Just adventure. That's what Cracking the Conspiracy is: just adventure. No action sequences, no LAN/modem Internet play, no ground-breaking technology. Just lots of puzzles strung together by a plot. And a pretty good scenario at that; a mixture of X-Files type sleuthing embellished with various Area 51 conspiracy theories.
What's that? You say you've never heard of Cracking the Conspiracy? Can't find it in your local EB or CompUSA? That's because CTC was created over a period of two years by a pair of Wisconsin brothers, Dave and Brian Mennenoh, funded by their mother, and distributed exclusively on their Cracking the Conspiracy web site.
CTC is not a game for those who are in awe of Grim Fandango and Half-Life. Instead, it is for the traditional gamer who remembers the days when a game came out and you knew nothing about it and there was no walkthrough that let you beat it in one day. It is a game to have fun with and know that while you are playing it if you get stuck you could call or e-mail the brothers who made the game and talk to them in person. It is a throwback to the days when you knew the names of the people who created the Infocom games.
CTC begins as you receive a mysterious package from an old lover, Kelsey, who vanished years ago. The package contains a top-secret Air Force communications device that holds seven classified documents that could literally blow open the most diabolical conspiracy in history. Now it's up to you to break into the infamous Area 51, solve the password protected codes and get the communicator, and the documents, safely to Kelsey's location so she can thwart the cabal. Your journey through the bowels of Area 51 is, for the most part, extremely linear. It would have been nice if there was some deviation or unexpected twists to the plot, but the story line is solid and informative. There is much historical information here that has been culled from the Roswell Daily Record and other public documents. This attention to detail is ultimately what makes the plot so enjoyable and earns it a grade of B.
The graphics mostly remind me of Return to Zork (probably because there is an old miner very early in the game who, if he had asked me if "You want some rye. Course you do," I probably would have peed myself laughing). Cracking the Conspiracy is a 3D adventure game consisting of over 3,000 still images, 358 animations, and various characters that you can converse with. Conversation is done the old fashioned way via typing your responses on the keyboard, but the mouse is used for all navigation and puzzles. The pre-rendered graphics that bookend the game are a joy and best described as "neat." The majority of the game, though, is viewed though a first-person perspective. No 3D card or accelerated equipment is necessary and I think that is what I find most impressive about the fine graphics. Grade of B.
Every good puzzle you have ever seen in an adventure game is in CTC. Slider puzzles, math puzzles, riddles and even my all-time least favorite friggin' puzzle of all time--the maze. Two of them. Back to back! Those Mennenoh brothers are sadistic b*st*rds! (In all fairness, the mazes are quite short.) While you might think that so many different type of puzzles would not be conducive to a cohesive story that is not the case simply because the majority of the puzzles are easy enough that you never get so involved in their solutions to forget that there is also a plot. There are a few that could have been better presented, such as the door in the mines that leads to the sewers dilemma (you will recognize this puzzle if you have playedBlack Dahlia). As I was hopelessly stuck on this puzzle, I called into action my "I am hopelessly stuck on this puzzle and will never solve it before I leave this earth and go to heaven" ace-in-the-hole, my fifteen-year old son. "Dad, you're on you own," he said after several futile attempts to figure out this puzzle (we will see who is on his own next year when he wants a driver's license). Finally, at the end of my rope, Dave and Brian e-mailed me a picture of the puzzle's solution (I will be glad to share this picture with you if you purchase the game and cannot solve the puzzle). Overall, the puzzles are a compilation from every adventure game ever made and are a mixed lot that receives a grade of B-.
None of the voice-acting in CTC was performed by professionals, but it is very well done. No overacting, no poor delivery as is common in games with ten times the budget. The only complaint I have is the Duke Nukem-type grunts that the main character emits when finding an inventory item or solving a puzzle. The music and sound effects are for the most part well-chosen. Some of the better music selections were created and performed by the talented Mike Lawler. There was one section where the music drowned out the voices in Garnet Hall--a sort of Area 51 museum--but this was the only glitch I encountered. Overall, there is a general competence in this category that allows it to receive a grade of B-.
Cracking the Conspiracy ships on one disc and plays directly from your CD drive. There is no 400 MB of files to load onto your hard drive (for this reason alone you have to love this game!). The gravity of the plot is offset at opportune times by some great Easter eggs. The "voice" of Nina, the elevator music on the short people mover and the playable video machines in the cafeteria are all a great touch. The key to any adventure game is to realize that at its core, it is still just a game, and the Mennenoh brothers always seem to be winking at the too-serious gamer.
If CTC were produced by one of the big boys (Sierra or LucaArts) and 35-plus people had worked on it, I would give it a grade of C-. But this is a game literally created by two people. Sure it has its little faults--it's too easy at times, the occasional sound glitches--but it also showcases the talents of two brothers who have a bright future in the industry. I personally cannot think of anything more exciting than owning a game that no one knows about and feeling like I am the only world in the world who has discovered it! Is this game worth purchasing? For $19.95, yes it is. If you're still looking for the perfect Christmas present for the adventure gamer who has everything from Zork to Dark Side of the Moon, you could do worse with a lot of the retail sections now crowding the shelves or you can mail-order a copy of Cracking the Conspiracy.
Final Grade: B-
Windows 95/98 or NT 4.0 required
60 MHz Pentium(R) or faster
16 MB RAM minimum
4X CD-ROM drive (8X or better recommended)
640x480 display, high color
Windows compatible sound device