A review by Jason, whose forensics experience is limited to Dinky Island conspiracy theories.
Here I am again, the guy who's never watched CSI, reviewing a CSI game. But I did the last one, so why not? Truth be told, I review these games because the danger is great that no one else inside a Mojo uniform will. In a sense, this series is to Telltale what Star Wars is to LucasArts in our instinct to dismiss them on the basis of their huge and universally recognizable license, the kind that will be profitable regardless of the product it's slapped on. No, CSI isn't an underdog franchise in the same way Sam & Max might be, and Ubisoft doesn't need the likes of us to make these games financially successful, but that's no excuse not to recognize a decent story game, so shut your face and read on.
CSI: Hard Evidence is Telltale's second whack at the CSI video game franchise, and it has a lot in common with their first effort, 3 Dimensions of Murder. And I mean a lot. There are some new twists and noticeable improvements, but basically what you're looking at is five new stories told with the exact same gameplay. To learn the fundamentals of how the game works, read my acclaimed 3 Dimensions of Murder review and let's use the time we have now to discuss what's new with this title.
The most noticeable change is the interface – the immutable green tool bar at the bottom of the screen has been replaced by a spatially economical PDA at the lower left corner, which neatly contains your evidence, case file, locations, and game menu. Evidence detection and collection tools are now stored in a toolbox rather than a circular little pop-up menu, but mechanically it's identical.
One benefit over the old inventory system is that it makes lab work a bit less tedious as you'll only be given the option of analyzing evidence that's relevant to a particular workstation, saving time you might have otherwise wasted cluelessly feeding the ripped bra into the chemical analyzer. Hey, when you get stuck in an adventure game you tend to try everything with everything. The PDA basically serves to streamline the interface more than it is a functional rethink.
Your dependable lab devices - the assembly table, the comparison microscope, the trace analysis computer, the DNA analyzer and the chemical analyzer - are all back. The only expansion on this is that the trace computer now supports partial fingerprint identification and video analysis, and your databases for comparing evidence spans Civil, FBI and LVPD records. A more major addition is the CSI garage lab which enables you to thoroughly search vehicles such as a taxi that a cabbie managed to get himself immolated in by a hooded figure who proves careless with matches and turpentine. I hate it when that happens.
You can finally call off your suicide as you're not going to be subjected to hearing a "Looks like the area's clean; way to be thorough!" type line fifty thousand times this time around. Telltale's cleverly added "Thoroughness Points," quietly awarded whenever you visit an area of the environment that is empty of anything useful. Also introduced is a somewhat bizarre side quest - a bug hunt! When searching locations you will happen upon stray insects which you can grab for Grissom, who is apparently a dedicated collector of little critters. I'm sure devoted fans of the show will know what that's all about, though in my limited context there was a throwaway line in 3 Dimensions of Murder that referenced Grissom's fascination with bugs. I supposed that is now paid off.
With Hard Evidence Telltale has also included unlockable bonuses, a feature which was present in the pre-Telltale CSI games and which will surely be a welcomed return for longtime fans. The bonus material is gained by achieving a Master ranking (collecting all evidence and receiving sufficient location points) and by collecting all the bugs in each case. The booty ranges from case-specific trailers for the game, storyboards, concept art, and, unexpectedly, a blackjack minigame! It definitely gives you a little more incentive to replay the game than 3 Dimensions of Murder bothered with.
Which leaves the "this and that" stuff. When inspecting a location you can now physically manipulate certain items or move them out of the way, like some clothing on a bed or a loose drain cover in a shower, to reveal key evidence. Woo! In another added convenience, the game equips you with a cell phone, allowing Captain Brass and others to apprise you of important developments while you're in the field. You might also notice that a bit more effort has been put into the camerawork this time around. When you're having long conversations with suspects, the engine will throw to various panning and tracking shots during the chatter like might occur in a real show or movie. It helps to make things a little more animated. (To be fair, 3 Dimensions of Murder did this sort of thing too, just to a lesser extent.) One case uniquely has you recreate a shootout with ballistic lasers. Even the tutorial is more charming, tasking you with investigating the disappearance of a jelly donut.
Once again you'll think through each case partnered with a CSI from the show, who will make wry comments throughout and stay nearby to offer optional hints. In the last game Catherine Willows was a kind of supporting character who would pop in now and then as a supervisor, but here she is one of your case partners and it's Sarah Sidle who gets the short end of the stick (possibly due to the unenthusiastic fan reaction to her imitator's voice). Also, this time around you're not treated as a rookie but as an experienced CSI who's been around for awhile. This doesn't really affect anything, but it might succeed in making you feel cooler.