On my honor, we are truly getting away from the JRPG genre this week. I’m a little burned out after reviewing two JRPGs this month, and even though I love playing through an old classic every now and then, there is nothing I want to write about less than a JRPG at the moment.
So instead, we’ll turn to the absolute last company in the world that would develop a game like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. EA is not a company I am in love with, but it’s also never one I’ve frothingly hated either. The best I can say is that I enjoy the games they publish when they are developed by a studio they bought out, like Criterion, BioWare or Westwood.
In my experience, not a whole lot of games from EA open themselves up to multiple playthroughs unless they come from one of those companies. Dead Space is an exception because that’s just a perfectly made video game in my opinion, and another that I frequently like to go back to is our Guess the Game selection! Not a lot of people have played or even heard of this title, but from the moment I saw its reveal trailer, I knew it was going to be something special.
And I was right! Back when Gamespot was the standard by which we judged game reviews, the website gave our Guess the Game selection a 9.3, which in those days was considered “a AAA score” and one usually reserved only for the biggest names and franchises. “What the heck? Where did this title come from?” the forums rang out. “I’ve never heard of this.”
But I had, and I was fully aware of the quality long before it reached retails shelves.
One: because of the trailer. Two: because it comes from a quality studio in Hitman developer IO Interactive. And three: because this game was far deeper than your standard third-person shooter affair at the time.
At about the time tactical shooters were taking off in the States but before the invention of cover-based shooting, wildly firing guns at enemies in a reticle was becoming a little stale. Halo had done its thing to revive the shooter genre on consoles, but the gaming industry had a hard time following up with a quality product in its wake. Many tried, some succeeded, and we found that all that was necessary was a gimmick to set it apart from the rest.
Enter this wonderful little game. The best way to describe it is as a tactical shooter streamlined to the point where you can gives orders to twelve allied units with the push of a single button. Our leader, Chris Stone, can conduct entire battles from the safety of a bunker while ordering loyal units into possible death situations, or he can jump down into the ruckus and charge in along side them.
It’s a simple setup. Pressing a face button gives commands to a single unit in a queue, and holding the button issues a command to them all.
Hold triangle and your entire squad will take cover and lay a suppressing fire. Press circle twice to order two units to charge in an distract the enemies. Hold square (obviously, I played this on the PlayStation 2) and everyone else will follow Stone while the distraction keeps opposing units busy. IO Interactive’s simple system works like second nature almost immediately. I’ve never played a shooter where being dropped into the action and both conducting a battle while shooting at the same time proved to be so easy!
And of course, you don’t start out with twelve unit teams either. Our Guess the Game selection has hints of an RPG system in which helping injured soldiers, destroying propaganda, causing mayhem, and finding secret tunnels through the sewer system all grant experience points. More experience, a higher cap on the number of soldiers available at one time. Nice and simple, and not to mention perfectly balanced with the flow of the game’s difficulty.
Level design is amazing. Some missions take place in the snowy streets of New York City, battling behind taxis and trucks, firing from balconies and verandas, hurling Molotovs into opposing enemy bunkers. Other times will take place inside buildings, sending troops up blind staircases, fishing out Communist soldiers, and securing flagpoles to raise the red, white, and blue.
Yes, I said Communist soldiers. Our Guess the Game selection is not only home to original and excellent gameplay but also storytelling that far surpassed the standards of the genre at the time. Chris Stone, everyday plumber, climbs the ranks of an underground movement tasked with pushing an invading Soviet military force from Manhattan. Most of the story is told through a hilarious propaganda news channel designed to make the American government look like the bad guys, but Chris and his peers know what is happening on the street level.
And dare I say, there are moments in this game that actually made me tear up the first time I played it. No joke, our Guess the Game was written by people who knew exactly what they were doing. The musical score too often goes ignored as one of the best of its generation as well.
So, what happened? The game was a critical success, and it probably sold far more than EA was expecting, if it even noticed between all of its licensed property games at the time. Why did it never follow up with a sequel?
Well, we’re moving into more modern history now, but IO Interactive kind of created a spiritual successor to this game. The venerated studio brought their talents over to Eidos, not yet bought out by Square Enix, and used many of this game’s brilliant ideas as a basis for the Kane & Lynch franchise. Yeah, you remember that flash in the pan? Angry video games for angry video gamers? One sequel was all it took to put it in its place, and all of this Guess the Game’s wasted potential, both on the storytelling and tactical shooting front, was never heard from or seen again.
It’s a real shame, too. IO Interactive had a real winner on its hands here, and it really stood out in a time when EA was struggling with quality control.
So… what is it? Guess the title of this sadly overlooked third-person shooter. After you guess, why not buy it? It might be available on Origin right now, I’m not sure.