Based on the 1963 movie starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner, The Great Escape has players leading a squad of prisoners in their bid to free themselves from the German prisoner-of-war camp known as Stalag Luft III. The action takes place from a third-person perspective as players look to complete each of the game's three distinct phases. The first phase involves acquiring the right equipment to ensure success, including digging tools, wire cutters, disguises, identity cards, and so forth. Stealth is an important element during this initial phase, as players must sneak around heavily guarded areas to obtain the tools needed for their survival.
The second part of the game involves choosing the best method of escape and then carrying it out. Players may opt to tunnel out of the camp by digging underneath their living quarters, try to cut through the fence and sneak away under the cover of darkness, or consider various other options. Once players have managed to escape, the game shifts focus to the third and final phase: the journey. Different routes become available to squads at certain points in the game, some of which may involve trying to get to Paris via train, slipping into Sweden while on foot, or even "borrowing" motorcycles en route to Switzerland.
Publisher Gotham Games secured the rights to use Steve McQueen's likeness for the game, so players will be able to control the brash American pilot Hilts, aka "The Cooler King," as he picks locks and zips away on a motorbike to elude pursuing Nazis. Other film characters also offer distinct abilities, which players must use to be successful in each phase of the game. MacDonald, for example, speaks fluent German and can impersonate Nazi soldiers, while Hendly can pickpocket guards to obtain whatever the team needs. In addition to a 3D re-creation of Stalag Luft III, players will explore a mountaintop castle, a bustling hospital, a moving train, and even a Luftwaffe airfield.
Movie-licensed games have generally met with poor success, particularly in the eyes of critics. Based on my experience, the most faithful and fun adaptation I've played is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, followed closely by The Thing, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The City of Lost Children. In brief, The Great Escape ranks right up there with the best of them.
Following my pattern with games spun off from films, I viewed the movie prior to playing the adaptation. This led, for example, to The Thing (the game) to be viewed in quite a different light than as a completely isolated play experience. So, too, with The Great Escape.
Not only is my likeness, Steve McQueen, complete with voice and swagger, "digitally resurrected" (with permission of his estate), but virtually all of the key scenes featured in the movie are represented in the game - including the motorbike episode.
Much like the lesser, and rather different, game, Prisoner of War, The Great Escape's overall theme deals with prison escape. But the scope and settings move well beyond the experiences of sneaking past guards, digging tunnels, and avoiding searchlights - although all of these are parts of the game. Here, as reflected in the enclosed game pictures, we have almost half of the 18 missions played outside the prison walls. This adds tremendous variety to what becomes a quite compelling gaming experience. Much like the film, life is far from dull in WWII Germany!
Beginning with MacDonald's harrowing experience during a night bombing raid, leading to his eventual capture, we are introduced to the four characters you play in the episodes: Flight Lieutenant MacDonald - intelligence and planning officer, Flying Officer Sedgewick - good with machines, Flight Lieutenant Hendly - wheedles, barters and scrounges and Captain Virgil "The Cooler King" Hilts - stubborn, tough, and excels at escapes.
You are assigned one character in each chapter and can't voluntarily select among them. Although this seems a bit limiting, the specific goals will require specific and different skills, with this episode movement from one to another giving a very nice variety to overall gameplay.
Settings range from the burning airplane to a castle, a train, mountainous and rural terrain and, of course, the climactic motorbike chase.
Even though we see signs of "consolitis" (a disorder plaguing the PC versions of many multiplatform games), the condition is not at all severe, only presenting the occasional control glitch. Playing in a third-person, over-the-shoulder viewpoint (first-person look-around view available), we find the following camera does a nice job, and it rarely obscures our point of view by, for example, putting us in a visually obstructed corner.
Each mission has multiple objectives, brought up by the Tab key. With the mouse fully employed, you can punch, peek, engage in special stealth moves, speak to NPCs, drive vehicles, and use weapons. There are items to be located, trades to be made, thievery to be done, conversations to be accomplished. An onscreen compass with health bar, danger meter (guards coming close) and action icons helps to guide you. Further, you are allowed a range of two to four saves per mission, depending on selected level of difficulty, which selection can be altered at the beginning of each mission. Thank you, developers!
The graphical renderings of the PC version may seem dated to some - certainly not up to the level of the Unreal II or even Quake 3 engine, for example. There's a move on now to be ultrarealistic with water effects and facial features. The Great Escape is not in the forefront of this technology. Yet I found the depictions of the varied settings fully satisfactory. The camp, farms and other arenas for your activities look as they should look. Character modeling, except for McQueen's Hilts, is generic. But the overall goal of creating a believable and immersive alternate world is met, from this reviewer's point of view.
Generally, audio is one of the strengths of The Great Escape - from the ambient environmental sounds to the fine voice acting. During one episode, you can hear a rippling stream, with the sound rising and fading depending on your precise location. Even moving in a stationary circle changed the level of noise.
Bernstein's rousing theme from the film is reprized, along with melodies appropriate to the settings. As mentioned, voice acting is convincingly done, including the McQueen remastered lines.
The producer of The Great Escape describes his creation as a "stealth-action" game, one he hopes will bring suspense, adventure and excitement to the player. Indeed, there is a good deal of sneaking about, though not nearly as much as with Prisoner of War. But there are also opportunities to man a bomber machine gun, drive a truck and half-track, engage in sniping and, of course, ride the motorbike. There are objectives to be achieved, but often there are multiple ways to proceed down those paths. It's fun, after all levels are unlocked, to return to a favorite episode and see if sneaking by or distracting a guard may work better than a choke kill. Oh, by the way, Tom, Dick and Harry are names of tunnels.
The artificial intelligence in The Great Escape seems inconsistent, even faulty, at times. Some of this varies with easy to hard settings, and some may relate to the kind of guard encountered. Yet, as in many games, you may find yourself standing next to a guard at night who doesn't notice you at all and a long way from another who suddenly and unexpectedly sounds an alarm! I guess this all adds to the tension, but the apparent inconsistency can sometimes be frustrating.
The Great Escape is an enjoyable, thrilling and suspenseful accompaniment to the classic film. Employing not only the skills of stealth, but also item-gathering, planning, and combat, the game captures and sustains your attention, involving you in a believable WWII experience. With scenes and a climax paralleling those of the film, I found the overall experience worthy of a solid Thumb Up. Rather dated graphics, AI inconsistencies, and a touch of consolitis keep it from our Gold Star level. But don't let this dissuade you from rejoining "The Cooler" Hilts and his pals in one of the very best movie-to-game adaptations.
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