NCIS (Naval Crime Investigative Services) follows in line with the CSI’s of the TV world, with a hot-shot team of specialists that all play a part in the apprehension of the despicable.  Fans of the show will know it for it’s enveloping story arcs and contrasting characters.  Non NCIS-ers, like me, know it as another one of those “forensic” dramas, but it’s the one with the hot emo/goth chick in the lab coat.  Truly, the show has more to offer than just a guilty crush.  But sadly the game is no where near as intriguing or rewarding.
This is definitely one that staunchly belongs in the point-and-click category.  Some other recent titles, like the incredible Heavy Rain, introduce other elements to break up the monotony like quick time events and narrative dependent decision making.  These constructs go along way in creating a more hectic, anxious, and gravitating experience.  But NCIS feels much like an interactive guided tour through a light handful of missions.

Gibbs says down

There are four “episodes” that each take between and hour to an hour and a half to complete.  The level will start with a stage setting opening, followed by an “opening credits/intro” that runs down all the folks you will be controlling (Jethro Gibbs, Anthony DiNozzo, Ziva David, Abby Sciuto, Dr. Donald Mallard, and Timothy McGee).  You then embark on the natural “flow” of investigation to analysis to questioning to deduction, ect.  And each member of the team specializes in one of the these aspects.  For example, you’ll start an episode collecting evidence as DiNozzo, to send over to the lab where you will pick up as Abby, then shoot over to Duck for an autopsy, play Gibbs in the interrogation room, and finish up with McGee for the last pieces of “damning” evidence and the tech tools to track down the perp.  Some of these characters are interchangeable (use Ziva to gather evidence, not Anthony) and the order of events are swappable (run through initial interviews before hitting the lab), but this “pattern” is followed rigidly throughout the game.

The best part of NCIS is the presentation.  This isn’t to say it’s “top notch” by any stretch, but the game itself flowed pretty smooth with no frame rate issues or odd “load” glitches.  And for a cheap game, this is nice to see.  The character models aren’t too horrible.  Some of the more noticeable short comings fall when they are exchanging lines in a guided conversational moment, and the bland facial details come through.  But during the usual wider game perspective, they’re actually pretty good.  Just don’t go expecting them to be on the level of, say, L.A. Noire.  The backdrops are detailed enough to be passable, and the explorable environments are nice and “tight”.  There are no instances of inconsistent surfaces, weird “artifacts,” or any other design flaw that usually plague budget titles.

finger puzzle

Although none of the cast members lent their talents to the game, the voice acting in NCIS might be the strongest individual aspect.  The script itself is believable, and (mostly) avoids being cheeky and silly.  The conversations feel like ones that would be had by the actual cast members, to other screen time “regulars” or to the accused.  Line delivery by the voice over folks is actually rather effective in most circumstances, and is able to inject a necessary level of “begging question” suspense into plot lines in definite need of a pick-me-up.  As a whole, the stories are dry and uneventful.  Sure, there is an aspect of “mystery” during the first part of an episode when the assessment of likely suspects is wide open.  But quickly the culprit comes to the surface, and it then becomes a boring trudge of deducting evidence to send them down the river.  And I kept waiting for an episode to have some huge plot twist or swings, but none ever happened.  Because I’ve never watched an actual TV episode, I thought “is THIS what all the “hub-bub” is about?  But I was assured by those who watch the show that it is way more intriguing than this title makes it out to be.

The gameplay elements don’t hold up their end of the bargain, really at all.  I understand it’s point-and-click, but it could have at least been a little more challenging.  Trust me, I’ve played a little of the Sam and Max P.A.C games, I know what the frustration meter should be set to.  Perhaps not quite that high, but one should feel like they are actually playing a game.  This is more like a hand guided experience.  Each level of the investigation has their own set of “tools” for the job that are way to simplistic and monotonous.

Abby does it now

Investigating a crime scene comes down to taking pictures and sometimes moving things around to collect evidence.  So instead of guiding a pair of tweezers to dislodge a bullet from the wall, or use a cotton swab to take a sample of an explosive agent, the ole Polaroid treatment is all that’s required.  Boo.  Once this evidence is “gathered,” it goes to the lab, where you will decide the right shape patterns between a shell casing, fingerprint, footprint, what have you, against a few choices.  Match up the correct patter of lines, graphs, or circles to move on.  These confirmations are sent to the deduction board, where you will match up likely pieces of evidence, and answer an obvious multiple choice question to say how it fits in the case.  Finally these pieces are taken to even easier interviews (just press X when it prompts you to “squeeze” the person on the hot seat), and the guilty party is “tracked down” by McGee’s spy satellite (which has you keeping a reticle about a moving circle for a certain amount of time) to triangulate their position.

With all of this lack luster gameplay, the actual design was never at fault.  Everything always worked as it should at every instance.  Should this completeley save the game from mediocracy at best?  No. But what it does tell me is that even without the AAA treatment,  the Ubisoft Shanghai peeps thought high enough of their jobs as creators and artists that they did all they could in their power to make the best product possible.  The more administravie stuff (budget, target audience, lenght, ect.) probably came from the top.  Unfortunately they had to stay within the parameters of the orders.  Because the game really suffers from these “decisions.”