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Throwback Thursday – Art of Murder: FBI Confidential

Throwback Thursday - Art of Murder: FBI Confidential

Throwback Thursday – Art of Murder: FBI Confidential

In effect, Art of Murder plays like a string of “escape the room” games. The game designers are so scared you’re going to waste your time looking in the wrong place, they decided it’s simpler just to slap your hand and tell you to stay in your room until you’ve cleaned it up.


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Note: This review was originally posted March 25, 2008

Art of Murder is a Polish produced third-person graphic adventure that takes place in modern-day Manhattan.  You can’t really tell it was made in Poland, aside from the occasional oddly translated term (i.e., “study” for “office”) until you get to the credit roll at the end, where even the diacritical marks have diacritical marks.  This is a respectably put together game that shares much that is good about new commercial graphic adventures these days, and much that is not so good.

Might as well start with the good.  I think I’m finally getting used to that jagged, blocky look people have in 3D games of late.  I sort of expect all the women to have spiky hair, and for all the men’s suits to look like they’re half wool, half bamboo. Art of Murder isn’t 3D, with absolute freedom of movement.  I believe it’s prerendered backgrounds with polygonal people.  Hence the blockiness.  But the backgrounds and objects look terrific.  I spent a lot of the game thinking, “Gee, I wish I had a desk like that.”  I’m not a techie and I only bring this up to point out that in even an essentially average game these days the graphics are excellent.  As a lifelong New Yorker, even I was impressed with some of the city scapes and buildings.  None of the places in the game even remotely match the real places in Manhattan, but most people will never know that.

Let’s see, what else did I like?  I like that it’s 3rd person.  First person almost always makes me feel like I’m playing the game from inside a big water pipe.  It also can make me seasick if there’s too much swinging about.  The soundtrack wasn’t too bad.  If it doesn’t break into my train of thought and annoy me during gameplay, then I like it.  I don’t play adventure games to listen to Bach, or, in this case, I guess, Chopin.  I also like that the specs are on the modest side.  All of you who just bought the latest behemoth from Alienware won’t care about that.  But I suspect that most adventure gamers are not the type who have the biggest and baddest hardware.  We’re playing these games on the machines we use for our word processing and emailing.  We just want a good game, not a rock concert.

I slapped Art of Murder onto my brand spanking new Gateway running Vista.  Only this new computer came with what’s called a widescreen LCD monitor.  Which I really like, except when playing games, especially ones that won’t run in a window.  I played Art of Murder with everyone in it stretched out like Silly Putty images.  I guess I kind of got used to that too.  I was surprised that the mouse movement was rather sluggish.  It seems that even though this new machine has the graphics chops to run Vista smoothly, they’re not the same kind of chops you need to run games.  In short, I’d say you’d do well to have at least a 32 meg honest-to-god graphics card to play Art of Murder normally.

The plot of Art of Murder is a lot like the plot in your average broadcast television drama.  In fact, if Art of Murder were relabeled as “CSI: Manhattan” or “Law and Order: Manhattan” or “Barnaby Jones: Manhattan” or any hour-long TV crime drama, I don’t think anyone would notice the difference.  The story, such as it is, has FBI Special Agent Nicky Bonnet getting her first taste of real field work at a stakeout that, as the press releases usually phrase it, goes horribly wrong.  Then the complications and twists ensue and, well, you’ve met all of these complications and twists before.  If you’re an even average fan of detective stories, you’ll have figured out who the main perp is about halfway through the game.

That’s okay.  I don’t play adventure games for the plot either.  A good one is just icing on the old cake.  I’m not sure you can even have a genuine plot in an adventure.  How do you maintain suspense when everyone’s looking around for small, obscure items half the time?  The plot in an adventure is simply an excuse to send everyone off on a wild goose chase.  To me, an adventure game is mostly about being transported to someplace exotic, even magical, where I have to uncover all the secret passages.

A true-to-life crime story would not appear to fall into that category.  Real FBI Special Agents lead careers of massive fact-finding only occasionally punctuated by a firefight.  Mostly they’re in an archive somewhere looking up someone’s date of birth and shoe size.  Art of Murder does make a decent stab at trying to play like a real FBI investigation.  You do have to collect clues and even occasionally be mindful of departmental protocol.  You get to analyze samples and stuff.  Though there isn’t any real interrogation of suspects.  You talk to a lot of people, but mostly it’s just conversation.  “Bonnet” also struck me as a rather dainty name for an FBI agent.  Sort of like Special Agent Bo Peep.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are some surprises in this game, even some magical moments here and there.  But gameplay is linear.  With a vengeance.  Agent Bonnet has what appears to be a Chevy Camaro that she drives everywhere, and always gets a parking space right in front of the big museum.  Just how it really is in Manhattan.  The funny part is that when you enter the car you get the standard unfolded map you’ve met in a thousand other adventures, only – there is never more than one location you can drive to.  Not once.  Moreover, the game designers largely treat you like a six-year-old child they don’t want wandering off anywhere unnecessarily.  Every situation you walk into has to be solved right there.  If you try to go back to the car, Ms. Bonnet announces, “There’s one more thing I have to do.”  You’re locked in until you figure out the solution to that suite of rooms.  In effect, Art of Murder plays like a string of “escape the room” games.  The game designers are so scared you’re going to waste your time looking in the wrong place, they decided it’s simpler just to slap your hand and tell you to stay in your room until you’ve cleaned it up.

