Review - Central Intelligence (DOS, 1994)

Spying is a murky business, full of unpredictable twists and turns. That might lead a generous person to say that Ocean was simply trying to recreate the atmosphere of espionage with its new CD-ROM release, Central Intelligence.

I'm not even close to being that generous. When I play a game that, despite the fact it claims to feature 1360 characters, provides the user with a skimpy 28-page manual and a tutorial that fails to touch at all on strategy, I lean more toward the theory that the designers are trying to recreate the sensation of being tortured for no apparent reason.

Actually, based on a few things I picked up while playing this game, I have the feeling that the lack of information is supposed to be an asset. On the back of the box, right above the game requirements, is the phrase "recommended for experienced gamers." There's also a line in the tutorial that refers to "non-linear" gameplay.

I'm all in favor of games that make you think, but I do feel that you need to be armed with the basics before you begin. Central Intelligence does a miserable job of preparing you to play a game that requires a lot of work.

In Central Intelligence, you're in charge of an undercover operation designed to restore an opposition leader to power in the fictional Caribbean island country of Sao Madrigal. Your ex-democratic leader was recently overthrown by a military junta. While your country's first instinct is to mobilize the armed forces and kick some butt, like Grenada and Panama, you're constrained by the fact that, for some strange reason, the neighboring countries are against invasions by superpowers.

Therefore, the powers that be have decided that a covert approach is the way to go, which is where you come in. You have three specialists – one each in propaganda, politics and military. Each of your specialists is running eight undercover agents, who can be assigned to individual missions designed to boost Sao Madrigal's opposition and make life miserable for the oppressive rulers.

In order to accomplish this, you must interact with rebel forces, student sympathizers, government officials, local workers, and political prisoners. These diverse elements are scattered all over the island. There's a telex available which broadcasts general news, but most of your important information must come from your agents in the field.

All of this sounds like the basis for a pretty good game. What's missing from Central Intelligence
is an indication of what you need to do to accomplish the task you've been assigned.

From a strategy perspective, the tutorial is useless. It shows you how to assign agents to missions, but gives you no information on how to approach the game. You know that your final goal is to weaken the ruling government to the point that it can be overthrown by the opposition, but you're given no clues as to the best strategy. There are no campaigns or scenarios that will give you interim goals to achieve.

I have a huge problem with this sort of design. Non-linear is a good thing, because it means you don't have to consign the game to the junk heap after you've beaten it once. However, I fail to see how much of an improvement it is to create a game that forces the player to learn everything from scratch.

That's the biggest problem with Central Intelligence, but not the only one. This is played in real time. While you can slow the game speed down, I think making it turn-based would have added some much-needed structure.

Assigning agents to missions is a nightmare. Matching up your spy to a particular target in a particular city can involve somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 menu changes, which is about eight more than is necessary. I think this problem relates back to the lack of a specific path to follow in the game. Since you can send your agents anywhere to do anything, it's hard to keep the interface simple.

Ocean does one things extremely well with Central Intelligence – it gets you right into the game. Unlike a lot of CD releases that dump all of their information into your hard drive, this game plays from your CD drive, and you can start about 60 seconds after you break the shrink wrap.

That's really a good thing with Central Intelligence, because you're going to need to devote a lot of time to playing this game if you want to beat it. You might want to pull your agents off Sao Madrigal entirely and send them to Ocean to see if they can ferret out all of the things missing from this game.