Clive Barker's Jericho
2007 has been a notable period for the bulging and much-maligned first-person shooter genre. Specifically, the likes of Halo 3, BioShock, The Orange Box, and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption have combined to breathe considerable life back into a gaming category, which, for the most part, has become woefully overpopulated with mediocrity over recent years.
Braving such notably stiff competition for a place in the suddenly rejuvenated FPS spotlight, publisher Codemasters and developer Mercury Steam duly offer up Clive Barker's Jericho for your blood-soaked consumption. Before openly scoffing at Jericho's chances when it comes to wrestling attention from its 'more glitzy' genre competitors, it's worth bearing in mind that this gore-fuelled slice of action boasts a narrative plucked straight from the twisted mind of horror master Clive Barker (Hellraiser), and is also built around an interesting squad-based gameplay mechanic.
Frankly, summarising Jericho's storyline into an easy-to-digest paragraph is a little difficult - bizarre and convoluted would perhaps be the best two words to describe it. So, in as little a nutshell as is humanly possible:
Apocryphal and Gnostic texts speak of The Firstborn, a being created by God in his own image, neither male nor female, light nor dark, and both beautiful and terrible to behold. Disturbed by his powerful creation and unable to destroy it, God banished The Firstborn into an Abyss, leaving it forever forsaken, forgotten, and unloved by its creator. Beginning anew, God formed mankind, creating beings of two sexes, complete with emotion, intelligence, love... and a soul.
The texts state that, over the course of history, The Firstborn would attempt to emerge a total of seven times from its Abyss via the lost ancient city of Al Khalid, each time breaking into the mortal world before being driven back to its own domain by the heroic sacrifice of seven battling mystics. However, each defeat would see The Firstborn taking a small piece of the Earth with it, entrapping and overlapping time and space whenever it was pushed back by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians, Crusaders, and others. With its ever-expanding realm, The Firstborn's seventh attempt is to be the last, resulting in either its freedom and birthright, or a final blow of destruction at the hands of yet another seven mystics.
Enter the modern-day Department of Occult Warfare (DOW) and Jericho, the seven mystical soldiers sent to investigate the reappearance of Al Khalid before descending through the layers of time and flux around it to trace The Firstborn back to its instant of creation - and destroy it once and for all.
First and foremost, Jericho is labelled as a horror title and thus carries an '18' certificate from the BBFC in the UK, and an 'M for Mature' ESRB rating in the United States. Sadly, it is never - at any point - even the tiniest bit scary. Clive Barker's name may well send shudders of expectation through his faithful print readership and movie watchers, but videogame players hoping for a roller coaster of frights and chills will be left cold for all the wrong reasons here. Jericho's story and action, while covered in blood and occasionally arriving as a little unsettling in their extremes, never warrant a pounding heart, never coax physical screams, and never result in a loosening sensation around the bowels. Unusually, this amounts to a distinct detraction from the overall experience, especially considering that the word 'horror' should perhaps see Jericho crammed full of such white-knuckle moments... well, perhaps not so many of the latter.
However, while Jericho's story and gameplay delivery is not truly horrific, the gradual unfolding of the plot's in-game and load-screen revelations manage to keep things just the right side of intriguing throughout. They're also a worthy testament to the staying power of Barker's remarkably twisted imagination. More interestingly, at least from a gameplay point of view, is Jericho's ambitious squad-based dynamic and the massive array of impressive weaponry and magical power laid bare for the player's enjoyment.
Opening as a fairly flat, and perhaps even dull, single-player FPS adventure, Jericho finally attempts to shake free from the tightening shackles of mediocrity after around an hour of gameplay. Specifically, an abrupt story twist leaves the player's character (squad leader Captain Devin Ross) physically dead but with his soul able to project itself between the remaining mystical warriors. This cleverly allows the player to instantly transfer from character to character, gaining access to their differing weapons and powers while also allowing Ross to continue doling out the squad commands that direct movement and strategic positioning.
