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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Fox Interactive

Ups: :
Innovative trading card feature; decent story; innovative use of LithTech Engine.

Downs:  Whack voice acting from Ice T; mediocre graphics; lame NPCs; dumb missions.

System Reqs: Pentium-233, 64MB RAM, 200MB disk space

I’m writing this review of Fox Interactive’s “Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact” on Election Day, 2000. And, like most reviewers of this title, I have come to the conclusion that “Sanity,” like this year’s election, is a mediocre affair.*   Yes, Sanity leaves something to be desired. What Sanity has going for it, though, in contrast to the elections, is a pretty interesting plot, an occasionally engaging protagonist, and a novel “virtual collectible cards” gimmick. Sanity also utilizes Monolith’s LithTech Game Engine, which allows players the popular isometric point of view that makes Diablo players feel like gods, Dungeon Keepers like demiurges. If only we could’ve adopted this invincible perspective during the campaign. Maybe someday.

Fortuitously, Sanity takes place in the near future--2028 CE, to be exact. And as all SF fans know, stories set in the near future usually have something to do with some sort of catastrophe and its tragic aftereffects for humankind. Sanity gets a few originality points in respect to this last idea, for the catastrophe players face in the game is actually the result of an initially positive event. See, a few years earlier, genius geneticist Dr. Joan Aiken discovers a strange, possibly other-worldly (!) artifact that bears a recipe for a mysterious (!) serum that allows human beings to tap into the legendary unused (!) 10% of their brains. As a result, people administered the serum develop incredible psionic (!) powers.

At first, the possibilities are astonishing—people will actually be able to use their melons in whole new ways (an awesome prospect). As it turns out though, the human brain--being the delicate aspic of gray proteins that it is--can not sustain psionic energy the same way it can store more mundane data like grocery lists, sports statistics, and the last song a person heard on the radio. Thus, most of Dr. Aiken’s subjects go Cypress Hill—“Insane in the Membrane.” (This allusion will seem less forced a few paragraphs from now. Honest.) So Dr. Aiken decides to administer the serum to two subjects in utero in order to test her hypothesis that human beings can handle new, improved brains if they have to live with them from day one. Fittingly, and portentously, these subjects are called Cain and Abel. The experiment succeeds (with a few risks; the subject have to learn how to control their psionic powers or they’ll go crazy like their predecessors did), and more fetuses get the serum.

When players begin the game in 2028, they discover that Cain and Abel, once  inseparable psionics working for the government, have gone their separate ways. The other psionics either work as agents for the government-sponsored Department of National Psionic Control (DNPC) or they freelance as super villains who try to take over the world. In a tidy twist to the Old Testament tale, Cain seems to be the do-gooder and continues to work for the DNPC, while Abel roams the world honing his psionic powers for evil purposes. But Cain is still a loose cannon, and as the battle between “good” and “bad” psionics heats up, players learn that Cain is capable of mass destruction.

Perhaps Cain’s ambivalent nature is what attracted rapper/actor/producer Ice T to undertake voice acting this character. (Remember forced Cypress Hill allusion made above.) Whatever Ice T’s motives, it deserves to be mentioned that most of the voice acting in Sanity is excellent. It helps that the writing is pretty good. Many of Ice T’s lines, however, consist of gratuitous and stupid tough guy stuff, and his delivery is too often stiff and cartoonish. For the most part, though, the voice acting and writing--just like everything else about this game--is okay.

The graphics are arguably better than those in most isometric games, even “Diablo II,” but not nearly as nice as, say, the graphics in “Dungeon Keeper II.” A significant detraction to the graphics, by the way, is the cruddy load screens, which are crude and ugly (sort of like the structure of this sentence). Oh, and the loads take a long, long time. If you find yourself reloading games a lot, then make sure you have a crossword puzzle or your checkbook at hand.

While the LithTech isometric view is familiar to many PC gamers, it is tweaked just enough in Sanity to make it neither innovative or frustrating. See, the camera in Sanity floats over Cain’s head and results in a much more limited view of Cain’s surroundings. This truncated vision makes the game challenging because players can’t see what’s around the next corner. On the other hand, players cannot manipulate the camera—hence the view—in any way, thus limiting creative and strategic game play. Making matters even more addling is this unmovable camera’s tendency to pan and follow Cain’s progress in dramatic sweeps and flips, destroying any sense of visual coherence and gaming control for players. This feature might be cool for the dipsomaniac who digs dizzy spells, but I found it maddening.

Along with the negligible camera control, another significant pleasure suck in Sanity is level design. Players will spend a lot of time hanging around the same levels, usually retrieving necessary items—keys, documents, weapons—and making contact with the locals. The levels are pretty large, usually constructed as mazes with lots of impassable walls and barriers that direct how and where Cain travels, and are typically pretty. However, once players start criss-crossing and backtracking through a level, the environments lose their expansiveness and become boring. And while players can initiate conversations between Cain and plenty of NPCs, the puzzles Cain must solve all fit into the square peg/square hole variety. As for NPCs, only a few populate the world of Sanity; they all look alike, and they are recycled endlessly. This sameness isn’t really an obstacle to game play as friendly NPCs can be distinguished from their villainous counterparts by means of colored coronas of light that swirl around their feet. Good and neutral guys get blue swirls, bad red. Pretty ingenious system, really, but come on, a few more NPCs doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, especially in a game that otherwise offers responsive (though limited) game play, respectable graphics, and a decent, comic book story.

Finally, the last and most ingenious feature of “Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact” is its incorporation of psionic “Talents” into the story and game play. Talents are similar to the X-Men’s mutant abilities except that they can be earned and traded like collectable cards. In the game itself, Talents are actually represented as trading cards that feature an illustration, stats and a text description of the Talent. That’s right. Playing “Sanity” is sort of like playing Magic and watching the X-Men cartoons at the same time. The game boasts of at least 80 Talents that Cain can acquire. And the multiplayer mode allows players to swap Talents with one another. A cool idea, and while it might sound silly, this trading Talents feature is really entertaining. If players have ever collected anything before—and current GF! research suggests that pc gamers collect a lot of stuff—then they’ll probably find themselves jonesing for that next Talent like they do any other collectible.

All in all, “Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact” is a pretty good game. Much about it could be better, especially considering how much expense and time went into its story and play design. The game’s outstanding element remains its Talent trading subtext, a feature that deserves thorough exploration in the online milieu.

--Greg Matthews

*As I finish up here, Florida has the last word in this year’s presidential election, and I have to take back that remark about a mediocre election. Still, the polls on Sanity retain their authority: there are better games out there, and there are worse. Sanity is the less worse choice for some pc gamers.