Review: Overclocked: A History of Violence (PC)

Overclocked: A History of Violence
Genre: Adventure
Developer: House of Tales
Publisher: Lighthouse Interactive
Release Date: 04/07/08
Minimum System Requirements: OS: Windows Vista/XP/2000/Me, Processor: 1.3Ghz Pentium 3 or better, Memory: 512MB or more (1GB or more when running Vista), Video Card: Any DirectX 9.0 compatible or better.


We can look at the desire of video game developers to make products which are more cinematic in their scope and design and see that, in a lot of respects, this has helped along the resurgence of the adventure genre significantly. One of the effects of this is beneficial to those of us who like the genre; as it’s often easier to make a product where the storyline is the most important element of the product, it’s often easier to stick a strong storyline into an adventure game, thus making it more accessible to larger groups of people than, say, a beat-em-up. Adventure games are instantly accessible to most players, after all; clicking on things, solving puzzles, and watching ten or twenty minutes of talking in-between minimal amounts of activity means that you don’t have to be a great gamer to make progress, and deep down, being able to solve the puzzles presented often makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something, whatever that might be.

So, yeah, the whole “let’s make games like movies” mentality isn’t a bad thing in a lot of respects, provided it’s done well.

This becomes something of a problem, though, when people begin trying to tackle more bizarre and off-beat subjects, both in plot and gameplay. On a gameplay front, it can be hard to not resort to the old standard Soup Cans mentality where one is asked to solve puzzles that, in most cases, can’t even be politely described as tangentially related to the storyline (though in more modern games, other over-used gameplay concepts like Stealth Missions and Active Time Sequences are starting to rear their ugly heads), but while many of these sorts of puzzles are beginning to disappear, they’re often being replaced by overly long and repetitive fetch quests and flag activations that are improperly explained and may well require illogical actions. On the plot front, however, in many cases the typical old-school mentality of the adventure game, IE “save someone or thing from certain peril or accomplish some silly task” where the good guys won and everyone lived happily ever after is, in many respects, being replaced by more “cinematic” stories of loss and tragedy and, in some cases, psychological trauma that ends in failure on some scale (at least two of the games reviewed in the past six months qualify in this regard, for instance).

Now, here’s the thing: some games do the whole “tale of misery and despair” concept right on a storyline level but may falter on a gameplay level (see Rule of Rose), while others do things right on a gameplay level but falter in their storytelling (to a certain extent, Indigo Prophecy). Like these games, Overclocked seeks to tell a story of psychological and physical trauma, but unlike these games, it doesn’t entirely succeed on either level. It’s certainly not bad, but as an adventure game goes, it makes two major mistakes that make an otherwise decent concept fall flat.

So, this is Overclocked in a nutshell: you take on the role of David McNamara, a psychologist with a troubled past and bleak future, as he attempts to work his way through a very strange case. It seems that five late-teenage aged kids were found in various parts of New York, and though none of the five have any sort of distinguishing characteristics beyond their age, and though all were found in different locations, they all have one thing in common: they were all found at the brink of madness, screaming and basically freaking out. Your task is to piece together the events of the past several days, figure out what happened to the kids, and hopefully tie it all together before your life falls apart.

You will perhaps be unsurprised to know that it’s all part of a huge conspiracy that OF COURSE has something to do with the main character, because that’s always how these sorts of things work, and OF COURSE the US government is involved in some capacity.

Look, call me anal-retentive, but I have certain needs from a game where storytelling is the largest piece of the puzzle, and by and large if these needs are met, I really don’t have a problem with the storytelling, though it might well not be spectacular. Overclocked, however, takes an absolutely stellar concept and sinks it in five ways:

