Prisoner of War
Maybe it’s just my rather peculiar brand of misled patriotism, but among the many games that have cluttered my hard drive over the years, it has always been particularly easy for me to spot the games that have etched into every bit of code the words 'Made In Britain’. Prisoner Of War is another game that.
above all else, is very British - a game that, like so many before it, offers an experience unlike anything else on the shelves. Originality is something we Brits do well - you only have to hold up Shogun and Black & White as two recent examples - and though Prisoner Of War falls some way short of perfection, its flaws almost add something intangible to the game's characteristic charm.
As hinted upon in the game’s title, Prisoner Of War is so far removed in both setting and execution from the many World War Il-themed games that have been assaulting our screens, that it seems unfair to make comparisons. But compare we must, and while POW is very much out on its own in terms of gameplay, for pure action or strategy there are far more accomplished games on offer.
More adventure than action, POW is a game that requires you to sneak around a trio of prison camps across five 'chapters', with the ultimate aim of breaking out. Along the way you discover the Germans have hatched a diabolical plan to develop a rocket to lay waste to London and are using Allied POWs as a human shield to protect it. As well as escaping, you must prevent this massacre by stealing documents and radioing your findings back to Blighty. It’s a plausible and very entertaining story, considering how easy it would have been for the game to focus entirely on escaping.
What is sure to attract the interest of many a jaded gamer, is the very deliberate goal on the part of the developer to create a non-violent game set during what were very turbulent times to say the least. Talking to other Allied prisoners, hiding in dark corners and collecting keys, stealing German uniforms and watching out for patrolling guards is pretty much all the game tasks you with, so those hoping to fashion a blade out of a biscuit barrel and go around slitting their captors’ throats are sure to be a little frustrated, since throwing stones at guards from under the dining hall table is about as violent as it gets. Of course, the Germans have a much more lethal arsenal to hand, but in keeping with the nature of the game, even if you do ignore their warnings while picking the lock to the library and run off in the direction of the exercise yard, a couple of days in solitary or the sick bay is as bad as it gets. The guards are rather poor shots too, which is probably why they're patrolling prisons as opposed to fighting on the front line.
Each of the three prison camps have strict daily routines, which basically means certain areas of the camp are safe to explore during specific times of the day. The Mess Hall is where prisoners can safely mill about during meal times and catch up on camp gossip. Exercise time is when, if you’re not otherwise engaged you might want to gamble away your stash of chocs, smokes or booze (collectively known as 'currency’), or practise chucking pebbles at tin cans, and lights out is the best time to go exploring, since not only is it dark outside, but if you manage to secure a tin of boot polish or a German uniform, you can explore almost anywhere. The only times when your absence will be noted is after morning and evening roll calls, at which point the guards’ barracks are emptied and the nearest truck, table or wardrobe should be sought out and promptly used as cover until the hoo-ha dies down.
It has to be said that, although much hyped, the Al is hardly what you’d call amazingly lifelike. Shortsighted and profoundly deaf, the guards stick strictly to routine, treading the same path day after day. If you’re spotted where you shouldn’t be. they will search you out with some degree of intelligence, but you soon come to discover places where safety from detection is guaranteed. Rather than take this to be a criticism however, it isn't long before you come to appreciate the predictable Al and routine pace of the game. Knowing how many guards will be in one place at certain times is central to your success and learning the routines is all part of the fun.
Tension and frustration is kept high by not allowing you to save the game wherever and whenever you want. In fact, the only place you can save is inside your barrack when you go for a kip. Consequently, the more times you save, the longer it will take you to escape. Although there isn't really a time limit to the game, there is certainly some degree of satisfaction in managing to break out as soon as possible.
