Publisher: Vivendi Games
Developer: Legacy Interactive
Release Date: June 7, 2005
ER: The Game is licensed after the popular television show and made with fans in mind. Those who watch it on a regular basis will recognize some of the characters and situations as the story unfolds. Will ER end up being a great game with a license, or one that uses it as a crutch to limp out of the operating room? Strangely enough, that answer is quite mixed.
The gameplay is a hybrid (or "low-brid," as it turns out) of the original Sims formula. Joining three doctors from the show, you take on the role of an intern at Chicago's County General Hospital, where all of the show's action takes place. Unfolding in episodic sequences, each level brings you to the ultimate goal of becoming the best doctor you can be. Players are given a character creation screen, but the options are fairly low. With so few heads to choose from and only two different articles of clothing to wear, the customization leaves something to be desired, as those accustomed to The Sims expect far more options by now. You are also given several stars, which you can assign to various character abilities, such as intelligence, dexterity, and charm. These common role-playing attributes translate directly into your skill in treating the various ailments that will be seen in the hospital.
Graphically, the game greatly resembles the original Sims, with a few added options. The specialized characters, like the doctors from the show and certain patients, look realistic, but all the others are cardboard cut-outs. Randomly generated, these people look worse graphically for some unknown reason; their bodies are quite boxy, and their faces consist are of a lower resolution. The hospital itself seems small and not particularly varied from one area to another, leading to some difficulties initially trying to understand what is going on. Also, the backgrounds all look identical, and a lot of items in the environment are not interactive. It's strange at this point in game design for there to still be non-interactive environments in a game like this. However, the biggest problem here ends up being the camera angle; although you can turn left and right, you cannot change the angle or zoom in or out quite enough. Quite often, I found myself unable to see as closely as I would like, or I would have a lot of trouble navigating the hospital because of the strange camera discrepancies.
There are six different fields of medicine, which are what you will be treating as you play. Each character treated gives you more experience in that field, and eventually, you'll get a star. Thus, the RPG element does exist in the game, but unfortunately, it's not quite as fleshed out as it should be. If you find patients with too high a rating to heal, you will fail, at which point you can get another doctor to help you, or let the patient die on the table because of a sprained toe. It's a strange imbalance because you would think someone who trained for eight years of medical school and was considered the "hotshot" intern would know how to cure such minor ailments. As you move along, you can train in certain special talents like juggling or being a bookworm, which can also affect your abilities. The special talents raise or lower different statistics when you choose them, and certain combinations will help you choose the kind of doctor you become.
ER features a simple menu system where you select your orders, but again, the options are incredibly slim. After diagnosing a patient, you send them to a hospital bed. When they get there and a nurse arrives, you click on the patient, and that's it. Curing broken bones is a single click, as is fixing a heart condition or stopping neurological problems. The simplicity here makes the game grow boring rather quickly, as players spend more time walking back and forth to the waiting room than they do actually "healing." What is worse is that it never gets any better as you move along. This monotony kills the game because the gameplay can be summed up in about three clicks. Diagnose patient, send him/her to bed, and heal. If it were that easy to be a doctor, I doubt so many medical dramas would be on television.
In-game, you have only three of the original Sims needs or wants: energy, concentration and hunger. You can address them in a variety of ways, like taking showers, buying lunch or playing games. This ends up being easily accomplished, though, as the different parts do not take that much work to upgrade. The things you need to address your needs and wants are all somewhat-centrally located in the tiny map of the hospital. While it initially seems like something of a complicated labyrinth, the hospital is actually quite small. It is unfortunate that the developers over-simplified the stat management, because as The Sims proved six years ago, it can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.
As you play, different missions are handed out. From curing patients to meeting security guards and other doctors, the tasks are never really that difficult. The weirdest thing would be the special patients that are sent to you (such as a circus clown), who have unique skins but are just strange. On my first day, a female socialite comes in with a poodle, but I could not cure her. Instead, I was forced to send for lab results twice, both times taking hours of game time and probably 10 minutes of real time. All patients are diagnosed in the waiting room. However, with the different mission objectives, you can just walk around looking for cases that interest you, without any repercussions for ignoring other patients. One would think that walking up to patients and not taking on their cases would be considered bad practice, but in this game, no one seems to care. Also, you never really interact with the patients, aside from curing them. It's a bit strange, especially when the show focuses so heavily on doctor-patient interaction.
Players are expected to interact with other hospital workers, so a conversation system exists, much like with The Sims, but all of the options are available from the very beginning. That means a lot of guessing and checking, as you attempt to befriend other characters without knowing a thing about them. As you gain friends inside the hospital, you will also gain notoriety; attempting to join various cliques will help you later on. Unfortunately, the guess-and-check system means that characters might not want to talk to you at all as you struggle to figure out what they like. This aspect is so poorly executed, though, that I have no idea how anyone can feel compelled to find out.
As you treat patients, you can also gain perks, which are used to raise your own statistics or for trading with other doctors or nurses. The perk system is a bit strange, as certain patients give you perks for fixing sprained fingers, while others with horribly broken legs seem to not care about your work.
I started by saying that ER: The Game provided mixed results, and that is most definitely the case. The gameplay has been done before, and anyone who has played the Sims will actually be disappointed by the step backwards in character and environmental interaction. The curing is far too over-simplified, the "drama" the game tries to create is weaker than even the worst episodes, and a lot of the graphical portions are just plain weak. However, I still found myself enjoying it for some reason as I played along; the idea of a doctor simulation like this would be great if only the gameplay had been fleshed out a bit more. As it stands, ER is a game specifically for fans of the show who are willing to stomach the inane gameplay. Just pick up a copy of the original Sims, try to cook something in your house, and you will already have a more detailed emergency game.