The Experiment Review

From the outset, it is obvious that The Experiment is a very different kind of adventure game. The story begins on an old, worn-out tanker ship that has been grounded. The ship appears to have been abandoned for years; yet as the game begins, we encounter Lea Nichols, a research scientist who has been working on experiments aboard the ship, but who has now apparently been left alone, with no idea of where everyone has gone, or what her situation is. The only option for Lea is to make use -- with your assistance -- of all of the high-tech scientific and security equipment aboard the ship, to solve a multitude of puzzles, and discover the secrets that lie within the bowels of this old tanker.

[ed: The reviewer was unable to finish the game due to technical difficulties. It is our normal policy that reviewers complete games fully, but the reviewer believes this was due to a hardware problem unrelated to the game. This review is hopefully still of interest to our readers, but may not reflect issues specific to the final portion of the game.]

Though the ship looks like something straight out of the Sargasso Sea -- virtually a ghost ship -- it is teeming with high-tech gear. Unlike many other adventure games -- which typically use either first-person or third-person point-and-click interfaces to navigate the game -- The Experiment puts you, the player, at the central controls of all of the ship's high-tech gear: motion-sensor security cameras, low-light and infrared vision, heat detectors, and even cameras mounted on remote control vehicles. Also provided is access to the ship's entire computer system, electronic documentation library, and complete blueprints of the ship -- all levels, and all sections. The blueprint always shows the section of the ship Lea is currently in, and is useful to direct you in controlling many of the devices on the ship from your central console.

As Lea moves around, video cameras throughout the entire ship can track her movement. Up to three windows (security camera "views") may be open at any one time; and the security cameras can be "motion activated" such that they follow Lea's movements automatically. Thus, in a manner similar to a security guard sitting in front of multiple monitors, watching what is going on in an office building, you can monitor Lea's movements throughout the ship -- all through the watchful eyes of the security cameras. Since you cannot interact with her directly (there is no communication from you to Lea), you tell her which way to go by activating a switch, or a light, or an electronic door, or some other electronic device, near where you'd like her to move. This is a very awkward method of navigation, since if she cannot see the device you are activating, she may or may not be able to navigate to it. I was constantly turning one light on, turning another off, getting her moving in the right direction, then starting the process all over again, one light farther down the hall.

The basic concept is awesome -- and something completely novel in this genre (as well as being a bit surreal). However, it also means learning a totally new way of navigating through an adventure game. This navigation implementation can also become slightly tedious, as movements that would be simple using a point-and-click interface can be more laborious here. And there is no pin-point control, since you can only move Lea to the next "device" (e.g., light, switch, door). Also, you can only see what the ship's security cameras can see (and then, only if they're functioning!)

Along the way, Lea is able to pass along to you (typically by speaking into any of the microphones located around the ship) information about how to access the ship's computer, and the wealth of information stored in its document database. Here you will find data on all members of the ship's crew and research staff. Although most of the information is initially password-protected or encrypted, one of your challenges is to obtain all of the necessary passwords needed to access the other users' accounts. Other logic puzzles include breaking the encryption on some of the coded documents.

In addition, the electronic library contains detailed information on the experiments that were being conducting aboard ship. What is not readily apparent, however, is where everyone else has gone, and why Lea has been left alone on the ship. You will thresh this out little by little, as the game develops. The process is quite evocative of the cliché "peeling the onion," as Lea removes layer after layer, gains more and more information, and gets closer to the truth at every step.

As might be expected, the hardware requirements for The Experiment are high -- particularly for the video card that will be used (a card that supports DirectX 9.0c is required). And with multiple windows open, following Lea's movements in each, things can get a bit complex and CPU-intensive. (A note in the installation guide provides advice on how to reduce the hardware requirements by disabling various options within the game, such as shadows, resolution, and number of cameras.) In addition, the screen can become extremely "busy," with as many as 5 or 6 windows open simultaneously. Some of these windows cannot be reduced in size, requiring a fairly good-sized screen resolution. Ironically, the windows that can be resized are typically the camera views, which you want to have as large as possible, for the sake of monitoring the details of what is going on.

The artwork is quite impressive. Most scenes are fairly detailed (although never totally clear, since everything is viewed through the lens of a camera, and never directly). The textures all contribute to creating quite an eerie atmosphere, highlighting the rust and mold and decay that is rampant aboard the abandoned ship. For added realism, some of the cameras are malfunctioning, displaying only "snow" or broken, jagged lines that imply synch problems or other electronic faults, and leaving some areas of the ship unviewable.

Interspersed throughout the game are flashbacks, or dreams, that Lea has, which contribute to the unfolding of the full story -- although it is not clear in the game how you, the player, are able to share in these mental images. However, this detail is easy to overlook, and does not deter in any way from the enjoyment of the game.

The game is not designed as a true puzzle adventure -- that is, containing outright logic puzzles that require solving to continue with your progress. Rather, the "puzzles" are more frequently of the kind where you may be trying to move Lea around, explore the ship, get access to certain locked areas (either locked by an electronic keypad, or inaccessible due to damage to the ship, or some other reason). Other puzzles include such things as operating a robot remotely, or locating and using critical chemical ingredients for restoring Lea's health.

Occasionally, you will need information that you must gather (with Lea's help), usually from files on the ship's computer. (This requires gaining access, and knowing information about the organization of the documents and data.) The inventory is minimal; and it took me a little bit of playing to get used to the fact that it was not my inventory, but Lea's. In other words, you (the player) have nothing at all at your disposal, other than the ability to run the main console. Lea may pick up an occasional object, but you never see her "inventory."

There were a few interesting -- and sometimes mildly humorous -- touches to the game, many of which illustrated the "personality" that had been given to Lea. For example, when trying to lead her into a room with a foot of dirty, standing water in it, she simply says "No," and won't go in. I had to smile as I walked her past a mirror, and saw her stop to take a look at herself in the mirror before moving on. Her movements were extremely fluid and realistic; the 3D character rendering and animation contributed greatly to the believability of the game. Another nice touch is that each time you resume a saved game, the software checks to see the date and time when you last played; then Lea's first comment upon resuming will typically be something like "Where have you been? I've been waiting almost a day for you!" Or "It's been three days since you've been around. I thought you weren't coming back!"

Unfortunately, in my case, increasing technical difficulties made finishing the game impossible. I was experiencing game crashes that became more frequent the longer I played, up to a point where the game would no longer even start. I was not able to determine the cause of the problems, as some indications pointed to software conflicts, while others (such as BSODs) seemed to indicate a hardware problem. Still, I did not want that factor to prohibit my review of the game.

All in all, The Experiment is an awesome game. The uniqueness of the interface alone provides sufficient "Gee, Whiz!" to capture the interest of any high-tech adventure gamer. The out-of-the-ordinary story line certainly throws an interesting curve into the mix. And the quality of the artwork and ambient music is of the highest caliber. While I wouldn't call the game "challenging" (in terms of puzzle-solving), it clearly provided a great degree of enjoyment.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.