Do we really need more first-person shooters? Of course we do, provided they bring something new to the genre and run smoothly enough for the experience to be fun. On the first count, SegaSoft's Vigilance earns high marks, thanks to several features not found in any other shooter out there. But somewhere along the line someone forgot to make sure that Vigilance's performance was as inspiring as its concept, and the result is a game that succeeds only in making you wonder how good it could have been if it had been done right.
As a member of the Special Intelligence Operations Network, or SION, your goal is to discover who's behind a rash of terrorist activities and put an end to their dirty work. Just as in a James Bond flick, every encounter with the bad guys gives you enough information to send you off to a new locale. In the first seven levels alone you'll find yourself on an offshore oil platform, exploring a hi-tech submarine and the pen where it's harbored, roaming through an ancient monastery (as well as its wine cellar and a nearby cathedral), and rescuing hostages from a public library.
Those are some pretty disparate environments, but the espionage motif makes for smooth and believable transitions between levels, and the story - which centers on a worldwide terrorist organization with occult overtones - evolves nicely as the game progresses. What's more, each level has been designed to evoke the sensation of being in a believable, real-life location, which goes a long way toward immersing you in the action.
An especially welcome feature is the ability to play as one of eight SION agents, each with (you guessed it) his own strengths and weaknesses based on stats in nine categories including speed, stealth, armor, assassin, sniper, demolitions, and so forth. An agent who's a sniper, for example, can zoom in with any weapon for a head shot but doesn't have access to a recon display (in the upper-right corner of the screen) telling how close the nearest enemy is. Although the agents aren't exactly winners in the personality department - the canned dialogue gets old in very short order, especially when an operative whines about injury after just one hit - it's still kind of cool to be able to play as different characters, especially since you can switch agents before you start any level.
Another bright spot is in the game's arsenal: 21 weapons are listed in the manual, and as you progress deeper into the game you'll discover even more. Naturally, you'll find all the usual stuff - pistols, shotguns, machine guns, a rail gun, a grenade launcher, and so on - but you'll also get to wield a laser rifle (with a beam that actually travels at the speed of light - hooray!), a spear gun with explosive-tipped arrows, a multi-rocket launcher, and a sonic lance that projects sound waves. My favorite, though, is the sniper rifle: Being able to make long-range kills in such a stealthy fashion adds a lot to the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere.
If you're dexterous enough, you'll be able to get the most out of all that firepower with an interface that lets you aim independently of movement (two third-person viewpoints are also available). Aiming as you turn left or right while running can be a tough maneuver to master, but get it down and you'll have a distinct advantage over your opponents in multiplayer games. Speaking of multiplayer, Vigilance is supported on HEAT - not surprising, since it was developed by SegaSoft - and the action is pretty satisfying as long as latencies aren't too high. When that happens, it can take two or three seconds for an item you've "grabbed" to finally appear in inventory, which in turn makes you wonder if the shots you've landed are doing all the damage they should.
With so many things going for it, Vigilance has the potential to be a unique and highly satisfying game - but that potential is never fulfilled, thanks to an assortment of performance issues and questionable design decisions that hound it from the get-go. Things take a bad turn the moment you begin the installation: The only choice you've got is a full install, which requires 650MB of hard-drive space. While it's true the game takes up "only" 570MB (it might be more on systems without FAT32), you'll still need to save around 100MB for a swap file. Why not give gamers with reasonably fast CD-ROM drives the option of saving valuable hard-drive space by letting them load levels from the CD?
Of course, putting the whole game on the hard drive should get you into the action in short order, but it doesn't seem to help much here - Vigilance has the longest load times I've ever encountered. On a fast system (375MHz Pentium, 64MB RAM), it took two minutes and 40 seconds to load a saved game - and this was immediately after rebooting to make sure I had as much free RAM as possible.
And what do you get after installing more than a half a gigabyte of data and enduring those interminable load times? A game that moves like a drunk on the verge of a blackout, that's what. It's nearly impossible to walk accurately during the first 30 seconds or so of each level because the program is constantly accessing the hard drive - this game hits the disk more during a single level than most games do during their lifetime on your system. The action becomes a bit smoother as you move through a level, but the animations still stutter and hiccup whenever you run into an enemy - precisely the time when you need smooth animation, wouldn't you say?
But even if you manage to get silky-smooth performance, you'll run into another problem that's utterly inexcusable: There's no in-game save, despite the fact that the manual says there is (just one of several inaccuracies in the manual, by the way). Toss in some missions in which you've got to execute tricky jumps and a single slip results in death, and you can imagine just how infuriating things can get. In-game saves are promised for the next patch, but the game's been out for a month, and the fix still isn't here. And that's beside the point: No first-person shooter for the PC should ship without an in-game save.
On top of all this, Vigilance suffers from severe clipping problems (gun barrels sticking through closed doors, bodies embedded in walls), frequent crashes, graphical glitches (levels starting out entirely black, forcing you to relaunch), and only 12 moderately sized levels (your character moves so slowly even when running that the levels seem bigger than they really are).
What this all means, of course, is that you shouldn't bother with Vigilance - and that the ranks of the "coulda-shoulda-woulda" club of PC games has just increased by one.