Review: Saw [Halflife2.net]


The horror movie genre has always been peculiarly vulnerable to sequelitis and theSaw series is surely its most obvious victim. Still plopping out an annual Omen child to entertain halloween movie-goers, it was only a matter of time until horror gaming found itself knocked up with a little jigsaw-puzzler of its own.

Set sometime close to the conclusion of the very first Saw movie, 'Saw the game' casts the player as Detective David Tapp, presumed dead for five films but here apparently saved by the Jigsaw Killer who has brought him to the derelict Whitehurst Insane Asylum to subject him to another particularly unpleasant lesson in life appreciation.

Detective David Tapp wakes up to find he is wearing an explosive collar in SAW the game

The dark and decaying ruins of Whitehurst accurately mimic the dank setting of the movies and the presentation throughout is suitably faithful to the tropes and general spirit of the franchise. In each chapter, Jigsaw's doll peers at you through fuzzy televisions as you go about completing your rat-in-a-maze tasks, with his sinister voice (Tobin Bell) narrating you through the challenges he has set. Unfortunately, these tasks include far too many fetch-quests, constantly sending you after that 'key to the door to the office which opens the gate to the ward with the electric coupler for the fuse box'. And despite the all too infrequent documents, bloody messages and sideshow 'how did this guy die?' corpses, the asylum itself remains a somewhat stereotypical, characterless place.

Like an increasing number of third-person titles, the PC version of Saw is a frustrating console hand me down. Playing the game with a mouse and keyboard feels totally unnatural: the action buttons (shoot, fighting pose etc.) have been bizarrely mapped to the numbers 1 through 6, and whilst movement is on the WASD keys and looking is delegated to the mouse, these inputs pick up all kinds of strange uses in puzzles that were clearly never designed with the PC in mind. The very first puzzle is particularly telling, and has you scrubbing your desk with the mouse and completely missing the fact that the 'countdown' on the helmet is actually a visual prompt to which of the oddly assigned, uncustomisable action buttons you should be using. The sane (and completely lazy and unsatisfactory) option is definitely to plug in a controller, but be aware that the puzzle button prompts correspond to the Xbox 360 controller for Windows.

However, even if you have this ideal controller setup, the fact is that controlling the player character is never as fun as it should be. Punctuating the game's many puzzles are encounters with inmates after a front-door key supposedly sewn into Tapp's body. These close-combat encounters involve the player character unethusiastically responding to any suggestion of attacking, and you have to learn to request a swing of even a lightweight scalpel a few too many seconds before your enemy is in front of you. To its credit, Saw does leave fighting somewhat optional even despite its impressive collection of makeshift weapons: there is usually a puddle of water to electrify, or a way of barricading a door shut in order to avoid or delay combat. But even in these situations, getting a switch activated or closing and then bolting a door involves unnecessary manual turning and slow button responses that usually end in an unfair and frustrating death.

Screenshot of melee combat in Saw game

The game resists having end of chapter boss battles, demanding instead that you solve various puzzles against the clock. However, all too often these are simply time-trial marathon versions of the various pipe, switchboard and cog style-puzzles you find attached to chests and doors in the environment, and others draw inspiration from family board games like Downfall and Pairs, which is jarring to say the least. Whilst there is not a complete absence of good ideas behind the puzzles in the game, many are recycled altogether too far: by the end of the game, you'll have discovered so many lock combinations in mirrors that you'll be quite embarrased you ever considered the first one you saw a good idea.

The lack of inspiration in the puzzle-bosses has a more sinister element of course. The deadline you're racing against isn't a ticking clock, but a needle, spike or circular blade mutiliating a restrained character. If you fail, you're subjected to their violent death scene... or are you rewarded? Ultimately, there is the question of who Saw, movie or game is for. To me, the game's almost unrelenting sequence of exploding body-parts and painful screams seem to be trying to overcompensate: the fact is that the functional but hardly photo-realistic graphics don't recreate the relative unsettling believability of the violence in the movies. Games are simply a medium where pain and death are (currently) meaningless, and this is bad news for a franchised game about how pain and death can be used to construct meaning.

Timed circuit puzzle game from Saw the game

It's certainly not all bad, and because the reasonably well-acted story adds further detail to the twisting Saw lore, I find myself concluding that the game is worth a playthrough for fans of the film. But I'm disinclined to even go the puny distance towards recommending it to 'fans of the genre', particuarly as the shoddy port-work reduces the impact of what is already a by the numbers survival horror title. I suspect that the chapter-selection and harder gametype options will seem like overly optimistic inclusions even to Saw devotees.

Saw

Verdict

5 / 10

Platform and review information

Available on PC (Windows), Xbox 360 and PS3

Game was played on platform in bold, materials were provided by PR contact.

This review was originally posted at Halflife2.net (now Valvetime.net) on November 22 2009

Elements from an earlier draft have been included and other general changes have since been made.

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