Bet they didn't see that coming! Back in the springtime, Nottingham's Free Radical Design—the illustrious descendents of Rare's celebrated Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark teams—began priming the gaming media for the imminent release of a third-person action adventure based around psychic abilities. Coming from out of nowhere, with no publisher yet on board, and already nearly finished, Second Sight was going to "mark an important step in the expansion of Free Radical" (company director Steve Ellis) and provide "a sumptuous pick-and-mix buffet of styles" (director David Doak). Unfortunately for them, June saw Midway release Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, a bold, brash and profoundly American take on the same theme. Now if Second Sight was supposed to be the trail-blazing Goldeneye of psychic action games, then Psi-Ops soon proved itself a premature and precocious Perfect Dark—a remarkably sophisticated title in which the central conceit of mastering psychic powers had already arrived fully formed and effortlessly incorporated into a solid, entertaining game.
So where does that leave Second Sight? Relative to Psi-Ops, it is a quaint, almost antiquated affair, incorporating its less ambitious "psychic gameplay" into the predictable trappings of the stealth genre and an equally predictable plot about government conspiracies. It's an oddity and a step backwards from Psi-Ops in many ways, but it deserves much more than to be labeled an also-ran underachiever. The cover art of a shell-shocked and confused character clutching his head in his hands will only seem cruelly ironic to those who haven't bothered to actually play the game.
I began the game in control of psychic freak John Vattic, physically and mentally scarred and disheveled, as he searches for clues to who he really is and how he came to be imprisoned in a mental hospital. The next level cuts to Vattic as he remembers himself: a bright, skeptical, pencil-pushing young doctor—reminiscent of a young James Stewart, I thought—being signed up as an advisor for a potentially dangerous research assignment in Siberia. From these reasonably unobtrusive tutorial stages, the levels continue to alternate between charting the doctor's experiences prior to and subsequent to "the incident" (whatever it was), the former constituting some well-executed run-and-gun action, and the latter utilizing Vattic's new psychic abilities (such as telekinesis, outer-body projection and self-healing) as a basis for stealth-based gameplay.
It's not a revolutionary narrative setup, and it can occasionally feel somewhat forced and needlessly oblique. However, even the clichéd-ridden plot can't spoil the appeal of Vattic's tale as a whole, thanks to the tight interweaving of narrative progress and gameplay action, as well as the wonderfully understated cut scenes (which are pleasantly devoid of Psi-Ops' full-motion video bravado). Second Sight's narrative scenarios, whether presented in-game or via cut scenes, intersect and propel the gameplay seamlessly, with thoughtful pacing and restraint; this is one of the precious few games in which a steady stream of narrative interventions actually fuels the player's interest, rather than dampening it or causing it to wander.
Storytelling merits aside, Second Sight is at heart a gamer's game. The gaming nous and sheer common sense behind its brief but relevant cut scenes, its elegantly streamlined sniper rifle or its user-friendly camera will be much appreciated by those weary of "identikit" game design. Special mention must also go to the superb aiming system, which incorporates the accuracy and focus of first-person shooting better than possibly any other third-person game to date. A forgiving auto-aim ensures that the player can always obtain an easy lock-on, but only by fine-tuning that aim (with the help of a tiny expanding crosshair) can those perversely satisfying headshots be achieved. The added layer of gameplay and challenge involved here is as pleasingly optional as it is with other elements of the game, such as having to choose between using lethal armed force or simply tranquilizing your enemies, or the opportunity to use (and abuse) Vattic's psychic powers. Splicing the narrative, gameplay, camera work and player freedom so expertly, Second Sight is often seamless, making it one of the most comfortable 3D action games I've ever played.
Unfortunately, the attention lavished on clever functionality and incidental flourishes only serves to highlight how relatively undernourished and underwhelming the game's central hook feels. It's here where the inevitable Psi-Ops comparisons are most damaging. Psychic powers are not as well-implemented as they are in Psi-Ops. Telekinesis, in particular, feels lightweight and flimsy in Second Sight, sharing none of Psi-Ops flamboyant physics and meaty effects. Furthermore, the stealth gameplay is frustrating before it's fun (unlike the neat Psi-Ops training areas) and too conventional to warrant testing the player's patience as much as it sometimes does. Sneaking sections range from laughably easy to frustrating and finicky (due to some suspect A.I.) and in both cases, the gameplay is often severely dull, failing to provide the intensity, atmosphere and precision that is typically the stealth genre's raison d'etre. (And while we're on the subject, I'd just like to declare that hiding in a cubicle or locker while waiting for a security alarm to subside is not something I want to spend a whole lot more of my time doing in future videogames.)
However, when the levels work and the stealth sections cease to be so intrusive to the game flow, Second Sight is marvelous entertainment. The game's many little achievements are all gloriously obvious: from the well-pitched humor (like in the delightful tappity-tap sounds that accompany Vattic's frantic stairway descents) to the acute harmony between the player's pursuit of narrative closure and Vattic's own hunger for truth and justice. A slight lack of challenge ensures that the action never gets too edge-of-your-seat, but at its best, this is a slick, uncluttered and engrossing game, reminiscent of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in its watertight execution and accessibility.
Crisp visuals, sage design, intuitive controls, sharp storytelling—Second Sight ought to be magnificent. Yet it still resembles its contemporaries—I'm referring to that raft of underwhelming third-person action games—more than it would probably like to think it does. Yet again Psi-Ops' presence looms large. Whereas Midway's title had furious spectacles and thrilling set pieces at every step, Second Sight is noticeably low on fireworks. The gameplay seems to lack the spark it needs to really excel, not because it can't provide it (the mechanics are all in place and ready to go), but because it feels more content to simply ask the player to recon grey enemy bases, or find the keys to all the rooms, or avoid the guards in the corridor, etc. Even the fiercest firefights have a curiously sedate, sensible pace to them, as if dampened by the near faultless cover and aiming controls, which work to give the player a bit too much confidence when facing a room full of enemies.
That Second Sight has survived an inauspicious gestation with so many of its wonderful virtues intact is a credit to Free Radical's strong sense of auteurship and sheer game-crafting talent. With slightly more vivacious level designs and a little American bombast here and there, this very British title could have turned a lot more heads.