Friends Like These
Of course you aren't alone in your endeavours to outwit your captors. In each successive camp you meet a number of helpful allies eager to assist, some offering valuable information, others keen to relieve you of your stash of currency, either in petty games of gambling or by offering to cause a brief diversion. Despite this, however, you are very much alone, and rather than being supporting roles, the others are little more than cast extras, conscripted into the background rather than the fore. Similarly, though very much an adventure in structure, there is little in the way of puzzle solving. Each mission (of which there are around 20) follows on much like every other, in that you must simply find objects and take them back to your barracks or hand them over to the Escape Committee. To get through doors you need keys, crowbars or lockpicks, and to get past guards all you need is a sense of timing, a uniform or a way of creating a diversion. Guards and locked doors offer the only obstacles, and although there is some freedom in how you go about finding each object, the challenge isn't what you'd call a cerebral one.
Not that Prisoner Of War is an easy game to complete -opportunities can be hard to spot and success can come only after many failures. There are no multiplayer options whatsoever, although there is some degree of replayability once the game has been completed. It would have been particularly enjoyable to be able to play as different characters though, perhaps with different abilities, such as faster running speeds or natural lockpicking abilities.
But by far the biggest problem with the game are the numerous hangovers from the console incarnation, upon which the PC version is far too rigidly based. The context-sensitive controls, mapped to the mouse buttons, are hardly as intuitive as you would hope. It's far too easy to open a door by accident when you only wanted to peek through the keyhole, for instance. Also, if you are crouching to get near to a fence, you have to hit the key to stand in order to climb over.
Something like this should really have been automatic. Similarly, the camera sweeps in far too close in confined spaces, to the point where you are often touching cloth and can see little else but a pair of buttocks. More often than not this happens at crucial times where you really need to see a little more of the surroundings. These problems were highlighted in the PS2 version when it was released a couple of months ago and really should have been sorted out.
Almost as bad is the fact that mouse-users can’t look up or down without going into a first-person view that on PC should have been omitted. The ability to lean around comers is also redundant thanks to mouse control, and if you want to remap the controls you have to exit the game completely, which is a little irritating to say the least. But for all the hang-ups the PC version suffers from its translation, and for all the minor missed opportunities, the fact is Prisoner Of War is one of the most novel and original games to hit any machine in many years. Those with a forgiving nature who are looking for an escape from the endless monotony of mass slaughter would do well to seek out a copy.
Download Prisoner of War
The Simple Fact Is everyone loves a good Prisoner Of War camp. Through one of the strangest acts of post-war revisionism ever perpetrated by Hollywood, we have a vision of Nazi POW camps as a kind of wartime blend of Scout camp and The Great Egg Race, with a bunch of rascally lads having a lark away from home, slinking between huts under cover of darkness, sneaking sips of smuggled liquor and trading chocolate bars, all the while building unlikely contraptions out of toilet rolls and empty bean cans. Every now and then you get buried alive in a tunnel or have to snap someone’s arm across some bed slats so that Stallone can play in your football team, but apart from that it’s all a good laugh.
Now, finally, Brighton-based developer Wide Games has seen sense, offering us the chance to play out our POW camp fantasies in a stealth action adventure that would do Steve McQueen proud. There's no weapons in the game (except those pointing at you), so it's all about planning, strategy and sneakiness, as you dig, climb, skulk and bribe your way out of three of Germany's most notorious POW camps - including a meticulously recreated Castle Colditz. Intelligent gameplay mechanics, superb enemy Al and Metal Gear So/id- inspired stealth elements all bode well for this title, and although the graphics are yet to receive a final spit and polish, the all-important atmosphere is plain for all to see.
Aww, I thought Steve McQueen was going to make the jump this time. I trust you were all watching IT Vs showing of The Great Escape on Christmas Day during your break from school/work/the dole queue? If not, how dare you even think of calling yourself British? Rectify the situation immediately by renting the DVD/video or sending me a fiver care of the usual address. (How will that rectify... ? Never mind - Ed.) One thing's for sure, a group of about 20 or so game developers in Brighton would have been watching it in-between mouthfuls of dry turkey and burnt stuffing. That's because they're the team from Wide Games, presently readying themselves for a June release of Prisoner Of War, a WWII prison camp action/adventure steeped in the finest traditions of the genre. Escape committees, tunnel dirt up the trouser legs, bushy moustaches.
dressing up in disguises, friendly guards susceptible to a bite or two of chocolate - everything that made the war the fun-packed romp that it was turns up in the game.