1.) Unanswered questions. We never find out how the girl in Cell # 4 got to where she is presently (as the other characters do), as the game doesn’t seem to care to tell us (though, in fairness, the female characters in the game are largely relegated to “supporting cast” roles and rarely get much exposition of note or worth… which, come to think of it, isn’t a good thing). We never find out what really happened to the girl in Cell # 2; though it’s fairly obvious that what the explanation of what happened isn’t really what happened, the game never sees fit to actually explain what DID happen, and simply drops that plot point without ever picking it up (though the ensuing mess isn’t cleaned up days after the fact, either, come to that). We never find out what caused the mess the girl in Cell # 4 is asked to clean up during one of her flashbacks, just that it’s there and no one knows who did it. We never find out why the police left a rubber raft floating in the water after rescuing the person in it, nor why they left it out there for about a week, nor why they left a weapon in it that may well be critical evidence… nor why, in a storm described as one of the worst ever, the rubber boat never flipped over and ejected said evidence. We aren’t told how the daring last-second rescue is accomplished, IE how the rescuer got to the location in the first place (let alone how he acquired a loaded weapon, considering the circumstances). The ending is one long stream of this, as is the fact that we never really get an answer as to why so many people know David’s military history (in some cases, people who probably shouldn’t) or, for that matter, why a bunch of people who KNOW his history would hire him to do a job when they should have know full well that he was uniquely qualified to figure out the gist of things (especially considering it would have been smarter to HIRE SOMEONE WHO IS LOYAL).

2.) Unnecessary plot points marred by a lack of identification with the related characters. A sizable portion of the game is spent dealing with David’s crumbling life, and how you react to the revelations in the game depends entirely upon your mental perspective. If you identify with David (which is very easy to do considering the circumstances), you realize pretty quickly what’s going on and find it hard to empathize with anyone who isn’t David considering what he’s going through (and mostly only getting his side of the situation through the course of the game), and thus the big revelations don’t mean much. If you don’t, you hate him for being something he can’t control and despise every thing he does, which makes the game difficult to play. This isn’t a two hour movie, it’s a five to ten hour game, and while the appreciation of the whole “main character is flawed and not as nice a guy as we suspect” in cinema is fine, in a game, well, it makes it difficult to continue slogging through the product if you don’t like the character you’re supposed to be guiding along.

Frankly, the whole “bad relationship/divorce” situation was done better in Snatcher, both because it was tied to the overall story in a more convincing manner, and because it didn’t take up half of the game we bought with expectations of something else. It’s not that the “bad marriage” aspect of the story is wrong so much as it didn’t need to take up so much of the experience when a few simple “my marriage is strained” moments would have been much simpler. Especially since it was painfully obvious where things were going the first time David calls his best friend, and no matter how much of his heart is in the right place, by the time the big reveal comes around you just want to punch him in the face.

3.) Wacky pseudoscience. Without giving too much away: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a horrible ordeal, that I get. Anger management issues associated with this, that’s understandable. But exactly what sort of a trigger are you going to implant in someone, via either hypnosis and the power of suggestion or drugs or whatever, that’s going to make them forget EVERYTHING THEY KNOW (name, age, where they’ve been the past few EVER) but only under a certain trigger that isn’t made known to the player?

4.) An insufficient ending. As in, there isn’t one. You “save the day”, escape, and then… you get some psychobabble, something that makes absolutely no sense in context happens, and it’s game over. The credits roll, then the game starts over. That’s it. You aren’t given any sort of plot resolution, the game just ends. Presumably, you’re left to draw your own conclusions about the ending, but frankly, that’s the lazy man’s way out when they don’t actually want to be bothered resolving the conflict they’ve created.

5.) While the game might certainly be “psychological”, it’s definitely not “thrilling” in any sense. If you’re genre savvy, you see most of the plot twists coming and either shrug because they’re common or groan because they’re over-used and/or don’t contribute anything to the experience, and often, no one really does anything or has anything happen to them that’s all that thrilling or suspenseful. If you’re genre blind, you still look at David and go “God, what an idiot”. David is told early on to keep his research to himself and only share it with what is probably the only person he can trust, the police detective… so he spends the rest of the game telling the people he can’t trust things that he probably shouldn’t (with predictable results) while telling the detective ABSOLUTELY NOTHING that would be of any use… and then he wonders why he’s having so many problems. This is not “thrilling”, it’s the main character acting in direct opposition to his best interests on a consistent basis, even when logic and common sense tells him he should be doing otherwise.

