Blade Runner

Blade Runner
4
Game Name: Blade Runner
Platforms: Windows 95/98
Publisher(s): Virgin Interactive
Developer(s): Westwood Studios
Genre(s): Adventure
Release Date: Nov, 1997

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is widely regarded as a visual masterpiece. It’s also quite a moody piece that questions morality and humanity throughout. These are interesting ideas to fold into an interactive adventure, in addition to the fantastic visual style of the film, but unfortunately they don’t all make it in quite the way that Westwood intended.

Looks gorgeous!

The plot of Blade Runner is the stuff of classic sci-fi. Humans have created intergalactic slave laborers named “Replicants” – artificial organic robots that look exactly like everyone else, and just happen to be stronger, more agile, and potentially more intelligent than their creators. As a failsafe, they are built with a four-year lifespan. The Replicants, though created to be in their twenties, are not as developed emotionally and empathetically – a fact which, other than autopsy, is their only real method of detection. After a few violent space-mutinies, Replicants are deemed dangerous and illegal on Earth. Special detectives called Blade Runners (which means nothing except to sound cool) are tasked with finding and eliminating any such deadly robot rogues hiding on Earth. But are they really dangerous? Is it government-sanctioned murder? Is wanting to live a crime? Will you even care?

You play as McCoy, a rookie Blade Runner who gets his first case in the opening moments of the game. A senseless animal murder case is pinned on Replicants (who else would have such disregard for life?) and you’re left with a few clues to point you on your way. From there, you’ll wind around the dystopian cityscape of a near-future Los Angeles, looking for info and looking for Reps. The game also plays parallel to the events in the film, often a little too parallel (more on that later), which allows you to visit locations and characters from the film. You can even spot Harry Ford off in the distance performing his own investigation from a scene in the movie.

It’s important to relay the monumental expectations that Westwood set up for this game. Billed as “the first real-time 3D adventure,” it is mostly none of those. The Last Express was the first real-time adventure. Events occurred around you, and in separate locations throughout the game world, regardless of your actions. Blade Runner follows a much more standard and linear path. Acts occur in very specific orders, events don’t seem to occur until you “trigger” them, and plot changes happen whether it makes sense for them to or not (if I’ve been killing every Replicant I’ve come across, why does the LAPD suddenly suspect me of being a Rep-sympathizer, and put out a warrant for my arrest?) It is also not really 3D, using excellent, but pre-rendered, 2D backgrounds, some clever use of video transitions, and a system of “voxels” for the characters, which are essentially big cubic pixels. They’re the finest graphics you can get without a 3D card (not requiring – or even using – one was a selling point), but if you’ve read the hype, prepare to be a bit disappointed.

Pre-rendered cutscenes fill out much of the crucial plot.

One of the biggest draws of Blade Runner for me personally was the idea of dangerous enemies who are almost indistinguishable from regular joes, whom you can’t act on until you are sure they are indeed a Replicant. And if you’re wrong and shoot a human, the game is over. That’s a great license for dramatic tension, and early previews of the game promised that in each game, every character would randomly be a Replicant or not, and the clues would be modified to reflect this. Every game would literally be different than the last.

This never came to fruition for obvious reasons – for the plot presented here to advance, certain characters have to be Replicants. There are a couple of characters for whom Replicant status really doesn’t matter, but these do not appear to be randomized as promised. In these cases, how good a detective you are seems to decide their fate. If you find the standard clues, they’re a Replicant. If you’re sharp enough to find the “big secret clue,” then they’re not a Replicant. This even extends to your character in expected ways – if you let the Replicants go, then clearly you are one yourself, and the game gives you an appropriate ending out of combinations of a few other key choices you’ve made along the way.

I really can’t make the absurdity of this system clear enough. In one case, you come across a damning picture of a character, all but proving they’re a Replicant. If you run with that, you’re never the wiser. Yet should you take it to the Esper and find the tiny clue that the photograph has been doctored, now they’re not a Replicant. It’s not a case of thinking they’re a Rep when they’re really a human, no, for all purposes, they literally change their status at that moment. This means that – seriously – if you want to see all the endings, you will have to botch your investigation the next time you play through. I don’t see how you can sell “this time I’ll play through as a really inept detective” as replayability.

