By Jeremy Kauffman
It's been awhile since such a simple sentence has haunted me so. I have to admit that I wasn't entirely sold on kill.switch. Upon first impression, it seemed like yet another of the Splinter Cell/Metal Gear/Rainbow Whatever rip-offs that have flooded the market all year long. But when I sat down, late at night, to play the game and the first thing to come through my speakers, in full surround sound, wasn't a barrage of production slate bells and whistles, but rather the soft whisper of a woman, that simple request, I was hooked. A third-person shooter with brains, balls, and an intriguing jigsaw puzzle of a story, kill.switch is the single best surprise have I received from a game all year.
Without giving away too much, the story revolves around Bishop, a technologically enhanced one-man army. Guided by a data stream linked directly into his brain, Bishop begins the game as soldier sent to start a war. It seems that certain military puppet masters believe it would be beneficial to the U.S. to recreate the tension of the cold war. Your missions, then, consist of killing, sabotaging, or exposing certain elements of key countries in order to invoke retaliation from the U.S. But things are not that simple. First, Bishop has, as is the fashion for today's espionage agent, lost his memory. A single memory lingers: a beautiful woman on a moonlit balcony. She turns to him and says, say my name.? Second, the security of his data stream has been compromised, and someone is hacking into his brain. As the memory recurs, over and over, each time giving the player a little more information about Bishop's past, and as the current situation plays into the hands of unseen adversaries that control the data stream, kill.switch becomes the kind of intoxicating mystery rarely seen in a video game. Is it a love story? Have you been betrayed? The more progress you make, the more complicated it gets. Soon it becomes clear that the only time Bishop has any control over his environment is when he has a loaded weapon in his hand.
Environment and a loaded weapon. These are your tools. The gameplay in kill.switch consists of taking cover, taking aim, and engaging your enemy. In order to survive you must conform to your surroundings. Bishop can stand or crouch flush against a wall, look and aim around corners or over the top of low cover. He can even blind fire, laying down suppressive fire without exposing himself. He can walk, run, roll out of the way, and dive for cover. Trick is the enemy is able to do all of this as well, only they work in teams to seek you out, pin you down, and eliminate you. The AI is very good, at times fascinating. The enemies possess tactical skills and survival instincts. They move purposefully (most of the time), cover each other, and use their surroundings. They work together to trap you. When shot at they hide and aim, panic and spray, whatever it takes. And if you give them time, they will regroup and come again. This makes for some of the most intense shoot-outs I can remember having in a videogame. When you enter a room, you do so carefully. Forward movement is a struggle. And you pay attention to everything, every detail of your surroundings, because there are dangers and opportunities everywhere.
This is not to say that the battles are in any way realistic, just much more exhilarating. Bishop can't take a lot of damage all at once. His armor does replenish over time, and there are first aid kits everywhere, but that won't help if you take a few clean shots to the chest. Skirmishes can be quick, or they can last an eternity. However, the third-person perspective allows you to see the entire forward area, regardless of the position of your character. Bishop can be crouched down with his back up against a crate, and you can still see your enemy and draw a bead on him with the targeting reticule, so that when you pop up your aim is perfect. This combined with a generous auto-aim, keeps the player well within the obvious framework of a videogame. And more often than not, you can get away with lot before you are noticed. The enemy will let you shoot down a few of their men within earshot before they will start acting intelligently. I am not dissing all of this, however. This is all a part of the strategy you must use to overcome your enemy. And there is much more realism here than in your average run-and-gun third or first-person shooter. The game even comments on this itself. At one point the man behind the curtain asks Bishop how his mission went, to which he replies, great. Just like a videogame.? And, of course, it is just that.
The control system works fluidly. The set-up is easy to use, and should be fairly familiar by now. You use the left thumb stick to move, the right to look. The right trigger fires your gun. You take cover by pulling the left trigger. There are buttons to select weapons, grenades, reload, roll, use items, etc. No surprises or frustrations here.
The graphics are great. They won't win any awards, but the lighting, textures, and special effects like tracer bullets and explosions are very pretty. Plus, kill.switch supports 16:9 widescreen and progressive scan formats. There are rarely any slowdown or performance issues. The only noticeable weakness is the occasional lack of attention to detail by the programmers. For instance, if a helicopter swoops in to deliver more enemy troops, it appears out of nowhere and disappears without a trace. One minute it isn't there, then the roar of rotors, and a helicopter. Then it takes off and suddenly, no noise or evidence that it was there. This isn't a big deal, but it does interrupt your suspension of disbelief. And if HALO did it better years ago, everyone should be doing it better now.
The sound is fantastic, especially the music. From the pulse-pounding electronica to tribal drum beats, the soundtrack follows the scene perfectly and adds to the tension of every situation.
As always, there is room for improvement. First, while the back story is positively engrossing, and the struggle for power over the data stream keeps things moving, the actual interactive story, the objectives contained within each level, aren't unique or interesting at all. The levels are fragmented into small sections, and the explanations for your actions are fairly thin. Here it is all about the action. Luckily, the action is superb, and more than makes up for it. But how much better would it be if you were just as wrapped up in the actual task at hand as you were in getting the drop on your enemy, or seeing what is revealed in the next memory sequence? As is, I usually didn't know or care why I was taking on such insurmountable numbers and conquering my foes. I was just having fun doing it.
Adding to that, the levels are obvious game fodder. There are no functioning doors, no alternate paths, you simply negotiate the layout of the level, moving from battle to battle, looking for you next objective. Objectives are clearly marked by a bright blue indicator, and the most any of them require is for you to survive long enough to hold down the A button. The next incarnation of this game needs to have more environmental interactivity. We are able to use our surroundings, now give us the opportunity to change them. Having the ability to create your own cover, or move an object that you are using as cover, like say, pushing that couch or crate that you are hiding behind to a more convenient location, would make the gameplay even more dramatic. Give us something to do that requires more than our battle skills and an A button.
There are some camera issues, mostly dealing with your view under cover. Bishop has a tendency to want to attach himself to the nearest corner, which monkeys with your ability to aim when you are wanting to look over the top of your cover instead of around it. Sometimes, the camera will close in a little too much and it becomes hard to see anything, which is understandable when you are scrunched into a tight spot, but occasionally this happens out in the open as well. All of these things are forgivable and easy to fix with a little tweaking of your position. The one thing that was left out that would have made surveillance much easier was some kind of quick first-person toggle. I am not asking for anything fancy, just the ability to quickly look in the direction I am facing, so that when I am in the middle of a skirmish, back against a pillar, being shot at, I can take a quick look to make sure someone isn't sneaking up from the opposite direction. There are many times when you will stumble into the middle of a battlefield, and you really have to work to see in all directions without being blown away.
Finally, the game is awfully short. Most gamers will be able to complete it in a few days. The game might be worth challenging yourself with the higher difficulty settings, but that's about it in terms of replay value. Hopefully, the next time around, the developers will include multiplayer games, or better yet, online multiplayer games. This game is a perfect fit for it.
Even so, I highly recommend this game to any and all fans of guts and glory shooters. Kill.switch combines a unique and intense battle experience with an engrossing story that contains more style, more twists and reveals, than we have come to expect in this industry. It is short (you may want to pick this one up as a rental), and does have its limitations, but it has earned a place as one of the must play games of this year.