Fall--in this case, Fall of 1998--and the PC gaming rags are previewing
the batch of titles to be released during the holidays, most of which
won't hit the shops until Spring or Summer. You know the routine. If you
can recall the gaming press this far back, then you'll remember the buzz
about LucasArts' "Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine."
You'll recall the killer screen shots of a remarkably-rendered Indy,
replete with licensed Harrison Ford-looking likeness, standing whip-ready
on a shred of some surface amid a lake of sputtering lava. You'll remember
images of a tiny Indy facing some elemental behemoth or mythical monster,
and wondering how you were going to get our hero out of this mess.. And
the stunning variety of lush terrains and environments will surely
come back to you, too. If you're anything like me, then the hype was
enough to make you go and view the Indiana Jones Trilogy for the umpteenth
time, hoping that the you would finally get a stab--or a whipcrack--at all
of this globe-trotting and adventuring when the PC game finally arrived.
Well, a little over a year has passed since we began hearing and seeing about "Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine." With so much anticipation for this title, along with its excellent promotion, maybe it's not so surprising to realize that reviews of the game have been, for the most part, so-so. Everyone seems to agree that the look and story of the game are pretty darned solid. I think, in fact, that the story rivals anything the big boys at Skywalker Ranch have inked for any of the Indy films. And it's not enough to simply say the environments are "remarkable" or even "stunning." They are brilliant--so much variety and such care with atmospheric sound and light should be commended. As far as controls go, though, my reviewing compadres are right-on--the controls, for both gamepad and keyboard, blow. Add to this disappointing fact the standard adventure gaming complaints--too much block pulling and pushing, too much jumping onto tiny ledges, too much button pushing--and you get a game that, sadly, fails to do the story any justice.
And what a story, too. "The Infernal Machine" takes place at the start of the cold war, thus fitting quite nicely into the Indiana Jones timeline. Having done his part to quell the Nazi menace, Dr. Jones has settled into some straightforward excavation work in the American Southwest that promises to earn him a few shekels. Incidentally, one aspect of this story I found particularly entertaining was this emphasis on Indy's almost shameless post-war greed; he relishes discovering the hidden hidden gem or stash of bullion. Indy's goldlust also fulfills a crucial gaming function, too, since players must buy supplies between levels. No dough, no ammo.
True to the formula, Indy runs into the volatile Sophia Hapgood, a former, er, colleague who know works for the newly formed CIA. She debriefs him on the activities of a certain Dr. Gennadi Volodnikov, a Soviet archaeologist who has made a startling discovery about the legendary Tower of Babel. Now it is up to Indiana Jones to beat the Soviets to the punch and solve the mystery of Babel before its secrets fall into the wrong hands. Also true to formula, this mission requires Indy to criss-cross the globe in search of the constituent components of the Infernal Machine, a device that, once assembled, acts as a sort of key to a parallel dimension ruled by the insidious Marduk.
As players proceed through the game, they will notice that the characters are pretty blocky and will undoubtedly wonder why they woodenly gesture arms, hands and necks while speaking. Maybe the thinking here is some motion during the dialogue scenes is better than none, especially if it obscures the fact that the characters aren't really rendered that well. Admittedly, Indy looks great from a distance when he's whipping his way over a chasm, but character close-ups will surely keep players wondering why Sophia's hair looks like a plate of fries, or why Volodnikov looks like a ventriloquist's dummy when he talks. While the puppets look pretty organic in their environments--colors are even and well-selected, and the scale looks very good--it is a shame that they weren't a little better designed for the cut-scenes, at least, because the voice acting is excellent. Aside from the voices, though, there isn't really much to recommend the sound of the game; as indicated above, the ambient effects, especially water, are pretty impressive. Aside from these atmospherics, though, there's really not much in the way of a score.
I mention this last point to explain one of the reasons people don't like this game; at times, it requires a lot of puzzle solving, some of which can get repetitive. I myself have really enjoyed trying to spirit out the solutions to some of the conundrums in this game, but noticed that during the more difficult puzzles, the game gets very quiet. During these more silent sequences, problem-solving gets tedious and the initial excitement of figuring out this last puzzle in order to see what comes next quickly gives way to boredom. Then again, I can't say I would prefer to listen to some whingingly repetitive soundtrack while I'm trying to crack the latest conundrum in "The Infernal Machine," either. In some instances, the puzzles might simply be less involved and so quicker to solve, thus bypassing the tedium of figuring in silence. Fortunately, players can set the difficulty level on the game, which effectively allows them to set the pace of the game. Note that "The Infernal Machine" defaults to the most difficult level, something I didn't realize until well into the game.
So, in the end, no, "Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine" doesn't live up to the hype generated for it over a year ago. LucasArts, however, has produced a more compelling franchise title with this game than they did with "The Phantom Menace." Again, controls are a problem and some of the character rendering is downright goofy-looking, but some of the puzzles are real stumpers and the environments are varied and beautifully conceived and executed. The best thing about "The Infernal Machine," though, is its sense of humor and its faithful evocation of Indy's world. Indeed, "The Infernal Machine" would make a cool movie.