fleeing suspect.
At the end of each mission, you'll be evaluated on your performance. Points are awarded for completing the missions with speed and skill, and you'll take penalties for sloppy performance or downright malicious behavior, such as shooting restrained enemies or blasting away at helpless civilians. As you progress, you'll unlock bonus characters, movies, and images from the show that you can check out later, and a handy log helps you keep track of the game's plot as you delve further into the mystery.
24: The Game looks to have many of the same ingredients that continue to make the show such a hit on television. While some of the game modes are executed better than others, there's little doubt that the game's daylong ride should throw enough at you to keep you engaged. Jack Bauer's first gaming adventure is due for release at the end of the month, so synchronize your watches, and look out for our full review soon.