Release Date: April 10, 2007
Upon occasion, and even from time to time, there arises a given example of entertainment that somehow manages to fail despite accurate inclusion of all those elements typically called for to achieve success. You see it often with movies and music, somewhat less often with books, and least of all with games. This is as much a reflection of the relative youth of gaming as a platform for mass-consumption pastime as it is a comment on the greater degree of quality in code versus film, music, or literary skill. For the sake of brevity I shall make an economy of my words and get to the point, as it were. Today I shall tell you of my opinions regarding a game called The Ship that, for all intents and purposes, should be a smash hit success. At the same time, and with a little luck, we may observe why it is that this game is not, nor will it be, a smash hit success.
In the most glib and laconic of terms, The Ship is a first-person-shooter hybrid title that fuses action, murder-mystery, and simulation into one package. As the player, you are invited to partake in a cruise by one "Mr. X," a mysterious individual of no limited means who has purchased a sizeable fleet of art-deco luxury oceangoing vessels. Once you have accepted this invitation, and once the open sea has been reached, you are then given instructions to hunt and kill another passenger. You may opt not to; however, this ultimately robs the entire experience of any thrills whatsoever. We take it as given that you will accept this offer and attempt, as best you can, to follow these instructions not only for the action offered, but also for the significant sum of money Mr. X has mentioned he will give you if you succeed.
It is, of course, not so simple as merely charging at your opponent with the nearest blunt instrument and tenderizing their flesh so as to make your target suitable for a cannibal's steak tartar dish. Mr. X will suffer no breaches of civilized law (beyond the obvious taboo of murder itself) and so you must, in the words of Sting, "do it with a little more finesse." Hunt your prey, kill him or her, but don't get caught. While this does complicate matters somewhat, it's not an insurmountable barrier to the act. However, you will also be informed of a slight caveat in that someone else on the same schooner as yourself is hunting you as well. It is a complex web of homicidal intrigue Mr. X weaves, and like the proverbial fly, you are trapped within its sticky strands with little more than your wits with which to extricate yourself.
Insofar as gameplay mechanics are concerned, you can imagine easily enough the FPS elements, and the Clue-like qualities are self-evident. However, we must now examine those aspects of design that are closely related to simulation games, the final spice that adds depth to the experience. In short, you must tend to your needs. The developers have built in a series of basic human functions that must be cared for, such as the need for rest, entertainment, sustenance, and hygiene. The influence of The Sims is quite pronounced in this regard. What is most amusing (and distressing, depending on your point of view) is that you are essentially helpless while tending to these needs. Clever assassins merely camp out the lavatories like a spider awaiting a fly with a full bladder.
I should hope by now that you have a rough idea of what The Ship is all about. I would also hope that you can see how it seems, on the surface, like an absolutely amazing title on almost every level. It is my sad duty to inform you that somehow, something doesn't quite click. I feel very much as if this is one of those games that blows the mind of all reviewers (myself included), yet fails to capture the hearts and minds of the general populace, perhaps via the same esoteric individualism that enchants the critic. All of us jaded journalist types cry perpetually for new paradigms, unique and fresh design that thinks outside the box. The Ship does just that, and yet somehow the public isn't buying it. As we shall soon see, this becomes a self-defeating flaw that feeds on itself and only serves to exacerbate the situation.
The Ship is meant, primarily, as an online game. There is a single-player component that plays out in exactly the same manner with "bots" instead of human opponents, but the AI scripting is less than inspired and there is little to no challenge whatsoever to be had playing offline. About the only real reason to do this would be to learn each of the maps in detail without any fear that you'll be taken down by a skilled enemy. So onward we soldier, to the Steam servers stuffed to capacity with rapacious killers looking to make a quick buck off of the insanity of Mr. X, right? Wrong. The Ship, at this moment in time, is suffering a serious dearth of players. The actual server count hovers around 25, and while many of these have high player counts, a quick look at the details shows that most of the populace is actually bots. In point of fact, the entire time I've tried to cover this title for review, I have yet to see an actual count of more than six human opponents in a given server. The average is more like three. To that end, the current multiplayer experience is almost identical to the offline experience, just with more lag.
If I had to offer a theory regarding this lack of enthusiastic public response, it would be this: the pace of The Ship is, at best, that of warm molasses. Let's face it, Agatha Christie novels never sold themselves on adrenaline, and trying to make a first-person whodunit an exciting experience is a tricky proposition to say the least. There is no railgun, no rocket launcher, no running and grenade-launching up to a higher vantage point to blast at your enemies — indeed, if you even pull your weapon out in plain view, you'll be sent to jail for up to a minute. Imagine what the penalty is like if you use it? Well, it's the same, really; you're just in the pen for longer. However, the casual strolling around, hoping to catch another player unawares in the shower is less than thrilling and may be a big part of why the online population for The Ship doesn't even come close to that of other Steam titles, like Half-Life 2 or Day of Defeat.
Does this mean that The Ship is bad? Absolutely not. It is, in fact, excellent — a superlative example of what can be done with atmosphere and concept. The source graphics engine it's built on is tried and true, the pace keeps the frame rates crystal clean, the artistic art-deco design is gorgeous, and there is a pervasive sense of subtle gallows-humor throughout all levels that kept me smiling, even while playing offline. While I did only manage once to pop into a server with several actual people playing, let me tell you that it's quite entertaining when everything clicks. What it all comes down to is this: without people playing it, the game isn't much fun. As a result, the few people who actually try it won't have fun, will stop playing it, and make it even less entertaining. If my words carry any weight whatsoever, then please take my advice and give The Ship a try. The more of you who do, the more fun we'll all have, and the better a chance there is that the developers will continue to make games like this that break new ground.
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