The Great Escape Review

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Publisher: Gotham Games (Take-Two Interactive)/MGM Interactive
Developer: Pivotal Games

Platforms: Xbox, PlayStation 2, PC
Reviewed on Xbox

Late in World War II, the most skilled Allied escape artists held by Axis forces were relocated to Stalag Luft III. Luft III was created to be proof to escape, and was intended to conserve the resources of the Third Reich by focusing the best troops on the most clever prisoners. Based on a true story, the 1963 film The Great Escape told the story of an epic plan to break hundreds of prisoners out of Luft III. Now the game follows the prisoners' ringleaders through the events that got them interned in Luft III, and their efforts to flee Germany while simultaneously disrupting the German war machine.

Kyle Ackerman

The Great Escape exemplifies the use of a movie license. This stealth and action game builds upon the movie, not only letting gamers participate in the most thrilling parts of the film but expanding on the story to give fans of the 1963 classic story something more. The strange thing isn't how well the game uses and builds upon the film license – the game even includes Steve McQueen's likeness and voice. The strange thing is that anyone chose to use The Great Escape. Granted, the film is a classic, and tells a stirring tale of heroism. It's also the perfect framework for a stealth/action title. At the same time, it seems that the game is more likely to spur viewings of the movie than that the movie is likely to help the game sell. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) the average interactive gamer is 29, and 38% of console gamers are under eighteen. This is not a crowd that is overly familiar with a movie released long before their birth. Fortunately, The Great Escape is a wonderful film, and the game serves as a brilliant coda to make the events of the film more memorable.

A Glorious Saga of the R.A.F.

The Great Escape should be playable, even for those who have never heard of the film, but is only truly impressive when played as a supplement to the film, because the movie provides a rich backstory to the events of the game. In the game, you play missions as Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald, "Intelligence," Captain Virgil "The Cooler King" Hilts, Flying Officer Louis Sedgewick, "The Manufacturer," and Flight Lieutenant Robert Anthony Hendley, "The Scrounger." The game follows some of the events that brought these fellows to Stalag Luft III, easing you into the game's mechanics with sequences such as MacDonald's bomber being shot down. The film helps you to enjoy and understand the game, as many of the films scenes are reproduced using the in-game graphics engine, right down to Hilts throwing his baseball against the wall in "The Cooler" (solitary confinement). You get to reenact events only implied in the film, such as Hilts's escape to reconnoiter the area around Luft III and subsequent recapture, or Sedgewick's rush to find the thirty feet of rope needed when the escapees learn their tunnel is too short. Of course, knowledge of the movie is necessary to enjoy the way little touches in the game evoke character background. As Sedgewick, you can overhear Danny Willinski (played by Charles Bronson in the film) complaining about the closeness of the tunnel, and without the film it is hard to appreciate Hendley's desire to aid the nearly blind Blythe in escaping from the camp.

The Great Escape's hardest missions are the earliest, as you get used to the stealth mechanics of the game. The controls are actually quite intuitive, with an extensive ability to peek, sneak, crouch or crawl. That said, it will take a bit of time in the early missions to learn what guards can see and hear, and just how much worry you can still cause your captors before you need to hide so that no alarms are raised. The user interface gives clear guidance when you are spotted, so you know the direction of the threatening guard, and if vibration is enabled, the controller will vibrate in warning. In a nice touch, you will even learn to shut doors behind you, as a portal left ajar can cause suspicion among the guards.

"Big X" Said So

Throughout The Great Escape, there is an objectives interface that will clearly define your tasks. This is a great boon, as it makes German guards and soldiers your enemy – not unclear goals. Only twice are the objectives not completely clear – once, when you don't know you are searching for a tiny hacksaw blade, and once, when you have to experiment to correctly place a fuel truck near a plane. Most of the time, if you have the right equipment in the right location, you simply hit an action button, and you can pick locks, jump from rooftop to rooftop or break a transformer. The guards themselves are clever – within limits. They follow the predetermined paths necessary to make a stealth game possible, but are adept at tracking once alerted. There are even dogs that will bite your arm and immobilize you unless you shake them off. Also, while some of the missions are linear, many have optional objectives that can help you on your way, such as in the third mission, when you can find a PA system that you can use to distract the guards.

While much of The Great Escape relies on sneaking and the stealthy completion of objectives, there are other sequences to break up the action. These might involve running from pursuing Gestapo, or driving a vehicle to freedom. Most dramatically, these include missions that replicate Hilts's motorcycle escape sequence (with a few embellishments) from taking down a German courier through his run for the border fence. This is exciting and in keeping with the film, but does transform the late missions from a stealth game to an action/racing title with German cycle troops hot on your tail. There are also occasional sequences in which you have to shoot your way to freedom. You can shoot using automatic (but somewhat wild) targeting, or use a far more precise first-person targeting system. You can even punch your way out of a tight spot or silently strangle a guard if need be.

von Luger Prefers it This Way

The only complaint the game provokes is the save system. Rather than allowing the player to save anywhere, the developers decided to link the difficulty to the number of saves you can make within a level. On the easy setting, you get four saves per level, while on the hard setting you only get two. The limit is artificial and unnecessary. There are a few minor bugs, often encountered when trying to turn next to a wall when crouched, or while escaping a German train, when Hendley ineffectually tries to club a soldier on the other side of a passenger car with a medkit rather than healing himself, but the save restriction is the only truly distracting issue.

Even the soundtrack is evidence of the many things done right in The Great Escape. The soundtrack is directly from the film. While it occasionally has to loop to match the gameplay, the music is so totally different from the style of current games that it is quite effective. The best choice, however, was the decision to take advantage of the Xbox's ability to use a custom soundtrack so you can listen to whatever music you find most appropriate. As for the graphics, the PC version may not compete with latest PC titles, but this is fundamentally a console game, and it captures the feeling of the movie. Stalag Luft III in the game evokes the film, and the graphics are up to the standards of other, current console titles.

The Great Escape is a game that we can only hope will cause more gamers to see the movie that gave rise to it. If you've seen the film, there's a lot to enjoy in the game. If you haven't seen the film – do so. Play the game on "easy" so you aren't forced to repeat long sequences due to save limitations, and enjoy exploring a segment of WWII that doesn't involve storming beaches. Once you've completed the game, if you still want more, there is a "Greatest Escape" mode in which you can redo any of the missions with a time limit and no saves.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on August 10, 2003 2:12 PM.

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