With its release only over a week away, we jack into Square-Enix's latest to uncover why it should be on your radar. Get ready for a new kind of sci-fi multiplayer experience.
In just under two weeks a Mindjack hits your local retail store. It's developed by feelplus, the team behind multiple console ports, and published by Square-Enix. It was announced last year, but in all the hype for the bigger titles of the winter period, it might be understandable you struggle to remember it.
To be honest, my knowledge of the title was bare basic at best: futuristic, third-person shooter were the bullet points that the name rattled lose in my head. So, as is increasingly rare these days, I went into a hands-on event devoid of any expectation.
In the year of 2031, control of the world's multiple electronic devices have been condensed into a singular unit attached to the ear. It converts thought into command, letting you turn on music players, flick kettles to boil and such. It also allows you to hack into minds of others, a fact its makers, a shadowy tech corporation that has a finger in everything from household goods to military contracts neglected to mention, leading to a conspiracy that you'll spend a good portion of the game digging into. (With weaponry rather than Wiki.)
The game opens in a airport terminal as you move to track and intercept a activist recently landed in the country. Things go downhill rapidly as armour-clad troops drop in and the two of you have to join forces to shoot your way out.
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The world of Mindjack is clean, smooth, but basic. No mega-marathon of spotting exquisite details on every surface here with the visuals, despite the impressive scale of the airport terminal we find ourselves running through during the hands-on.
Gameplay, once the short opening sequence as we tail Rebecca from her Arrivals lounge is out of the way, plays as any mid-tier cover-hugging shooter does. Lean out, cover roll, leap over objects. You know the drill. It's rudimentary, but it works. The characterisation is alright, the banter between Jim and Rebecca works.
It's when two extra components are folded into the experience, the title's main gameplay mechanic and its use in multiplayer, do things really start cooking. There's a nice premise here, a slant on Left 4 Dead, and Mindjack offers it with a decent execution.
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Every stage we played Jim and Rebecca (controlled by AI on solo play) are vastly outnumbered. Survival and battle strategies hinge on the ability to jack into an opponent's mind and assume control of them.
To do so though, you have to reach a fine point (and by fine, we mean the difference of a single bullet) first. Soften them up first with a barrage of bullets until they keel over near death. You've a few moments before they collapse for good to break into their brains via their earpieces and take control. Note you have to be within a close enough range and have line of sight on them to make the leap.
What this does is bring a larger RTS-lite tactical edge to the action. Aim right and count your ammo and that flanking attack by an enemy squad can be disrupted by puppeteering the last man and peppering his mates with gunfire, while covering fire from a camping sniper in higher metallic walkways can be turned to your advantage.
The AI assumes control of your recently-fled body, and you can swop between all swollen allied forces with a press of the triggers, or free-roam the level in disembodied form looking for new drones by clicking the sticks. The airport was littered with cowering civilians ad the occasional robotic helper such as floating gun turrets or shielded trikes, which can be used to provide moving cover points.
However, to keep you in check, you always need to keep an eye on Jim and Rebecca - if they both go down its game over. If only one drops you've a limited time to get nearby and heal them.
The number of jacks at any one time is limited; each absorbing a piece of the on-screen energy bar, but the number will increase with XP jumps, and restored when one of your jacked-members snuffs it.
There's no difference in the amount of juice it takes to jack into enemies, be they troops, civilians or cybernetic gorillas (seriously). However, given you've had to knock down their health before they're susceptible to takeover, your ever-growing army has a lowered lifespan. It's not a one-shot kill, but you can't rely on them being bullet sponges.
To control enemy units at full health, you got to be playing for the other side. Multiplayer is where Mindjack's cool trick comes into its own.
The SP campaign is around 15 -18 hours long, but the game can by hijacked at any point by leaving it open for up to five other online players, who assume the role of those co-operating with you or fighting against you.
Each is designated by a blue or red wreath around whatever character they control, or coloured clouds as they zoom about the play area looking for hosts - the enemy reds are dropped into whatever enemy type is causing you for any particular section. Given the enemy advantage with weaponry and cybernetic killing machines, the result is a battlefield that alternates gunplay and mind-control , as you sweep over the battlefield as quickly as a flu virus in a crowded lift, looking for the strongest or most tactically-postioned character.
There's a few checks and balances to even out the mindfield. Your opposition can only jack into one mind at a time, but as stated, assume control of their ride in full health, while you got to wound to possess.
However, with both sides there's a cool down period of a few seconds as you wrestle control with a new body, and as your bodiless existence is marked in the play field by a coloured cloud, it can double up as a target marker. Snapping off a well-timed headshot to execute a potential problem and enrage an opponent is satisfying.
Under multiplayer conditions, each section of game is designated as its own team deathmatch arena, with a score count being kept until that round's end. Progress from the area is only made once the blue team succeeds in clearing it and is able to advance the story.
Playing against users rather than programs ramps up the time on each area. The airport terminal opening begins as a quick-fire blast until other players enter into combat, extending the session to well over an hour. It really made what would have been a decent, if basic shooter, into something a lot more interesting and fun.
However, from my brief time a few issues raised their head. These were mostly the lack of mechanics that could have flavoured the multiplayer further, such as making the cost of mind-jacking dependent on the enemy type. While the game was frantic enough as players sourced out the most tacticially-efficent character placement, having to decide between multiple troops or one tank-like character could have added another layer of strategy to the game.
Also, as advancement through levels was solely based on whether the blue team won the round means an odd situation were red will be combating the wish to see something new against the will to win - ultimately what will result is people quitting matches and looking elsewhere.
In that sense, repetition could become a factor, but once stages are unlocked, players can jump in at any point, and can also join games which are far past the levels that they have completed so far.
There's a few things that could have tweaked to the multiplayer that could have meant it strayed closer to L4D for depth, but with its release so soon, only an extending playthrough will allow us to assertain whether the game's got its own hidden qualities. Hopefully enough people will give it a chance come launch, because the game only comes into its own when other players are involved.
So: it's called Mindjack. It's out on 21 January for PS3 and Xbox 360. You might want to check it out.