Oh, and also, I know this was developed by people who don’t live in the US, but for the record: people in New York are not so jaded as to be perfectly okay with someone pulling a gun on them to the extent that they wouldn’t call the cops, hotels won’t just randomly take objects in barter as payment, and if you could break the lamps in Central Park the way the game seems to think you can, there wouldn’t BE any lamps in Central Park. I mean, really now.

Look, the point is this: the concept of Overclocked is solid, and several of the elements are decent enough, but if you’re a fan of the “psychological thriller” genre, chances are you’ve seen or read a bunch of stuff that’s better than this, and if you haven’t, the $30 you could spend on this would see better use at the Blockbuster renting something by David Cronenberg or Christopher Nolan or Dario Argento or Alfred Hitchcock or… you get the point… and anyway, fan of the genre or no, there are still significant plot holes and flaws that keep this from being something “great” or, in most respects, “good”. It’s certainly understandable that a developer would want to present a product that’s mature in theme or concept, and kudos to that, but if you can’t fill in your own plot points, make your resolutions logical (or resolve your plot at all), and make your characters and situations work, that’s a problem.

This is further hampered, in some respects, by the aural presentation. Now, in fairness, the music? It’s fantastic; it’s ambient, works with the theme well when needed, and often amplifies the experience well. Also, the sound effects? Mostly spot-on; while gunfire and explosions feel subdued in some cases, most of the effects otherwise work well enough in context and make you feel what you’re supposed to feel appropriately. No, the problem comes from the voice acting, on two levels: first, several of the voice actors (mostly the two female psych patients, though there are a few others) are simply NOT CONVINCING; they’re supposed to be feeling fear/anger/some other sort of trauma, and all they can do is “bored” or “flat”. When the delivery of the lines is boring, the reception is, too. On the other hand, even situations where you put strong voice actors (say, David’s actor, who mostly does a good job) into a situation fall flat in some respects, like during one situation where, during a conversation with his wife, she tells him not to shout at her… except he hasn’t been up to that point, and she says it as a reaction to being shouted at. It’s odd. The visuals are occasionally odd as well; while the character models are often appropriate looking and animate well, there are situations where their animations occasionally odd or awkward. That aside, however, the game mostly looks pretty good, with pleasant backgrounds and well done cutscenes to back up the mostly good character models.

Which brings us to the gameplay of Overclocked, which, surprisingly, is quite good. The core gameplay comes down to simple point and click action; click somewhere on the screen, and the character moves there, usable items and locations are identified by simple changing icons, and there’s an inventory at the bottom of the screen for easy access. Most of the game will see you playing as David himself, but when David begins psychologically probing the patients he’s dealing with, they begin relaying their experiences as you take over and guide them through these memories, which is a very cool gameplay mechanic, all in all that hasn’t been done TOO often. Everything is done in typical point and click fashion; click on an object, and a sub-menu will pop up that can allow you to, possibly, look at the object, take the object, use it on something else, and so on. This, of course, often works with puzzle-solving to different degrees, as you’ll often have to combine items or use items on other items, but thankfully most of these sorts of puzzles are very logical and make sense. There are a few other non-item based puzzles (IE door locks with computer-controlled passwords, burnt out control panels and radios, and so on), but the beauty of the game shines through in these sequences as well because again, THE PUZZLES MAKE SENSE relative to the world around them. They can take some exploration and some thinking at times, certainly, but they’re all reasonably clever, and that’s actually very fantastic, as the game never feels the need to fall back on irrational puzzles that make no sense.

David also has an interesting tool that he uses during his investigations in his PDA, which acts as a combination cell phone and recording device. You can, of course, use the PDA to call people as needed to advance the plot (assuming they are available) and to receive text messages when the game dictates it necessary, but the real use comes from the recording properties. In essence, each time David is talking to one of the patients, he’s recording what they say; this is partially useful so that you can listen to the dialogue of the sessions to help yourself piece things together, but it’s also so that you can then use those dialogue sessions to trigger further dialogue sessions between other patients. Thus, if a patient says something about “that guy has been crying for days”, you can attribute it to the guy who’s miserable now and play the conversation back to him, which will then in turn inspire him to comment on another patient, and so on. This is, frankly, an interesting gameplay mechanic that mostly works pretty well and is interesting in its design. Occasionally, of course, you’ll need some other type of object to move the plot along, especially when not dealing with patients, or you’ll need to talk to someone and go through the series of conversation topics to get to the next plot point, but the balance is about fifty/fifty between the two and all in all it works mostly well.