Roll Call With It
"The thing that separates it from most other action games," says Carl Jones, executive producer of the game, "is that the player doesn't get hold of any guns or weapons. The challenges in the game aren't about whether you use a rocket launcher or a sniper rifle to kill the enemy. That's meant coming up with a whole load of different gameplay mechanics."
Those mechanics hark back to an old Spectrum classic, which in turn owes much to the classic board game Escape From Colditz, although POW isn't directly based on either of them. "It's about the adventures of a US air pilot, Captain Stone," says Jones of the updated plot. "The Germans are using the POW camps to mask secret weapons technology development and other plans they don't want the allies to know about. The reason they're using the camps is because they're fairly certain the allies won't bomb their own men, it's a human shield over their work. Your job is to find out what they're up to, sabotage things as best you can and then, obviously, escape the camp and move on to your next mission."
Although a prisoner, Stone is free to wander around certain parts of each camp as he pleases - providing he doesn't enter a restricted area, miss one of the twice-daily roll-calls, or be seen after lights out. Which is where the very real, very palpable sense of tension comes from. Merely avoiding guards is one thing - avoiding the guards while trying to get from one side of Colditz to the other, with only a minute or so before your absence from evening roll-call is discovered and a camp-wide search is held certainly gets the old heart pumping.
Not that those guards are any pushover mind you. "They have several main senses modelled," says Jones. "The sense of sight works on the amount of light the player is in, the speed the player is moving at and the crosssection of your character model." Which means that the best course of action is to go slow, remain low and try not to glow. "There's also a complex object collision system at work," Jones continues, "using all manner of line-of-sight calculations to work out whether the guard can see enough of you to determine that you're not just a shape in the darkness. Plus we've something called a crowd occlusion system. If I'm running away from a guard and run into a crowd of POWs, they'll help me out by mingling all around so that the guard loses me among the throng." Hearing works on similar principles, using loud noises to mask quieter ones, such as lightning strikes to drown out any loud bangs you have to make. The senses are matched by equally proficient levels of Al.
Individual guards all have patrol routes (that can be altered by acute enough players - we won't give away how), but can work together as teams if the alarm is raised. "If the guards have an inkling that you're in a location they'll search it more thoroughly," says Jones. "The best tactic therefore is to find a hiding place, wait for a guard to move away from where you're hiding, then quickly run out and try to find another hiding place away from where he is. It's only the most skilful players that will be able to do that though."
Finding a good hiding place isn't easy either. "The Al is more than intelligent enough to figure out that if it sees you climbing into a cupboard then you're in that cupboard," explains Jones. "If you're not seen climbing into it then it might still search it but we define the search points with the tools we have. We try to make them sensible enough so that if a guard is told, "the POW has disappeared in this area, search it," then they'll see that the obvious places to search are in the cupboards and under the tables and so on. They won't do anything stupid like just walking around a room, looking at it, then leave."
Those fellow POWs mentioned earlier aren't simply dumb visual aids either. Each prisoner has their own Al level, and provides some function or another that Stone can exploit. Minigames, such as gambling, can provide the player with currency that in turn can be used to pay for goods, services or even to act as decoys. "It could even be that a player who really likes the role-playing side of things wouldn't have to do much of the stealth action at all. but instead goes around the camp collecting money then pays the other POWs to do most of the work for him," reveals Jones.
