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ups: Innovative gameplay; some nice visuals; strategic stealth; develops some nice tension.
downs: Cheesy cutscenes; some camera glitches; slow pace will turn off some gamers.

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Prisoner of War Review (Xbox)
game: Prisoner of War
four star
posted by: Aaron Stanton
publisher: Codemasters
developer: Wide Games
date posted: 09:10 AM Wed Oct 16th, 2002

Prisoner of War, from Codemasters, broke my heart when it missed its original June release date. I'd been looking forward to it since E3, relying on it in fact, to be the game that kept me going over the impossibly long drought of the summer months, when the TV airs nothing but re-runs, and game systems are left hungry for decent games. But June came and went. No POW. With no new games to play, and few worthy games on the horizon, I entered withdrawal. While everyone else was out swimming in baby pools, eating hotdogs, and getting a tan, I huddled inside cradling my lifeless Xbox and using a telescope to keep tabs on my next-door neighbors. I eventually stopped answering the phone. I retreated into my basement and only ventured forth to growl at the UPS man, and leave money on the doorstep for the pizza delivery guy. I was reported missing by three of my friends, two of them claiming that my house had apparently been taken over by a madman who howled whenever they came to the door. I lost most of my hair. Trust me on this one, boys and girls; video game withdrawals are not pretty things. Thankfully, fall arrived and games once again began to flow. My hair grew back, admittedly a bit whiter, and my friends welcomed me into the social field with open arms, several of them commenting that it was good to see that, contrary to popular belief, I was indeed alive. The doctor says that the twitch will go away with time. And one morning, I found Prisoner of War in my mailbox. The postmark read September.

Fully recovered from my asocial tendencies, I locked myself into my basement, popped the game into the Xbox, and started creeping around during WWII. What's found in POW is a detailed and creative experience that encompasses problem solving at its best, which, in the words of one of my friends, \"Makes you think.\" Paced but intense, taking at least thirty minutes worth of gameplay to become really interesting, this is not the game you'll whip out to wow your cousin who just flew in from out of state, but more the game that you'll play by yourself when you want something more challenging than a shoot-em-up with pretty graphics. Keep your checkers; POW is the chess of videogames

POW takes place in the midst of World War II. You are an American pilot shot down while on a reconnaissance flight over German-held territory. After being captured, you are placed in a holding facility ? the first of many various prisons that you will be exploring over the course of the game. Your goal, at the beginning at least, is to escape, pure and simple, though you'll gain more detailed and altruistic assignments once the game is underway. How you go about doing this is entirely up to you ? well, not really, but close. Your escape plan is actually laid out for you quite clearly in almost every circumstance ? cut scenes fill you in on the where to go and when ? but it's in deciding how to actually carry out these plans that you're given such freedom. For example, at one point you're asked to retrieve important documents from the camp command office. Knowing this, it's up to you to figure out how to get there. Do you apply boot polish to your cheeks and sneak over a fence at night? Do you make your way for the front door, dressed in a uniform you stole from the guard's laundry room, or do you climb in the back window and hope the tower doesn't see you? For that matter, do you want to steal the uniform, or bribe a German officer to leave one conveniently out for the taking. Interestingly enough, in a game that regiments you to the schedule of a prison camp, POW is defined by the freedom that it allows. Figuring out that you need the key to open the door isn't the problem. Figuring out how to lift the key from the kitchen without the guard or the cook noticing ? that's tricky. With several ways to solve almost every problem, Prisoner of War is one of the most dynamic problem solving experiences on the market.

That said, there are a few problems, and no, not being able to kill isn't one of them ? it's amazing how addictive a game with almost no violence can be. First and foremost, the cinematics are really quite bad. You'll notice this right off the bat, when the game first begins. More specifically, the directing isn't very good. Camera angles hold position slightly too long, which leads to a sense of boredom, and characters' eyes don't track very well when talking to each other. Their facial expressions are nonexistent, and most of the dialog is cheesy. The first scene, for example, just before your airplane is shot down, is pretty much one long shot of the cockpit ? it could have been a very dramatic scene that gets you up and going for the game. Instead you find yourself skipping through it when your friends are over to make sure they don't get a bad impression. While not a major deterrent in the gameplay, it surly doesn't get the blood pumping with adrenalin. This is too bad, since the game itself actually does a very good job of setting and maintaining the atmosphere. I especially like sneaking around in the rain and snow.

