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CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder

A review by Udvarnoky Jason that is about three times as long as it should be.

I recall the announcement of Telltale's CSI game being met with, erm, restrained enthusiasm from most Mojo readers. After all, people wanted to see original IP from this promising new company, not a crassly commercial Ubisoft collaboration to develop for a huge TV license. But such presumptions were not entirely fair, as CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder turned out to be a solid point 'n click adventure game, and it's worth the $20 purchase whether you're a CSI fan or you're not a follower at all.

I feel qualified to say that because I'm a member of the latter group. In fact, I should get this out the way right now: I've not only never played any of the previous, non-Telltale CSI games, but I have never watched a single episode of the show, aside from maybe a few minutes while channel surfing. The same holds true of its spin-offs, though my suspicion is that this seven minute sizzle reel neatly condenses the best material to come out of any of them:

How I've managed to avoid such a behemoth of a series I'm not sure, but since I pulled the trick off my review only attempts to evaluate the game's worth as a genre entry and not its faithfulness to the TV inspiration. What I do know of the show is based on minimal research rather than actual experience.

3 Dimensions of Murder is a first person, 3D point 'n click adventure game of the detective variety. The game is split up into five separate cases for you to solve, with the fifth having a few tie-ins to the previous four. If this sounds similar to the structure of Telltale's Sam & Max episodes, that's because it kind of is. While CSI was published as a single, retail product, it was developed episodically, and wouldn’t look out of place as a series of downloads sold through Telltale Now.

Thumb With its 3D engine, Telltale gives the game a more cinematic flourish than previous installments could.

The gist of the game is this: Each case initiates with you, a faceless, rookie CSI, being sent by supervisor Gil Grissom to investigate an eventide murder in Vegas. For each assignment you’re paired with a fellow CSI from the show’s cast who's there to show you the ropes of your new job, deliver story-advancing lines of dialog and offer hints should you need them. You're first directed to the initial crime scene where you will collect all the evidence on or around the body and question anyone on-site. From there you'll run off to the forensics lab to do some tests and analysis, get a post-mortem from Doc Robbins at the morgue and periodically check in with Captain Jim Brass to see if any promising leads have developed on the police side.

During one or more of these routines you'll uncover more evidence, unlock more locations, and do more questioning. Rinse and repeat until you crack the mystery. I've read complaints from reviewers that there isn't much more to the core gameplay than that (and aside from a handful of twists, there isn't), but that's like saying Sam & Max is nothing more than clicking through conversations and using inventory items on things until the credits roll. Any game will sound bland if you strip it down to its most basic mechanics and describe it in those terms, but in a story game especially, the entertainment comes from the hopefully engrossing nature of the proceedings. Well, that and all the Sam & Max references.

Yes, as everyone knows by now the storyline of the game's second case, "First Person Shooter," no doubt the game's most entertaining, is filled to the brim with thinly disguised references to the by now legendary Freelance Police fiasco, and its completion is therefore a prerequisite for any reader of this site. The stories are well done, at least on par with TV dramas of this sort. A lot of the dialog is good and a lot of it is cheesy, but that's part of the fun, too. If you're anything like me you'll find yourself unable to wait for your CSI companion to deliver his or her next instant-classic zinger to a hapless murder suspect. Just to cite a personal favorite, declared to a fellow who exhibits carelessness with an incriminating screwdriver: "Talk to us, Mr. Dubois, or you could be screwing yourself... right into death row." BA-ZING!

Thumb The actors from the show are represented in likeness and, in the case of the male characters, voice.

The game's goal is to make you feel like you’re a forensics expert without subjecting you to the slog of realistic minutia. There's no question: most of the work is being done for you, but the theory, I suppose, is that having you drag items into an analyzer or reconstructing a shredded document with your cursor is sufficient to making you feel actively involved. Your enjoyment of the game is directly proportional to how patronizing you don't find this, or, to put it another away, how well you recognize that this game is about telling stories more so than it is about despair-deep interaction. This is a valid kind of product that will not endear itself to gamers who demand something at odds with that objective.

CSI doesn't offer much in the way of difficulty, but that's to be expected given that the primary audience is fans of the show - a wide demographic that is not exclusively hardcore gamers, adventure or otherwise. At first blush, your extensive array of tools might seem daunting, but once you get the hang of it (and there's a tutorial to help you do so) you'll be comparing thumbprints and collecting semen samples like it's second nature, though hopefully it isn’t.