There must be adventure gamers who welcome this kind of treatment.  I’m not one of them.  I don’t want to be helped to a solution.  If I want to wander around the gameboard pointlessly for hours on end simply out of mule-headed pride, well, that’s what I call entertainment.  Another thing that bugged me was not being able to pick up obvious important items.  Agent Nicky will say something like “I’m not interested in that now.”  To me, that’s bad game design.  Either hide it properly until I do need it, or let me have it now and figure out what it’s for at the proper time.

Agent Bonnet is also too chatty for my taste.  She speaks up every time you try anything.  If it’s something that doesn’t work out she usually says, “That was stupid.”  Hearing “that was stupid” four hundred times in the course of an hour can grate on your nerves, take my word for it.  But that’s not the annoying part.  The annoying part is the way she chirps up and pats you on the back when you do something right.  After a while I felt like I was taking part in a 12-step program, not playing a game.  Art of Murder also has more than its share of pixel hunting.  The graphics are so detailed you can’t actually see the pixels, but you’ll still spend a good while wandering around looking for hotspots. (If, like me, you’re too stubborn to click the hint icon. See below.)  The game at times feels like one of those “hidden object games” that are so popular now on the web.  To be fair, there are a handful of true brain teasers in the game.  There’s even a rather quirky maze.  I won’t spoil that one for you.  Just wait.

It must sound like I really disliked Art of Murder.  But I did like it more than not.  I know it’s naive to expect game developers to market true puzzle-fests for the few oddballs like me.  It’s not that I’m not happy when I finally find that tiny object I didn’t realize I needed after searching for obscure hotspots for hours on end.  But I don’t feel a sense of accomplishment as I do after solving a clever puzzle.  I just feel relief. It’s not easy creating good puzzles.  I realize that. It’s a heck of a lot easier to hide things behind the furniture.

Art of Murder also has a hint system.  Just to add insult to injury, I guess.  I only accessed it once, by mistake.  The icon is a magnifying glass, which to me signifies “close-up.”  What I got instead was a hint I definitely did not want.  It also slowly dawned on me that Chatty Cathy was giving out incrementally more revealing info each time I clicked on an object in my inventory for a description.  Once again the game was foisting “help” on me.  I started to get the feeling that Ms. Bonnet was not a Special Agent for the FBI at all, but my Third Grade teacher, just hovering over me hoping I’d chance upon the correct answer, but, if not, ready to jump in and “assist.”  Instead of playing the game concentrating on the puzzles, in other words, you end up playing the game trying to outmaneuver the interface.  I mean, come on. It’s not like the puzzles are that hard to begin with.

Art of Murder isn’t a total stroll in the park.  I did do some head scratching, and, as I say, object hunting, but you won’t need to get your thinking cap out of the closet for this one.  It took me about twenty hours to finish, which I consider a decent length for a commercial game.  No complaints there.  Really, Art of Murder is a good looking average adventure.  Neither a classic nor an embarrassment.  Even the voiceover work was okay.  The writing was standard adventure game stilted, but not awful.  Extra points because the people who wrote it probably live in Warsaw.  If I had to give Art of Murder a letter grade, and, as a matter of fact, I think I am expected to, I’d give it a C plus.

A couple of product warnings.  Art of Murder does have a few scenes of gore, and it does, oddly, toss in a genuine cuss word every now and then.  I think this, again, might fall into the “lost in translation” department.  Game writers in Poland may not know the difference between “damn” and a real eye-opener.  So parents and the squeamish take note. (On the game’s City Interactive flash web page, the game is rated as 16+.)   It’s also possible to die and get a “Game Over” screen.  I know of one lethal spot for sure, because I waltzed right into it.  Presumably, there might be others.

I feel obligated to point out that “The Simple Art of Murder” is the title of a collection of mystery stories by Raymond Chandler.  Now, there’s where you’ll find good plots.  Comparing this game to Chandler is decidedly unfair.  But I am going to bring up a few adventure games that tackled the “crime drama” to far better effect.  Both of Sierra’s Laura Bow games, The Colonel’s Bequest and The Dagger of Amon Ra, despite their age, are excellent detective games.  In both you will feel like a real sleuth, trying to uncover dastardliness.  Likewise, both of the Electronic Arts Sherlock Holmes games, if you can find them, The Case of The Serrated Scalpel and The Case of The Rose Tattoo are excellent adventures that put you right in Sherlock’s deerstalker.  The interrogations in these latter two are the best in a game I’ve ever come across.  LucasArts’ Grim Fandango plays like a tongue-in-cheek noir mystery, and it is one of the greats. Detective stories and adventure games should be a natural pairing, I suppose.  After all, both are concerned with hunting for clues and solving problems.  Art of Murder gives it a decent try but doesn’t quite rise to the challenge.  Poor Agent Bonnet has beauty but not brains.

Final Grade: C+


System Requirements:

  • Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
  • DirectX 9.0
  • Pentium III 500 MHz
  • 128 MB RAM
  • DirectX 8.1 compatible video card with 32 MB RAM
  • DirectX 8.1 compatible sound card
  • 1 GB free hard drive space
  • DVD-ROM drive

Greg Collins

Greg Collins

JA reviewer, and occasional opiner, since 2006.

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