Traitors Gate 2 Review

Once again, Agent Raven has been called upon for a mission of the utmost secrecy. The Pentagon has received information that a hostile adversary has developed the ultimate computer virus, with which they plan to attack and destroy an international, highly-secure satellite communications systems. If successful, this act of terrorism would plunge the free world into chaos. Raven's mission is to infiltrate the strongly secured enemy compound, elude highly trained guards, dogs, and other traps, and foil the terrorists' plans.

Responding to successful games by developing a sequel has become quite popular in the adventure genre recently. Evidently, the developers of Traitor's Gate 2 were hoping to find success by building on the popularity of the original Traitors Gate (although Traitors Gate 2 was developed by a different company than the original).

Unfortunately, it didn't happen. In the first place, the only commonality between Traitors Gate and Traitors Gate 2 is the central character -- Agent Raven. TG2 is an odd mix -- a story that just doesn't hang together; puzzles that could have been interesting and challenging, but quickly became tedious and aggravating; an environment that is graphically beautiful, but which has so many implementation foibles that the game is almost unplayable; and enough technical glitches so that only the extremely dedicated (or incredibly masochistic) will want to play the game to the end.

The game is distributed on a single CD-ROM, and all files are put on the hard disk at installation time. However, the CD-ROM is still required to play the game, as the developers used the pernicious StarForce copyright protection system (a truly optimistic step for this game -- assuming that someone would want to copy it!)

The credibility of TG2 is brought into question from the opening cut scene. Agent Raven plunges from an airplane, encased in a bomb shell from which he emerges in mid-air, executing a swan dive to the ground. The enemy headquarters is apparently deep within an ancient structure, and Raven's first task is to navigate through the hallways (and traps) of the structure, to reach the command center deep underground. The theme of TG2 is one of "high-tech" wizardy -- unstoppable computer viruses, satellite communications systems, etc. Yet at least 80% of the game takes place while Raven is navigating down through the structure, solving puzzles related to an environment that -- while graphically attractive -- is ancient, and out of place with the theme of the story. I had the impression that the developers couldn't decide whether to try and copy one of the many Egypt-based games, or create a present-day, high-tech, computer-laden environment -- with the result being a bastardization of the two.

Right from the start, I encountered basic difficulties. The game is played in the third person, with the player moving Raven through the game environment. Virtually the entire time, Raven is standing with his back to the player (see screen shots in the sidebar), making for a very tiresome view. And moving him is extremely awkward. His character does not "slide" easily around objects, but continually gets hung up on anything that is even remotely close to him. (Countless times, I tried to move him past some object, but he was the tiniest bit too close, and he just hung there, arms and legs pumping, with nothing but air around him, and going nowhere.) Moving Raven involves the four arrow keys; panning is done using the mouse. This sounds simple; yet it was implemented so poorly and so awkwardly, that by the end of the game I still did not have a comfortable "feel" such that I could move Raven about effortlessly.

What is even more bizarre is the awful 3D design implementation. Raven can walk into walls anywhere in the game; he can walk through solid objects almost everywhere. But even worse, as I panned around a given scene, I could see "solid" objects come apart into individual planes and other components! I might be standing next to a wall, but when I panned, the wall moved in front of me. The worst case of all was that I could (at any time) pan up from behind Raven, such that all I could see of him was the inside of his facial features -- as if I were looking out from inside of his head. This anomaly of perspective carried through the entire game -- to an extreme, I might add. It was, frankly, the worst implementation of a 3D game that I have ever played.

Yet the graphics were beautiful, as the accompanying screen shots show. The textures were done well, and backgrounds were painted with great detail. Looking only at a few, carefully-selected still shots of the game, one would think that it would be on a par with some of the top graphical adventures -- the Myst games, the Mysterious Journey games, Syberia, and so on. Not so. As anyone who has read my past reviews is aware, I am always awestruck by a good graphical implementation. But in TG2, it just wasn't enough.

At first, I moved Raven amid a vast array of underground tunnels, ascending and descending to a multitude of different levels. And I was excited. I love this kind of a challenge -- mapping out an unknown area, progressing through maze-like settings using the old "right-hand rule"... But it got old quickly. Yes, there is tunnel after tunnel, room after room, stairway after stairway. But they mostly go around in circles, come to dead ends, or circle back on themselves. The environment is almost impossible to map; it is unnecessarily complex. You might stumble around a bit, wondering how to get back to a particular location. But there's nothing exciting -- nothing challenging -- to it. It's just a bunch of boring, twisting, turning, look-alike passages. (Can you say "XYZZY"???)