There are far too many weapons and powers to mention in detail, but suffice it to say that no two characters offer the same firepower or skill and the game pushes the player to seek out character solutions when facing enemies and obstacles that require a certain approach in order to secure continued progression. For example, Captain Xavier Jones is classified as a 'Seer' and is able to project himself into enemies or other entities. Once inside, Jones can use his host as a conduit to look around for hidden (on-screen button-prompted) solutions that will involve the pulling of a lever or the blowing up of obstacles blocking the squad's path.
In principle, Jericho's versatile squad mechanic is a fabulous gameplay addition and a welcome breath of fresh air for the FPS genre in general (though EA's Battlefield 2: Modern Combat has attempted something similar), but it doesn't quite succeed in fulfilling its ambition. Initially, the wealth of choice leaves the player confused through a massive selection of weaponry that boasts primary and secondary firepower, and around a dozen forms of charge-based mystical skill. The pendulum then swings wildly in the opposite direction with squad characters helpfully barking out skill solutions to encountered problems by advising the character to switch to Xavier, Simone, Billie, Abigail, etc., which is infuriating as the spirit transfer interface offers only surname selections. Frustrating? A little.
Yet more frustration rears up when struggling with the more fundamental gameplay elements in Jericho. While the squad interchanging (which can also be carried out through close quarter line-of-sight) certainly throws up masses of variety and a desire to persevere, the differing time period environments are terribly linear and uninspired, offering absolutely nothing by way of exploration and a feeling of earned progression. That sensation is left at the cruel mercy of sporadic waves of onrushing ghoulish creatures that pour forward to temporarily throw a spanner in the squad's collective works. Once overcome, the player then pushes onward through a few corridors and hallways before suddenly faced with the next spawning swarm of slashing and exploding enemies. That being said, at least the player gets to enjoy the satisfaction of directing the squad's considerable firepower while spraying hot lead and mystical powers at pleasingly resilient nightmare creatures, yes?
Well, no, sadly not. Perhaps Jericho's biggest disappointment emerges through its A.I., which all-but destroys the promise of genuine enjoyment. More pointedly, each of the six available Jericho characters is tooled up with hugely destructive firepower and, when controlled by the player, that potential is unleashed with gleeful gusto. However, when controlled by the A.I., squad mates inexplicably forget how to use their weaponry and skills to optimum effect and become little more than cannon fodder for the game's merciless adversaries. Invariable, this then leaves the player opting to remain with a favoured character while also using Devin Ross' special resurrection skill to repeatedly revive fallen comrades until the current wave of creatures has been successfully vanquished or the entire squad has been overrun - which is usually the outcome.
What's more saddening about Jericho's flawed execution is that it certainly exudes a pleasing presentation, which hovers somewhere between the claustrophobic and shadowed delivery of Doom III and the creepy pseudo-World War I environmental atmosphere of 2K's The Darkness. Also, initially disorienting and frustration-friendly button-prompt contextual actions (a la Shenmue, Tomb Raider: Legend), which see the player's character fending off close-quarter attacks, also manage to provide occasional tension once player reactions grow accustomed to being ripped out of the usual FPS mould. Music, sound effects, and character performances are also largely well delivered and emotive, managing to successfully pull the player closer to the frantic action immediately prior to the gameplay unceremoniously thrusting them away again.
It's a genuine shame that the separate contributing parts of Jericho fail to gel together to form a tangible and worthwhile whole, because it's one of those games that you really want to like. The variety and attitude of its characters is compelling, its blend of weaponry and mystical skills is superb, its gory visuals are shocking, and its story is wonderfully macabre. However, its core points of originality are poorly implemented, its level design is horribly linear, the basic fundamentals of first-person shooters have been left by the wayside, and integral squad A.I. works against the player, not alongside them.
Ultimately, considering the overwhelming strength of recent FPS arrivals, Clive Barker's Jericho is likely to sink into the gaming Abyss with God's diabolical Firstborn... never to be seen again.