You’re the Special Agent in Charge for the FBI offices in Los Angeles, roused from bed at three in the morning to the worst kind of news. A DEA raid on a suspected meth ring uncovered something far more sinister – a makeshift lab where a nuclear bomb has been assembled. All signs point to the device being loose in the city, and your only leads are a captured scientist, a lackey dying of radiation exposure, and two suitcases. The clock is ticking.
No, it’s not Season 2 of 24. Flash Traffic: City of Angels is an interactive FMV offering from a Hollywood crew and scriptwriter Chuck Pfarrer (Hard Target, Red Planet, and others). It’s the kind of thing you would expect to see on the Sega CD, but the improved hardware of the home computer won’t make much a difference to either the visuals or the gameplay.
This is an interactive movie in the typical sense. You’re watching a first-person video, and your interactions are limited to occasional choose-your-own-adventure style decision points. Your partner, Dave Sawyer (Jason Adams) actually runs the investigation, and acts as your hands inside the world. When he stops and looks at the camera for guidance, you’ll select one of three options and deliver the line in your best chief detective voice (Doug Hume).
The plot’s standard, but fun, and the video is low-budget, but quality. There’s some gun battles, explosions, and real outdoor L.A. locations. There’s a tiny bit of intrigue, and tailing the bomb unravels in a reasonable manner. The script strikes a good balance between being serious and self-aware, there’s a few jokes, and a pretty lengthy running gag about Elvis (get your drinking game glass ready). There’s even a few fun characters, like the chief bomb disposal tech, and a black officer you can order to scout ahead alone (your next choices are to ask him about the boat he just bought, his daughter’s birthday party he’s missing, or how he’s a week from retirement – yes, he bites it).
Acting all around also isn’t particularly hammy. Dave never grates on your nerves, which is a compliment considering how often you’ll see him. The various nefarious act appropriately belligerent. The big bad (Michael Champion) is certainly a B-movie villain, complete with at least two outlandish accents (German and Russian, of course), but he manages to keep your eye-rolling to a minimum. In all, it’s a decent attempt. And then the bugs set in.
The story pathing is awfully broken. You can circle back on your own conversation unintentionally. Pick the wrong option, or even get trapped in the wrong dialogue tree, and you’ll have to repeat entire sections of your interrogations. This is funnier when you trick a suspect into thinking he’s irradiated, then have to trick him again and again in exactly the same way, while his radiation badge appears and disappears. Maybe they realized they didn’t have all the footage they needed, so this was the only way to make it work. Then again, maybe this was intentional to allow an incorrect choice to loop back to the last valid path.
The problem is that it’s almost impossible to know what won’t work. I spent about five tries chasing my tail until only the “give up and stop interrogation” option was left untried. Only then did the suspect agree to play ball. Now how was I supposed to know that? The worst offender is the 3rd disk, where you look around a dim basement for the bomb. You have to guide the team by making direction choices at intersections. Even they don’t know which way to go, and you just have to pick choices right out of your ass. That was another 30 minutes of aimless looping. A little randomization to the order of scenes and what gets a response confuses things even more.
The bigger problem is that you can miss, or skip, entire sections of the story without knowing how you did it. After one interrogation, an arming device just appeared in the office, while Dave references the scene I never saw where we found it. Clues are found (like a letter) that aren’t explained or read until later, so you literally don’t know what you’ve just collected. And here’s a big one – I disarmed the bomb but didn’t catch the bad guy. The game jumped right to a successful finale with no mention of the mad bomber still on the loose. I can only assume he’s meant to be caught or killed, but I somehow skipped that scene too.
It’s this disjointed feel that starts to ruin it, alongside the looping video traps you quickly tire of seeing repeated. It certainly kills any immersion, and destroys any hope of feeling like a detective. By the second disc, any concept I had of playing a game, investigating a mystery, or making decisions was dead and buried, and I was just hoping I was picking the correct choice so the movie didn’t end.
And end it shall. Incorrect paths that don’t loop back will all end in the premature destruction of L.A. (The bomb doesn’t really have a timer, it just explodes when it needs to.) The marketing on the case tantalizes you with the phrase “One wrong move, and it’s over in a flash!” Well, that’s pretty much true, punctuated by the occasional taunting call from the big bad and a montage of nuclear test stock footage. Hope you saved your game, cause failure is sudden and quick.
It’s a short one too. Even being overly generous, and counting the intro scene as well as scenes you couldn’t possibly see in one playthrough (like two different paths to the same objective) I only count about 14 scenes total. I beat the game in three hours total, and that number includes the failed tries before I won. I would estimate a perfect play at 40 minutes; about the length of a one-hour TV episode without commercials. While that makes sense, it’s a bit short for 3 CDs and collector’s prices. Replay’s pretty much out of the question, unless you want to go back and try to see the scenes you were bugged out of.
On a final note, compression, while not game-ruining, is definitely there and noticeable. That’s why a second version of the game exists for the “RealMagic” MPEG-2 decoder card. Back when sound cards were a novelty or luxury, this would be like the Sound Blaster for video, with the potential to be DVD-quality. I bring it up because the RealMagic card is required to run that version of the game at all, and you will not have that card. Don’t bother checking, you don’t have it. If you’re scouring Ebay, make damn sure you’re getting the standard version. Otherwise you’ll be stuck with some shiny (and likely expensive) coasters.
I can’t write anything else without giving away the plot, so let’s wrap this up. It’s a typical FMV game with typical first-generation FMV gameplay. Even assuming you’re excited by doing nothing more than picking a decision choice every so often, the pathing bugs result in a disjointed narrative. The plot’s B-movie schlock, and while somewhat intentionally-campy, you’re absolutely not missing anything by skipping it.
Decent plot. Some self-aware humor. No glaring video or audio issues.
Short for 3 CDs. Interaction is limited to clicking decision choices. Broken pathing quickly gets irritating and tells a confusing story.
“Special Agent Sawer, you’re about to become the rarest gas in the universe. In 30 seconds, you’ll see the flash of the initial ground burst. Two seconds later, you’ll be enveloped by the blast wave and fireball. So… goodbye, Gumbies.” — Belinko