May 29th, 2008


Art of Murder: FBI Confidential

About a week ago I was asked if I knew any independent game reviewers who might be interested in a range of PC games that were being launched in the UK after successful debuts in their native Poland. The PR bod had covered the national and specialist press effectively but was looking to interest non-staffers. I dived into my address book and also garnered names from some of my contacts.

The publisher is City Interactive: a Warsaw listed company with development studios in Poland and Peru and additional offices in the UK and Germany. They are launching English-language versions of their games starting with three titles this month, six more in June and another 13 over the rest of 2008. At £9.99 they offer first release games at back catalogue prices. I was mildly sceptical; non-trivial games do not always translate well. The firm has convinced Nintendo of its worth, however: two new DS games are to be launched by City in autumn 2008.

Of the first three games, two are first person shooters. Crimes of War and Terrorist Takedown 2: US Navy Seals look good and play well enough but this style of game holds no interest for me beyond the technical. Art of Murder: FBI Confidential, on the other hand, is the kind of point and click adventure that I have always loved.

A rookie FBI agent sees her new partner shot on her first day. She wants to hunt down his killer but is reassigned to the investigation of serial ritual killer. The graphics are detailed and pleasing and the animation is a little better than in environments like Second Life but nowhere near Hollywood CGI animation. One of the great weaknesses in point and click has been the difficulty of identifying the hotspots unobtrusively. City have found a way to do this with an optional hints system that briefly and simply highlights the exits from the scene and all points of interest. It offers no clues about puzzle solutions; it merely shows the player where to look.

Generally, the user interface is satisfyingly simple: just two mouse buttons (left to use an item; right to inspect it) with data entry and the like being handled through hotspots on on-screen devices like images of mobile phones. And most of that data entry can be avoided through judicious use of the agent's PDA.

After a briefing from the boss, Nicole Bonnet (our protagonist) has to submit a report and then start investigating the first clues of the serial killings while trying to make contact with her elusive new partner.  Back when I reviewed computer games professionally, it was always a challenge to convey the flavour of the game without spoiling the gameplay for the reader. Twenty years on, I have no more idea about how to strike that balance.

The heroine is sassy, mildly funny, and slightly aggressive. All the other characters have distinctive characters that avoid caricature. The use of US voice actors has helped with this although some of the phrasing is rather European. The puzzles are varied and largely rewarding although some feel sadly random: the solution to a bank of seven switches seems to have no rationale, for example. The game also takes realism too far by providing no way to accelerate transitions. If Bonnet has to walk down a long corridor, we see every single step in real time although we can force her to break into a loping run. If a puzzle requires repeated journeys for its solution, then we must make all those journeys at normal walking or running pace. It could be worse: car journeys are instantaneous and the navigation mechanism of clicking on a polaroid lying on an open road atlas feels appropriate and rather stylish.

So: an intellectually satisfying puzzle with gritty graphics, enjoyable character interactions, and a soundtrack that avoids the infuriating repetition that is such an easy trap for developers. Frankly, it feels like a bargain at a tenner.