The idea of being trapped in a Nazi prison camp probably doesn't sound very good, but the idea of busting out of one possibly might. Escape is the goal in Prisoner of War, a short but original and often entertaining game that challenges you to free yourself from the clutches of the Germans during World War II. Prisoner of War features real-time gameplay and an open-ended mission structure, as well as a strong cast of characters, making it much better in some ways than your average game. On the other hand, some disappointing graphics and unconvincing artificial intelligence for your German captors, as well as the game's brevity, make Prisoner of War more intriguing than wholeheartedly recommendable.
The game begins as flight jockey Captain Lewis Stone, a rough-and-tough American with a slight Irish accent, is shot down. He's fortunate enough to escape with his life, but he lands right on top of his enemies, who take him to an internment camp for safekeeping. Impatient Captain Stone immediately starts planning his escape, and that's where you take over. The Nazis expect you to stick to a certain routine throughout the day, but to what extent you do so is for you to decide. Contrary to Stone's personality, this is a game about being patient. You'll have to observe your surroundings carefully. You'll have to keep your jailers from getting suspicious by being where you're supposed to be at the appointed times, and then sneak around through the compound when the guards aren't looking, procuring useful items and finding a viable escape route. The presence of an onscreen compass and what's essentially a radar display, which clearly indicates all guards in the vicinity and shows where they're looking, makes the sneaking a lot easier than it would be in reality.
By now, stealth elements are common in games. Many games expect you to silently move about and strike only when the enemy isn't looking, in an attempt to even the odds against a superior opponent. Prisoner of War is very different from stealth games like Metal Gear Solid insofar as it's completely nonviolent. Stone may look and sound tough, but he's not interested in snapping any necks, stealing weapons, or knocking anybody out. He's just trying to get the hell out of Dodge, and you'll help him do this by staying as far away from trouble as you possibly can. Even when Stone picks up something like a crowbar, he'll use it just to pry open padlocks.
As a matter of fact, the game goes so far toward being nonviolent that even if you're seen trying to escape and are shot by a German guard, you'll just end up in the infirmary, rather than the morgue. At any rate, because it forces you only to sneak and never to fight, Prisoner of War could be described as a thinking-man's game. Nevertheless, for a game that takes place in the notorious German prison camps Stalag Luft and Colditz Castle, the lack of any real violence in Prisoner of War seems rather bizarre. It's rare to find Nazis in a game where the goal isn't to kill them. Actually, if this game taught you everything you knew about World War II, you'd wonder why Stone was even trying to escape in the first place. Aside from some barbed wire and some armed guards milling about, nothing seems particularly unpleasant about the Nazi concentration camps in Prisoner of War, where you eat three squares a day, show up for afternoon exercise, and have free time in between.
If nothing else, you'll want to try to escape because you won't finish the game just by showing up for roll call and then going to the mess hall for breakfast. Escape doesn't just involve staying hidden, but requires a lot of character interaction. You'll meet and deal with many other inmates, as well as some crooked guards, during the game. Conversations with these occur as in typical adventure games, where you can choose from several dialogue options at any given time. There's not much role-playing--you'll basically want to listen to everything everyone has to say. And you'll enjoying hearing it, because the characters are all brought to life with expressive, expertly done voice-over and a variety of authentic accents, to boot. Characters will help you out to some extent when you're stuck and will fill you in on what to look for, and where.
The actual sneaking mechanics are done reasonably well. You can use the analog stick to move slowly and quietly or to jog briskly, and you can move from a crouched position as well. You can scale short walls and fences and can even crawl under things like beds, where the game switches to a first-person perspective. You can toggle a first-person view at any time, but this is just for looking around, as the game is played mostly from a third-person angle. The camera in Prisoner of War becomes a problem both when you go into closed areas and also when you have your back against a wall or something, though outdoors, you can adjust the angle using the right analog stick. Stone's motions are nicely animated, and one of the better touches in the game is that bumping into things like chairs or boxes causes them to shift, creating a noise that can alert nearby guards.
The best aspect of Prisoner of War is how it sounds, between the excellent voice acting and the interactive, suspenseful soundtrack that grows more and more tense depending on how precarious of a situation you've put yourself in. Unfortunately, the game's graphics aren't nearly as impressive. The environments in Prisoner of War look reasonably good, though a Nazi internment camp isn't much of a sight. But the character models are really simple, and even though they move their mouths when they speak, they don't look anywhere near as good as what you'd probably expect from the Xbox. The game doesn't even have a particularly smooth frame rate.
Since Prisoner of War is a short game that has some decidedly interesting qualities, it's certainly worth at least a rental. The missions are open-ended but not especially difficult, since being captured (or getting shot) really isn't very punishing. You end up back at the starting point but should be able to get back to where you left off without much trouble. The game's weak graphics are compensated for by its great audio, and the suspenseful sneaking gameplay and strong dose of character interaction make Prisoner of War a game that's by all means different from most others out there.