Let Sierra take you back to pre-WW2 China, a land of hired assassins, mysterious European exiles, and hot-headed young heroes like this 'Lucky' Jake Masters...
Hearts Of China
Ever wanted to play those new fangled CD-based adventure games? Well now you can, and without needing a CD drive or a single shiny disk either. Hey, wait there! I know you think I'm blabbering on incoherently, but give me a moment to explain. Imagine that if in place of photographed stills (as in CDTV games such as Psycho Killer - a really terrifying game, and no mistake), an adventure sort of thing were to use digitised graphics - with artwork for backdrops and real people in costume for the characters. It's a crazy idea, but one which just might work. And funnily enough, it just about has...
Sierra's latest first-person perspective graphic-adventure-novel-simulation-cinematic experience takes the game engine used in the earlier Rise Of The Dragon one step further. Bolted onto this system is an adventure which recalls the wonderful days of Tales Of The Gold Monkey (an excellent-ish Indy-style TV series from the early Eighties) and High Road To China (y'know, that daft Tom Selleck yarn) - weird when you consider that Rise Of The Dragon owed more than a little to Black Rain (another flick with a Chinese backdrop, this time moodily directed by Ridley Scott).
Clam Chowder, Reason & Plot
But anyway, back to the hudge (i.e. hard drive very, very highly recommended) hulk of an adventure in hand. The plot (for plot is all important in these things) concerns 'Lucky' Jake Masters - an apple-pie eating, all-American xenophobic in the land of honour, humility and a thoroughly evil dictator.
This particularly unsavoury character has kidnapped Nurse Kate Lomax - a benevolent girl, whose mission in life is to help the Chinese peasants (and win a Nobel peace prize). The game commences at the dock, where you receive a directive from shady businessman Lomax (father of Nurse Kate, funnily enough) to check out a ninja guy by the name of Chi, before getting the hell out of town to rescue his daughter. Once the honourable Chi has been recruited, it's onto the airport, where Lucky's trusty plane awaits, ready to take the intrepid pair to the evil warlord's fortress, and deeper into action, adventure, and other dynamic words beginning with 'a'.
And so, in time honoured fashion, we come to the control system. Hearts Of China follows current trends by dispensing entirely with the laborious task of typing. Instead there are certain conversations where the player chooses one of a selection of set answers, and others which flow without any input from the player. Added to this is a pretty unobtrusive object manipulation system, allowing (say) a rope and grappling hook to be fastened together, clothes to be worn, guns to be held, etc, all using the mouse pointer. It's all remarkably user-friendly - there's nothing worse than a game engine which spoils the flow of play, and thankfully Hearts Of China doesn't suffer from this at all (which is more than can be said of the Sierra releases of a year or two ago). Although the linear nature of the game is often too evident, the feeling that you're actually taking part in a Boy's Own escapade is still pretty strong.
You Will Flip Over This One
Hearts Of China not only uses all the established ideas of modern graphic adventures, but it even manages to build on them. Flipping control between the hot-headed Lucky and the calm and collected Chi is a cool idea, and it's not just a gimmick - many of the puzzles actually require the use of a particular character's abilities. The inclusion of action sequences, while not exactly original, seems to fit in better than usual too. They feel like a natural progression for the game to take, rather than a tacky, crowd-pleasing add-on to the basic adventure structure.
So what's wrong with it? Well, one thing I'm still not convinced about is Sierra's dedication to slider menus. When the level of on-screen detail can be adjusted using one of these things I feel the degree of user-definability is getting just a little over-the-top. I can understand floppy drive users wanting less detail to speed things up a bit, but why the program can't do this automatically, or simply have an on-off system, I don't know. It just smacks of an attempt to be flash.
Still, that aside, this is a very impressive game. I wasn't expecting to find a good yarn and solid playability behind the flashc ontrol system and digitised graphics, but life's full of nice surprises. In my last review of a Sierra game (Kings Quest V) I criticised the appalling plot, and suggested that if Sierra pulled their socks up in this area, their games would improve no end. With Hearts Of China, they've made that turnaround, and we must applaud them for it. As programmers get the hang of game systems, the emphasis is put right back on the story - Hearts Of China demonstrating it perfectly. For anyone with one meg and a hard drive this can be thoroughly recommended. If you don't relish the chance to play an arrogant bone-headed American egotist who gets all the best one liners you probably shouldn't be playing adventure games in the first place!
The Bottom Line
Uppers: Beautiful 'painted' backdrops, with just enough relevance and animation to make them justifiable, and a pretty sensible control system make Hearts Of China an enjoyable Far East romp. The good strong script is what really makes it all work, though.
Downers: The lack of speed, and the need for one meg and a hard drive, is going to irritate some, while the lack of real flexibility (despite the attempts at offering multiple pathways) is simply too apparent. The suspension of disbelief isn't quite sustained throughout. And there're too many sudden death situation for my liking.
Sierra are carving themselves a niche with this sort of thing. Almost European in style (Maupiti Island springs to mind), Hearts Of China offers an interesting diversion from the usual Lucasfilm approach to graphic adventures. Neat.