Saturday, June 02, 2007

Hard Time Review

Hard Time, developed and published by MDickie.
The Good: Lots of different activities to engage in: joining gangs, completing missions, making money through work, and generally kicking ass
The Not So Good: Annoyingly frequent cut scenes, needs a tutorial or a more guided start
What say you? An interesting concept ruined by numerous interruptive cut scenes: 5/8

From the TV series Prison Break to the gritty box office smash Let’s Go To Prison, the gritty grittiness of gritty prisons have captivated America with their grittiness. The general public isn’t really sure what goes on inside the walls, so that adds to the mystery. The prison setting would make a good environment for a computer game, and that brings us to Hard Time. What if your Sim committed rape? Hard Time hopes to answer that question! Is Hard Time a compelling and entertaining prison simulation from a first person perspective?

For a game that was developed by one person, Hard Time looks pretty good. While it won’t compete with the likes of Oblivion or any recently-released first person shooter, Hard Time does have full 3-D graphics that are an impressive feat for an independent game. Some of the prison, especially the cells, is devoid of many details, but there are some nice touches in other areas of the game. Each game results in a different arrangement of randomly generated characters, and there is a good arrangement of character types. The game does start to chug when a lot of characters are on-screen at once, but, in general, the graphics are passable. The sound is worse off: the background music during the main menu is OK (but annoying after a while), but the rest of the game has sporadic effects. None of the characters talk (resulting in the frequent cut scenes I’ll talk about later) and fighting sounds are generic and repetitive. The sound just doesn’t provide a dynamic and harsh environment for the game.

The first thing you’ll do in Hard Time is create a character. The game automatically gives you a randomly generated character, but you can adjust his hair color and style, race (which is important in the game, not just an aesthetic choice), and the crime you committed (“tougher” crimes have longer sentences but more starting reputation). Jail time in the game is short (days to a couple of months), but it’s HARD TIME. You’ll also adjust your strength, agility, and intelligence. You have a fixed number of points to use, and it’s important to set one of these characteristics above 70% as most jobs require this. Your character will also have a happiness level, which goes down when being someone’s “bitch,” and goes up when you stand up to “the Man.” If your happiness level reaches zero, you’ll go insane and start attacking people at random. Your character will also have a health rating, which goes down when attacked and goes up when eating or getting medical attention. Your character has a 50% chance of dying when the health rating reaches zero, ending the game prematurely. Injuries in the game progress in real-time, so you’ll need to get immediate care in the hospital; you can also lose limbs in vicious attacks. The prison in Hard Time is populated by a number of inmates and guards. The AI is decent for the most part, although you’ll occasionally see guards attacking guards or other questionable actions.

It’s difficult to figure out what exactly to do at the beginning of the game, because Hard Time lacks a tutorial. The text files that accompany do a good job explaining the game, but it would be nice for this information to be present inside the game. Controls in Hard Time are simple, using the arrow keys to move and the keyboard to attack, run, defend, grab people, and pick up or drop items. You can also use combinations for fighting and perform wrestling moves. Time in the game is accelerated and becomes faster when sleeping. There are several scheduled activities in the game: you wake up at 7, eat at 1 (and you’d better be quick), and sleep at 10. You are assigned a cell at the beginning of the game that you must report to before 10 o’clock, or suffer the consequences from the guards. The jail is divided into four cell blocks and a number of different rooms that allow you to improve your attributes and earn money. Most of the jobs require a minimum rating of 70% in the appropriate area in order to do the job; the extra money you can earn is useful in paying off aggressive folks and shortening your sentence.

Initially, most of your time during the day is spent growing your stats in the exercise yard, study, workshop, hospital, and canteen. After you’ve played for a while, you will get approached by gangs. Most of the gangs in Hard Time are race-based for whites, Muslims, and blacks, but there are also skill-based gangs for intellectuals, athletes (with high strength and agility ratings), and peaceful folks with reputations below 70%. Reputation is gained by disobeying guards and getting convicted of crimes (which also extend your sentence). You’ll need to strike a good balance between increased jail time and improving and maintaining your reputation, as people with low reps will constantly be picked on. Gangs provide missions to complete for cash, such as protecting people and other nefarious activities. You’ll also be involved in gang wars in the jail, so you’ll have to start fighting at some point. The controls are derived from the wrestling games of the developer: they are simple to use but there is no aiming, so you might hit someone by accident in a large fight. You can use objects in the game, such as guns and other weapons that are scattered throughout the game (but mostly in the workshop), but whenever you use one, you’re almost automatically spotted by a guard (since they populate every room except for the bathroom). For some reason, AI prisoners can carry weapons around and not get stopped. Every time you are spotted doing something you shouldn’t, a cut scene starts and this is the Thing That Annoys Me in this game. The cut scenes happen way too often and you can’t skip them. Meet someone new? Cut scenes. Hit someone? Cut scene. Time for dinner? Cut scene. Get approached by a fellow inmate? Cut scene. It would have been much better for the dialogue to just appear at the bottom of the screen and not interrupt your control. It gets to the point where it actually hinders the gameplay: you can be involved in a fight and a guard will spot you, triggering a cut scene. However, your AI enemy will continue to hit you and, since the cut scenes lock out any action by the player, you’ll get seriously injured in the process. The cut scenes are terribly irritating and it overshadows the rest of the game that is actually quite enjoyable.

Hard Time is an entertaining game for the most part as there is plenty to do in the game: interacting with fellow inmates, doing jobs to earn money, improving your ratings, and joining gangs are all there to occupy your time. The game is also slight different each time you play if you choose a different race, initial crime, and attributes. Although a lot of the gangs are essentially the same (they just look different), choosing a more intellectual or stronger character in the beginning can drastically change your strategy. It’s unfortunate that the cut scenes are so darn aggravating. You can’t play for five (or, in the beginning of the game, two) minutes without triggering a cut scene and completely stopping the flow of the game. When the constant cut scenes start to impact the gameplay, then we have a problem. If you can look past this shortcoming and don’t mind constant interruptions while you play, then the rest of Hard Time is fresh and fun to play.