It took five games starring Lara Croft to arrive before the character that inspired her in the first place finally returned to video games in a 3D adventure for the Nintendo 64 - Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. The game itself is a port of a PC game that was less than well received when it came out last year. One might assume that LucasArts must not have too much confidence in the game, having released it directly to rental through Blockbuster (and for sale in limited quantities through its Web site). This fact sets your expectations for Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine at an ideal level, though, as it's a good rental for the N64, but nothing more.
The game is set several years after the last Indiana Jones film, after the end of the second World War. Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones has been coaxed back into the field by the CIA to keep an ancient Babylonian device from falling into the hands of the Soviets. Oddly enough, the parts of the device have been scattered around the world, left in remote tombs that are as hard to get to as they are to penetrate. Indy must face many creatures and foes along the way, ranging from mystical beasts and Soviet troops to spiders and snakes. To help keep you alive in this journey, you have your trusty whip, antivenom kits, and whatever firearms you can take from the Soviet forces, such as an automatic pistol, a machine pistol, and a combat rifle.
The gameplay is similar to that of Eidos' Tomb Raider series. It involves a lot of running, jumping, climbing, pulling levers, and pushing buttons, though Indy can be found doing a few things that Lara Croft doesn't. For instance, your whip is more than just a weapon - it can be used to latch onto objects to allow you to swing across chasms or climb to higher ground. The puzzles in the game are very straightforward and simple, but they are also often hard to perform. Sometimes they involve different gameplay elements such as riding along a river on a raft or barreling through underground tunnels in a mining cart, which are less fun than they should be due to the game's graphical and control problems. For example, the raft ride feels similar to games that you play at carnivals for prizes; it's so tough to keep Indy from hitting the rocks that sometimes you start to think that the whole thing is rigged, and not in your favor.
What doesn't help is that the controls from the PC game have been adapted to the Nintendo 64 controller in a rather clunky and unintuitive way. The A button jumps; the B button initiates actions such as opening doors; the shoulder button crouches; and the C buttons can be assigned to items such as your whip, lighter, and gun - with the top C as a free look. It's a setup that you'll eventually get used to, but it never comes easy. The response that you get from the character is even less suitable for the action you need to pull off in the game. Indy may jump and swing well, but try to get him to climb the step in front of him and you'll likely see him jump straight up a few times before he realizes he can simply shimmy himself forward. The combat is similar to the lock-on system found in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. When an enemy comes into view, a moving circle will appear around it, and your character's movement will revolve around it until it's dispatched. It worked well in Ocarina of Time, and it works well here. Fans of the Tomb Raider series will likely prefer the fighting in this game due to its simplicity.
Graphically speaking, the game is no Banjo-Tooie, but it does a competent job of creating a convincing looking 3D world. The environments are sparse and barren, but they're often quite expansive, and they sometimes have nice textures. The characters look good enough until they start moving and you see that their animations are stiff and wooden. Indy, for example, looks ridiculous when he jumps and climbs ladders like he's bowlegged. Graphical bugs creep into the mix as well. Beyond the times when pop-up appears in the foreground, instances where textures are replaced by pulsing shades of pink, white, and gray; half the screen zones out in a video toaster-like effect; and Indy will disappear during a scripted event are not uncommon. The least forgivable bug is the kind that causes the game to lock up completely - something almost unheard of in games for the console systems.
The sound effects, voice acting, and soundtrack in the game are at least as good as the game's graphics. Unlike in Tomb Raider, you'll hear music beyond just when you make a discovery, which adds more to the experience than you're used to. The voice work is performed well during the game's rare cutscenes, although the actor who plays Indiana Jones sounds more like a square-jawed Superman than Harrison Ford. And the sound effects are neither particularly noteworthy nor worth complaining about; they serve their purpose.
Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine is a big game, to be sure, with enough levels to keep you busy over a three-day rental period. The puzzles within them aren't very original or entertaining, but seeing that this is the only Tomb Raider-style game to come to the Nintendo 64, it deserves at least a little leeway. Video game players went so long without an Indiana Jones game that they had to start going to other sources for their tomb-raiding fix - except for N64 owners. And they'll find that there's at least enough fun to be had by renting this game that they'll be able to work it out of their system.