But let's move on to the puzzles. TG2 provides a good mix of "inventory puzzles" and "logic puzzles". And the great majority of these could have been very successful puzzles. But. In virtually every case, the designers went to extremes to make sure that the puzzle was almost unsolvable. The only clues (to puzzles that required external clues) exist in extremely cryptic form in a notebook that Raven is carrying. The notebook is over 50 pages long (with some pages missing, thankfully), and requires not only a lot of reading (and re-reading), but a great deal of intuition to determine what information to apply to what puzzle. There are no obvious clues (e.g., pictures or illustrations that match anything anywhere in the game). And even the clues that are there are either insufficient to solve the puzzle, or so cabalistic as to be almost worthless.

However, that is not the most difficult (and frustrating) of the "challenges". Throughout the game, there are many timed puzzles. Typically, these are set into motion by some action of Raven's, after which he has a limited amount of time to figure out what to do, and then do it -- or he dies, and his mission is declared a total failure. Most of these situations involve only seconds -- which means very little "exploration" time for Raven to find out how to respond. It also means replaying and replaying (and replaying and replaying) scenes, again and again, trying to "beat the clock", so to speak. in several cases, I had to go over a particular puzzle 20 or 30 times (and more!), each time missing by a fraction of a second (literally), and having to try it again. And this happened not on one puzzle -- but repeatedly. It was enough to make me tear out the hair that I still have.

Let me return to the "dying" part. Yes, Raven can die in the game. Not in one or two places... not in 5 or 10 places. But almost any place in the game! Any wrong move, any incorrect action, and he is killed (or dies by his own hand), and a taunting message is displayed that your mission is a complete failure. There is no replaying an unsuccesful sequence; so saving games frequently becomes mandatory. There were times that I was dying (or being killed) so often that I was saving games every minute or less. (Later in the game, this turned out to be the highlight of my play, as I would frequenttly kill off Raven, just to see him die. After reaching a certain level of frustration, I would send him over a precipice, or walk him straight into a death trap, simply because it was the only enjoyment I was getting at the time.)

I also ran into one situation where the game design was flawed, in terms of its flow. I had reached a particular point where I was trying to solve a puzzle, but needed an object from elsewhere in the game to progress. But at that point, I could no longer go back to get the item I needed to continue; the way was blocked permanently. I had nowhere to go; my only alternative was to return to a previously-saved game (in this case, quite far back), and replay everything again, picking up the item that I needed along the way. In fact, this constant replaying from earlier saved games makes it impossible to estimate average gameplay time. The clock built into the game itself told me that I finished the game in less than 7 hours. However, I would often be forced back to an earlier saved game, and have to replay it -- but using the "old" clock time. Thus, what might have actually taken several hours to accomplish, might only appear as a few minutes on the game clock. (Game saves, thankfully, take an insignificant amount of disk space. And there is no apparent limit on the number of saved game files that can be created.)

The storyline of TG2 is almost non-existent. There is no character development, no story development, nothing to feel satisfied about with this game. Even the few comments Raven makes along the way are moronic. (Upon seeing a large status of a snake, he mumbles "Sir Hiss, I presume?") While there are other animated characters in the game, the only thing they do is shoot Raven when he's not careful.

The game was fairly non-linear. For the first 3/4, Raven can explore almost anywhere within the complex (pun intended) underneath the ancient site. The final portion of the game is limited to resolving the original goal -- namely, getting to the central command center, and deactivating the computer program. Despite the non-linearity, however, the game does require a certain progression (typically through either trigger events, or locating objects that are necessary to solve further puzzles).

Overall, I think that I would rate TG2 as an excellent "could've-been" game. It "could've been" a great graphics game -- but the implementation of the 3D perspectives offset any beauty or grace of the scenery. It "could've been" a great puzzle game -- in fact, the basic premise of many of the puzzles was quite good. But making the timed puzzles so incredibly precise, and having inventory puzzles that sometimes seemed to require replaying most of the game up to that point, just to return to some required object, countered any satisfaction that might have been derived from solving the puzzles. It "could've been" a great story -- a high-tech, current-day situation that is all too familiar, involving international terrorism, world-wide communications, secret agents, etc. -- but it was never developed, and went nowhere.

-- Frank Nicodem