Crime dramas are all the rage these days, and have been for quite a while now. Whether it’s a show about hard-nosed detectives, street cops or high-tech forensic labs doesn’t matter; North American viewers love them all. Fitting into this category is the quirky and highly successful CBS show, NCIS. A spin-off of JAG, which a lot of people probably remember, the show focuses on a team of special agents working within the Naval Criminal Investigation Service. Mixing witty writing with interesting characters, it has officially been named America’s favourite television show, based on a 2011 poll. Now, that highly-touted small screen phenomenon is available as an interactive video game, allowing fans to solve cases while playing as members of their favourite fictional special agent team.
Developed by Ubisoft Shanghai, NCIS: The Game is essentially a digital mini-series. Combining four episodes into one clue-filled game, it provides its faithful with close to five hours worth of joystick-heavy detective work. The formula is somewhat retro, as the developers chose to go with a point and click gameplay structure, mimicking their previously-released CSI titles. It’s well-known that slower-paced point and click games tend to be for a select audience, though the team’s aim is clear. The goal was to create a game which portrayed its subject matter well, while being enjoyable, immersive and accessible for all ages. The result is a mixed bag of a game, which knocks the third goal straight into the net.
Upon booting the disc up, players are greeted with a standard menu offering the option to watch the NCIS: Season 8 DVD trailer, or start the first episode. The former link is obviously included advertising, which is expected with this type of game. However, it does serve another purpose in letting fans know where the game’s storyline falls into the series’ canon: Somewhere between Seasons 8 and 9. It’s a self-contained plot line which focuses more on jokes about how much coffee the boss drinks, as opposed to revealing plot points from past episodes. Granted, there are one or two spoilers to watch out for – ones I won’t reveal here.
The inaugural caper involves a bombing at a casino, where the main targets seem to be two dead security guards. The others cover topics such as forgery, robbery, murder, conspiracy, deception and indictment. One case focuses on a bank robbery, while the other two take the team on trips to murder scenes in Iraq and Dubai. At the onset, I was thinking that these cases were just one-off events, though it was nice to see them tie together at the end. I give the writing team commendation for doing that when they didn’t exactly have to do so.
Beginning decades ago, the point and click adventure genre has maintained its principles throughout console generation evolution and the introduction of high-definition. Like its classic predecessors, NCIS: The Game employs some very simple mechanics that are both accessible and basic. Players control one member of the team at a time, as they search for clues, analyze data and come face to face with those implicated in devious crimes. The majority of the time spent within this licensed title is completed while at crime scenes (there are seven total) and inside of the team’s lab. Due to this, things do get repetitive.
In just about every circumstance other than interrogations, where evidence must be submitted in order to prove a testimony false, the game relies on an arrow for character guidance. Using the left joystick, players can zoom around the screen, telling their avatar where to go, while looking for things to interact with. Usually, this means taking pictures of evidence which can somehow be analyzed despite its photographic form. That is a strange idea which gamers will have to get used to and learn to accept. You’re always taking pictures of things. This is a major detraction, considering the overall lack of variety found within the crime scene sections.
Camera angles are static and sometimes prevent proper exploration, meaning that one must learn how to manipulate their view angle by moving the character slightly. This, as well as the game’s required pixel-perfect sleuthing, are two annoying design faults which make the overall experience less fluid than it could have been. Sometimes, the clues are so well-hidden that locating them becomes a frustrating experience, which may deter casual gamers from finishing the title. One example is a crime scene in Dubai, where bullet holes must be photographed and flagged. Ducky, the doctor, keeps telling you to search the living room for them. Though, after what seemed like fifty sweeps of the room to find the last one, I came across it in a different area. The supposedly helpful hints provided by the cast are more of an annoyance than a friend.
Once you’ve discovered all of the evidence in each area, the game shifts to the lab, office or morgue. Each environment has exclusive activities to complete, though they’re far too easy to ever become a challenge. You’ll breeze through most of them without ever breaking a sweat, even though the challenge ramps up slightly from case one to case four. Seasoned gamers will be able to fly through this one in between four to five hours, barring any extra time spent looking for a stray clue. Newcomers to the digital world may take a bit longer, though the game tends to cater to that crowd, with tips appearing before each mini-game.