There are said to be a dozen different endings, which supports my theory that the promised randomization and real-time elements were on track and then cut back in the eleventh hour. Most of these are the varying combinations of possibilities of the characters’ status – you’re a Rep, she’s a Rep, etc. But again, the paths to these endings do not seem to be defined by anything other than the clues you pick up and a few actions you take. I even encountered a bug (I presume) on one playthrough that presented me with an ending totally counter to the one that everything was leading up to.

The game calls upon probably 80% of its original cast to reprise their roles. Harrison Ford – his love for videogames and all things Blade Runner well documented – obviously said “fuck off,” but you’ll get appearances by Sean Young, Joe Turkel, Edward James Olmos, and many more characters who are in there for the sake of “reliving the movie,” regardless of how unnecessary it is. You don’t need to talk to J.F. Sebastian, but you do. You don’t need to meet Chew the eye designer, but you do. You don’t need to visit the Bradbury theater in the rain, smashing open a bookcase to reach the roof, but you will. Leon, one of the movie’s groups of Replicants, even comes over to give a “how ya doin’?” to the game’s group of Replicants.

You also won’t be fighting Rutger Hauer’s “Batty,” but you’ll get his understudy, “Clovis” – a William Blake-quoting knockoff of the film’s leading villain. I don’t know why all Replicant leaders are required to be graceful warrior-poets, but I guess the other Reps dig that sort of thing. Previews of the game also promised “70 different characters, each with their own AI and agendas,” and other Blade Runners that would pick up the clues you missed and either upload them to the mainframe for you to access, or use them to get a jump on your mark. I think by now I shouldn’t even have to say that none of this made it to the game.

I have since read some reviews that issue nothing but glowing praise for this game, and no reference to the issues I have laid out. This runs counter to my own experiences, and I can understand how this can be confusing for someone looking for concrete information on the game before a purchase. I still own the game, and am basing this analysis on about four or five playthroughs since it came out. The only people who would really know about the randomization are the programmers, but from what I’ve seen, it’s not there. Some characters are randomized in the sense that they either are where they are supposed to be, or they’re not. But if they aren’t, they’re not elsewhere in the gameworld running their own agenda, waiting for you to find them. Often they’ll simply catch up with you at a later area, when it’s convenient for the plot.

Fan service will not be in short supply here.

The endings truly seem defined by your performance as a detective, which is made even more curious by the fact that the clues never change. Clues will always be in the same places at the same times, and you either nab them or you don’t. On two of my playthroughs, I did exactly the same things, to the best of my memory, and achieved precisely the same “Rep-hunter, not-Rep yourself” ending. I also, to my extreme disappointment, was never put in a situation where I didn’t kill a Replicant in self-defense, or after having complete proof that they were an android. There’s certainly a set up or two, but I found the red herrings easy to see through.

Usually the game follows its own interesting story. However, it seems someone pulling the strings was worried about straying too far from the movie. I like the idea of revisiting areas from the film, I don’t even mind meeting the film’s characters, but the game seems to use the movie as a crutch far too often. As an example, in the second act of the game you will search Leon’s apartment and find a scale in the bathroom tub. This leads you to some animal engineers on “Animoid Row,” who tell you they sold the animal in question to a dancer at Taffy’s. You enter her dressing room and use a fake nasally voice to pretend to be a talent scout. She figures it out and runs. You chase her and shoot her.

If it sounds familiar, it’s because Harrison Ford went through the identical sequence of events in the film, the only difference being the Replicant he kills. Worse, this isn’t the only – or even the most staggering – example, and they’re all too similar to be called “homage.” What the game doesn’t steal from the movie, it lifts from P.K. Dick’s original story “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep,” such as the animal murder case in the beginning, and the friendly visit from some Replicants posing as cops.

The voxels work, except when close.

