We last left our intrepid Agents J and K in the game based on the franchise’s animated spin-off, Men in Black: Crashdown. But there was another game released closer to the film, and its approach to sleuthing out alien crime on Earth is quite different. If you like your movie tie-ins more adventure and less shooter, then this first Men in Black game will give you a few alien cases to solve.
The first bit of news is good: the game does not retell the story of the movie. Your first mission is a “re-imagining” of Agent J’s alien encounter as a police officer, and subsequent integration into the MiB, but from there, you’re taking on missions seemingly after the events of the first film. Each mission begins with a stylized briefing from Zed, followed by the ability to choose between Agents J, K, or L (look down at your keyboard… see what they did there?). Functionally, there seems to be little difference between the agents except that J is funny, K is not, and L has a flashy fighting style.
The game itself plays in the then-popular Alone in the Dark/Resident Evil style. You’ll be awkwardly controlling a 3D, polygon character inside a world of 2D, pre-rendered backgrounds and cinematic angles. I know a lot of people hate this style, and cannot get past its funky control scheme – which is a good time to mention that it cannot be modified. You’re stuck with rotating by pressing left and right, and moving in the direction the character is facing by pressing up. I did some of my growing up with the Resident Evil series, so this scheme doesn’t feel foreign to me. But your mileage, as always, will vary.
Graphically, it’s a pretty title. All the pre-rendered backgrounds are stored as bitmaps on the PC version, so you’re going to get a tremendous amount of sharpness and clarity. The renders themselves are moody and imaginative, with excellent lighting. Camera angles are artistic and striking without interfering with the gameplay (no need to shoot at enemies obscured off screen). The 3D character models aren’t bad either, with what appear to be digital images of the major actors’ faces. Alien enemies are a little more blobby and amorphous, but overall fit the designs of the film.
Unfortunately, the game takes a nose-dive from here. The biggest offender is that it has little to do with the series at all. Yes, you play as the star agents and use familiar MiB weapons, but the locations and missions seem like they were designed for an entirely different game.
Example time: The first level has you checking out an Arctic base which is somehow affiliated with the MiB. You enter the base to find it deserted and damaged. Later, a handful of survivors attack you, and you discover that the camp’s doctor has been trying to isolate some kind of infection. You fight the survivors, gather the research, and inoculate yourself against the virus. The second level has you entering an Amazonian jungle camp and meeting with an informer. After fighting off some villagers, you must get an item before the informant will talk. Then, you must shoot some armed guards to enter a compound and recover some research documents. You take those documents into a local mine, where you must collect the pieces of an ancient puzzle and solve it.
I think you see where I’m going with this. None of these scenarios have the wacky humor of the film, and certainly don’t follow the core theme of “nothing is what it seems.” All of these missions are quite straightforward. Really, these situations seem more suited to something like an X-Files game, and while aliens are involved, it’s only tangentially. To be fair, this may have more in common with the comic series the film is based on – which I understand is darker and grittier.
Of course, its release timeline is also suspect. This game came out four months after the film. Generally, if they’re planned tie-ins, they release alongside the film. It makes me wonder how much time they had to work, and I can certainly see a plausible scenario where Men in Black turned out to be a sleeper hit, so Gigawatt Studios was willing to rework a game already in production to meet a shortened deadline.
You’ll note that I don’t talk about the third level, because there are only three levels. That’s another black mark, and another suggestion that the game might have been rushed out the door. You won’t exactly blast through the missions though, as Adventure Game Logic will rear its ugly head, along with an overall lack of feedback. Your “use” animation is a stock hand swipe that doesn’t show the difference between an item that can’t be used at all, one that can’t be used yet, or one you simply haven’t lined up properly. Doors are a particular offender, as you will auto-equip the correct key if you have it, but you won’t receive any notification that the door is locked in the first place. You’ll just swipe your hand over it, same as the inanimate walls on either side of it.
Men in Black allows you to carry an equipped item in one hand and a weapon in the other, which looks neat, but has no practical advantage. It does mean that you can walk around with a weapon always at the ready, and ranged combat is indeed fairly solid and straightforward. A helpful target icon appears over an enemy when they’re in range and lined up, helping you avoid missed shots.
However, ammo in general is a rare commodity, and most guns won’t hit at close range. Both of these factors work to force you into using the game’s clunky close-combat system. The scheme is set up much like BioForge; you’ll hold down an “attack” modifier which puts you in a brawling stance. Direction keys then throw left/right punches, a kick, or block. If you want to move or rotate, you’ll have to release the modifier – which does not help when you’re fighting sprightly enemies hopping around you. Collision detection is also slightly flaky here, and every enemy can block your attacks perfectly if they so choose. You have no “block breaker” attack, so you have to wait for a turtling enemy to decide to come at you. Luckily, you can pin enemies into corners pretty easily and wail away, so these sections aren’t all that difficult.
I had great difficulty getting MiB to run in a virtual environment, which should serve as a warning for anyone thinking of checking it out (Virtual PC 2007 finally did the trick). True Win98 hardware, naturally, didn’t have a complaint, except that all screen captures were pure black. As a result, I gained some familiarity with the PlayStation version; which is apparently almost impossible to find a physical copy of. The major difference between the PC and PSX versions is visual fidelity. It looks like the 640×480 bitmaps had to be both shrunk and compressed for the PS hardware, so while it’s an identical source, it won’t look as sharp. The Resident Evil style controls are a little more manageable with a gamepad, but there’s not a significant improvement. The PS version also introduces the ability to save at frequent checkpoints, presumably to make up for lacking the PC’s quicksave feature. Aside from these points, the versions are exactly the same.
I like that they didn’t retell the movie, but I can’t justify this as a good game – and especially not a good Men in Black game. It’s almost entirely devoid of humor, opting instead for grim, scientific investigation – and that’s a tone that just doesn’t fit. Throw in a mere handful of levels and some pointless puzzles, and you’ve got an adventure that’s worth skipping.
Looks great. Tells its own story rather than re-hashing the movie.
Only three, fairly short missions. Feels like a generic adventure with MiB characters tacked on.