In Nick Delios: Conspiracies (commonly called just Conspiracies), Greek developer Anima Ppd/Interactive is bringing us another bleak view of the near future. The year is 2063, and the Earth is predictably all messed up, what with crime, overpopulation, unemployment, ravaged environment ... you know, the works. Technically, Earth is united as a series of city-states under one Higher Federal Government (HFG), but big corporations and organized crime are powers unto themselves. Furthermore, the HFG wants Earth to join a confederation of civilized planets called the Regional Galaxy Alliance (RGA), but many powerful people, who believe the RGA is dangerously pacifistic and open to attack from more aggressive alien races, are working to sabotage the proposed alliance.
One man soon to be thoroughly entangled in this mess is Nick Delios, a former top student at the University of Thessaloniki who specialized in medical software. His life was going great until Dimitris Argiriou, the head of his scientific team, stole Nick's best work and claimed it was his own. When Nick protested, Argiriou threw Nick off the team and sabotaged his upcoming marriage to Argiriou's sister. Nick gave up his academic career and got heavily into drinking and gambling. To help pay off his debts, he started taking work as a private detective specializing in cases of industrial espionage.
The game's story opens with Nick losing big at the dice table in a fancy casino and getting thrown out. Then who should come along with a job offer but Dimitris Argiriou, the man responsible for Nick's despondency. Argiriou uses the fact that Nick's broke and can't pay off his many debts to coerce him into agreeing to help find an important person who's difficult to locate. Nick has no choice but to agree, and wakes up the next morning in his apartment with a vicious hangover.
There are a few multiple-choice dialogue options during the opening video sequence, but the game really begins the next morning at Nick's place. I was absolutely delighted to discover that not only are the game's environments 3D, but you can move around in them with complete freedom of movement. You can move forward, backward, strafe side-to-side, use mouselook ... it's great! This is incredibly rare in pure adventure games, and I've been wanting to see it in more games for years. The movement keys are the arrow keys and not the usual W-A-S-D set, and you can't reconfigure the keyboard. You also can't jump or crouch or fly (though you can swim and run), but it's still a real thrill despite those little details.
As for gameplay, a large majority of it consists of object hunting and using. The designers take full advantage of the 3D environments and all of the corresponding object-hiding possibilities. You'll find some items inside others, some under furniture, some up high on a hidden ledge, etc. Furthermore, the cursor doesn't indicate in any way when it's over a takeable or otherwise interactive item. Besides that, many of the game's puzzles made little or no logical sense to me even after I'd solved them, which I accomplished only by repeated application of one of the "Golden Rule of Adventure Games" -- when stuck, try using every inventory item with every other item in your inventory and in the environment. Then again, I'm not much of a detective, so that may have been the problem. Even so, there weren't any puzzles that I thought were totally random or stupid -- just really hard to reason out. There were also a couple of minor, but still irritating, timed sequences near the end. Due to these problems, I'd rate this game as being fairly difficult for everyone except perhaps dedicated detective adventure veterans.
The game doesn't take great pains to kill you at every turn or trick you into using an item too early and then getting stuck much later on. However, it is possible to get killed or to just plain lose due to saying the wrong thing to someone important or not doing something just right, and there are often very few clues as to what you did wrong and how to fix it. The message "GAME OVER, YOU LOSE!!!" that appears in big letters after every demise isn't very helpful, which is another reason to classify this as a difficult game.
Conspiracies also struck me as being fairly linear, even though many minor puzzles (most of which have to do with getting an object you'll need later) can be solved sooner than they have to be. I know the game is touted as being non-linear, but the fact that you can travel to some places before you need to and can pick up most items before you have to use them doesn't make the game non-linear in my opinion. Not when you can't solve major plot-related puzzles in several different orders, anyway.
Despite the galactic scope hinted at in the game's backstory, very little in the way of aliens and other worlds is seen anywhere in the game. Most of it is much more mundane and down-to-Earth. For example, the first major puzzle you have to solve is how to make coffee. You do eventually get to visit a space station, and there is a time travel sequence where you go back to the year 2019 in order to find the "difficult to locate" guy that Argiriou needs. Also, the conspiracy you have to crack involves actual aliens, but you don't ever get to meet them or even see what they look like. The overall plot, though not totally predictable and dull, is fairly unoriginal and contains numerous cliches -- some from the detective fiction genre, and some from science fiction (interesting blend, though). I don't want to give too much away here, but I will say that the game ends with several unresolved issues, thereby promising a sequel.
The graphics in the game are really quite good, though many of the FMV cut scenes look rather rough and grainy around the edges of actors (due to blue screen compositing, or some such), and some of the items in the 3D environments are actually flat 2D graphics. I thought it was hilarious the first time I went to a place with an unmoving cardboard cutout of a woman standing behind a bar. When you click on people to talk to them, you get a nice FMV sequence, but not when you're wandering around in 3D mode. As for the acting quality, I would rate it as only passable, and I'm very undemanding on that point. Most of them act like they're just casually reading their lines off a cue card, having never seen them before or rehearsed them at all. Also, for English-speaking players, the words don't match the actors' mouth movements due to the fact that they did the filming in Greece and were speaking Greek. Oh, well. Despite that, I still say FMV sequences are one of the most entertaining ways to fill in story details and keep the plot moving.
I was happy to discover that there are very few technical difficulties with the game (at least if you have the optimum gaming rig to play it on), none of which were show-stoppers or even close. There are a couple of places where I was mysteriously teleported to the other end of the region when I was running round in a certain spot, sometimes I got several conversation topic responses in a row when I was talking to someone, I once got stuck in one place so that I couldn't move and had to restore a game, and there are some minor graphics problems when rotating some inventory items. I'm happy to say that's the worst of it, and those things only happen rarely. The Anima Ppd/Interactive people put together a very robust game.
All in all, I'd say that Conspiracies is well worth the $29.99 list price for anyone who's heavily into adventure games, especially big FMV adventure fans, detective adventure fans, and those who can't resist the rare adventure game that has actual full-range motion in 3D environments instead of the usual Myst-like "point-to-point" travel. Other players could still find a worthwhile gaming experience, but may want to wait for a price drop.
-- Stanley Dunigan