A mind is a terrible thing to waste, especially when it can be erased and manipulated. Imagine if you will, an army of mindless zombies overrunning military and industrial complexes. Soldiers that attempt to fight these hordes off are not only powerless to stop them, but fall and rejoin the fight on the side of the enemy. No, I’m not laying out an episode of the Twilight Zone or a schematic for Resident Evil 5. Instead, I’m describing Midway’s latest action game, Psi-Ops. Much more than a simple adventure with fictional elements, Psi-Ops makes a case that your brainpower is often more dangerous than your bullets.
Players step into the boots of Nick Scryer, a normal looking grunt who’s attached to a top secret wing of the military known as Project Mindgate. However, Nick is more than he seems: he’s actually a highly decorated veteran and an elite Psionic operative or Psi-Op. He, along with a number of other mentally gifted soldiers have undergone extensive training to develop their talents. But when a few of the members of his unit disappear, later resurfacing at the head of a dangerous terrorist group known as The Movement, Nick is quickly deployed behind enemy lines to quell the threat. Unfortunately, with his face and powers, he’s way too recognizable, so his superior officers give him an extreme makeover: extensive cosmetic surgery, power inhibition and a complete mind wipe to slip him quietly into the ranks of The Movement. It’s then up to the player to guide Nick against the enemy, regaining his memory and powers as he goes and destroying The Movement from within.
Nick initially starts off unarmed, but quickly acquires a number of weapons ranging from silenced pistols to shotguns and fully automatic rifles. Yet conventional arms are no match for Nick’s considerable psionic abilities, as his enemies soon find out. After meeting up with a double agent inside The Movement’s compound and getting injected with a memory recall serum, Nick slowly starts regaining his powers. The first and perhaps most useful power he acquires is telekinesis, or TK, which allows him to pick up just about anything from soldiers to objects and move them around the environment. Not only can this be used to throw weapons and power-ups to Scryer from anywhere on the screen, but it can also be used to launch soldiers into walls or exploding barrels into enemies. Soldiers can also be used as battering rams thanks to TK, knocking down their targets. You can even hold soldiers suspended in mid-air while you fill them full of lead from below. Finally, it can also be used to “TK surf” Nick around by levitating crates or other objects he’s standing on – it’s harder than it sounds, but when you get the hang of it, it’s extremely cool.
While you may find that telekinesis is the power you’ll continually rely on, Nick’s other powers are just as cool. Aura View lets you see invisible items or enemies, which becomes much more useful as the game goes on. By contrast, Remote Viewing lets you astrally project yourself through locked doors and walls, allowing you to scout out potentially dangerous situations and prepare yourself for what’s to come. This also lets you sneak around undetected to gather information that wouldn’t normally be found. Mind Control allows you to possess the body of an opponent and control them completely. This is the only way to gain access to certain weapons, such as flamethrowers and rocket launchers, although there are a few times you’ll need to do this to bypass areas or solve puzzles. Of course, using your powers uses up your energy stores, and you’ll need to find a way to replenish them. Fortunately, thanks to Mind Drain, you can siphon the mental energy from living or dead opponents, restoring your depleted levels. While acting like a psychic vampire doesn’t affect the dead, you can kill living guards by draining their mind until their head explodes (incidentally, this method provides the most energy). Finally, Pyrokinesis will let you set objects and opponents on fire, which can be useful in combination with telekinesis to launch flaming obstacles. In fact, combining your powers often becomes one of the more amusing facets of the game, as you figure out new and creative ways to dispose of your enemies using the surrounding environment.
The biggest technical achievement for Psi-Ops has to be the incredibly solid graphics engine that it’s built on. Powered by Havok 2.0, the physics that govern every object and person onscreen ensure that no objects in the various and detailed environments react exactly the same. This extends to the overexaggerated way that opponents bodies splay and flail around the environment, but it’s extremely satisfying to watch when you’ve just finished smashing these mindless soldiers into a wall or shooting holes into them. This is particularly true when it comes to using your powers within the game. Flinging screaming soldiers off ledges, into machines or onto explosives is simply phenomenal, and considering the seemingly limitless ways these powers can be used, it’s amazing that the engine doesn’t completely fall apart in stages. However, it’s as solid at the indestructible crates you’ll hide behind in gunfights, and rarely shows any slowdown during even the most hectic battle scenes. That’s rather important considering a large amount of detail on both systems (while the Xbox version is stronger, the PS2 runs a almost imperceptible second in graphical quality) and the potential destruction caused. Plus, Psi-Ops definitely gets props for blood trails splattered along walls from guards and exploding heads.
Sound is just as impressive, with an emphasis on sound effects dominating the game. From the different kinds of firearms that echo in a gunfight to the rattling explosions and the crunching, splintering of wood when crates shatter, Psi-Ops delivers a satisfying aural experience. While there isn’t a lot of music to be found in the game, it does rise to support the onscreen action during certain battle scenes and fade away when things are relatively calm. One thing that is noteworthy, however, is the elevator “Muzak” version of Cold’s “With My Mind” theme midway through the game. This not only is a tension breaker in the middle of the game, but it’s also hilarious to hear the tame version of this song. Voice acting isn’t bad either. The principal actors turn in a good performance, and even some of the minor characters have decent reactions, particularly when powers are being used on them.
Actually, the A.I. of these minor characters is rather decent. Not only do they react to what’s going on environmentally, they’re smart enough to fall back and actively use cover, call for backup and even hide where you can’t reach them easily. Unfortunately, the intelligence of the A.I. also causes one of the larger flaws found within the game, that of the constantly spawning opponent in cleared areas. Nick might enter an area, only to be spotted by some minor enemy who triggers an alarm. Because of that, an unlimited number of mindless drones will all of a sudden start popping up behind him, making the elimination of that alarm extremely difficult. It can be very annoying to keep getting shot in the back when you don’t expect it. Another issue that tends to arise is the lack of necessity of certain powers that Nick acquires. There are some powers that, after a few very specific uses, I never ever used again. Remote Viewing and Aura Viewing are the two that specifically come to mind. Considering that Telekinesis is the most readily accessible and useful power you have, the other abilities could’ve been re-evaluated somewhat. Finally, and perhaps more directly, the game is over way too quickly. It’s possible to play through this entire game in a day, much less a few times over a weekend, which is unfortunate. Once you’re getting into the game, it’s basically over, which limits the satisfaction of playing slightly. Thankfully, the inclusion of multiple difficulty levels and the sheer fun of experimenting with powers prolongs the experience, but overall, if the game would’ve been longer, it could’ve been phenomenal.
If you’re looking for a solid action title, however, levitate Psi-Ops into your console. The combination of decent plot, reality-defying powers and Havok-governed physics make one incredibly compelling experience. Even if you’re skeptical of this title, I’d advise you to try throwing around a couple of soldiers with your mind. Screwing around with Nick’s powers will make you want to keep this game in your library for good.