First posted on 11 August 2010. Last updated on 11 August 2010.
Any video game based on a film license is usually subject to a large amount of scrutiny. By default, it is assumed these titles will be mere cash-ins, rather than fully realized games in their own right. Often, and quite disappointingly, this is the case. Therefore, it is curious that Westwood Studios has chosen to release Blade Runner, based on Ridley Scott's 1982 film of the same name, 15 years later (in 1997).
The film is set in 2019 in Los Angeles and deals with a Blade Runner called Rick Deckard. A Blade Runner is basically a legalized bounty hunter who hunts down and kills replicants—manufactured humanoids used for slave labor who have escaped from the off-world colonies and gone into hiding on Earth. The film is renowned for its timeless special effects, depicting a future of permanent nights, soaked in acid rain, and accompanied by a haunting score from famed composer Vangelis. Although not an immediate success with critics upon release, the futuristic film noir has since developed a rabid cult following, culminating in a re-release of a final cut of the film in 2007. It is now considered a cult classic among both sci-fi fans and critics alike.
The game is set during the events of the film, although there is very little crossover between the plots, apart from some characters in the film making cameos and some locations in the film reappearing here. The player takes control of Ray McCoy, a Blade Runner who is tracking down a group of replicants who have escaped from a crashed transport ship.
It is immediately apparent that the developer has captured the look and feel of the film, and this alone greatly adds to the appeal of the game and gives added incentive to the player to explore the environments in it. Neon glares out into the rain drenched night, with the mood created truly capturing the spirit of the source material. The player also gets to use the tools of the trade depicted in the film, including the infamous Voight-Kampff machine and the Esper Photo Analysis machine. Using these tools really adds to the authenticity of playing as a Blade Runner, especially given the random allocation for some non-player characters to be or not to be replicants with each new start of the game.
The characters are voice acted to great effect by a talented cast. Roy McCoy is voiced by Mark Benninghofen, who imbues the character with genuine whit, ever observant and constantly wisecracking to great effect. This makes his interactions a constant delight. Crystal Steel, another Blade Runner, is voiced by Lisa Edelstein, who is best known for her role in the television drama House M.D. as Dr. Lisa Cuddy. The character Gaff returns from the film, though he is voiced by a different actor who still does a good job at capturing his spirit. Jeff Garlin, best known for his role in the television comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm as Larry David's manager Jeff Greene, voices Lieutenant Edison Guzza. Here, he gives a great performance as a grizzled cop with a hidden agenda. A number of other cast members from the film have reprised their roles in the game, including Sean Young as Rachael, Brion James as Leon Kowalski, James Hong as Hannibal Chew, Joe Turkel as Eldon Tyrell, and William Sanderson as J.F. Sebastian. Their presence really adds to the experience, even though their characters only appear briefly.
The other characters are all well defined with interesting personas, along with their own desires and agendas. If a character is discovered to be a replicant, the character may flee or even attack. Right clicking the mouse button will draw the player's weapon, after which left clicking the mouse button on a target once the reticule turns red will cause it to fire. Different types of ammo can be bought, and the player can even try to beat Rick Deckard's score at the LAPD shooting range. Completing this mini-game is not compulsory, and playing it does not affect how the story unfolds.
Shooting in the game is rarely necessary, which is just as well. It works well to add some action elements to the proceedings, yet the extra gameplay never feels at any level less than tacked on or clunky, especially when mutants and giant mutant rats start to pop up in the sewers towards the end of the game. These enemies in particular feel out of place, as if they have been only added to take advantage of the shooting mechanic.
Luckily, the main emphasis on gameplay is on character interaction, with some mild puzzle solving thrown in. The puzzles themselves are fairly easy, so the game will be more of an experience than a challenge for most adventure gamers. Conversations are handled well with a clean interface, though there is again a missed opportunity with the conversation mechanic. In the settings, the player can select Automatic Conversation Mode that offers a number of options: Polite, Normal, Surly, and Erratic (random choice of the prior 3 choices). This means whenever the player's character has a conversation, he will answer with the selected mannerism automatically. However, a fifth option actually exists: User Choice. This shows all the conversation modes during a conversation, allowing the player to adapt to the answers on the fly. This is the recommended setting, and its use actually makes the other settings redundant. Why will a player want to set the game to always choose to be Surly when sometimes it is better to be Polite? However, when User Choice is selected, the options offered always give a nice array of possible responses with regards to how the player can choose to interact with the over 70 characters throughout the game. Again, as is the case with the shooting mechanic, there is an impression that some of the options are overcomplicated needlessly to make the game seem more interactive than it actually is. Rather, the game is better just defaulting to User Choice, cutting out the other options altogether.
On the other hand, the KIA (Knowledge Integration System) works really well. Accessed by clicking on the player character, Clues, Suspects, and even Crime Scenes are all updated constantly via a database, allowing the player to truly feel like a futuristic detective piecing together a series of cases. Furthermore, other Blade Runners update to this mainframe, though the player never meets them. Locations are all linked together via a map of the city, and the player's location is shown as the iconic futuristic Spinner vehicle from the film. Again, all of these details add a nice sense of scale and authenticity to the mythos.
The game offers a good range of install options. A minimum install only takes up 150 MB. A full install takes up just over 1.5 GB and is the recommended install option, as it requires no disc swapping. Despite the heavy use of 3D graphics, some of which are rendered in real time, the game runs very well even on systems without hardware graphics accelerators (quite a feat for a game released in that era), though the graphics suffer somewhat from it. This, in part, is made possible by the game's proprietary rendering engine that uses voxels (pixels with height, width, and depth) to render characters on the fly. The process, however, differs from Appeal's Outcast that also uses voxels to render landscapes in the game.
However, this means that all the real-time rendering must be done by the computer's own processor, a tradeoff that is responsible for much of the performance issues in the game. Still, great art direction more than makes up for it, with the slightly blurry characters becoming well defined through the use of some stellar voice work and animation. Also, the clever use of panning backgrounds as the player moves around the locations is very cinematic and gives a sense of place. This mean that, coupled with constantly moving background animations, the visuals never appear unrealistically static and thus constantly engage the player.
The sound effects also deliver, constantly bombarding the player with the whirr of flying cars and the patter of constant rain. The soundtrack perfectly recaptures the familiar tunes from the film, emulating the original film score well, without the new additions sounding out of place.
In retrospect, Blade Runner is a strange game on many levels, yet it still manages to charm, entertain, and provide a thrilling experience. Even today, the game is a visual and aural treat as well as a technical marvel. Fans of the film will certainly get a kick out of revisiting this world, regardless of the time passed between the film and the game. The film is now a cult classic, in turn making the game still feel relevant. Newcomers can certainly still enjoy the game, though it is doubtful it will carry quite as strong an appeal. The only negative is that the game follows too similar a premise to the film, right down to Roy McCoy looking and dressing in a similar manner to Rick Deckard. Clovis, the leader of the escaped replicants in the game, is also very similar to Roy Batty in the film. He even speaks and dresses in a similar manner. This may be a case of being too faithful to the source material. Frankly, I wish that the developer has taken a few more risks to be more adventurous in drafting the storyline for the game overall.
Still, beyond a few nitpicking faults, Blade Runner ultimately delivers a fantastic, atmospheric gaming experience that compliments the film experience perfectly. The 13 different endings also offer immense replay value to counteract the relatively short completion time, and the game is sure to stay in many players' minds long after it has been shelved upon completion, beckoning to be revisited again later. It is a shame that other film based video games are not given as much respect by their developers as is on display here in this game—a rare gem.