Gamestyle Archive Intro: a visually strong title but beneath the luxurious hood was a Lada car crash of a game. This review is from December 2003 and JJ.
Only a few Playstation 2 releases can hold their ground against SCEE Cambridge’s Primal, for it was a showboating and technical extravaganza. Admittedly, it did have its flaws as a playing experience, but a little frustration can make for a satisfying journey none the less. Now, only a year has elapsed and Ghosthunter has arrived from the same team; can experience make for an improved adventure?
Set in Detroit, you take the role of Lazarus Jones (originally based on Fight Club’s Tyler Durden), a young cop only on his first week of the job. Called out to a reported disturbance at an abandoned high school, Lazarus and his partner (Anna Steel) make a chilling discovery linked to the infamous murders (which had forced the school to be abandoned). Before Lazarus can comprehend events, he is forced into the role of Ghosthunter as a means to save his partner. By visiting specific locations through special gates, Lazarus has to clear each area of ghostly spirits whilst hot on the trail of Professor Richmond (see our preview for more information). This allows SCEE Cambridge to call upon a variety of unique levels, from the typical Shadowman-influenced Deep South, to the more intimate confines of a ghost ship.
Only when you see titles of this calibre in action (Primal included) do you realise what the Playstation 2 is capable of – given its escalating years. However, SCEE Cambridge proves yet again what is possible with a little talent and investment; on several occasions, Gamestyle had to stop and re-evaluate what system the game was being played on. Ghosthunter maintains the aura of a high-specification PC release that overshadows most Xbox and Gamecube titles. Detailed environments, clear surroundings, fluid animation, exceptional lighting effects and much more – this is a technical demonstration (aka ‘showboat’) of how to program for the system. Unfortunately, a videogame is not specifically designed to hang in a modern art museum; it’s an interactive tool created to stimulate, experience and enjoy. This is where the gloss of Ghosthunter begins to wear thin rapidly. As with Primal and many other releases, today it’s the basics that are poorly-implemented.
Gamestyle will begin its critique with the camera, which has been improved somewhat since the ECTS demo we’d played previously; however it is still very erratic and headache-inducing. At times, the camera doesn’t know which angle or position to take up – often veering too close to Lazarus, giving an almost first-person view. The facility to override such devious tracking is welcome, but only serves to highlight just how much (manual) salvaging is required. The problems continue apace with the control system, which is convoluted and extremely taxing – especially during confrontations. Add together the annoyance factor of controls and camera, and Gamestyle soon pines for Primal. While the levels are gloriously detailed, the route through each is the perfect depiction of linear. An example of this is the “buddy” dynamic – otherwise known as Astral – which can only be activated at predetermined points (as opposed to Soul Reaver, for example, which uses the same principle to populate two worlds). This makes for a predictable journey that fails to push the player in all but one direction.
Every so often Lazarus will reach a dead end that requires some form of action to resolve. Bizarrely, there are no real clues to each solution; the only practical way of overcoming obstacles is by calling up your gun-sights and scanning the environment (effectively looking for something that turns the sight red). SCEE Cambridge has tried to develop a more elaborate combat system than the one used in Primal, which only required a lock-on function and hit button. The move has not been successful. The difficulty not only lies in switching weapons (shoulder button and analogue stick) but in defeating the various types of ghosts – albeit some of which are exquisitely-designed. A stealth element too has been tragically realised; while Lazarus appears comfortable with slinking beside walls, most weaponry (such as the sniper rifle) requires a first-person view to be activated.
Unfortunately, this action is rendered useless, as Lazarus cannot move whilst in it – therefore, to make a shot the Ghosthunter has to expose himself to fire. With all of these elements in play, Ghosthunter can be testing even at the best of times. The limited availability of health and ghost ammunition pick-ups, combined with continent-spanning checkpoints, makes for a troubling game. The Achilles heel comes in the form of ‘transparent’ ghostly AI, which allows Lazarus to back off to a safe distance (or height) before picking off each hapless foe. Alternatively, where the game excels is through the utilisation of the Dolby Pro-Logic II soundtrack, which creates a disturbing atmosphere in perfect partnership with events on screen. Sound effects, chilling voices and passable voice-acting builds upon an engaging tale that is fraught with an air of tension.
Regardless of the strong visuals and design, Ghosthunter only feels like a half-hearted attempt, and a flawed one at that. If only SCEE Cambridge could harness a playable concept alongside its customary technical flair, then we’d have something rather special. A ‘spooky’ thought.
Gamestyle Score: 4/10