The Shield Review
Sometimes, a good TV show should stay a good TV show. Any and all spin-offs are a bad idea, and that includes video games. The Shield is one of the grittiest, darkest, edgiest cop shows out there, so it may sound like it would make for a good game, but without the proper attention paid, it's gonna fall flat. And perhaps not surprisingly, the proper attention wasn't paid, and...you guessed it, The Shield falls flat. There's plenty of good material in the show, with plenty of opportunities to create a super-intense interactive experience, but developer Point of View didn't take advantage of...well, any of those opportunities. But can we at least recommend this one to hardcore fans of the show? After all, these games are made with the fans in mind; it's unlikely Aspyr expected this one to be a Final Fantasy-esque blockbuster.
The graphics depict the shadowed, dingy atmosphere of the show, but without the detail and clarity required to make them effective. There's nothing even remotely impressive about the characters or environments, as one's blandness seems to blend into the other's lifeless presentation. Granted, some of the indoor areas have plenty of little touches, like dirty countertops, empty pizza boxes, and beer cans strewn all over the place (remember, none of these places are the Ritz Carlton). Therefore, it's not all bad, but the rest is just so generic, so pitifully uninspired, and so vastly underwhelming that you start to lose interest the second you see it. Bottom line? This game is using a first-year PS2 graphical palette in the sixth year of the console's existence. And even then, Onimusha: Warlords looked far better.
The sound is much better simply due to some solid voice acting from the show's star, Michael Chiklis, and a decent supporting cast (Walton Goggins, Jay Karnes, and Benito Martinez). Unfortunately, while the voiceovers during cut-scenes are pretty good, the writers failed to provide the sharp, witty dialogue we so often hear in the show. On top of this, many of the lines uttered during gameplay are repeated constantly, in seemingly never-ending strings of the same comment, like a pissed-off broken record. The soundtrack is okay, but again, we're barraged with the same hard-hitting 3-chord guitar riff a million times an hour (due in large part to a mini-game mentioned later), and the music never seems to take center stage. In the end, though, the sound is the best part of this game...which shouldn't make you feel any better about the next portion.
Yes, we've moved on to the gameplay; that one aspect that can override all other flaws and shortcomings. And when you first start out, you think - if only for a few seconds - that it will be The Shield's saving grace, and all fans will be satisfied with some workable control and sweet TV-inspired interactive sequences. You're tossed right into the action, as Detective Vic Mackey is investigating a house, and you must find your way around, looking for drugs while you move through a basic tutorial. The control is average, but the instant you start the sneaking and fighting parts of the game, you'll stop hoping and start grimacing. In fact, things could get bad enough where that grimace will eventually turn into a grin, simply because being involved in a car wreck carries a bizarre masochistic appeal.
But perhaps that's unfair. Perhaps we should talk about the good things first. The story is intriguing, as Vic and Co. are involved in the true-to-show event where they're attempting to hide their tracks after the money train robbery in the third season. The crew is getting a mite spooked, the pressure is on, and the entire unit might be disbanding unless Vic can nail down a high-profile bust. Planting evidence and stashing away some money for retirement will be the order of the day, and at the same time, that high-profile bust will have to involve the arms race between the Byz-Lat and One-Niner gangs. So the foundation is plenty solid, and given the correct progression of events, the entire game could've been a very cool eye-opener for fans. But once you start down the road to victory - an immoral victory, but still a victory - you'll instantly start to notice some serious problems concerning the gameplay.
First off, you'll be doing a lot of sneaking around, ala Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell sans the realism, depth, and good control. You can sidle up to walls and crouch down behind low walls and other obstacles, but that's about it. And you also have to deal with superhuman gang members that can not only withstand a hail of bullets, but evidently, can also see through solid objects. This makes the stealth aspects of the game quite frustrating and extremely bare-bones, but at least it doesn't totally cripple the experience. At the very least, Point of View has worked to produce some nice pacing throughout, mixing slower segments with fast-action firefights. It's just too bad the action isn't any better than the stealth; in fact, if possible, it's worse.
Hand-to-hand combat is an extra-clunky exercise in high and low punches, grapples, and dodges. You can grab a foe and trip them to the ground for an arrest, drag them to a toilet and flush their head, or just beat on ‘em for a while to gain some information. Most of the time, you're "interrogating" the suspect, so the fisticuffs are there for a purpose...kinda. The fights follow the exact same pattern every time, and none of it poses even the slightest challenge, so it's hardly what you might call an engrossing battle mechanic. The shooting system isn't much better, although it's simplified enough to be both accessible and moderately effective. You only get three weapons to use and as mentioned before, the enemies won't even drop after five or six shots to the chest, so there are serious problems here as well.
But again, at least it's not hard. For the most part, all you have to do is find a decent vantage point and snipe away to your heart's content. Your foes aren't smart enough to take cover (or, God forbid, try flanking you), and keeping your back to a wall while shooting around the corner is guaranteed to succeed. Combine that with the dull, repetitive hand-to-hand, and you've got action that suffers a great deal from start to finish. If there's a positive side to this, it's that there's a goodly array of both action facets, so they don't last long enough to truly annoy you. In other words, each mission is workable and not devastatingly stunted due to one particular feature of the gameplay getting drilled into our noggins, but that doesn't mean it's entertaining. There's a very large difference between fun and tolerable.
And lastly, we must mention one of the most idiotic mini-games we've seen in a long time. When approaching an area that can be searched, you will enter into a mini-game that will dictate your success or failure. A shield appears in the upper-right corner of the screen when you commence searching, and a red marker appears on the shield. You have to move the marker to the correct spot on the shield before the timer runs out; you know if you're near a score because the spot narrows when you're close. This may sound like a halfway decent concept, but it fails miserably due to two major issues: firstly, you quite literally have about four seconds to find the "hot-spot," so-to-speak, and the marker moves agonizingly slow. Your chances of getting it right are slim, as you basically just have to hope you explore the correct side of the shield first. And worst of all, you can't re-search! Yup, you can look once, and only once. Sure, that makes sense.
In the end, The Shield really can't even cater to its target audience due to committing one cardinal sin: it couldn't recreate the stylish, immersive atmosphere of the show. The pacing is good so it doesn't lag there, but the poorly implemented gameplay mechanics, painfully bland environments, and an unresponsive and simplistic set of controls dooms the entire production. As we said at the start, games like this really only have to succeed in appealing to the hardcore fans of the show, but even those gung-ho Vic Mackey aficionados would be well advised to pass on this one. Go watch some great repeats, invest in the DVDs if you haven't already, or simply check out another game. This one just doesn't deliver the goods, as it's entrenched in woeful mediocrity.
3/9/2007 Ben Dutka