Considering that the source material is a venerable classic of dramatic filmmaking, a game based on the 1963 masterpiece The Great Escape seems overdue. It possesses all of the drama, humanity, and suspense to make an engaging videogame (as long as a few liberties are taken with the plot, of course). I was hoping that the game would be character driven and heavily social, similar to Wide Games' Prisoner Of War released earlier this year. I was surprised to discover a game that eschewed such ambitions in favor of a more straight-ahead action formula blending stealth, gunplay, and a variety of chase sequences. I thought perhaps I'd be required to solve puzzles or be granted the freedom to discover my own escape tactics through interaction with non-player characters and exploration.
But The Great Escape is yet another numbingly linear action game. Instead of finding a way to escape a camp through a network of social interaction and exploration, the game is objective based in a manner that has become all too familiar in modern game design. The gameplay is not nearly nuanced enough to accommodate such linearity, and it seems a bit of an injustice to neglect the dramatic context of the film in favor of straight-ahead action. Meanwhile, the gameplay mechanics, though functional, leave much room for improvement. The camera, for example, is far too close to the character in third-person view. Using guns is a cumbersome process of fighting with awkward camera angles and an unusual auto aim that requires the character to be standing still to lock onto an enemy. First-person aiming is an option and generally a more prudent choice, but switching to the view freezes the character in place. And while the basic stealth mechanics are solid they are still a fair bit behind the forerunners of the genre.
But its lack of ambition aside, The Great Escape is a reasonably well-crafted game. I enjoyed the authentic-feeling backdrop of the true-life locales (marred only slightly by English-speaking Nazis) and, being a fan of the film, I enjoyed the characters and found them to be reasonably well developed despite the lack of social interaction present in the game. Further, all of the events in the game are given a meaningful context within the plot, so I never felt as though I was mindlessly trudging from one level to the next. And although the mechanics leave something to be desired, they are not insurmountable issues and the game is in fact quite playable. The variety, ranging from stealthy escapes to action-heavy chase sequences (ranging from hot-footed pursuits to tanks and motorcycles) and shootouts, was refreshing (though partially because none of the elements are well-developed enough to stand independently of each other).
Stealth sequences are based on a visually-based artificial intelligence similar to Hitman. There is no use of shadow or sound as in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, nor are there the unchallenging "vision cones" such as those used in Prisoner Of War. Guards are not strikingly bright, but do take notice of visual cues such as open doors and footprints. By crouching or belly-crawling, it's possible to virtually eliminate the odds of being detected, and in fact the efficacy of the latter ability renders some of the more goon-infested stealth areas boringly easy. There are also numerous sequences in which disguises (and inconspicuous behavior) become a core element of the game, which are tied in nicely to the dramatic framework while occasionally offering up more of a challenge than one might expect.
Action sequences often take the driver's seat, but the lack of smooth control and a complete absence of physics sands away any luster that might make them truly compelling. This is yet another game where one foot high steps are an insurmountable obstacle and nothing in the environment is pliable aside from standard fare such as crates and barrels. Even grenades can't make a dent in the forest or send a Nazi goon flying through the air. In one stage in which the goal is to escape from Nazis in a bike chase through the countryside, I was amused to find that crashing simply triggers a mundane animation in which the protagonist awkwardly slides off his bike rather than sending him flying through the air in a convincing fashion.
I was disappointed that The Great Escape opted for a more conventional action-game route rather than challenging the player through a sim-like game of socially-based puzzle solving. But it's still a game that is varied and sophisticated enough to be fleetingly fun and worthwhile for any fan of the film. As licensed games go, it's filled with enough of the character and story elements from the film to balance out some of the gameplay issues. Meanwhile, with such a substantive pallet from which to draw inspiration, I'm still waiting for a game that successfully captures the social complexity and suspenseful backdrop of Nazi POW camps.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.