The measures taken to ensure accessibility are aggressive, but I don't think upping the difficulty really would have improved the game, as you'll want to see what happens next more than you'll want to hit an arbitrary brick wall. For those who do want a bit more challenge, there is a difficulty setting in the main menu that allows you to adjust how much the game goes out of its way to help you, such as the interface indicating which tool to use for evidence collection. Because such changes are superficial the game plays no differently, and there's no reward for completing the cases under "Master" ranking (a distinction you receive if you don’t use the ingame help system) other than personal satisfaction.

Thumb Much of your time will be spent at the various stations of the forensics lab.

Visually, the game is pleasing. Due to Telltale's engine this is the first CSI game to be fully 3D, meaning that instead of looking at static screens familiar to many detective games you'll be able to zoom in and pan around to pre-determined angles in a location. It might not sound all that mindblowing a feature but it actually works rather well in practice. The art style is much more realistic and darker than any of Telltale's other efforts but it doesn't go so far in the photorealistic direction as to become boring to look at, with lighting playing a pivotal role in imbuing the scenes with character. The environments are well done and have a nice level of detail, and the character models, while a bit blocky, aren't bad either.

As has become standard with Telltale titles (much like LucasArts before it), the game's audio is one of its strongest points, with good voice acting both from the show's lead characters and the story specific supporting roles. The male members of the CSI team are all voiced by their counterparts from the show, while sound-alikes were cast for the female CSIs. (The story I heard is that the game initially featured all the show's voices, but when a revision to the script required re-recording sessions, it was only within the budget to get the male cast back.) Obviously, since I'm not familiar with the show I can't comment on how good a job the sound-alikes do; I can only adjudicate that all the voices I heard were fine.

Oh, and one of the suspects is voiced by Telltale regular Andrew Chaikin, and hearing Phoney Bone defend his habitual sex abuse was one of the highlights of the game for me.

The music was apparently all taken from the show and strategically arranged by Jared Emerson-Johnson. The tracks fit in well with the scenes to contribute to an atmosphere I found effective and moody. In fact, if I was to single out the best aspect of the game, the evocative, otherworldly atmosphere it achieves in its stylized depiction of late night Vegas would be it. This is a turn-your-lights-down-and-your-speakers-up kind of game.

On the negative side, the loading times in this game can get pretty annoying. The gameplay requires you to switch back and forth between locations quite a lot, and while the environments in other Telltale games load up much quicker, if not instantaneously, upon revisiting an area, the locales in CSI seem to take as long to show up on the tenth time as they did the first.

Also, while I generally found the stories well paced, the repetition inherent in what you have to do can get a bit tiresome on occasion. You’ll probably reach the end of a case before it overstays its welcome, though, and their addictive nature may even lead you to finishing off a few, if not all, in one sitting.

An obviously exaggerated and inaccurate (??) dramatization of the online fan reaction to the cancellation of Sam & Max 2. The second case is like a Sam & Max 2 reference cold fusion reactor.

It should also be said that being a story game - specifically, one that is serious in nature - it's heavy on dialog, and I can see the amount of uninterrupted talk at times bogging down the experience for some. This is especially an issue when exhausting dialog trees with prospective perps, where you might find yourself clicking the various questions because you have to rather than because you're actually interested in the answer. Just to use a familiar game for comparison, in Sam & Max a lot of the dialog is there for your own amusement, but in this game it’s plumb necessary to talk until there’s nothing left to say. Being able to stuff jokes everywhere is an advantange you have when making a comedy.

I also encountered various minor bugs on my playthroughs, and that includes the gaming sessions held after the patch was installed. There’s nothing horrendous - mostly some unintentional graphical wackiness and issues of a temporarily unresponsive UI - but there were enough glitches encountered to mention them.

None of the above comes close to ruining the game, which overall I have to admit I was really rather fond of. So if you're one of the Mojo'ers who steered away from this because the CSI name made your frown, you may want to reconsider, because it's in fact a fun and professionally made adventure title. Besides, Telltale's already in the process of making another CSI game (which I honestly can’t wait for), and it'd be a shame if you were left out of a good graphic adventure series just because it's based on an insanely popular TV show. In the end, Bruckheimer’s going to be disgustingly rich with or without your help.

Thumb

Pros: Fun, well-written, and satisfying. Appeals to fans of the show and newcomers alike.
Cons: Somewhat buggy; very frequent loading times; can get a bit tedious.

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