To me Prisoner of War was marketed as a cross between the movie Stalag 17 and the TV show Hogan’s Heroes for the computer. As a fan of both, when I saw that it was coming out, I ran to my editor and begged to be the reviewer. He is also a fan of the show and the movie, so we worked out a compromise, he agreed to take a look at the PC version, and the Xbox version was all mine. I figured it was a fair trade and I was not disappointed.
The game is set during World War II and you are Captain Lewis Stone, ace Pilot. Your mission was to fly a milk run (that means easy) reconnaissance mission over German-occupied territory. The mission goes sour when you encounter unexpectedly heavy flack and are shot down.
You are quickly captured and placed in a short-term holding camp with two other prisoners that were captured a long time ago. One has given up hope of escape, while the other is willing to help you, but only if you get him some money. Money in the camp is anything contraband.
Getting into the game right away, I followed the normal schedule for a few hours of game time. Role call, free time, exercise, meals, and then naturally lights out is the prisoner routine. The helpful prisoner tells you where to get the contraband; all you have to do is sneak into the infirmary. Sounds easy right? Wrong. Watchtowers, and guards everywhere. I figured I had two options. Try to go over the fence during the day, or try to go over several fences at night.
I chose the afternoon free period and watched the guards on patrol and in the watchtower using my handy interface so I could even get a rough idea of which way they were looking. When I judged the time was right I hoped up on top of the wall, and then hoped down the other and snuck into the pharmacy. So easy, this was great. I grabbed my stuff and walked back outside. Hoped over the fence and the alarm starts going off. Oops, I guess I got a little too cocky there. I ran onto the kitchen and avoided the guards that time, though the cook said something about his being the best sausages in the country. Thankfully he was more concerned with cuisine than a prisoner in the wrong place.
Pretty quickly, you learn that the guards pretty much ignore you as long as you stay in your designated areas and show up at roll call when you are supposed to be there. A few feet inside the wire on the perimeter fence is a dead zone marked with a piece of string. Cross it and the guards will shout a warning and shoot. You have only about a second to jump back. Guards will also shoot you if they find you someplace where you don’t belong. Through all of this you have to be ever mindful of the clock ticking. Literally there is a clock on the screen at all times, telling you the current time, where you are supposed to be, and where you are supposed to go next. Failure to comply will get you shot or sent to the cooler (solitary confinement).
After you escape from the first camp, which is really a tutorial of sorts, you are recaptured and taken to a bigger camp. At this camp you will have to work with the escape committee, a group of prisoners just as dedicated to escape as you are. They will have a lot of the information about the camp that you will need to know. Typically, it is best to get some currency and then find out the lay of the land such as which guards stop on their patrol and chat, or a visual report on the camps defenses.
There are two other fellows in each camp that can be helpful. The scrounger is the guy that can get you what you need to help in your escape attempts, such as shoe polish to darken your face, or a crow bar for heavy locks to name a few items. He can also help you get your stuff back if it is taken by the guards, though of course he usually wants a fee to help cover his expenses. The other guy you will meet is the gambler. He provides you with the means of gaining more currency, though be careful, it is just as likely that you will loose your proverbial shirt playing with him.
After you have collected your contraband, talked to all the prisoners gathering information, peaked though the right key holes, and learned everything you need to know about the camp to make your attempt, it is time to sneak around in the middle of the night, climbing walls, watching the guards, waiting for them to look the other way, ducking behind wood piles and finally made it out of the camp.
At this point you will be rated on your attempt. If you are happy with the results, you may continue on with the story line, otherwise, unlike real life, you may go back and try again for a better score. As the story develops and you get shuffled from camp to camp, you will learn that the Germans are developing a secret weapon, and surprisingly enough, you are the best person to find out what they are up to and to put a stop to their plans. Could it be, that is why you were shot down in the first place, so that you would not find out about their new weapon?
The only place you can save the game is at your bunk, which adds to the realism of the game. It would not seem fair, that halfway though an escape attempt you save the game and come back later. The other thing that really adds to the realism is the ever-ticking clock that I mentioned earlier.
Overall the interface for the game is good. You can easily move the camera angle to see what is going on nearby. The movement radar for the guards is very helpful, especially with the addition of the indicator, noting which direction they are looking and how far away they can clearly see. As you move close to objects that you can interact with such as items and walls, a handy indicator pops up telling you which button to hit to use or interact with that item.
The cut-scenes are pretty good, they really advance the plot well, and match well with the overall graphics of the game. The graphics in the rest of the game a little rough, with lots of hard edges and muddy textures, however, I found that while the graphics were certainly not cutting edge, the served their purpose nicely. The characters were identifiable, and the layout of the camp and the buildings themselves all met my expectations for a German prisoner of war camp during WWII, and did not hinder my experience in any way.
Several people have asked me if constantly escaping from POW camps gets boring after a while, and I will be honest. Yes it can. As long as you keep in mind the plot of the game and realize early on that this is not a shooter, or an action adventure game, then you will do fine. Just don’t expect to feel a giant accomplishment. I found that once I was happily out of the camp, my joy would be smashed by getting recaptured. Also, the fetch and carry gets old after a while, and the constant hand holding where people tell you exactly what to do, is more frustrating to me personally.
The game does get interesting when you start working as a resistance fighter of sorts, impersonating German personnel and trying to find out more about the super weapon. Here is where the Hogan’s Heroes aspect comes into play. It’s also where realism goes out the window, but my guess is that it was added to make the game more fun.
Some people will be disappointed that you can’t kill anyone, or even attack the guards. It’s fairly un-American, and very un-gamer like to be hiding behind a guards back and not be able to give him a good whack, take his gun and start enacting some vengeance. Talking with the developers at E3, we were told that this was specifically taken out of the game because they did not want some crazy Americans just taking over the entire camp. Then again, there are games like Metal Gear Solid where you have to use stealth and can do some damage as well, and the formula is very successful, more so than here. Even a game like the Thief series let you strike out at your oppressors sometimes, and its kind of hard to be denied this because the game simply won’t let you throw a punch. The only satisfaction you get in the game is when you foul up something the Nazi’s had planned, or simply escape from confinement. Some people will be hungry for more.
Overall, I found Prisoner of War to be a lot of fun, but you have to be in the right mood to play. The story line is good, the graphics are adequate, and the interface was easy to use. In the end though, I have several games on my desk right now, and I found myself more likely to reach for something else. Perhaps I am just a product of a violent culture, but I can’t help but think that a lot of people will join me in thinking that prison is just not that fun, no matter how you add extras to the mix. I really wanted to Wolfenstein these Nazi punks, but was left too often just hiding in the shadows, taking comfort at stealing their cigarettes and chocolate. Yea, that will show them! But if you want to know what life was like in a POW camp, minus the starvation, beatings and the like, this is a pretty good representation that earns 3 + GiN Gems.