Mostly, however, doesn’t mean “always”, and this brings up a significant, if not crippling, problem with the gameplay in Overclocked: a lot of the time, the game won’t allow you to progress and won’t explain to you WHY this is. This is especially common when you’re trying to get David to go to sleep, as you’ll end up having to call everyone he knows and go to the bar several nights because, for whatever reason, he feels the need to perpetuate all of the “drunk anger-prone sociopath” stereotypes he can in a given day… though the game doesn’t see fit to make mention of this, leaving you to puzzle it out when, up until that point, the logic was pretty consistent. That’s not to say that it’s illogical to assume that David would want to talk to his friends and such, but after a while, every conversation he has with his wife and attorney is considerably more depressing than the last, and David ends up looking like a glutton for punishment because HE WON’T GO TO BED until he’s talked to them… which he won’t actually TELL YOU, instead content to simply say “I can’t go to sleep yet”, leaving you to figure out what’s wrong, exactly. This also happens occasionally when you’ve finished all of your conversations and don’t know who to talk to next or what clip you’re supposed to be playing them to move the plot forward, though this is less of a problem overall. This is, all in all, a small complaint, but it is something of an annoyance at times.

It’s more notable that there’s absolutely no reason to play through the game again upon completion; once you’ve beaten the game, you’ve seen everything there is to see in the game, and if you save the game sometime around, say, Day 5, you can go back through the audio logs as you see fit to reconnect with most of what’s happened at your leisure. The puzzles aren’t so fiendishly diabolical as to be worth replaying, the narrative isn’t so strong as to inspire you to experience it again, and in many cases, it can be difficult to draw yourself to the game to want to finish it the first time through, let alone a second or third. Also, the game occasionally crashes when trying to load cutscenes (complete with, of all things, a host process that pops up and asks if you want to send a bug report to the publisher, which is… odd); this happened twice in about five hours with nothing else running on a system that far exceeds the minimum requirements, so you may want to watch for that.

In fairness, ones opinion of a plot can differentiate from another’s with little difficulty, so in conclusion: Overclocked is a solid, well-designed game from a gameplay perspective that features some surprisingly innovative and interesting ideas and does reasonably well at implementing them, and fans of adventure games looking for something that plays well should know this plays quite reasonably. If you can look past the numerous plot holes and elements being dropped and never picked up again, and you’re okay with a lack of resolution to the plot, you might like the story presented in Overclocked enough to give it a look, and as it’s only $30, you might find enough to the product to merit playing through the game once. That said, the plot is full of holes and inconsistencies, it’s dramatically over-ambitious, and there’s no reason to play through the game more than once, novel gameplay concepts or no. You could certainly do worse than Overclocked, but you could also do better, as well.

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

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Overclocked: A History of Violence is a hard game to appreciate or recommend, as the good and the bad end up canceling themselves out, leaving an experience that’s often inconsistent and not particularly satisfying. The gameplay is refreshing and well done, many of the concepts in the game are quite inventive and novel when taken on their own, and parts of the visual and aural presentation are solid and of quality. The story, unfortunately, drops the ball on more than a few occasions, leaves interesting elements unresolved and characters underdeveloped, and doesn’t come to any sort of reasonable or finite conclusion… and, unfortunately, in a genre where plot is king, that’s something of a killer. Even with that aside, there’s no reason to play the game more than once, it has a couple of game-crashing bugs, and there are points where the game doesn’t feel as intuitive as other sections, leaving you scratching your head because the only solution is to exhaust all available options to progress. With a tighter and more cohesive storyline Overclocked would be easy to recommend, but as it is, it’s at best “okay” and at worst unsatisfying.

2 Comments
  1. Mark B.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *