The movie-licensed game is a longtime, if somewhat dubious, tradition in this industry--every summer you see a raft of games that tie in to the latest box office-busting Hollywood films. Strangely enough, in addition to this summer's expected crop of current-action-flick games, we've also received a game based on a 40-year-old action flick. The Great Escape is an action and stealth game based on the 1963 Steve McQueen film of the same name, and though it provides a large amount of varied gameplay for fans of the movie, none of its parts are developed enough to be wholly satisfying.
The plot of The Great Escape, the game, is closely tied to and actually expands upon the plot of The Great Escape, the movie. While the film focused on the escape of Allied POWs from Stalag Luft III, a high-security Nazi prison camp, that event doesn't occur until several missions into the game. Prior to that, you'll be playing missions that detail the back story of memorable figures from the film like Hilts (the McQueen character), MacDonald, and Sedgewick. These early missions fill you in on how the heroes of the movie came to be imprisoned at Stalag Luft III and provide a good introduction to their personalities. Of course, after the big breakout, you'll play several more missions that chronicle these characters' harried path through Europe to freedom. Each mission has a set playable character, and you'll switch back and forth fairly often to catch up with the progress of each one.
The Great Escape's gameplay is surprisingly varied, but it's a stealth action game at its core. You control your character from the third-person perspective, and you've got the standard assortment of basic moves that you'd expect to facilitate sneaking past the ubiquitous Nazi guards. You can vary your walking speed or crouch to move around silently, and you've got a "stealth camera" that lets you look around corners, over boxes, and even through keyholes to see what the guards are up to. You can also punch enemies or choke them from behind, but doing so is pretty awkward and can often backfire, leading to your capture. When alerting a single guard means you have to start the mission over, you want to keep to the shadows as much as possible.
Unfortunately, when compared to the standouts of the stealth genre like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, the gameplay in The Great Escape doesn't hold up very well. For one thing, it never seems like your sneaking has much of a point--the stealth missions mostly degenerate into glorified fetch quests. Sneaking from point A to point B, then back to point A, then to point C just to grab some trivial items and throw a couple of switches can be pretty uninteresting. The game's stealth wouldn't be so bad if the guard AI was a little more realistic, but sometimes you'll end up getting caught for no discernible reason, while at other times you'll be able to sneak past a guard that has a direct line of sight to your position. To make matters worse, you're limited to three saves per level, which you'd expect would make the game more challenging. It does, but at the cost of introducing a lot of repetition--when you can get caught at the drop of a hat, you'll be repeating large portions of the missions over and over until you've figured out exactly how to evade the guards' search patterns. Occasionally the gameplay and level design will come together and you'll encounter a sneaking segment that's pretty cool, but these bits are too few and too minor to rescue The Great Escape's stealth missions from the otherwise pervasive tedium.
Thankfully there are a few other types of gameplay in the game to break up the stealth action, though none of them are really valuable as more than diversions. The first level, which takes place on a damaged bomber, has you jumping in a rear turret and fending off incoming fighter planes for a bit. You'll also get to ride a few vehicles during some missions, such as an APC you can plow through enemy soldiers with. The last two missions even see you playing Hilts as he rides a motorcycle to freedom amid a hail of Nazi bullets. Finally, some missions abandon the stealth model in favor of all-out action, but the combat is incredibly clunky when you first get to try it several missions into the game. You can get the hang of it eventually--the trick is that you have to let your character stop moving long enough to auto-target a nearby enemy--but even when you've gotten better at it, it's only mildly entertaining.
Graphically, The Great Escape looks fairly solid on both the PS2 and Xbox. As is often the case with multiplatform games, the Xbox version looks noticeably better than its PlayStation 2 counterpart, but it doesn't look as good as it could if it were an Xbox-exclusive game. At least the frame rate is high, though. The PS2 version actually holds up surprisingly well next to the visuals on the Xbox; it's more aliased and has a lower frame rate, but the environment and character detail is still there. Perhaps it should be pointed out for film buffs that the Steve McQueen character in the game does in fact look like Steve McQueen in both versions. The sound is actually pretty high-quality, as it uses snippets from the film score, and the voices are generally well acted and appropriate for the parts. The presentation of the game is generally pretty nice; it's just a shame the gameplay that backs it up isn't as solid as it could be.
Overall, The Great Escape is merely an OK game that could have been a lot better. Perhaps if the developers had focused more on the stealth part of the game and less on the other aspects, we'd have a game that's less varied but more fun to play. As it is, The Great Escape may be fun for die-hard fans of the film, but if you're just looking for a good action game, or even a good World War II action game, you could do better.