In videogame lingo, the term "movie license" is pretty much synonymous with "crap". Developers are all too happy to ride on the coattails of Hollywood's recognizable franchises and blockbusters with little or no consideration for the end product. When it comes to The Great Escape, then, the surprise is not so much that the game stinks, but that it was ever made at all. After all, while The Great Escape is certainly a classic film, it is also forty years old, and its marquee star, Steve McQueen, has been dead for over twenty years.
So, perhaps this game was conceived with a spark of inspiration. The developers at Gotham Games have taken the story of the film, in which a band of young WWII rogues plan and execute an escape from the Nazi controlled Stalag Luft III POW camp, and applied it to the current stealth game craze. Not a bad idea, when you think about it.
The game begins by accounting the events that brought together four of the main characters, Captain Virgil "The Cooler King" Hilts, Flying Officer Louis "The Manufacturer" Sedgewick, Flight Lieutenant Robert "The Scrounger" Hendley, and Flight Lieutenant Andy "Intelligence" MacDonald. Players guide each of the characters through the plane crashes, failed prison escapes, and other such encounters that lead them to be imprisoned and Stalag. From there players take on the roles that each of the characters played during the escape. And, of course, it all ends with the dramatic motorcycle chase that leads Hilts (played in the film by McQueen) to the death-defying 60 ft. jump over the prison fence (one of the great moments in action film history).
The Great Escape is primarily a third-person stealth and espionage game. Like its popular predecessors, Metal Gear Solid 2 and Splinter Cell, players must maneuver, unseen if possible, through various stages, collecting intelligence, causing distractions, and, obviously, escaping from the prison camp. There are also sections that are pure action, as when you are required to jump in the turret of a WWII gunship and shoot down oncoming German planes. There are vehicle action sequences also, such as the aforementioned motorcycle chase.
That, unfortunately, is where the good stuff ends. The concept may work, but the execution does not. First of all, while the game makes good on the story elements from the film, it is hard to get too wrapped up in the minutia of each level. Too many of the missions revolve around fairly boring tasks like relaying verbal intelligence from one inmate to another, burning codebooks, and reconnaissance missions. Also, how frustrating is it to succeed in level after level when the outcome to each one is that you are caught and thrown back in yet another cell?
Any action in the game is marred by one of the worst control systems in any game of this genre. The basics are all there: run, sneak, crawl, check your inventory, punch and strangle-the usual. However, this game is lacking the finesse of other titles. The controls are clunky and unresponsive. Simple actions like lying down can be a chore. Automatic task completion takes some of the fun out of the missions. It is sort of a let down when you get to a key point in the game and rather than performing the finishing task, you just press a button and let the animation do it for you. In the heat of action, things get really bad. Hand to hand altercations are just plain ugly, as players rely on a single punch and a strangle move that is practically useless. The vehicle controls are the worst, however. The reaction time of the characters is so poor that navigation becomes a battle against overcompensation.
The AI, critical in this type of game, is poor and unpredictable. There are times when you can open the door of a brightly lit room right in front of a guard, see him, and back out, and he will be none the wiser. Other times, you will be caught and apprehended without so much as a clue how your adversaries even saw you. There is very little intelligence to it, as everything operates on a pattern, and if you stray you get caught. It's that simple. I know that even the most popular titles of this genre operate using guard patterns and narrow sight lines, but they are more sophisticated in their presentation.
The graphics are serviceable, with decent character models and well-rendered backgrounds. Anything dealing with animation or special effects is terrible, however. While watching a guard on patrol, you will notice that he stops mid-stride and pivots on one foot in order to turn. The motorcycle crashes are absurd. There is a moment in the game when Hilts ambushes a motorcycle rider by clotheslining him with a length of cable. The scene becomes unintentionally humorous as the rider connects with the cable and bike disappears, leaving him standing next to the cable. Then he lies down and moans. It is like watching a death scene in a bad amateur dinner theater performance.
The sound is good, with dynamic sound effects and the classic film score, as well as what I believe is dialogue sampled from McQueen's film performance, which is odd as the rest of the characters' dialogue is provided by impersonators.
In the end, it comes down to the competition. Yeah, the story of this game works, but the interaction is lousy. You'd be much better off watching the film and playing either Metal Gear Solid Substance or Splinter Cell. Play MGS Substance and you get a great story, pulse-pounding action, and a vast array of cool gadgets and weapons, including a sword. And Splinter Cell is perhaps the most brilliant, high tech espionage game ever created, with by far one of the best control system ever designed. In this game you are a guy in a T-shirt with poor motor skills, sneaking around and burning code books. Occasionally you get to steal a jeep or perform seemingly impossible motorcycle stunts, but they managed to take the fun out of that, too. Rent this one only if you are a die hard fan of the genre, and even so, do yourself a favor and pick up the actual film while you are there. The flick is solid entertainment: the game is not.