Shut That Door
Although there are only three camps in the whole game, the varied nature of the missions and the plethora of ingame activities are expected to keep things interesting. Plus the three camps are all very varied in style and constantly have new areas opening up with each new mission. Initial Stalag, boot camp-style huts and fences eventually give way to the imposing Castle Colditz, which immediately throws up gameplay challenges of its own. "Colditz is very different from the other levels," explains Jones, "very much the kind of Metal Gear Solid, hiding in cupboards, sneaking down corridors sort of thing. It's a lot harder for the player to get away with things because there won't be as much space to run to and there are a lot more guards all over the place."
It's a faithful recreation of the infamous castle, from the peeling wallpaper in the corridors to the ironwork railings on the balconies. Of course, that also includes the various tunnels and secret corridors that existed, not all of which were actually discovered by the Germans.
From a technical point of view, such enclosed locations does throw up the immediate question of camera placements, ruiner of many an otherwise fine game. "We're using a combination of different camera systems," says Jones. "We can set up dolly cams, fixed-point cams, cams with their own Al that can follow the player around and cams that can follow fixed paths at certain times. What we're prototyping at the moment is a free-floating internal cam with its own Al that will figure out the best positions on the fly. But when rooms get quite small and poky it's almost impossible to do that so that's when we switch to the fixed cameras." Which helps when things need to take a dramatic turn.
The drama is aided by the game's music. It's not just the Germans keeping tabs on you in POW, even the audio knows what you're doing. Some of you may remember LucasArts' old Monkey Island-era iMuse system - music that changed pitch, harmonics and tempo to match the on-screen action - but it's been a long time since anyone has really started experimenting with the technology in today's DirectX environments.
"We happened to find an individual who was fascinated by what could be done with DirectMusic," says Ed Daly, managing director of Wide Games. "He was able to just get his whole head around non-linear music composition - an alien concept for most composers, who are used to one note following another. It's still a relatively unproven technology and there are only a few games that have done some okay things with it. But nothing particularly spectacular that's proved its potential or made as much use of it as Microsoft had hoped."
That man was one Ciaran Walsh who, surrounded by a bank of mixing desks, MIDI keyboards, microphones and speakers, sits alone in his studio several doors down the street from the rest of the POW team, but is as integral a pan of the overall atmosphere of the game as the anists. Wide Sounds is an offshoot of the main company, set up as an independent music studio specialising in something called interactive music.
"A certain type of music naturally springs to mind when you see the type of game POW is," explains Walsh. "Il has to be orchestral-based, very movielike. But we wanted to do something dynamic with it. So I came up with the concept of using lots of small component pieces of music and using the DirectMusic system to pull them all together and to extrapolate different variations of each piece, removing layers and changing the tempo to create different levels of intensity. You can then take each of these small 30-second chunks of music, tie them together as needed and create, say, ten or 20 minute pieces of music." Which basically means that as you sneak through the game, the music, while retaining the overall theme, will change to suit the mood of the action. Much like any decent movie score, only changing dynamically depending on what's happening on screen - light and airy strings when you're just getting up in the morning, through to dramatic chords when the hunt is on and the tension is high.
Sneak To Win
Maintaining that tension is the key to the whole game. The player needs to constantly feel as though he's on the verge of being caught if the game is to succeed. There is a precedent - games such as the Thief series. Metal Gear Solid, Hidden & Dangerous, Project IGI and Ghost Recon have all shown that there's a market for more measured and thoughtful approaches to the action shooter genre. What Jones and his team at Wide Games is hoping to prove is that you can take the concept one step further and do away with the weapons aspect altogether. Are they mad? Will they get away with it like James Coburn's fake Aussie of hope? Or will they, like Steve McQueen and his ill-fated motorcycle leap, end up on the twisty barbed wire of fate? We'll find out in June.
An Original idea I suppose - a World War II game with no action, no guns and no excitement. Instead, it's a real-time adventure game set in POW camps, where you have to engineer a series of escapes and avert a German missile plot. The gameplay mostly involves finding items, talking to NPCs and stealing stuff, with a bit of stealth thrown in for added tension. Needless to say, it can all get a bit dull, especially as the only weapons at your disposal are pebbles, and the most advanced stealth gadget available is a smudge of boot polish. Sam Fisher would be beside himself.
