Inside Pulse 12

Review: NCIS (Microsoft Xbox 360)

NCIS
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 11/1/11

So, confession time: I don’t watch the NCIS television show, the only reasons I’m even aware of its existence is because 1.) Pauley Perrette makes for an amazingly attractive goth girl and 2.) John Cheese pointed out that the producers know nothing about computers, and I only bothered playing the game because I assumed (correctly) it’d be an easy thousand points of Achievements. I’m aware that this isn’t the best possible way to start off a review, but here’s the thing: if your video game is good, I shouldn’t have to be a fan of your show to enjoy it. I’ve played the CSI games Ubisoft has made prior to this, which I assumed (correctly) this would be based off of, and while I’m not a fan of that show either, I generally didn’t hate my time with those games in any specific way. They’re games that likely are only going to appeal to fans of the show, absolutely, but they’re not objectively bad in the strictest sense of the term. Further, with this being the fourth (at the minimum) game of this sort that Ubisoft has pumped out, I was of the hopeful assumption that the developers were possibly starting to get an idea of where they could go from the basic adventure game starting point all of the games share, and perhaps there might be some more interesting elements added to the game beyond the basic “go here and look for stuff” mechanics that the CSI games all shared. I figured, at best, this might actually get me interested in the show, and at worst, at least I got some Achievements out of it.

It turns out that I probably should have been more cynical.

The plot of NCIS is, to be frank, bizarre. The basic idea behind the show is that the events follow the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, IE CSI for the Navy, as they solve crimes week after week, which, on its face, is a simple enough idea. The plot of NCIS the video game presents four “episodes” for the player to go through that seem largely disconnected, until you play into the fourth episode and figure out that they’re all connected… BY TERRORISM. Now, the basic writing is fine, honestly, and when the plotlines are focusing on the character interplay or the science of the crimes, the storylines are generally fine to follow along with, even if the science itself is likely suspect. That said, there are several HEAVILY unbelievable hoops the plot has to jump through in the fourth episode to make everything work, including such gems as believing a terrorist leader somehow has the foresight and need to recruit a low level civil servant from New Jersey for a task that stretches the boundaries of believability. (Though I will give Ubisoft brownie points for not making New Jersey into a joke at least.) The plot just feels wholly unbelievable on its face once you reach the end of it, to the extent that it leaves one looking at the franchise and wondering if this is representative of the plots of the show. If it isn’t, then fans of the show are likely going to be insulted, and if it is, then why has this show been on for nine seasons? Either way, the plot in this game is generally unbelievable and not especially good, and for a genre that relies heavily on the plot to carry things along, that’s a bad sign.

Visually, NCIS looks acceptable, in the sense that the characters all look like who they’re supposed to look like and the environments all look solid overall. The special effects the game uses for several of the investigation tools are also generally pleasing to the eyes, by and large. However, the characters really never change clothes, which is weird given that the episodes are assumed to take place across multiple days, the characters often seem like they’re floating when they’re walking thanks to their pace not matching their movements, and the visuals aren’t pushing the limitations of the console by any stretch of the imagination. Aurally, the music is generally fine and inoffensive, but unexciting overall and unlikely to impress you to the point that you’d want to listen to it outside of the game itself. The voice work in the game is adequate, though in an unfortunate aside, the only voice actor from the television show to actually voice their character in the game is David McCallum as Ducky; every other voice actor and actress in the game is voiced by a stand-in. Given that this is a licensed game and the star power of the show is a big selling point for fans, this is an especially big let down, especially when you consider that the CSI games generally made use of the cast for voice work. I don’t know if this is a case of Ubisoft not wanting to pay the money for the cast or the cast not wanting to do the work, but if it’s the former, shame on Ubisoft, and if it’s the latter, Cowboy Curtis showed up and did his job and you should be ashamed of yourselves for not following suit. Regardless, most of the “cast” voice work is fine, save for that of Ziva David, which just sounds incredibly robotic and way more exaggerated than the actual actress does, and the rest of the voice work is generally fine, all in all. As far as the special effects go, they generally sound fine, but, again, are unimpressive.

For those who have not played any of the CSI games Ubisoft has developed, NCIS is basically an adventure game where you play as the cast members of the show the game is based on. While the CSI games put you in the role of a new rookie who joined up and helped out the team, however, NCIS actually puts you in the shoes of the cast members, and you’ll frequently shift between the cast as you play through the different sections of the episodes. The controls are simple enough to understand, though a little odd to grasp at first if you’re not used to the way this sort of game works on the consoles. Instead of controlling the characters and moving them directly, you’re given a cursor you move around the screen which you use to direct the characters where you want them to go. The left stick moves the cursor around on the screen and controls most of the elements in the puzzles you’ll face, while the right stick, aside from some brief usefulness when taking photos, does nothing. A is your default “interact” button, B is your default “cancel” button, and the triggers occasionally come into play in some of the more involved puzzles, such as matching up evidence or removing fingerprint tape from objects. The variety in the gameplay comes not from the controls themselves, but rather, from the types of things you’ll have to do with said controls, and anyone who has played a video game, well, ever, should be able to adjust to the controls in minutes.

In most cases, you’ll start off at a crime scene of some sort of another, where you’ll play as Gibbs, DiNozzo or Ziva as you search for clues. You’ll move the left stick around until it turns into a magnifying glass, at which point you’ll interact with the area. Most of the time this involves taking a picture of the suspicious element, where you’ll use the sticks to move and center the image before snapping the shot, but occasionally you’ll have to move an object or crack a safe, assuming you do anything else at all. Safe cracking is a matter of spinning the dial until the segment you’re working blinks, then spinning it slowly until it locks in place. Moving objects or otherwise performing complex tasks involves centering the stick in a circle, holding A, and dragging the stick in a straight line in the indicated direction to succeed. The game occasionally gives you a choice of direction in which to move an object, but this is only for mild puzzle solving purposes and if you pick wrong you can always undo it. From here, the game can go into any one of a number of different directions, depending on what you’ve found at the crime scene and what elements are available to you, but you’ll end up at crime scenes several times throughout the course of the game and this is the most frequent game mode that comes up.

