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PC Review - 'Missing: Since January'

by Michael Bragg on July 15, 2004 @ 12:49 a.m. PDT

A journalist investigating a string of gruesome murders mysteriously disappears with his companion. Soon after, the production company he works for receives a disturbing CD-ROM containing video footage captured during his investigation. More than just a CD, this disc is in fact the beginning of a terrifying game with a maniacal killer known only as "The Phoenix."

Genre : Adventure
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Lexis Numérique
Release Date : June 29, 2004

This is only my second game review, so I’m still naïve enough to have been thrilled when I received the envelope from Worthplaying containing this game. The documentation (what there was of it) was either photocopied or printed out on a two-bit laser printer, and the game discs were built from the release candidate: CD-Rs with the title hastily scrawled on them in Sharpie ink. This just seemed…seedy, like I’d received a bootleg from some anonymous source inside The Adventure Company who wanted to share the game’s greatness with the world early. Unfortunately, that’s almost it for any thrill I was able to get from Missing.

The game’s concept is ambitious: use Google searches and e-mails from “contacts” to match wits with a serial killer. He’s kidnapped a journalist named Jack Lorski, and his girlfriend, Karen Gijman, who are working for a European news agency. The agency, SKL Network, has contacted you because the serial killer, who calls himself “The Phoenix,” has sent a CD-ROM to the home address of the network’s CEO. They want your help to decipher the information The Phoenix has placed on this CD, and you’ll have to research European geography, ancient alchemical texts, and the biographies of many of Europe’s famous historical figures to do so.

The historical and literary elements of the game reminded me very much of the excellent Gabriel Knight series, by Jane Jensen (published by Sierra Games). By building a number of websites, Lexis has managed to flesh out the backstory and world of the game quite well.

Additional real-world flavor is provided by the fact that you’ll need to receive e-mails from your “contacts” as you progress throughout the game. The “contacts” are, of course, nothing more than automated messages sent when you reach certain checkpoints in the game’s progress. Still, it is kind of engaging to receive a message from your “research assistant,” Kristin Lark, letting you know that you’re on the right track. As far as I know, the only other game to try something like that was Majestic, from Electronic Arts, and if you don’t remember that game, there’s a reason: it belly-flopped like John Candy, Chris Farley, and John Belushi each hitting the same wading pool at once.

Visually, the game is – for lack of a better term – “modern serial-killer chic.” There are lots of astrological symbols, deliberately creepy collages, quick jump-cuts, and scratchy, decayed-looking fonts everywhere. The sound for the game is also fairly serial-killer standard: haunting ambient hiss, simple, repetitive tunes played by what sounds like a child’s toy piano, and the occasional shriek just to remind you that you’re playing a horror-oriented game.

As far as ideas go, Missing gets an A+. When I described the plot and mechanics to some friends, all of them said, “Wow! That sounds like a lot of fun.” It’s the execution of these ideas that really fails for this game.

Let’s start with the install. After I completed the initial setup on disk 1, I was told to click OK to continue. This, however, caused a generic “scripting error” message and terminated the game launcher. I removed disk 1, inserted disk 2, and launched the game from the desktop icon which it installed on its own, without giving me a choice. None of this boded well for Missing: Since January. Hopefully, since this is release candidate 3, this sort of problem will be resolved before the game goes gold. Unfortunately, since this is a release candidate (which used to mean that it could go gold from this build), bugs this major should have been resolved before building the game to release candidate 1.

Once I managed to get the game started up, it prompted me to create a login name, and enter a working e-mail address so I could receive in-game e-mails. Having done so, it told me to look for a confirmation e-mail that would give me my login password. Thinking that this would be fairly simple, I toggled out of the game to open up Outlook. Oh, no. Missing wasn’t going to have any new processes spawn while it was running. I opened up Task Manager, and discovered that the game was eating up 99% of my CPU time.

Folks, this is a quick diversion into geek-land, and if you don’t really care about the back-end technical details of a game, you can just skip down to the next paragraph and not miss a whole lot. With that said, this game is essentially built on Shockwave animations and QuickTime movies. There is NO WAY that a Shockwave application should be this resource-hungry. I’ve got an AMD Athlon XP 1800+, 768 MB of DDR, and a GeForce FX 5600 with 256 MB of RAM onboard. The Adventure Company claims that Missing will run on a PII-333 MHz with 128 MB RAM, and any old SVGA card. For those intrepid souls, this game must be like watching a PowerPoint slide show.

