I've been awaiting the chance to play through the final build of Clive Barker's Jericho with some degree of trepidation. You see on a personal level I've had rather a lot invested in the game since its announcement. Ever since my teens, Barker has been probably my favorite artist working in any medium, the level of intelligence, wonder, beauty and brutality he invests into his work striking a special chord with me whether the media be print, film or painting. As a result, his recent impassioned advocacy of gaming and expression of his desire to work heavily within it have excited me to fever pitch with the potential of its future results.
What's worried me though, is the fact that gaming is a medium in which, unlike literature or paint and canvas, Barker can't have total creative and production control over. While I've seen several times this year that Jericho is packed to the gills with his trademark nightmarish viscerality, I haven't been able to shake the nagging consideration that with large parts of development out of its creator's hands, the game could still very well turn out to be Barker in aesthetic alone, with its actual tone and gameplay content subject to the whims and abilities of others.
Has it been my hopes or my fears that have become crystallized in the final product now that I've been able to play the entirety of the PC version of the game? Well, a bit of both. To find out which side has come out dominant, hit the jump and read the full review.
Clive Barker's Jericho (PC)
Clive Barker's Jericho is a game with flaws. Definite flaws. While on an artistic level it's very hard to fault anything of its content whatsoever, - indeed, as punishing horror experiences go in videogames, it's one of the best I've ever experienced in terms of production design and atmosphere - there are certain niggles in the actual mechanics of its gameplay which just can't be ignored. How fundamentally those flaws affect your enjoyment of the game however, will depend on the level of perfection you demand from your FPS gaming, how much of a horror fan you are, and to a degree, how much of a love you have of Barker's work in general.As you may well now know, the game is a brutal, squad-based FPS following the journey of a special paranormally gifted combat team, the titular Jericho, sent by the US government's Department Of Occult Warfare to investigate a high level disturbance in the Middle-Eastern city of Al Khali, a disturbance with a very big source of evil at its centre. That source has been connected to the region for millenia, and it's Jericho's fate to travel back through every era of the city's existence, from present day to pre-Biblical times, in order to track it down and cleanse the area of its taint.
What all of this boils down to in gameplay terms is a strictly single-player campaign in control of the entire seven man (and woman) squad simultaneously. Each member of the team has his or her own weapon specialties, ranging from sniping to heavy weapons, to incendiaries, to sword-based melee, which are complimented by personal paranormal gifts covering telekinesis, pyromancy, astral projection, healing, and manipulation of both enemies and the passage of time. While the player will only have direct control of any one member of Jericho at a time, the rest can be directed in terms of position and defensive or offensive stance, and the team member under control can be quickly and easily hot swapped on the fly.
What really surprised me upon my first play of game on my own time was the overall pace and approach to it takes to combat. I've mentioned in my earlier previews that the game is an absolute assault, mercilessly throwing fast and capable enemies at the player thick and fast and allowing little time to breathe. I've also mentioned that the dense and frenetic gameplay has caused me a few issues in the past, at times becoming overwhelming to the point where there seemed very little opportunity to actually take control of a situation before being savagely and swiftly wiped out. I've now discovered that those occurances were partly down to my misunderstanding how the game is intended to be played (Note I said 'partly'. I'll come back to that later) at early previews.
While the temptation with a gory and visceral game such as Jericho, particularly when having a relatively large squad at hand, is to charge in guns ablazing in an effort to make the most of all the blood-drenched carnage available, it's an approach which will end in rapid failure nine times out of ten. Combat in Jericho has to be taken more slowly and thoughtfully than that. The overall pace and structure is closer to Gears Of War than something like Quake 4 or Doom 3, each level in general terms comprising of a series of skirmish areas made up of environmental cover which needs to be moved through carefully, ground taken progressively as and when it's safe to do so and not a second before. Try to meet the oncoming enemy halfway in a toe to toe encounter and a swift and bloody death often results.
At it's best, combat in Jericho is very satisfying indeed. It takes thought, sure, but if you're up for that then the victory of a well-executed battle gives a very rewarding feeling. There's not really any such thing as a random grunt amongst Jericho's enemies. Whilst Quake 4 has its low level Strogg soldiers and Half-Life 2 has its blue Combine, both of which become a secondary consideration with practice and experience, virtually any monster in Jericho is capable of seriously messing you up, and every one has to be thought of and dealt with as a potentially serious threat. Those zombified Nazis and Crusaders with only a melee attack to show for themselves might seem less of a priority compared to the big guys packing the artillery, but let one of them get close to the squad in a tight corner and it's going to be lights out in no time. The sheer speed and dexterity of the foot soldier-style enemies combined with the way the larger and better armed ones will usually hold back in cover to bombard the team from a distance makes almost every battle a challenge.
