Popular TV show begets awful video game again in Ubisoft Shanghai's NCIS. This point-and-click adventure is a mockery of the hit CBS TV series on which the game is based, with childish gameplay based on a handful of repetitive minigames, laughably saw-it-coming plots, and none of the show's leading cast members in. This game exists solely to try to con series fans out of their money.
Ties with the hit CBS TV series about a team of investigators solving various murders and other nasty crimes on behalf of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Washington, DC, are front and center, of course. The marketing here revolves around you supposedly working with the well-known team of sleuths led by Mark Harmon's Jethro Gibbs, Michael Weatherly's Tony DiNozzo, and Cote de Pablo's Ziva David. You take part in four different cases structured like episodes of the TV show, complete with opening credits, B plots that let the characters indulge in some very non-witty repartee (you will want to kill DiNozzo in mere moments), and closing unfunny moments geared to inject a bit of lighthearted fun into all the murder and mayhem. The reality sees you slogging through tedious pixel hunts at crime scenes and enduring simplistic minigames geared for children. The content and the gameplay contrast so much that the game can be quite jarring; You investigate bloody murders and conduct autopsies via minigames that could have been taken out of a game aimed at 6-year-olds.
Each episode plays out in the same fashion that the procedural TV show does each week. You watch an opening sequence showing the crime to be investigated, and then you plunge into work at crime scenes and with forensics back in the lab. All of the searching, sampling, and bagging have been distilled to simply searching rooms and taking photos of evidence, such as bullet holes and explosive residue (that magically translate into actual physical evidence like slugs and powder that can be analyzed back in the lab). The most obnoxious part of this sleuthing is navigating the crime scenes themselves, because the camera angle is locked so tight to your character that you can't move more than a few feet per button press.
When investigating, you aim and focus the camera and occasionally must access oddly placed evidence by moving furniture or standing on some handy object. These mechanics just make everything annoying, though, given how the finicky controls force you to manually do things like climb and shove tables and couches by dragging a cursor with the left stick. It all feels forced and unnecessary.
Once all of the requisite photographs have been collected at the crime scene, you switch to forensics back at the NCIS offices. Everything is based on minigames. Need to lift prints off a gun? Snap the left stick around to apply and remove tape. Need to conduct an autopsy? Scroll around the body taking photos. Need to analyze tire treads? Match up samples by scrolling through a short list of options. Need to figure out who did what to whom? Hit the "deduction board" to drag and drop clues before answering a multiple-choice quiz to solve crimes. Need to interrogate a suspect? Watch the dialogue and hit the A button every so often to ask a follow-up question. All of the games are spectacularly easy. It is just about impossible to fail any of them at any time, but even if you mess up by, say, falling asleep, you get do-overs courtesy of the Caf-Pow drinks favored by forensic Goth goddess Abby Sciuto both here and on the TV show. And even if you run out of this magical beverage, failure just means that you get to try again.
Solutions to the four cases are blindingly obvious. Each can be wrapped up in under an hour. Suspects pretty much present themselves front and center in the opening moments of each episode. They're not difficult to spot, largely because they tend to be the only characters to have spoken lines aside from the core NCIS gang. Still, you need to go through the motions to get to the laughable aha moments, made even funnier when Harmon's Gibbs yells "Deduction board!" at times when the bad guy has already done everything but confess and provide video evidence of himself actually committing the crime.
The look and sound are abysmal. The entirety of the game has been built around a half-dozen or so generic crime scenes that could have been swiped from the plots of thousands of procedural TV shows. Even worse, these settings come with all of the visual artistry and depth of the average first-gen Xbox game. Textures are flat, fine details like furniture are largely missing in action, and character models have been stricken by oddly bulbous faces and palsied gaits. Action scenes haven't even been fully animated. Instead, you get freeze-framed clips whenever the game needs to show something possibly exciting, like a police chase or an explosion going off in a bank. You get to see a lot of Harmon's steely visage in these scenes, which is kind of cool if you're into the actor who was once named People's Sexiest Man Alive. But mostly you just wonder how much Ubisoft saved by not bothering to properly animate these sequences.
Aspects of the art seem to have been assembled from older games, too. How else to explain the appearance of massive CRT monitors on desks in the otherwise high-tech NCIS offices? There is virtually no music to speak of during gameplay, and character dialogue is recited in a reading-the-phonebook manner by a cast that includes only a pair of secondary characters from the TV show. Oddly, those characters are two of the biggest names to appear on the series: Robert Wagner and David McCallum. They say next to nothing, however, and Wagner shows up for little more than a cup of coffee before exiting stage left. The roster of cheap soundalikes that fill out the rest of the cast is unimpressive at best, especially the one-note wonder taking the place of star Harmon.
The only possible plus in NCIS is that the simplistic, repetitive gameplay likely depicts the drudgery of real police investigations far more accurately than procedural TV shows loaded with lasers and sci-fi gadgets. Of course, you have to think that the developers probably weren't going for that sort of authenticity here. Stick to the TV show. Or knitting. Knitting's good.
Full disclosure: NCIS, the television show on which this game is based, airs on CBS, GameSpot's parent company.