You don't even have to open the box of DIRT: Origin of the Species to know that you're not exactly dealing with an A-list game. While some might not be apt to complain about the thong prominently displayed by the gun-toting girl on the cover, a couple of "Hey, wait a sec" moments are provided by the apparently random quotation attributed to President James "Maison" on the inside flap and a list of "intriguing" levels that places New York alongside ET hangouts Area 51, Groom Lake, and "Hanger" 18. So you don't need to have access to technology from crashed flying saucers to realize that the chances are pretty good that quality control isn't going to be a highlight of this third-person shooter from NuGeneration Games.
And surprise, it isn't. Ugly, virtually unplayable in spots, and with a plot guaranteed to make your head spin when you're not laughing at the ridiculous dialogue, Origin of the Species is quite simply one of the worst games to hit hard drives in the past year.
The bizarro storyline is as good an example of the game's ineptitude as any. You wake up in a New York City jail cell watching what looks like a giant cockroach eating a guy. Sure, we've all been there. Well, in games, anyways. But none of this weirdness is readily explained or even touched on later, so you can't develop any interest in finding out what's going on. You're a candy raving riot grrrl wearing the "hot if it were 1999" outfit of thong panties peeking above hip-hugging pants, but you have amnesia and can recall only that your nickname is Dirt, you've got some psychic powers, and your friends may have abandoned you at a beach or something. A reporter who looks and talks like a hooker gives you some clues about a chemical spill "in some backwater craphole," and then you're off blasting giant bugs and what appear to be some kind of Special Forces commandos. Just in case that last sentence makes this storyline sound a little too generic, let's now add that you do all this with the aid of a sentient teddy bear backpack named Mr. Boo that tosses out the occasional tip.
As is usual with these hackneyed man-or-woman-of-mystery plots, the tale here is gradually revealed through little hints and cutscenes. Most of them make little sense, though. You might round a corner and trigger some inexplicable clip of police cars being tossed through the air, or get a comic book-style dialogue scene with an apparently anonymous civilian you just saved from a Kafkaesque death. Level structure makes zero sense. One moment you're on a torn-up NYC street, the next you walk through a doorway and you're in what looks to be some kind of Victorian mansion complete with heraldic arms on the wall. Vital plot points aren't hooked into the game properly. One key plot device at the start of the game, about a stranger coming to your assistance, is set up to trigger in an out-of-the-way room that you don't have to enter. But the mystery man's voice-over plays as you run by the room in question, so the game keeps going even if you soon wind up having to backtrack to figure out what the hell this voice is talking about.
Sadly, in some ways the weird plot may be the game's only strength. Everything else is even worse. Even though the game is dog-ugly and loaded with lots of plain, straight corridors, and character models are so lacking in detail that they lack most discernible facial features, the engine is such a system hog that it chugs on a lot of levels every time you turn around, and character animations stutter. All these hitches make it impossible to accurately aim your weapons. You're best off to resist the desire to shoot until you're close enough to see the whites of your enemies' eyes, but that can be a bit of a problem when you're facing a half-dozen commandos with submachine guns. Other problems make gun battles even more frustrating. You can be shot through walls. Unseen grenades on the other side of a wall or door often kill you instantly. Enemies can take a crazy amount of damage before expiring, unless you hit them with a shotgun blast that typically knocks them all the way across rooms, or with a headshot.
As you've got an arsenal of psychic powers, you don't have to rely solely on armaments. But you don't really have any incentive to use your mental abilities, either. While some of them are pretty nifty, especially the razor disk that locks on to and decapitates up to eight bad guys, most of the controls for these powers are awkward or too finicky to be of much use in combat. You typically wind up freezing in place while using a power like the razor disk, or pausing after a power expires like with the shield, which leaves you open to enemy gunfire. It's always easiest to just blaze ahead and shoot everything that moves. Using your powers to bypass puzzles is a little more intriguing, though twitchy controls don't help matters here, and most of the puzzles involve basic things like manually directing a bullet to hit an out-of-the-way target and drop a laser barrier.
Other issues further wreck any chance of wringing the slightest bit of entertainment out of this game. Drops to the desktop and hard crashes that reboot your machine happen on a regular basis. Sometimes Dirt herself seems to just spontaneously drop dead. Vaguely innovative gameplay options, such as being able to choose play styles like stealth or long-distance shooting, which earns you skill points for buying weapons and ammo, simply don't work. For example, you can get bonus points for stealth when blowing away a bug with a shotgun. The save system appears to work on demand, in that you can apparently save anytime, anywhere, but all the function really does is save your progress at the start of each level. Some of the levels are long, too, so you can find yourself doing a fair bit of backtracking. Finally, the game is protected by StarForce, which can cause serious problems with certain system configurations.
All in all, Origin of the Species is one of those games that make you want to ditch your PC and take up a less aggravating hobby, like detecting land mines.