Judging from the prerelease screenshots, advertisements, and previews, you might get the impression that Project Eden, a sci-fi-themed game from the creators of the original Tomb Raider, is primarily action-oriented. Just so there's no confusion, it's not. It's first and foremost a real-time adventure game. And though it too often strays into an underdeveloped and unsatisfying combat system, when it sticks to adventure, it's quite successful.
You're given control of four officers of the Urban Protection Agency (UPA), the police force of a towering futuristic megalopolis. Sent to investigate an equipment malfunction at a company called Real Meat, they uncover a sinister plot. In order to continue the investigation, the team must descend, level by level, into the bowels of the human hive they're paid to protect.
The plot's pretty thin, which is just as well, since the voice acting ranges from bad to, relatively speaking, not quite as bad. An occasional snippet of conversation and some between-level cutscenes provide just enough details to explain what's going on without dragging the game down with a lot of tedious, unnecessary dialogue.
The centerpiece of each of the game's 11 large levels is a series of sometimes wickedly complex environmental puzzles. Each level represents some deeper section of the city, and almost every one begins with your arrival by elevator and ends with the team taking an elevator to a lower floor. You control one team member at a time, but you can switch between them on demand.
Each team member has a specific skill. The leader, Carter, can secure certain UPA equipment and interview citizens (an ability that's generally abandoned after the first two levels). Also, according to the manual, he's 39. Amber is a 27-year-old hulking cyborg who is immune to environmental hazards such as fire, steam, and electricity. The team's engineer, Andre (32 years old), can repair broken equipment by successfully completing a minigame that's a lot like the swing meter in golf simulations--you have to press the mouse button just as the cursor hits the sweet spot on a slider bar. Finally, the baby of the group, 20-year-old Minoko, can hack computer terminals to override security doors and take control of mounted turrets. You also have two unofficial members of the team. The first is a small remote-controlled rover that can fit through cracks in walls and maneuver through air ducts to reach spots the officers can't. The second is a flying metal ball. It's a lot like the one made famous by the Phantasm movies, only with a camera mounted in place of Phantasm's blood-draining suction drill. Thanks to what may be an oversight in the manual, the ball's age is unknown, but it's definitely fast moving and really fun to fly.
The game's puzzles are actually made up of a series of environmental exploration and manipulation tasks. For instance, as one level starts, a bridge collapses, separating the team into two groups of two. Using their various skills at different points, you must figure out how to reunite the characters by navigating the level. The puzzle challenges are strictly linear and don't allow for much, if any, improvisation. But their logical construction--arising from the physical layout of the environment--makes them seem much more satisfying than the nonsensical puzzles found in many traditional adventure games. Success feels like the result of actual exploration rather than an arbitrary uncovering of some absurd sequence of pre-scripted events.
The exploration puzzles are bolstered by the fact that the levels are generally interesting. Many of the environments contain impressively huge vertical expanses that act as a consistent reminder that the city extends far above and below your current position. Project Eden is being released on the PlayStation 2 as well, and, while the architecture is suitably complex, the texture work appears to be geared toward a console rather than the PC. Textures that look fine on a fuzzy television seem blurry when viewed on a high-resolution monitor.
Combat was not implemented as well as the puzzles. Although you're commanding a squad, squad tactics are not required. Every fight basically boils down to putting the cursor over an enemy and pressing the mouse button until something--either you or it--dies. There are several weapons available, most with two modes of fire, but for the most part, you can simply make do with the standard pulse gun. The enemies, especially the gang members in the game's first third, appear to be capable of a range of behaviors, such as ducking, looking for cover, and retreating. But these actions seem to occur randomly rather than as a reaction to anything you're doing. The later enemies, a series of morphing crossbreed species straight out of John Carpenter's The Thing, generally tend to run right at you.
Regeneration stations are scattered throughout each level. When a character is killed, he or she is reconstituted at the last point passed. Generally, these points are a short jog from the battle. Since you're reincarnated with full health, while enemies retain the damage you've dealt to them, this system effectively removes any penalty for death, which makes combat even more irrelevant and unsatisfying than it would be otherwise.
Unlike most shooters, where dying comes at some kind of cost, you rarely have to reload a saved game while actively playing Project Eden. That's actually too bad, since Project Eden has set a record for reload speed that will never be broken, because it's instantaneous. How the developers managed this feat is a mystery, but there it is--the world's fastest, most unintrusive quick load feature.
A complete set of multiplayer options is included. There's no built-in server browser, though there is GameSpy support for Project Eden. Unfortunately, the combat that was lackluster in the single-player campaign doesn't get any better in the deathmatch and capture-the-flag modes. A rover racing game is also included, but there's only one track for it, and it's more of a novelty than something you're likely to play more than a couple of times.
More intriguingly, the single-player campaign can be played cooperatively. The heavy exploration elements and deliberate pacing of the game would seem to make it best suited to one player at a time, but if you have several patient friends, it could be an enjoyable adventure. However, "could" is the operative word here since, as released, Project Eden contains a bug that makes loading saved multiplayer games impossible. So unless you're planning to play all 30 hours in one sitting as a college prank or something, you're going to have to wait for a patch before tackling this mode.
The logical environment-based puzzles in Project Eden represent what may be the best hope for the continuing evolution of adventure games. While the game doesn't reach the high-water mark recently set by the haunting, atmospheric ICO on the PlayStation 2, it's still much, much better than most other recent entries in the action-adventure genre such as Anne McCaffery's Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffery's Freedom: First Resistance, and the Anne McCaffery-unaffiliated Planet of the Apes. The pleasure you'll get from the exploration elements makes up for the deficiencies in the combat system. If the developers had managed to nail both, though, Project Eden might have been exceptional rather than merely good.