Immersive, atmospheric and vastly unappreciated.
Like most 13 year olds I loved Jurassic Park and the book even more when I got round to reading it. After countless despicable game tie-ins particularly during the 16-bit era, I'd lost hope for there ever being a opportunity to explore a island infested with dinosaurs. Lucky for me, the team at DreamWorks Interactive had the same idea, a 1-person, exciting, realistic survival horror in a Jurassic park setting. Excellent. Set several years after Jurassic Park: The Lost World, the game presents the role of a plane crash survivor stranded on the dinosaur-infested island from the film. It is the player's job to survive long enough to get off the island.
Well, for the most part it is. Straight off the bat is the presentation, with the intro sequence narrated by none other than Richard Attenborough playing John Hammond; the fictional creator of Jurassic Park. Then it introduces Anne, played by Minnie Driver, who is the unfortunate tourist that crash lands off the coast of Isla Sorna. Now, compared to modern standards this game looks pretty primitive, however it still has a lot to offer. Bumping the resolution up 1280x960 and putting the view distance up makes a huge difference. The island has a lot of detail, the engine even uses per pixel bump mapping on the dinosaurs skin. Orchids can be found amongst the undergrowth, old unwanted pictures in abandoned houses, the rusting shells of hunting jeeps and huge skeletons. Exploring the hollow shell that used to be the science team village and the abandoned labs full of derelict equipment is eerie and unsettling. The way Hammond and Anne give internal monologs to fill in on the story really help set the atmosphere. They also talk to the player about their personal feelings, hopes and dreams which let me empathise, elevating above most character development in games. These little details make the game so involving. They really put a lot of time and effort into this game, it deserves so much more than people realise. The feeling of isolation is pervasive and completely enveloping, only likeable to Terminator SkyNET and System Shock. Exploring the game world feels coherent, natural and threatening which makes it such a joy to explore. This is the games crowning achievement, and making confetti out of raptors with a shotgun.
Yes, there are plenty of raptors on the island and they generally tear you to pieces. They are well animated, conveying a sense of balance, menace, and deadly predatory instinct. In the early parts of the game most encounters are easy to handle with only one or two at a time. However is in any survival horror game worth it’s blood soaked badge, the game capitilises on the fact that terror is most effective when you can’t see the danger. The raptors had a nasty habit of sneaking about, ambushing, jumping through bushes and generally scaring the crap out of me before eating my face complete with gory sounds effects. However in the later stages they hunt in packs sometimes up to 4 or 5; it’s truly frightening. These little critters pale in comparison however to the daddy, the T-Rex. This is 2006 and they were terrifying, I can’t imagine what going up against one of these beasts must have been like in 1998. They might be large but once they had a sent they would come crashing through the jungle like an arctic lorry with skyscraper window bladed teeth. I found it was best to let them come into contact with herbivores if possible to kill and feed, which would work in my favour provided they don’t notice me shuffling off. Yes, there is AI interaction in this game with simple prey-predator behaviours which I found added a lot to the immersion. Unfortunately the herbivores don’t crop up in the game as much I would have liked, but considering this game is pre T&L it’s not surprising that the dinosaur count is kept low in most areas.
Which neatly brings me to the next, and possibly most important aspect of Trespasser historically. We’ve all played Half-Life 2 and loved the amazing ground breaking physics with smart little puzzles involving the environment. Well, Trespasser did it first. Trespasser has a full physics engine; everything has weight, material and is effected by gravity. Want to pile up some boxes to get up a broken staircase? Sure go ahead. Need to get on top of a hut on stilts? Shoot out the supports. Raptor coming for your ass, got no guns? Grab a stick and smack him one, may not do much good but it’s worth a shot. The ability to interact with you environment in such a natural manner has been superseded by today’s technology but it still delivers. Well, after I got the hang of the odd control system.
Combat and interaction is the strangest aspect of Trespasser. Unlike pretty much every 1-person game out there were running over items puts them the inventory. In Trespasser Anne’s arm must be manipulated to grab items. Yes, an arm, which can be fully controlled. To use a weapon for example: extend her arm, grab it, then move her arm until the sights line up. Which looks comical at first, seeing this arm sticking in front of me but I got used to it. The weapons actually are models so if I got close to an object and hit it too hard with the gun, I’d likely drop it which could be annoying but generally the arm added an interesting element to the immersion. For example: for lining up a shot on a raptor at long range I had to be impeccably steady to stand a chance of scoring a hit never mind a headshot, making the kill all the more satisfying. Heck I would also stick my MAC10 to the side gangster style and rip up the raptors close and personal or just grab a big metal hammer to smash their skulls in.
Combat in Trespasser is much slower than we are used to these days, but the combination of the arm and limited ammo makes it exciting and terrifying. There were numerous occasions where I’d be jumped by a raptor causing me to drop my weapon. There I was, franticly trying to pick it up again as the big remorseless jaws of death would start taking big chunks out of my poor defenceless flesh. I didn’t need to imagine that Anne had been startled and crapped her pants. Anne is no soldier and can only carry 2 weapons at a time, and there is no reloading, so every shot counts. It also makes searching the surroundings for weapons a constant pass time, which is a little strange considering the games realistic styling, I would have thought Anne would carry a rucksack for spare ammo. However, I can see why they didn’t do this as a bag would require an inventory system, breaking the immersion. Which incidentally is why there is no heads-up-display (HUD); I’d have to listen to Anne count out the rounds left in the gun she is holding. Oh also, if I wanted to see how much health I had left, I’d have to look down and check out the tattoo on the Anne’s impressive chest…...odd but there you go.
I loved playing Trespasser, it offers a unique game world to explore which captured the feel of the source material with a surprising level of immersion. Don’t get me wrong this game has its faults. The physics engine has its problems and the level and dinosaur design are limited by the technology of the time. The major failing of Trespasser is that its sights were aimed so high. To create a truly living breathing world full of creatures with their own agendas and life cycles is only now in 2006, becoming achievable. Despite its failings, Trespasser is a good game and will be enjoyed by the gamer that enjoys exploring and indulging in a finely crafted atmosphere, as well as for its historical technological achievements. Here’s hoping that in the future someone will return to this franchise, there is never enough opportunities to say, “Clever girl”.