Every monster in Jericho knows its individual strengths and weaknesses and noticeably plays up to them. Nippier ones will run to the front to distract you. Explosive ones (Yes, some monsters explode, and they do it gloriously) will stumble through the center of the battlefield to clog up valuable space and force Jericho to be very careful where it aims. The guys with the heavy missile attacks will hold back to preserve their side's hardware advantage. Enemies with fire attacks will dowse the whole battlefield to force you back, flying creatures will flit around randomly and attack in short bursts, and snipers will snipe. All in all, killing monsters in Jericho is far from the basic run and gun splatter-fest I'd feared, and you'll need to take proper advantage of the environment, often holding the team quite a way back in safety while drawing out the enemy gradually with a single scout or sniper in order to avoid being over-run.
Using that brief mention of the game's environments as a slightly less than subtle way to sidestep onto the game's look and feel, you're well overdue a discussion of the game's production design, the very thing, apart from Barker's name, which attracted me to it in the first place.
One word: Filth.
Jericho really is one of the most excessively horrible games I've ever played. As myself and Jim have detailed with great enthusiasm a few times before, there's a utterly disgusting, glistening wetness prevalent throughout the game which imbues everything from monsters to scenery with the feel of a pestilent slaughterhouse. You'll flinch away from the screen the first few times a zombie gets too close, repelled by the dripping ooze coating its rendered skin and exposed flesh, and as you get further into the game you'll almost begin to watch where you step as floors and walls become drenched with nigh tangibly sticky flesh and dark, congealing, viscous blood. And blood is one thing that Jericho has a lot of. A Hell of a lot. If it's not being showered spectacularly across a radius of several feet every time you shoot a bad guy then it's being poured upon your head by the tens of gallons from the split gut of a naked fat man. Or if not that, then a boss is virtually showering in it or the team is fighting knee deep in a river of the stuff. Let it be known without a doubt, Jericho has some very satisfying head-shots.
It's not just about the gore either. The game makes use of some brilliantly evocative ambient effects, particularly in the mist and lighting departments, to create a genuinely dense, cloying and oppressive atmosphere in its environments, thick with hazy claustrophobia and with a dank feeling of age. It sometimes goes overboard with the smoke effects following explosions in battle, leading to a few cases of "What the Hell am I aiming at?" syndrome, but overall everything works very well. Also worthy of a very special mention is the game's score, which at times is incredibly emotive and even quite moving, and adds heavily to the increasing tone of doom and hopelessness which builds throughout. I will be buying a copy of the soundtrack CD soon, no question about it.
Congratulations though on your 20/20 vision if you've already spotted the great big "But..." floating ominously overhead. For everything it does right, and it does a lot right, Jericho has a more than ample ability to make you scream for reasons other than those it intends from time to time. In a squad-based shooter, the standard of AI demonstrated by your team-mates can easily make or kill the game, and while Jericho's is adequate for the majority of the time, when it fails it can lead to game over far too quickly and with very little opportunity to save the situation.
In a game in which combat is so frenetic at close quarters, it's important to know that the computer-controlled section the squad is going to do exactly what it's told, which a lot of the time consists of staying the Hell away until the enemy can be reduced from a safe distance or drawn into an open area. On several frustrating occasions though, I witnessed them piling enthusiastically into the thick of a fight despite my having told them to hold back, rewarded with only a quick and splattery end for their troubles and placing their inert bodies too far into the danger zone for it to be safe to go in to revive them. In situations like these the only option was to leave them down for fear of losing the last remaining team member, which made the fight overly challenging for all the wrong reasons, and more often than not utterly hopeless.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that the game's environments often seem to consist of invisible set points for holding position rather than allowing the team to be sent exactly where desired. Miss one of those points and you miss the opportunity to make the team hold back, and you'll soon find team-mates you thought were safely behind you running straight past and into an oncoming peppering before you even reach the fight yourself. While Jericho is a very defensive game which forces the player to prioritize team management and healing just as much as attacking the enemy, when this happens a battle can feel more like a babysitting exercise than a tactical military skirmish.
