Prisoner of Ice
Despite sounding otherwise, Infogrames' new graphic adventure isn't about that festering piece of cambozola which surfaced last time you defrosted the fridge. It's based on a novel, and even the most unperceptive adventurer should by now have caught on to the company's romance with the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Some might have thought it done lor, H.P. and his battered novels thrown out on their proverbial ears, as Alone in the Dark 3 rose to the heady heights of fame without the merest mention of the word Cthulhu. And they'd be wrong. For the torrid love affair has been bubbling away on the back burner as Prisoner of Ice is the second game in the Calls of Cthuhlu series (following on from Shadow of the Comet) and takes its inspiration from Lovey's The Mountains of Madness novel. But far more intriguing is the fact that the game's scenario is based on real-life events, namely the fact that in 1935 the Nazis created the Ahnenbe - a secret team of scientists whose task was to investigate spook occult practices.
Yet Nazis and black magic are nothing new. both were melded before in LucasArts' excellent Indiana Jones and the Pate of Atlantis, which appeared three years ago now. and Prisoner of Ice draws heavily from this title. But let's keep an open mind and remember that "borrowing" is no bad thing as long as the end result is a gripping game.
So back to the plot. The year is 1937. The place - The South Pole. Top Norwegian explorer Peter Hamsun and his son. Bjorn, have escaped from a secret Nazi military base, along with a Royal Navy Commando O'Leary. Not only have they prised themselves out of a high security. Colditz-type establishment but they've also managed to squeeze out three enormous crates, marked top secret. All's well as the trio merrily tow the crates on a dog sled until one slides off and splits open. Out pops a hideous mouldy looking monster (not unlike that piece of cambozola) which proceeds to drag O'Leary into the ice. He, in turn, resurfaces a crazed man, and this time takes Peter with him leaving Bjorn to hoof it to safety. As fortune would have it, Bjorn meets up with some British soldiers and hauls himself and his two remaining crates aboard their submarine. It's here that the game proper begins with the crew of the sub being introduced to an independent observer. American agent Ryan, who spookily also happens to be you.
And from then on it's a question of pointing and clicking to your heart's content, whether it's to talk to other characters, look at your surroundings, pick up and use objects and all the other adventurey-type things that come into play. The interface has been well thought out. and is very simple to use. The right mouse button investigates objects and your surroundings, while the left mouse button automatically recognises what you want it to do. For example, if you want to talk to another character, you just click on whoever takes your fancy, while if you'd rather give him or her an item, you merely drag the mouse to your hidden inventory at the top of the screen, which will then appear, click on the item and drag it over to the person you want to give it to. No frenzied cycling through a series of word or icon commands, missing the one you want to highlight and then having to run through them all again.
As this is a talkie co-rom, you can opt to play the game with the on-screen text switched off. If, like me, your concentration span resembles that of a gold fish, it's a good idea to leave the text on, so that you don't miss any vital clues.
On the other hand, if you can't bear to listen to the speech, you can also turn it off. and go for the sad Hobbit-obsessed adventurer mode of play. Which bring us nicely onto the digitised speech itself. This has been well implemented, with each character having a voice befitting his or her personality, although as per usual the hero has an annoyingly smug American accent. The sound effects too. are first class and are complemented by a suitably atmospheric soundtrack ranging from Wagnerian themes to eerie sci-fi type music, not composed by John Williams. As for the dialogue, this is pleasant enough but fails to make headway in the humour stakes, and never really raises a belly laugh like the LucasArt adventures. On occasion, there are some odd-sounding lines, which point to the fact that they've been sloppily translated from the French, but then this is only a minor gripe.
However, it's graphically that the game really comes into its own. Prisoner of Ice looks absolutely superb with its stunning animation and impressive cinematic cut-scenes, particularly if you're lucky enough to play the svga version over the vga - both are included on the CD. The animation of the characters was developed using a 3D technique called Motion Picture, where real actors' movements were filmed for maximum realism - watch Diane swivel her hips out of her cell, or Ryan's tight buns swagger across the screen, and you'll see just what I mean.
The game's also pretty big, with six main locations and over 150 different settings: the South Pole nazi base, inside the submarine, the Falkland Islands. Argentina, Tihuanaco and that little town of Illsmouth in New England, which will be familiar to Shadow of the Comet fans. Fortunately, there's ample room for saving loads of games, and even an automatic save mode which performs the double function of alerting you to the fact that you're just about to meet your maker. There are also two different endings to the game - at a certain point towards the end, the game branches into two separate directions and you can opt for a realistic tragic finale or a phoney Hollywood conclusion. Puzzle-wise, it's easy to get into and yet ever now and then stumps you for a while, but never long enough to make you want to trash your pc (a frequent occurrence with adventure games). One bugbear, however, is that the level of artificial intelligence could do with a bit of tweaking - sometimes Ryan returns to a specific place and the game won't recognise the fact that he's already been there, seen it. done it.
Oh. and a different set of animations for the death by cheese monster sequences would have been nice too. But then I'm picky like that. Though I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy Prisoner of Ice. It may not be original, and although graphically superior to Indiana Jones, doesn't make for quite as charming or witty company. And yet, it has that warm, familiar, feel to it, rather like an old friend, which definitely makes it well worth a visit.