Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: March 14, 2006
Who knew that the minute and morbid world of autopsies, trace evidence, and criminal forensics would be such immensely popular viewing fodder? Whatever the case, CSI's prime time popularity is cause enough for a video game tie-in franchise which now enters its fourth iteration with CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder. Developer Telltale Games is at the helm this time around and have been promising players a more immersive experience based on a revamped graphics engine and longer cases. What they have delivered is essentially more of the same compelling, yet basically flawed, investigative gameplay.
No major overhauls have been made to the basic game concept, which remains the same as the previous three installments. You play a rookie crime scene investigator for the Las Vegas unit. At the start of each of the five episodes, you'll be briefed on the latest grisly findings by Gil Grissom, voiced in style by William Peterson. Then it's time to pair up with one of the cast members and make your way to the crime scene to dig through the remainders for the clues that tell a story the victim could not. A lot of the game boils down to running relay races between locations, the lab and the interrogation room. You'll take photographs, fine-comb crime scenes for blood and semen stains, tiny hairs, tire treads, finger- and footprints, and collect them with all the meticulous precision of a professional. Little has been changed from the winning formula employed in previous games, and these evidence hunts turn out to be the most satisfying parts of the 3 Dimensions of Murder. The evidence has to be processed at the lab, and these mini-games will be largely familiar to anyone who has followed the series. The elementary fingerprint and DNA comparison exercises, basic assembly puzzles, and database searches aren't exactly taxing and feel strangely removed from reality.
So what is new? As the title touts, the latest addition features a whole third dimension to enhance your digital sleuthing. What this really means is that you can explore crime scenes from different fixed perspectives and rotate pieces of evidence along three axes to uncover previously hidden clues. They're neat enhancements, but nothing that feels revolutionary in comparison to the previous games.
While the locations look crisp, clean and evocative, the characters somehow manage to look less like their real-life counterparts than in previous installments. For instance, Catherine Willow's pale and sallow computer game character looks like she might have just stepped off Doc Robbins' morgue table. The animation and lip-syncing is done in such a static wooden manner that you get the feeling Pinocchio could have done a better job. The music works well in the game, ranging from the spooky to the spunky, and the judicious use of periods of silence does a good job of building up the suspense. While it does feature the voice acting talent of most of the CSI cast members, Marg Helgenberger and Jorja Fox unfortunately didn't make it on board, and their replacements aren't exactly convincing.
3 Dimensions of Murder rests on the quality of its cases, which varies from intriguing to mildly dull. A first-person shooter game designer shot in the head at the fictional equivalent of the E3 Expo, and an apartment painted in the blood of a missing victim are some of the more absorbing premises. There has evidently been some effort at originality, but most of these stories are to a certain extent quite predictable, and the limited number of suspects and locations to search doesn't alleviate this problem of simplicity. The final episode somewhat confusingly brings back characters from the previous cases and, depending on your tastes, will either feel like a satisfying epilogue, or a cheap effort to recycle locations and voice actors.
Difficulty settings can be adjusted to enable or disable active hotspots, location and evidence tags that indicate when an area or item has been processed to its full extent, and tool assists that clue you in to the right tool for the job. Playing the game on the hardest setting doesn't change the difficulty of the puzzles, but it means that you will spend more time abusing your mouse as you randomly click around crime scenes, hoping for the best. At any rate, isolating the key evidence from the often sparse game environments isn't a challenging task.
Throughout the game, you can ask your all-knowing partner for hints, but these turn out to be full spoiler lists of every item of evidence at the crime scene, including methods on how to collect them. You are warned that this advice will adversely affect your final evaluation, but unless you are easily flattered or like being able to boast to your friends, there isn't a great incentive to do well on these evaluations. In previous games, a good rating would allow you to unlock concept art and behind the scenes footage, but these goodies appear to be curiously absent in 3 Dimensions of Murder. In addition, the meaningless "master level" rating is comparatively easy to earn, regardless of the difficulty setting you play on.
Almost as prevalent as the in-game ads for Visa and GM are the lengthy ramblings of suspects. Listening to characters try to cover up their guilt, or protest their innocence, takes up a large portion of the game. Although the voice acting is generally done well, there is no way to skip these drawn-out dialogues, and 3 Dimensions of Crime ends up more like an audio-visual short story than the interactive video game it should be. Your role feels peripheral to the situation – more like a page turner than an active participant who can affect the game's direction. For instance, the cast character who accompanies you will sometimes make conclusions linking pieces of evidence and explaining the ins and outs of the case before you've even had a chance to think about the possible connections. Sometimes, two members of the cast will come together to spell out exactly what it is you should be doing.
All of this means that 3 Dimensions of Murder is ultimately too easy. You end up not having to pay much attention to the story to be able to finish each episode, and this lack of engagement seriously damages your affinity for the story. If you do get stuck, trial and error will eventually lead you to the guilty party. Each case takes an average of one to two hours to complete, meaning the entire game will last anywhere between 5 and 10 hours.
In some cases, your partner will go around hurling accusations like a monkey flings poo, recreating crime scenes that never really happened in an attempt to pressure suspects into admitting guilt. While this makes for some motion nice motion video replays of theoretical crime scenes, it also ends up making your investigative work seem like amateur guesswork, rather than the professional detective work it should be.
3 Dimensions of Murder will please fans of the CBS show and people craving an interactive short crime story, but as a game, it suffers from the same sorts of problems that have held back the entire series. A lack of interactivity and an over-simplistic puzzle system quickly engender apathy and boredom. Rather than simulating the investigative activities of forensic scientists, the game makes you feel something like a chimp that has to perfunctorily push the right buttons in the right order to get a reward that isn't ultimately very satisfying.
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