From time to time the Jericho team will also present what seems like a total lack of self-preservation instinct, some of the best examples coming from times when facing off against one of those aforementioned exploding enemies. By the time these unfortunate events took place, the team already had more than enough experience of the buggers to know that they explode with a dangerous blast radius upon death, but what did they still do every so often? Stand around one in a tight circle plugging away until the beast dropped. Hey presto, one completely dead squad from from but a single monster. And a dead one at that. It's highly frustrating in a game clearly set up to be played defensively to realize that you're the only one doing it right. Of course this sort of thing doesn't happen all the time, and certainly not enough to be completely game breaking, but it happens more than enough to be a noticeable issue.
In addition to that, while in well-designed areas the game's combat positively sings, - some fights in more open territory, and in particularly the huge coliseum fight you've probably seen in my previews, are an absolute joy as you flick from team member to team member to keep the enemy pinned down and surrounded - sometimes it can become uninspired and tired. In smaller, tighter areas the game for some reason still often insists on a large number of enemies, but rather than swarming the squad with them, sends them in one or two at a time. For a very long time. Thus, situations can arise whereby you'll find yourself sitting with a gun trained on a doorway spawn point waiting for the next in a seemingly never-ending string of monsters to appear so that you can pop it and wait for the next one. These scenarios become very dull and predictable very fast and can eventually feel as much like a point and click game as an FPS as you wait and pray for the game to decide that you've cleared up the necessary amount of enemies to proceed.
And that unfortunately harks to a sloppiness in design which rears its ugly, pus-filled head in other areas too. While never overtly amateurish, there are parts of Jericho's design which just smack of a lack of thought for the player experience, and leave certain elements of progression feeling either pointless or frustrating. For example, Jericho's checkpoints are activated by clearing an area of enemies rather than progressing into further territory (No F9 resurrection here). That's absolutely fine, but upon fighting and losing one particular battle against a huge number of replenishing flying monsters for over an hour, naturally assuming that if I survived long enough to kill them all I'd move on, I accidentally discovered that falling down a hole in the ground took me away from all the pain and straight to the next part of the level. Videogames have their own internal logic which is taught to the player through experience of repeated examples, and to suddenly turn that logic on its head without warning results in a very confused player, and in my case, my monitor having to hear a lot of very bad words.
Less troubling, but still eyebrow raising, is the game's use of environmental puzzles. With every team member having his or her own set of abilities, the possibilities here were immense, but more often than not Jericho wastes the opportunity. The first few levels, naturally enough, give pointers as to which characters to use to pass certain obstacles, for example using a telekinetic character to clear some rubble from a corridor, or a physically strong one to lift a portcullis. As the game progresses however, it doesn't allow the player to learn from these examples and find their own solutions. Rather it just presents an impassable obstacle, and if they player is controlling the wrong character to work around it, flashes up text explaining who to use. With puzzles rarely more complicated than the two examples above, this reduces their nature to an arbitrary one and makes them feel like a total waste of time, just dropped in for the sake of being there.
These issues are made doubly frustrating by the fact that Jericho really can get it right when it wants to. Particularly during the last two time zones, the game really comes into its own, mixing up the gameplay by limiting and varying the team members available and offering up a whole string of large-scale, open-plan boss fights which require some very satisfying, Zelda-style puzzling to win. After suffering from the above design problems, the game suddenly feels unbelievably more fresh and stimulating in its last few hours, and it's a real shame that the designers couldn't have had the confidence to bring more of this sort of design in earlier in the game. Here's hoping the possible sequel Barker is already talking about takes it as a starting point rather than working up to it again.
For the frustrations of it's flaws though, and believe me, playing through Jericho has definitely been a frustrating experience at times, there's just something about the overall game that kept me coming back and had the experience haunting a place at the back of head for some days afterwards. I can't promise you a perfect horror FPS in Jericho, in fact I can promise you that it won't be, but somewhere between the dense oppression of its atmosphere, the unapologetically, almost decadently horrific nature of its production design, the satisfaction of its gameplay when it's firing on all cylinders, and some rather broken protagonist characters who I was surprised to grow rather attached to by the end despite the script not making the most of their backstories, I find myself unable to write it off. If you can handle the issues, it comes recommended, albeit with reservations. If you can handle the issues and you're a gore-hound horror fan or someone who appreciates Clive Barker it comes more recommended. Everyone else, rent it, give it a try and see if you can forgive its failings.
Verdict: Rent it