Something's been lost in the translation. That's the kindest way to sum up Paradise Cracked, a turn-based strategy game in the tradition of X-COM from Russian developer Mist Land. Although the game collected awards from critics in "Mother Russia" when it was originally released in 2002, the English version is so disastrous that Irwin Allen should get a co-credit. Tedious gameplay, a plot that veers between goofy and incomprehensible, and an alphabet soup of grammatical errors render Paradise Cracked almost unplayable, let alone enjoyable.
The biggest problem is a hopeless plot that never tells you what's going on or provides concrete mission objectives. In the opening cinematic, you're introduced to the main character--a computer hacker named, um, Hacker speaking via videoscreen. Is he speaking to you, grandma, or the elves living in his frontal lobe? It's never made clear. This lengthy spiel lets you know that the setting is the usual dystopian/cyberpunk game future, but little else is lucid. One moment Hacker is referring to a golden age where all humankind is working together to get into space, and the next he's saying that "it was no surprise when the rebellion started on Mars." Then his place is raided by the cops, for reasons that--surprise--aren't spelled out.
Things don't clear up when the gameplay of Paradise Cracked begins. A plot involving a supercomputer that attempts to control humankind eventually materializes, but nothing makes sense for a good chunk of the game. You're apparently on the run, yet everyone you meet tells you where to look for jobs in order to make money. There's nobody to fight, yet Job, the first character you encounter, offers to join your undefined cause because he likes to duke it out. This offer is nonsensical. Job calls you a blockhead, asks why you're out of breath, then says, out of the blue, that he likes to fight. You don't know if he's going to beat you up, join you, or drift into the shadows--like the hot dog vendors and hookers in the neighborhood.
Text and dialogue throughout your adventure maintain this surreal tone. City districts are described in conflicting ways. Lower City, for instance, is a "wonderful" place, despite being filled with "crime, injustice, prostitution, etc." You're often unsure of what a character is planning until he or she actually takes an action, as dialogue either goes in circles or is jammed with typos and horrible grammar. This keeps you on your toes but also ensures that you never really have a clue as to what's going on.
Hacker himself contributes to the ridiculous atmosphere by uttering flat-out insane responses to every order like he's on a different plane of reality. Have him walk across a street, and he'll gasp "Biorhythm!" or "War is war!" or "Still alive but not for long!" like these were going to be his last words. North Americans wouldn't be any more bewildered if Mist Land had shipped the game with the original Russian text.
The game mechanics are also designed to keep you guessing. Missions in Paradise Cracked begin without giving you much of an idea where you're supposed to be going or what you're supposed to be doing. Thankfully, you're never asked to do anything more complex than deliver packages and carry out the odd assassination. The map function reveals everything about a particular location except where you are, making it useless until you do some heavy exploring to get your bearings. The journal feature unveils lots of information about politics, weapons, and neighborhoods, though it doesn't fully track objectives. Strangers guide you along, giving out-of-the-blue advice that includes providing both their names and those of their associates in the underworld. In addition, they offer you criminal assignments as soon as you walk in the front door--which is rather strange behavior for people living in what appears to be a police state.
Play itself is extremely slow. Levels are generally quite large, and movement per turn is severely limited, meaning that it can take a long time to cross even a few measly city blocks. Everything is labored. Use up your action points to get right next to a nonplayer character, and you'll often be told that he or she is out of range, even for a conversation. Loading times are also an issue. You have to wait between 30 seconds and 1 minute for the computer to think about moving its characters. Then you must wait another 20 seconds or so for the computer to actually move them. Fortunately, you can filter out different types of NPCs in the options menu, so you're not stuck watching homeless people shuffle across the screen in the midst of a firefight.
Level design isn't any better. Goals are spread all over the place, forcing a lot of tedious exploration that takes forever, thanks to the stuck-in-molasses movement system and the wonky map. Most levels feature dimly lit, grimy city streets that soon begin to look the same. The graphics engine provides a lot of detail and good textures to these settings, although the stock cyberpunk locations are straight out of a William Gibson novel from the 1980s. There's a vaguely Asian atmosphere, complete with Chinese-character banners and Charlie Chan-style voice acting that some might find offensive. Interestingly, some areas seem like lost chapters from Mona Lisa Overdrive. The music evokes the same era, sticking to the simple techno that John Carpenter used in his movie Escape From New York. The sparse and fitting score is probably the most memorable aspect of the game.
Combat can be interesting at times, and there certainly is plenty of it, with lots of realistically modeled weapons. Most maps force you to shoot your way to one objective after another. But the artificial intelligence is extremely poor. Get into a firefight alongside allies, and you'll frequently be shot in the back by your pals. You can forge relationships with criminal syndicates and other organizations in Paradise Cracked, although it seems like everything gets tossed out the window when the bullets start flying. And while friends shoot you for kicks, enemies often ignore you. Fire at foes involved in a battle with someone else, and they usually won't spare you a second glance, even if you're blazing away at them from point-blank range.
Building your character can provide a few enjoyable moments. You gain experience points, advance levels, and get to distribute points to boost skills and attributes. You can make an efficient killing machine, a superhacker, or a jack-of-all-trades who is in between. Like with everything else in the game, though, it takes a long time to get anywhere. You have to make do with the opening stats for quite a while, which can be quite a problem in combat situations. In the early levels, Hacker couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with his pistol.
Add to all this the absence of a multiplayer mode and an emphasis on unnecessary cursing--apparently dropped in just to ensure that Paradise Cracked got a Mature rating--and you're left with a game that's decidedly strange but not any good. We need more turn-based games in the spirit of X-COM, but we also need intelligible stories, clear mission objectives, and quicker-moving gameplay. None of these elements are offered here, so give this one a miss.