Developer: The Collective
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: May 16, 2006
I should mention right off that I hate Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as I hate Hell, and all Montagues. It must be the most poorly-written bestseller I’ve ever seen, which is honestly saying rather a lot; it seems to have been written from the ground up to annoy the blue hell out of other writers.
It’s not surprising that the book was made into a movie, but it is a little odd that the movie spawned a spinoff game. It has some talent behind it, as the Collective is the dev house that brought us games like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the original controller-throwingly difficult one) and Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb. Thus, The Da Vinci Code, as a game, at least flows fairly well and isn’t some kind of platformer shovelware; I know my first thought, upon seeing a trailer at E3, was it was going to pit two-fisted Robert Langdon against the limitless and faceless hordes of the Priory de Sion, with Sophie reduced to clinging desperately to his side while he whupped the almighty Jesus, perhaps literally, out of an army of monks with a table leg.
Instead, The Da Vinci Code is basically an adventure game with some action elements. You spend much of your time solving puzzles, looking for items, and using those items in interesting ways, with an occasional break for running the hell away or fistfighting security guards.
The comparison I want to make, really, is if you combined the Broken Sword games with Indigo Prophecy, they’d be a lot like The Da Vinci Code. However, it’s hamstrung in the end by trying to cram too many elements into its gameplay, and not doing any of them particularly well.
The plot should be familiar by now to anyone who’s not living under a rock. Robert Langdon, a symbologist, is summoned to the scene of a friend’s murder at the Louvre, to find that his friend has both provided him with the keys to an ancient mystery and unwittingly fingered him as his murderer. Langdon teams up with the victim’s granddaughter, Sophie Neveu, to solve the murder before the French police drag him off to prison. The problem is that the murder ties directly into a two-thousand-year-old conspiracy involving the birth and death of Jesus Christ himself.
In other words, the plot follows the novel and movie’s very faithfully indeed, right down to the blatant plot holes (i.e. Sophie’s grandfather taking a couple of hours to deface half the Louvre with a magic marker, then strip naked and draw a pentacle on his stomach, while he’s ostensibly dying from a gunshot wound). You spend most of the game playing as both Langdon and Sophie, switching between the two as appropriate for the situation.
As either of them, you’ll follow the trail of the Priory of Sion by touring various sites in England and France, such as Westminster Abbey, the Louvre, and the Bank of Zurich. Everywhere you go, you must solve puzzles such as simple cryptograms, jigsaws, and the traditional video-game “insert the foozle in the whatsit,” many of which are based upon history or mythology. Several of them are actually very well-designed, such as the ones that involve the use of a forensic blacklight, and the game only rarely degenerates into a ceaseless hunt for keys to unlock doors. A puzzle’s answer or historical context is often provided by a long and dry conversation between Langdon and Sophie, so you may wind up learning something if you don’t skip every cutscene as fast as you can.
What’s slightly more problematic is that many otherwise simple processes in The Da Vinci Code require you to enter various button combinations, such as hammering the A button or manipulating both thumbsticks in a certain way. Most of these processes are something that another game would ask you to do by pressing the “A” button, such as pushing a bookcase or breaking through a weakened door, and here, it seems like an artificial attempt to increase the game’s playtime and/or difficulty. Indigo Prophecy was able to pull this stunt off because it often rewarded you for your controller mojo with awesome stunts, plot branches, or, occasionally, vaguely embarrassing sex scenes. In The Da Vinci Code, it’s a jarring and unwelcome departure from the rest of the gameplay.
That same process applies to The Da Vinci Code’s combat engine. Langdon and Sophie will usually have police officers, security guards, or killer monks looking for them, and it’s your choice whether to sneak past them or fight. Sneaking past them is sort of brain-dead, because shadows act to instantly cloak your character from all detection and because the guards are apparently all suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, but you won’t always have that option.
Sometimes, you’ll have to grab something like a candlestick or rope pole and cosh a dude over the head. Most of the time, though, if combat starts, you get to clobber a guy using a bizarre and unintuitive fistfighting engine that involves pressing a series of buttons within a certain timeframe. You’re going to get your face caved in a few times until you get used to the system; after that, it becomes painfully simple to defeat even multiple opponents, because all you have to do is tap buttons in a certain sequence. It also makes both Langdon – a middle-aged college professor – and Sophie – a rail-thin French girl – look like they’ve been studying unarmed combat for most of their lives, which becomes really funny when you plow through a couple of dozen cops or trained mercenaries with your bare hands.
The Da Vinci Code’s a lot like that, really. The puzzles are the meat of the gameplay, but it feels the need to make you kill time between puzzles by sneaking past idiots or beating the snot out of invalids. The setting could’ve made for a good game on the level of, say, Myst: a pure puzzle/adventure game with an appreciation for history. The game’s been actioned up a little for the sake of the console crowd, though, and the result’s a product that’s mostly just kind of there. If your thirst for Merovingian asskickery has not be satiated by this summer’s parade of Da Vinci lore, the game may help you kill ten hours; otherwise, back the hell off.
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