Your secondary objectives range from pattern memorization hacking and signal following via satellite imagery, to chemical analysis and autopsies. All are boiled down to very simple and easy to understand forms, and most employ similar tactics. The goal is usually to find and save a clue for future analysis on a deduction board – something which this game uses to a fault. Finding chemical patterns, matching bootprints, discovering which gun a bullet originated from or scouring e-mails, will all lead the player to this digital computer board. It is there that every single one of the team’s clues are analyzed and matched together. The goal is to find two which meld together for a reason, deciphering this concoction out of a simple list of basic sentences.
Every case involves matching either a boot print, bullet pattern, tire track or chemical pattern. In the first few on that list, the original specimen is portrayed on the left-hand side of the screen, with four or five options presented on the right. Chemical patterns are portrayed above with matching parts below. The goal is to study certain aspects of each one, in order to find the perfect match. A lot of the time, it’s made easy for the player, with the correct answer showing up right at the start of the puzzle. Though, you still need to rotate the original in order to make it fit, which can present problems. Even if the answer is correct, an occasional failure and strike loss will result unless the rotation is perfect. It’s something to keep in mind if you plan to dive into this digital world of crime and high-tech detective work.
During any activity inside of the office or laboratory, a beverage-related strike system is employed. Playing on lab girl Abby and her love of Caf-Pow drinks, it creates a bit of needed challenge. Retries are given for free, so there isn’t a reason to fear losing your strike cups. The only time this mechanic ever adds a noticeable handicap is during interrogations, where a forced restart of the entire thing is the gift given at the end of the strike rainbow. Usually, the player is only given one chance for error during the case-building menus. It makes sense.
At the beginning, I didn’t like NCIS: The Game very much. Its early elements were over-simplified to a fault, providing me with a lack of challenge that became somewhat boring. However, things picked up as the game progressed and I started to enjoy it more. The overall experience is a mixed bag with menial tasks taking the place of interesting sleuth mini-games that could have been inserted instead. Though, with all of its faults, there’s something almost endearing about this game. My belief is that it has to do with the writing, which is somewhat cheesy and oddball, sucking you in along the way with its charm. Fans of the television series will want to play through this one just for its narrative, though the actual gameplay mechanics may become boring during extended play time.
NCIS: The Game does a good job of visually representing its televised source, with character models that paint a solid resemblance to the show’s cast. Plus, decent-looking environments. The models’ animations are rigid and lacking, but that doesn’t really matter in this type of game. At least, in the gameplay department. It would have been nice to have seen more facial animation during cut-scenes, to allow for more immersive emotion to be portrayed. As is, the characters’ faces tend to look overly stiff with limited motion.
Only a couple actors from the show’s cast make an appearance in the game, through recorded voice work. It’s unfortunate, but the fact is that most of the acting is pretty good. However, Gibbs’ portrayal tends to be somewhat wooden at times. The writers did a pretty good job of creating interesting scenarios, with some witty and well-written dialogue. Though, some of it is cheesy and lacking in detail. One-liners and one word replies are said quite often, both of which are repeated. Other than the odd sound effect and the rare use of mediocre elevator music, the voice acting is the only notable audio to be found within NCIS: The Game.
In the end, NCIS: The Game is a mediocre release that is simply for the show’s fans. Seasoned gamers will find the repetitive gameplay and its incredibly easy difficulty to be boring, as this one is developed for more of a casual audience. The odd design flaw, discovered during sleuth sections, affected the flow of the game and made a couple segments more frustrating than they needed to be. If you can overlook these issues, then this one may be worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of the series. Just don’t go in expecting a great game.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy of the game which we received for review purposes.
Aimed at the casual market, this game is far too easy and repetitive for most gamers. It's very basic too, with some mechanical issues that can result in failure during mini-games. Unless you're a huge fan of the show, I'd avoid it.