I exited out of the game and started Outlook again. Then I re-entered the game once I’d received the confirmation e-mail and entered my password. It logged me into the game (without, incidentally, giving me the option to change this password) and I was off.

The initial puzzles were fairly simple, but it wasn’t long before I was directed out to the Web to find a clue (about 2 minutes, actually). The publishers were thoughtful enough to include an in-game toolbar to launch your default e-mail client and web browser, so I tried to launch Mozilla from this prompt, and came once more to a screeching halt. Once more I was forced to shut down the game and start my browser manually. I did so, and went back in.

The game is broken up into a series of four chapters, Water, Earth, Air, and Fire, with about 8-10 puzzles each. Some of the puzzles relate to the game; for instance, you’re shown a film in which an execution-style murder takes place, and you’re required to identify a group of men in a picture, so that you can identify the name of the victim of that murder. These puzzles aren’t terribly difficult, but they can be time-consuming. Lexis Numérique apparently figured that the Google popularity of their sites would increase from gameplay, and keep the correct websites very near the top of the results list. Unfortunately, so many people created walkthroughs for the European version of this game, In Memoriam, that you’ll most likely end up with a page or two of those hits before the correct one.

The puzzles that don’t really advance the story of the game are even worse. There’s a little game in which you have to move a spider around a path of stones which eventually becomes totally frustrating, and makes you long for the days of nice, simple, Myst puzzles. Worse yet is the second-to-last minigame/puzzle, which is sort of what Space Invaders would have been if it had been designed by a Nazi on a bad day. Topping this off for overall badness is the fact that one of your contacts e-mails you a method to bypass the game (this is, of course, assuming that you lose at it continuously for about 30 minutes like I did).

The true summit of Crap Mountain is reached in the game’s finale, when a complete Deus ex machina occurs and denies you any sense of victory over The Phoenix. It’s as if the game’s developers asked themselves: “What can we do to make the last dozen hours or so the player’s spent seem more like a total waste?” And sure enough, they found a way. I won’t spoil the ending of the game, but suffice it to say that you won’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything.

That’s what makes the game god-awful. The supporting elements, the websites and the e-mails, are pretty damn awful in their own rite, as well. Many of the websites tend to be both graphics-intensive, and – instead of being broken up logically into multiple HTML pages – are one big long page with anchors to the various sections. Users on dialup will soon begin to wish they were dead (or at least playing a better game).

As for the e-mails, the best example of how screamingly bad they are would have to be messages from “Marco Lerini,” a contact in Italy. Here’s an excerpt from one of his first messages:

my friend Gery, he speak to me and give me your email adresse. Because I have house in Milano, he ask me to do some searches on Lorski case and omicides happened in Italy since a few months.

Get it? Since he’s Italian, he writes with an Italian accent! Hey, Vinnie, howzabouta pizza, huh? It’s like watching Tony Shalhoub on Wings, if Tony Shalhoub were not funny.

As the game progresses, you’ll also receive snippets of video footage from a documentary Jack and Karen were working on before they were kidnapped. Karen does a fair job in her role (although I may be biased because she’s a severe hottie), but the actor playing Jack seems to be doing his level best to shatter the ambience at every turn. His voiceovers are excessively lurid and overacted, and actually worse than real journalist’s voiceovers – if such a thing is possible.

Finally, there’s the bad guy. The Phoenix has to be the most un-frightening serial killer ever. Every time you receive a message from him, or he “speaks” to you with in-game text, it’s in the same poorly translated, goofily patronizing manner that Europeans seem to think American tough guys use. If you crossed some Hannibal Lecter quotes with some Mr. Rogers quotes, and then ran the whole thing through Babelfish about five times, this is what it would sound like.

In retrospect, there are some other plot holes in the game. I can’t give away too much without ruining the plot (if you’re actually masochistic enough to want to play this game), but for one thing, where did Jack find the time to professionally edit this whole documentary and include voiceovers? He’s been kidnapped by a psychopath, who apparently just happens to have a whole collection of professional editing equipment at his disposal.

In summary, this is a wonderful idea bogged down by lousy execution. If you’re looking for a good adventure game that has great atmosphere and a strong basis in literary and historical mysteries, save your money. Instead of buying Missing, pick up a copy of Gabriel Knight III on eBay.

Score : 5.5/10

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