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. In the past, these games were generally confined to consoles, but in this age of simultaneous cross-platform releases, they've begun to pop up on the PC as well. 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 have a standard assortment of basic moves to facilitate sneaking past the ubiquitous Nazi guards. You can vary your walking speed or crouch to move around silently, and you have 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. Though The Great Escape is a console-style action game, and it appears to have been developed primarily with consoles in mind, it plays perfectly fine on the PC in terms of control. As you'd expect, it supports standard gamepads, and it even handles relatively well with a mouse and keyboard. However, the added precision of the mouse offers both an advantage and a disadvantage: Though you can aim more accurately in the combat portions than with an analog stick, you're not given as much auto-aim assistance as in the console versions, so you have to do more of the work yourself.
Unfortunately, when compared with the best games in the stealth genre like the PC's reigning champ, 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 were 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.
As a PC port of a console game, The Great Escape looks about like you'd expect it to. It's certainly the best-looking version among the three (the game is also available on the PS2 and Xbox), which is what you'd expect, considering that most high-end PCs have superior graphics hardware. The PC version features higher resolutions, a better frame rate, and a few more graphical details than the console versions, but the actual visual content remains unchanged--it basically has the same textures and low-detail models as the console versions. In other words, the game looks fairly solid but not nearly as impressive as other modern PC games that are designed specifically for that platform. Film buffs should at least appreciate the fact that the Steve McQueen character in the game does in fact look like Steve McQueen. 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 decent; it's just a shame the gameplay that backs it up isn't as enjoyable 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.