After that the problems are not so much with presentation (as I said, the overall feel of the game is well done), but with actual play dynamics. The camera controls are pretty straight forward, except when up against a building, or just after coming out from under a car or hiding place. Then the camera can be disorientating. The system automatically adjusts forward and backward, zooming closer to or further away from the back of your head, depending on what's behind you that could block your view. This means that when you're up against a wall (where you tend to be a lot in this game) the camera zooms in really close on the back of your jacket. It doesn't zoom out again until you leave the wall, so the whole point of taking cover in order to avoid the guards is ruined, since you have to leave the cover in order to see where you want to go. It takes a few minutes of play, perhaps thirty or so, to become really accustomed to using the map and your mini-radar, which shows where the guards are looking in the local area, to adequately navigate. Though sometimes annoying in a panicky moment, the camera is really pretty functional. Aside from the tap button -- which you use whenever you want the guard's attention -- being the same as the hide button when up against a wall, the controls work relatively well.

More problematic is the fact that the enemy AI is a joke. Sure, if they hear a noise they'll come to look it over, but that's about it. Get spotted? Run away. They'll blame their apparently unreliable mentality for making them see things. Apply a little camouflage and you're basically invisible. The guards always turn the same direction when on patrol, never look left or right, and always patrol the exact same distance in every circumstance. Now, I nod my head to the fact that the game had to be playable, and with truly dynamic and unpredictable AI it would be very frustrating to the player; skill would be less a factor than luck. I also acknowledge that the game is far from un-challenging as is ? craftier AI would be a very difficult obstacle. Still, it would have been a very realistic obstacle. It would have been nice to see the guards turn their heads from side to side, as a real guard would. If caught, the guards will order you to \"...stop, or I'll shoot.\" Then they shoot you whether you stop or not-the decision depends on how long it takes for them to run to you. The lack of varying guard activity means that completing a goal is a matter of figuring out the pattern. Replay value in this is limited, even though the actual experience is quite entertaining.

Along with the guards, there are other aspects of POW that seek to emulate prison life. There are roll-call times when you have to report in order to not raise alarm. This is important when on a mission, as it means that you have only a limited amount of time to get out of your holding area, accomplish your goal, and return before they notice that you're missing. It really makes the game quite intense.

The save feature is interestingly done, and somewhat confusing. You can only save at your bunk, and you'll always want to do so before venturing out into the night on any important missions. While capture just means spending a few days in the brig and having to buy back any items you had confiscated by the guards, you'll find yourself reloading and attempting missions over again quite often, many times just to get the job done better. Instead of saving a specific moment, the game apparently records what items you have, and what day it is. Whenever you reload a save, it gives you the option to start that day during any time period ? meaning morning, noon, or night. The only thing I found annoying about this is that every time you save, it behaves as if you just saved, quit, and reloaded. Even if you had already completed evening roll call and were about to venture forth on a bit of night-time reconnaissance, saving would start you again at your choice of one of those three times (morning, lunch, or night). You end up having to retrace your steps, if only by a few feet, and I'm not sure why the developers chose to do it this way.

On a final note, there was one thing about POW that bothered me, though it had nothing to do with how the game was played. POW is a game of stereotypes. Your main character, an American, fits the classic gung-ho, cocky air force stereotype. His co-pilot is captured after being caught with a German girl while in hiding, the daughter of a German officer. The German guards, specifically the commandants, are the classic \"politely civil, yet strict and rigid\" German stereotypes played out in movies. There are a variety of slang terms used throughout the game that are a bit unsettling. I felt that the game would not have lost any of its playability and value had they been left out and the pre-molded stereotypes changed just a little bit. In a game with such an original idea at its heart, some different scripting would have been nice.

In short, despite some simple flaws, Prisoner of War is an interesting and detailed game. Sure, you won't be breaking it out during a crowded Halloween party, but then, who ever played chess on the binge either? The value of POW lies in its ability to make thinking fun. Creeping around takes time and patience, but it's also tremendously engrossing. POW is one of the solidest four-star games I've ever played: competently built, interesting storyline, unique idea.