The Agency Group is my effort to create a Criterion Collection for gaming; the name comes from the definition of "agency" related to choice. Over the next few weeks, I'm planning on daily posts detailing which games I believe should qualify for this honor, preserved for influential classics in gaming. Here's my original post on the subject, which should explain the basic concept in more detail.
Last week, I discussed the first five inductees into the Agency Group: Deus Ex, Ikaruga, Super Mario Bros., Wipeout XL, and StarCraft. The titles ranged from ridiculously successful, extremely well-known franchise builders to one-shot games that almost qualify as mini "art pieces", and that range is one I believe the Group needs to maintain, both for relevance's sake and to celebrate the amazing variety present in video gaming.
With that variety in mind, I open this week with a largely forgotten mid-2000s title from a now-defunct developer. Previous honorees have made their impact through taut gameplay, gripping storylines and artistic style; this game in particular qualified almost entirely on the basis of its main gameplay conceit. The art style is good, though not particularly memorable. The title is, yes, a little hokey/stereotypically sci-fi. The story serves its purpose well enough but that's not what you'll really remember either. This game reached its peaks through one brilliant feature that was executed almost flawlessly: psychic powers.
Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy
- Released: 2004
- Dev/Pub: Midway
- Platform: PC/PS2/Xbox
The concept seems like a blatantly obvious one: give the gamer various powers like telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and mind control, and then just let them go wild. However, whether due to technological limitations or a general lack of creativity, at the time a game hadn't really come out that let loose with psychic abilities as anything more than button-activated spells. Psi-Ops, on the other hand, put those abilities at its core.
Lead character Nick Scryer's telekinesis is one of the most fun mechanics I've ever come across in any game: with a well-done camera and beautifully sensitive analog stick detection (left moved the character, right the object telekinetically controlled) you could wreak absolute havoc, and through the use of the then-new Havok ragdoll physics system, that rampant destruction was extraordinarily fun.
Pyrokinesis was a more standard attack, though, really...who wouldn't appreciate being able to shoot flames from their fingertips? Mind control worked simply and well, allowing you to further infiltrate the enemy base and pop the brains of the controlled minions (literally called, in-game, Meat Puppets) once you're done. In order to recharge your powers, you'd siphon energy from other enemies, and there were more than enough "puppets" to drain.
The developers' best move, however, might just have been creating the game's extensive training room, which grew into a virtual playground to test, refine and enjoy your glorious abilities as you moved through the campaign. From throwing barrels to surfing across boxes, from using mooks as bowling balls to just wrecking everything in sight, you could sink hours into this room, or play some of the amusing mini-games that took advantage of the freedom Scryer's psychic powers afforded the player.
And just when you think things are getting old, the game kept finding ways to test and enhance your abilities through puzzles, boss battles, quality level construction and more intelligent "puppets", among other things. Not only do things stay fresh, when the game ends on a brutal cliffhanger you can't wait to play more. Sadly, due to Midway's bankruptcy, the rights for Psi-Ops are floating somewhere in the gaming abyss.
It astounds me that, in this age of motion control, nobody has picked up the rights to a game that nailed a motion-controller fantasy with only two analog sticks. Psi-Ops 2 could be a killer app for the Wii U or PlayStation 4 (Move or DualShock 4), or even the game that finally demonstrates the "hardcore gaming" possibilities of the Xbox One's enhanced and much-maligned Kinect. It could even turn into a ridiculously fun Oculus Rift title. Some developer looking for a breakthrough needs to get on this, or at the very least shamelessly crib the idea. They should heed the game's tagline: "Your mind is the ultimate weapon".
Psi-Ops was reviewed well enough but never really caught on, despite being a wonderfully fun game from start to finish. The creativity and execution of its main mechanic still impresses nearly a decade later and it is a great way to start off the second week of inductees into the Agency Group.
You can purchase Psi-Ops on Amazon or find it at your local used games store, if you're lucky.
Next up: A game developed by a "Dream Team".
*Photo Credits to The GAF Collection, Warzone, The Next Level, and IGN*