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Sherlock Holmes The Awakened Preview

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened pack shot
Publisher:Focus Home Interactive
Official Site:http://www.sherlockholmes-thegame.com/
Release Date:February 16th, 2006 (UK)
Writer:Duncan Lawson (sinna01)

Point and Click is making a comeback this week, and especially games themed on characters of classic literature. As well as playing the insidious little Belgian, I have also got to try the preview edition of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened. The version itself looks close to being finished, and there remains room for improvement. Still, smoking jacket and pipe please, the preview is afoot...

There are comparatively few games that put the player into the spats and Deerstalker hat of Sherlock Holmes and this is essentially because of one key trait - he's meant to be smarter than you. When we play as an established fictional character, we are brought up to the appropriate level of capability by making the controlled character faster, tougher, and more deadly than the computer generated opponents. When playing a game as James Bond we only really keep up with the demands placed upon the '00' agent thanks to a profusion of health packs, ammo crates, and a constant stream of bigger guns. The same is said for games when we play the part of Spiderman, Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, Tiger Woods - any of those made up super men. Therefore any title that presents us with a task equal to the legendary power of detection and deduction wielded by Sherlock Holmes immediately has a problem. The dilemma is this: bastardise the whole point of having Holmes in it in the first place by making it a standard point-and-click adventure, or make it so maddeningly difficult and obsessed with minutiae that it will be realistic, and therefore impossible for the normal human.

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'Elementary!' Cries developer Frogwares and publisher Focus Home Interactive, 'We shall do both!'. What they have so far produced is a point-and-click adventure from an unusual perspective that combines some of my least favourable aspects of the genre with frequently baffling minutiae that only Holmes himself would have found edifying. Fine balance is always the very last thing to be ironed out after the preview stage, so early impressions should be taken with a pinch of salt. Or opium - depends on how authentic you're feeling.

So far The Awakened looks pretty enough when given adequate PC horsepower to run with. The game is played from a first-person perspective, with camera sliding eerily across the streets of London from around where Sherlock's eye level would be. The interface is pleasingly clean and uncluttered. The left mouse button will propel you forwards, and will also interact with anything when the relevant icon will appear next to an object. The right mouse button will bring up your inventory, notes and documents screen. This is defiantly a step forwards from the old LucasArts days of an entire verb table being worked through every time an objects use was uncertain.

The environments, however, felt empty. This of course is partially attributable to the build I played being a preview, and it is possible that serious graphical improvements will still be made before it starts filling shelves. Unfortunately the graphical trouble seems to be more to with stylistic decisions than simply having all the textures in place

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Each area that the great detective sleuths about in is about the same size as a Counter-Strike map, and looked to be as sparsely decorated and populated. This is of course fine in Counter-Strike and just about every other FPS, but in those situations you are more worried about gun shot wounds than establishing what size shoe the suspect wore whilst intellectually belittling Watson. This sense of emptiness became more pronounced as I spent a great deal of time peering in to every nook and cranny and behind every loose brick, becoming bored of schlepping up-and-down the same empty street. Of course this sense of empty dislocation is likely designed to grow an atmosphere of isolation and suspense, but as yet did more to dislocate me from proceedings than generate tension.

There is one tiny abbreviation that should never be put in the same vicinity as a famous characters name, and especially not in a title with two famous characters. This miniature herald of a wonky plot is 'Vs.'. It has never once been a good omen, and is the grammatical version of Yoko Ono. It came between Alien - Predator, Freddy - Jason, and Dracula - Frankenstein - Van Helsing, and every time with bobbins results. This track record bodes badly for Holmes - Cthulhu, wherein the greatest detective that ever lived will do battle with the great squiggly tentacle from beyond the veil of sanity.

The version that I got hold of ends without going further than various omens scrawled on walls and clues pointing towards cult activity worshiping H P Lovecrafts' Great Old Ones. The back of the box and the press screenshots suggest giant octopus action in the near future. Unfortunately, I can only see disappointment in this plots future - as either there are great big soul-eating monsters which are contrary to the Sherlock Holmes mythos of reason conquering all, or it turns out to be a Scooby-Doo style hoax with a big rubber squid, which is going to be anticlimactic to say the least. If you are a fan of Lovecraft's monster fiction and want some associated thrills before The Awakened hits the shelves, I strongly recommend Call of Cthulhu: The Dark Corners of the Earth, which really hits the suspense nail right on the head and even makes a decent stab at being a first-person detective game.

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There is one respect in which The Awakened reminded me of the classic puzzle games of old - the return of the Black Fluff! There is no actual Black Fluff in this, but the point-and-click genre is famous for having driven thousands of gamers perilously close to insanity as they spent hours stuck, only to eventually find their progress was barred by not finding a speck of black fluff 2 pixels wide, on a black background, in a largely black room. The only method of finding Black Fluff was to painstakingly sweep every room with the cursor until the verb panel or the cursor itself flashed for a moment. Imagine having to do this with a first person view, to find nearly invisible clues such as a scrap of cloth attached to the top of a door frame. Since I was not gifted with exceptional eyesight I spent a lot of time hugging the walls of the environment, bucking the view up and down like the Churchill dog. Those suffering from motion sickness might want their Dramamine. Ohhh yes.

Events were triggered by accomplishments that sometimes seemed utterly unrelated. In numerous occasions Holmes announced that he will have to take his evidence back to the lab for analysis (a tedious exercise) but upon following this advice I was instead informed there is actually no reason for doing so. This was my cue to start bucking up and down the walls again for missed tiny clues.

In its current form I found The Awakened to be a monster-mash concept executed too antiseptically to be endearing, the puzzles too trial-and-error and Black Fluff orientated to be intellectually satisfying, and the main character too superior to be remotely sympathetic. Tell me 'you see no reason to do that' one more time and I'm going to let the bloody giant squid have you, I swear. I bloody well see the point, how about that? Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth did not get the recognition it deserved, but it was not so obscure that it is necessarily good idea to try another First-Person puzzle game with a Lovecraft suspense and horror theme.

Frogwares might have a three-pipe-problem on their hands with this one.

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