If there are any witnesses or suspects at this point, you’ll likely enter into an interrogation sequence with them, which amounts to “Press A when prompted to get more info or present evidence if they’re lying”. If anything comes up that needs forensics analysis, you’ll be switched over to Abby, who will have to compare fingerprints, bullet rifling, chemical compounds, and other such things, which mostly amounts to picking the right match from a list and matching it to the sample. If there’s a body involved, Ducky will jump in and analyze the bodies, which amounts to rotating the stiffs and taking pictures of the injuries sustained in their death. When it comes time for data analysis, McGee will hack into the required devices, which amounts to selecting items in sequence or playing memory matching games to break into the device, before he looks over the data and selects what is useful, which is obviously highlighted for you. McGee can also perform the odd satellite tracking activity, which amounts to zeroing in on a GPS or cell phone with a satellite by training your cursor over a moving target with the left stick and filling the signal bar before time runs out. Should your character at the moment come up with a bunch of disconnected information, Gibbs will direct them to the deduction board, which will allow you to connect pieces of evidence, at which point Gibbs will question why they fit and you’ll have to choose what brings them together to match them. If a sequence has a failure condition (IE picking the wrong choice from a list) you’ll have multiple tries, represented as “Caf-POW’s”, to get it right, though failing only starts the sequence over again. If not, you can do whatever you need to do until you get it right.

If I have, at any point, made any of this sound interesting, I apologize, because it is not.

Now, the CSI games Ubisoft published started out as simple games where you could eventually find all of the given evidence if you were dedicated, but even in their most base form there was some substance to them. NCIS does not do this. It is literally impossible to miss anything of import in the crime scenes and the game almost completely holds your hand through the entire experience, to the point where there is literally no challenge to the game at all. The game throws a couple of curve balls at you at the end with some very fast questioning prompts in the final interrogation, but spamming A during that entire sequence makes that moot, and even if you fail a sequence, you’re dumped right back to it to try again. You can’t miss anything, you can’t fail to get an important piece of information, you literally can do nothing but follow the path to the end of the sequence and play through the exact linear path the game has laid out for you, which is, frankly, boring as hell.

The game is a whopping four hours long and you can literally complete it in one sitting if you’re bored enough to do so, and there is absolutely nothing to come back to once you’re done with the game. Nothing. At all. The game does not grade your performances in the episodes, like the CSI games do, so you can’t go back to the game to find things you’ve missed or improve your score in any way because there is nothing like that here. There is nothing unlocked by your completing of the game except the ability to go back to the missions you’ve already completed, and SURPRISE, they don’t magically become more challenging the second time around. The “extras” on the disc amount to a trailer for whatever season of NCIS is out on DVD, which is basically the laziest extra you could possibly include short of an advertisement for the game you’re presently playing. Even the Achievements are lazy, because you will literally unlock ALL of them, with NO effort, in your first playthrough of the game, so you don’t even need to try to come back for THOSE either. There is an absolute dearth of challenge to the events in the game, an complete lack of reasons to come back to the game any more than once, and a serious absence of depth or substance to the experience in the first place.

NCIS is basically the standard by which the term “cash in” should be measured; as a twenty dollar game this would be a limited and unexciting game for fans only, but as a forty dollar release it’s basically an insult. The characters from the show look mostly accurate, the audio in the game is generally acceptable all in all, the game isn’t severely technically flawed or broken in any obvious way, and some of the investigation techniques can be fun once, in all fairness. However, also in fairness, the plot is mostly basic for seventy five percent of the game before becoming mind-bogglingly insulting to your intelligence, a whopping ONE of the cast members was brought on board to do the voice acting for the game, and the game is so easy to progress through that you could likely train the family dog to get through it. The game has actually regressed from the CSI games Ubisoft produced, to the point where there is nothing you can miss, no score you can improve, no reason to play the game over, and nothing you can unlock for completing the game at all. NCIS is basically an incredibly lazy attempt at making some money off of the popularity of a well known property, and it shows through in nearly every respect, to the point that it’s basically a game even fans of the show should probably steer clear of.

The Scores:
Story: POOR
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: MEDIOCRE
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: WORTHLESS
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: WORTHLESS
Addictiveness: WORTHLESS
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS

FINAL SCORE: BAD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Well, if you’re the sort of person who loves the idea of adding a thousand points to your gamer score in a day (I’m looking at you DJ), NCIS is probably worth a rental, but otherwise? It’s basically a waste of your time on nearly every level. The characters look fine, the audio is adequate, and the game is simple enough to play that you won’t have to strain yourself to do so regardless of your skill level. However, the plot becomes insulting in the final episode after being “okay” up to that point, there’s no challenge to the game, there’s no reason to ever come back to it because you’ll see and do everything in one sitting, and the cast from the show, save for David McCallum, isn’t even involved with the game. It’s not that NCIS is even aggressively bad so much as it is that the game is aggressively lazy, which is even more disappointing, to be honest. Bad games have a certain charm to hating their guts, and you can almost appreciate how terrible they are; NCIS just screams of being something Ubisoft shoved out the door to make a buck, and it shows in how utterly uninteresting the whole experience ends up.

  • I agree completely. I figured it couldn’t be too bad since there’s some good point and clicks still out there but I was so so wrong.