Prisoner of War Preview
Wide Games' distinctive stealth game is coming to the Xbox by way of Codemasters. We have impressions.
Wide Games' Prisoner of War seems to play a lot like a combination of Shenmue and any of the countless stealth-based action games released on Metal Gear Solid's wake. However, the combination seems like it could be more interesting than you'd think. The UK-based studio has managed to create something of a living world, however cramped its sections are, and fill it with huge numbers of stealth-focused scenarios catalyzed by amusingly well-realized characters. You'll spend a lot of time talking to them, so it's fortunate that their dialogue is both decently written and performed, as every single word is spoken out loud.
Item hunts and dialogue trees aside, Prisoner of War looks like one of the most fully realized World War II games ever developed--at least from a recreationist standpoint. Most of the action takes place within the grounds of various German prison camps, each one modeled after a historical counterpart--places such as Stalag Luft and Colditz. But while they're indeed physically modeled as such, Wide Games has taken it a bit further--the team has attempted to re-create the day-to-day operations of a German prison camp and has made it essential that you adapt to its schedule to succeed. Certain characters--and thus certain missions--are available only in certain areas during certain times, so you'll have to find something to do with yourself in the hours in between.
You play the role of an American flyboy whose plane has been downed over the German mainland and subsequently captured by Axis troops. The introductory cutscene wasn't entirely implemented in the build we played, but we managed to catch a bit of it. Apparently, you and your partner were on a recon mission before the flak brought you down, the completion of which you pledged to achieve as the plane was falling. Thus, the stage is set for the various jailbreaks and double-dealings you'll engage in throughout your career as an inmate. There's really a lot to do, and a few ways to go about the act of escaping, which, more often than not, is the primary goal of every given "scenario." You'll meet characters and form alliances with them, as well as suffer betrayals at their hands at times. Interacting with them is fun, though, and by means of clever characterization and solid dialogue, it's usually a pleasure to do so.
Most of the missions that these characters send you on, be it in return for a bit of information or a key item, are fetch-based. You'll have to retrieve for them something they need or want, the path to which is usually open only at specific times of the day or during more specific circumstances. Actually doing these things, though, usually requires you to practice a bit of planning and subterfuge. For instance, you might be asked by a fellow prisoner to get him a certain amount of "currency"--the game's catchall term for the salable contraband scattered throughout the camps' grounds--before he agrees to support your attempts at a coup. To do so, you'll have to, say, break into the officer's quarters and retrieve enough items to meet your potential supporter's demands. Doing so safely, however, might be possible only when the evening meal is being served and the guards are likely at ease. Things can get pretty complex, to be sure, and reckless exploration feels very frowned upon sometimes--walk where you shouldn't, during specific hours, and you'll catch a hot one, courtesy of a German rifle.
Luckily, there are various ways of keeping yourself out of trouble during the course of the game's accelerated days. The most obvious and useful of these is to "speed up" time, which you have the option to do whenever you save your game in the camp's barracks. Since you're absolutely required to be somewhere at only one specific point on any given day--outside the prisoners' barracks for the morning roll call--you can pretty much wile away as much time as you need to get your business done. And even if you do get caught, the consequences aren't too harsh--simply 24 hours of solitary confinement, which you can opt to load out of, if you so choose. To prevent this from happening, though, you're equipped with several moves designed to keep you on the down-low if used properly. You have a standard "sneak" movement, which prevents guards from hearing you pass, provided they don't see you; a Snake-style wall knock, which is intended to distract them; and the ability to throw rocks to divert their attention. You can also climb walls and fences, though doing so haphazardly, as you'd imagine, could put you in something of a compromising situation.
There's a Solitron-style radar onscreen--it tells you where the guards are and even shows you their fields of vision, which lets you effectively pull your stunts most of the time. The guards themselves, though, are pretty smart in their own right. They'll search you out inside cramped rooms, call for reinforcements when you've lost them, and so on. We've found that jumping fences, like in real life, is often a good way to avoid the wrath of the patrols, but you're likely to find them waiting for you on the other side, once you decide to come out. In any event, they'll give chase for as long as they have to, and their dogs will be able to smell you from seemingly miles away--which effectively gives them huge, radial lines of sight.
The game's environments are pretty richly detailed, as they indeed have to be, and feel quite convincing. The first scenario takes place in a fairly rural area, and the environs reflect it; everything is largely flat and grassy, with the camp's ominous "death zone" drawn around the grounds by thread on a stake. Interiors are similarly detailed, lending each room a distinct feel; you'll see unique bits of furniture populate each room, giving them a very organic, "lived in" feel. The individual pieces of geometry in rooms, furthermore, all seem to be blessed with something resembling a working physical model; if you bump into things, they'll rock and shift very subtly, though never too far from their original positions.
From a technical standpoint, though, the game's graphics are a bit on the modest side when placed in the context of other Xbox releases. Textures seem a bit on the simple side, and, the environments seem as if they're calling for high-res, organic images, so this doesn't always look too hot. Things do seem to get better in the later stages in terms of detail and diversity in the environments, but it's never enough to really impress you on the strength of its visuals alone. The character models look decent, for the most part, though the occasional sketchy face texture made us wince. Stylistically, though, the game can be quite endearing. The look is something along the lines of pulpish photo-realism, and, especially when it comes to the characters, it seems pulled off rather decently. The main character's animation routines are also very smooth and organic, except for the odd transition here and there. In any event, the build we received was 80 percent complete, so it's likely that all the art we're seeing is final. Hopefully, everything will get a final pass alongside the last round of tweaks.
Prisoner of War looks like it'll be an interesting game regardless. All it seems to lack, at this point, is the final coat of paint that will make everything cohesive. If you're into stealth gameplay of the nonviolent and marginally confrontational sort, you'll do well to keep an eye on this one.
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