VIDEO: The trailer for Jericho
Clive Barker doesn’t do subtlety. His Hellraiser gave the horror world one of its most enduring icons, a charming fellow named Pinhead whose face was studded with needles. The rest of the film was equally as pleasant, offering up such S&M-inspired delights as the Chatterer, whose mouth is held open by wires, and a dude with no skin. Given such a boundless and, let’s face it, twisted imagination, perhaps it’s no surprise that Barker has lately turned his attention to video games. Hellraiser the movie was shocking. Clive Barker’s Jericho, the new game, suffers mostly from being ordinary.
Barker’s taste for ancient mythology and grand themes is certainly on display. You command a group of “warrior magicians” called the Jericho squad who’re on a mission to explore an ancient city that has mysteriously appeared in the Middle East. A grandiloquent opening monologue informs us that throughout history, Jericho groups have forestalled mankind’s demise by battling back the forces of evil. The premise is so broad, and the word “evil” so ludicrously stressed by the voice actor, that I found it hard not to laugh. I doubt that was the intended effect.
The presentation doesn’t improve much from there. Although the graphics are solid, with a smooth frame rate and detailed character models, there’s not that much to look at. Drab brown and gray environments rule. The voice acting and dialogue are cringe-inducing — five years ago they might have been acceptable, but with this aspect of games improving all the time, it’s jarring to hear amateurish readings of witless tough-guy banter. Your squad may be a bad-ass group of warrior magicians, but, man, are they idiots.
Squad-based gameplay is the meat of Jericho, and the idiocy doesn’t end with the dialogue. You can take command of any squad member at any time; each one wields different weapons and magical powers. You can also command the rest of your team regardless of which one you’re controlling.
It all sounds great on paper. In practice, it’s obnoxious. Without any kind of radar on the heads-up display, keeping track of your team members’ location is impossible. Transporting between allies in a firefight is disorienting. Worst of all, your computer-controlled squadmates never seem to do what you command them to. Several times I ordered them to stay where they were, only to find their corpses on the battlefield moments later. There are only two simple commands, advance and hold, so you’d think this would be idiot-proof.
Jericho’s greatest failing may be that it’s just not scary. Gruesome, yes. The foes are twisted and eerie, and it’s not uncommon to find entire areas constructed from spare body parts. But there’s no sense of pacing, of mounting dread. Your guys fire at some icky creatures that pop out of nowhere and then move on to the next batch. You don’t press forward in this game to escape anything, or even to see what comes next. You do it because, damn it, that’s the only direction you’re allowed to move.
The sad thing is that Barker has emerged as one of gaming’s most passionate and articulate advocates. With a background in both novels and film, he’s one of the few working artists to embrace this newer medium. When he says that games have the potential to illuminate and captivate players in a way that passive entertainment like movies and books never could, I’m inclined to agree. But those games are going to have to be a hell of a lot better than Jericho.