I’ve been pretty critical so far, but it’s not all a disappointment. The art designers nailed the style and mood of the film’s city perfectly, and give you a number of new areas that could easily be deleted scenes from the film. The pre-rendered backgrounds are often unreservedly beautiful, with fantastic detail and amazing integration of real-time lights, smoke, and rain for the time. Having your police car land in the rain, with the spinning lights playing off the walls and characters, is still a very impressive sight. The engine also pulls off neon extremely well, which is probably the biggest requirement for a Blade Runner game. You can chalk it up to me being a sci-fi dork, but there was never a moment where I wasn’t gaggling over the current location and excited to see the next.

The voxel method renders the character models pretty well, and they turn and move with extremely fluid animation compared to the “draw the flat character walking left and flop it for walking right” method typical to previous adventure games. This also allows them to integrate well with the lights and particles, and scale smoothly as they appear to move forward and backward into the 2D backgrounds. The only real complaints are that the characters, especially their faces, crumble into large pixel blocks at close range. They also have only a handful of overly-exaggerated (think Kabuki theater exaggerated) dialogue animations, and cycle through them frequently.

The sound is equally professional, with music inspired by, and sometimes recreated from, the film. Sound effects are also excellent all around. Considering how often you’ll be hearing rain fall on every surface imaginable, it’s saying something that it sounds new each time. There’s great acting for the character voices, both from the returning professionals and the side characters. McCoy’s voice (Mark Benninghofen) is perfect for his character’s face, and generally likeable throughout his various observations and film-noir monologues. And in a particularly nice move, the designers have allowed you to silence the monologues by engaging the “developer’s cut” mode (just like the film) while retaining the spoken dialogues and observations.

Use equipment from the film in your investigation.

You’re given everything you need to control the game, easy access to your weapon, and a helpful personal assistant to tally and sort your clues (even into “Replicant” and “Non-Replicant” categories). Unfortunately, you’ll hardly ever use them. Items are never selected to show to another character, simply, if you have it in your inventory and it’s important, you’ll ask about it. Talking to characters simply means you’ll click on them until they start to repeat themselves. You can engage a “user selection” mode for the dialogue, where you can click topics to ask about. Unfortunately, this offers absolutely no benefit over just clicking repeatedly on the character. You don’t get new topics, and you’ll want to ask all the questions you can anyway.

Clues are highlighted by the cursor when you mouse over them, alleviating pixel-hunts, but also making it hard to miss anything. In a system reliant on hidden clues for its replayability, this is a big detriment. You’re also given the option to change your mood when you question a character, basically from good cop to bad cop, but these don’t seem to change anything. Their reaction doesn’t alter, and often even the voice clip played is the same.

You’ll get to do a lot of neat things in Blade Runner, like analyzing photos and administering the empathy test from the film. You’ll get to see a lot of neat things in Blade Runner, from the giant video billboards in Chinatown to the office of Tyrell himself. You’ll get to kill a lot of Replicants in Blade Runner – or not kill them, if you so choose. But you won’t really get to do much in Blade Runner.¬†One of Harrison Ford’s frequent complaints about his role in the film is that he played “a detective who did no detecting.” Never could this statement be more true than with your character in this game. Your only purpose at a scene is to click everything the cursor turns green over, until you don’t see green anymore. Your only choices will be vaguely moral ones. And you will never once be staring down the barrel of gun and having to decide if the person at the other end is Replicant or not.

Blade Runner fans will probably have a terrific time here, forgive the mistakes, and try and hash out all the endings. If nothing else, it’s a great ride to explore the world of the film. And admittedly, I think most of my disappointment in the final product was colored by hyped pre-release promises that didn’t pan out like it sounded they would. There’s an admirable adventure here for fans of the genre to take one good run, but afterwards, it’s time for retirement.

 

The Good

Beautiful environments, quality sound work, fitting visual tribute to the film. Totally worth playing once.

The Bad

Falls far short of the hype. Randomization seems cut and endings are fixed. A few too many throwbacks to the original film than feel necessary.

 

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