We've had the chance to see Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy on and off over the past few months as the game has come together. While the game was originally slated to ship toward the end of last year, Midway delayed the game till 2004 and rechristened it with its present moniker. The ensuing time has allowed the development team to craft the game into what's looking like a solid and engaging experience that offers a surprisingly fresh twist on the now-familiar stealth action genre. Our latest look at Psi-Ops comes from the nearly complete versions for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox that offer a much more realistic idea of what to expect from the actual game.
For those who don't know, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy puts you in the role of Nick Scryer, a psychic soldier tapped to infiltrate a terrorist organization called The Movement, which has its own psychics that are bent on doing unpleasant things to the world. While the setup is pretty typical of most action games, Psi-Ops takes an interesting detour from the very beginning. As mentioned, The Movement has its own psychics, which means that in order to get Nick in with the evil cadre, some work has to be done so he'll be ready for the undercover mission. Whereas a standard undercover operation would require a soldier to change his appearance and make up a fake history to infiltrate the average organization of bad guys, things are much more complicated in Psi-Ops. Nick's brain has been given an extreme makeover to make him immune to psychic probes through his memory that would reveal his background. While this is perfect for covert ops, it can be a little inconvenient, as evidenced by the start of the game when you don't know what in the hell is going on and you can't access any of Nick's powers.
The early part of the game will find you getting brought up to speed on current events by a mysterious woman who turns out to be there to help you, but your memory problems make it a little difficult to trust anyone. Once you get into the swing of things and start remembering your purpose, the game's focus shifts to dealing with The Movement and its nefarious plan. The story will unfold via a mix of computer-generated sequences, real-time cinemas, and in-game telepathic conversations that will let you and Nick know what's going on.
The game's structure and gameplay is deceptively straightforward. The levels are laid out in a linear mission-based fashion. At the start of the game, Psi-Ops is a perfectly serviceable third-person action shooter. Nick has a respectable array of moves worthy of an aspiring action hero. You'll be able to run, dive, and sneak like a pro. However, the game really opens up once you get your psi powers. You'll earn your mental arsenal, which usually comes with a shiny new power, as you progress and regain pieces of your memory. The plot device conveniently adds a tutorial on your new powers into gameplay as you "relive" Nick's memory of training.
You'll gain six powers in all: telekinesis, pyrokinesis, mind control, mind drain, remote viewing, and aura view. Telekinesis and pyrokinesis are handy offensive abilities that let you pick or set fire to your foes. Mind control lets you possess an enemy's body. Mind drain lets you siphon off an enemy's psychic energy when you need a boost to power your own abilities. Remote viewing lets you look into locked areas you can't physically enter. Finally, aura view lets you see afterimages around you, which can often provide tips on where to go or alert you to potential hazards. Individually, each power has a very specific use that you'll need to master in order to be successful in your mission. However, the real appeal of Psi-Ops lies in mixing and matching your powers. For example, you can set a crate on fire with pyrokinesis and use your telekinesis to pitch it at enemies or to throw explosive canisters near them.
The game offers a respectable amount of freedom in terms of what you're able to do, which gives players plenty of options. You won't be a total brain-powered terminator, though; your psi powers are fueled by a set pool of energy that you'll have to be conscious of so you don't run out of it too quickly. The last thing you want is to run out of psychic gas just before encountering a large mob of foes or a boss fight. Speaking of bosses, Psi-Ops will throw an eclectic assortment of six bosses, each a master of a unique psi ability that you'll have to defeat. Oddly enough, the boss fights we've played so far reminded us of the old-school Mega Man boss battles wherein you had to use your head to make the most out of the abilities you have in order to beat a significantly powerful foe.
The graphics in the game have come together nicely and manage to mix in a good amount of grit with technical wizardry. The graphics engine moves around a good chunk of polygons and manages to add a nice layer of artistic polish. Nick is the most impressive of the characters on display thanks to a generous amount of detail. You'll notice all manners of fine touches, such as the straps on his vest and the pockets in his pants. The enemies you'll face off against vary from an equal amount of detail, such as the boss characters, to a little less, as in some of the common grunts you'll encounter regularly. The game's cast will also benefit from smooth animation that is given a morbid twist due to the rag doll and Havok physics used. Once you get the hang of Nick's powers, you'll be able to do all sorts of unspeakable things to your foes and you'll be rewarded for your efforts with solid animation.
The environments in the game are a varied assortment of indoor and outdoor spaces that run the gamut from the traditional cramped corridors to grander exteriors of wide, open spaces. While this may sound unremarkable, you'll find a number of little touches that show off the aforementioned mix of style and substance. The areas offer a high level of interactivity thanks to the liberal amount of items, such as crates, barrels, and explosives for you to use in combination with Nick's powers. Speaking of Nick's brain-powered arsenal of psi weapons, you'll be treated to an inventive number of effects used to represent the six psi powers you'll gain over the course of your adventure.
You won't find any radically different elements to Psi-Ops when you play it either on the PlayStation 2 or on the Xbox. The framerate holds steady in both versions and the visual quality is impressive in each. While you can expect to see the usual visual benefits of cleaner textures and a higher resolution on the Xbox, the PlayStation 2 will not let you down. The PS2 game looks and moves very well-- with an occasional bit of framerate inconsistency--but nothing that has marred our experience so far.
Psi-Ops' audio provides a solid complement to the visuals with the expected array of music, voice, and effects. The game's soundtrack features a good mix of low key, almost ambient, tunes and pseudo rock. The quality of the voice acting in the game is a little uneven, and it ranges from Nick's intense growl and the bosses suitably melodramatic lines, to a more uneven delivery from secondary characters. Finally, the sound effects in the game are probably the strongest component of the whole audio package. The gunfire and abstract effects used for Nick's various psi powers pack quite a punch.
From the looks of what we've played so far, Psi-Ops has come together well. The extra development time has resulted in a polished presentation and, more importantly, solid gameplay. Psi-Ops is currently slated to ship this June for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Stay tuned for our full review for the final word on the game in the coming weeks.