There is a certain B-grade charm to the game, but even this is smothered by a slapdash console conversion that bequeaths a woeful interface and numerous camera problems. All in all, we wouldn't waste our time.
Prisoner of War is the newest game released by European game giant Codemasters. You are a pilot who has been shot down during World War II and taken prisoner by the Germans, or 'Krauts'? as your character likes to say. You are faced with many individual missions in your overall attempt to escape from your German captors.
Surprisingly enough, the game is not full of violence and blood as I had originally expected. Occasionally you get shot if you stray where you are not supposed to, but even then you usually live and you don't bleed all over the place. With the lack of blood and gore, you are forced to actually play a game of strategy and stealth as opposed to plowing your way through the enemy with guns blazing.
While the graphics and sound are nothing to do cartwheels over, they are adequate for the game, but do not use the Xbox's full potential by any means. The faces are a bit grainy and the 'mean? Krauts always seem to be smiling. Oddly enough they never really yell at you either. Controls are easy to learn and easy to master after only a small amount of time playing. Get good at crouching and climbing fences as soon as you can. The guards are a little dumb, but they always seem to be where you don't want them.
The goals are specific and you get a lot of help, so it is not an excessively hard game. It's fun to play through once, but I'm not sure that I would play it more than that in order to top my best time or anything. While I think that some people will think this is a great game, the majority will find it moderate to low on the overall greatness scale. Rent Prisoner of War before you buy it, or borrow it if you can save the rental fee.
Your brief window of opportunity comes right after the spotlight sweeps by and the guard turns his back. You sprint for the only part of the fence without barbed wire and quickly climb over. Before anyone notices, you crouch down in the tall grass, out of sight. You just hope no one heard you or sees your footprints in the snow, or else it's solitary confinement. That's the type of intense, gun-less, adrenaline-filled gameplay that fills this WWII prison-camp game. No sickly love stories or mind-boggling plotlines that'll make you want to jump off the George Washington Bridge here. This is pure sneak-around action, with a little character interaction (bribery, hints and even deception) to guide you along. You'll get a rush out of learning and exploiting the prison-camp routines and guard patrols, and knowing you just got away with one helluva covert-mission run, leaving those sour Krauts dumbfounded and PO'ed. And even though you'll revisit the same camps in later levels, the objectives are varied enough that you won't mind the redundancy. I was almost prepared to say POW is more fun than Metal Gear Solid 2 with its emphasis on gameplay over, well, all that other crap that dragged down Solid Snake's adventure. But POW was let out early on some technicality: Another month of clean-up development work could've polished up the controls, graphics and unusually stupid A.I.
Nothing screams fun like a Nazi prison camp. POW is the first non-violent WWII-themed game with a plot lifted straight from classic war flicks. With multiple ways to complete each mission, POW*s Shenmue-meets-Metal-Gear-Solid stealth vibe creates both freedom and tension. What hurts the game, however, are the pasty graphics and occasionally dopey A.I. (At one point, I was crouching right next to a guard and he didn't notice a thing!) It made me want to throw the game into solitary confinement. Despite its spotty production values and wimpy pacificist ways, ROW'S varied gameplay kept me planning my next great escape. A worthy rental.
Imagine Metal Gear Solid with all of the stealth and none of the fighting. That pretty much sums up POW, a game plagued by an awkward inventory system, occasionally twitchy controls and half-witted guards. (I've seen goldfish with longer attention spans--the Germans give up chasing you after 10 seconds of running. Usually in circles. While you're hiding in a bush. Next to them.) But it's not all bad. POW won't win any graphical awards, but it sports superb voice acting, a novel premise and intelligent mission design. I was hoping for more Nazi killing and less clambering over fences, but this is still an interesting stealth-genre diversion.