The heady cocktail of bright lights and easy money in Sin City has never made life easy for the team of the Las Vegas Crime Lab. But the latest series of murders to rock their town isn’t run-of-the-mill crime; most are the handiwork of the notorious ‘Queen of the Hive’, as drug mafia boss Beatriz Salazar is willing to stop at nothing to protect her illegal empire. The introduction of big game naturally means that the FBI too is involved, standing literally over the shoulder of Captain Jim Brass as he and the CSI team race to keep up with the brutal manipulations of Salazar. Unfortunately, for all the added promise of intrigue, Fatal Conspiracy, the sixth PC adventure based on the long-running CSI television series, ends up offering little more than the same repetitive procedural analysis whipped to death by its predecessors, this time in a disappointing series of uninteresting cases.
Any suspense the premise might have generated is spoiled by information overload even before the game starts – the box cover divulges the entire plot in one short sentence. Then, to ensure that no trace of grand scale mystery is left to be discovered, Salazar herself makes an uninvited appearance at the CSI headquarters in the very first case, sneering poorly-veiled threats at the confused duo of Brass and CSI Sarah Sidle. After that, seemingly unrelated murders pile up, leading to about eight hours of pixel-hunting across woefully-few locations, stilted interrogations of the two or three usual suspects per case, unchallenging minigames, and dealing with the shenanigans of FBI Agent Gene Huntby.
As usual, there are five cases to solve, each with a separate member of the CSI team led by Catherine Willows, the Night Shift Supervisor. The investigations are aided by Brass, who coordinates with external agencies and gets the requisite warrants issued, and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Al Robbins, who conducts autopsies on the dead bodies. Besides Sarah, the player teams up in turn with senior CSIs Greg Sanders, Nick Stokes, Catherine, and Dr. Ray Langston to solve the individual cases, thereby leading to the Queen Bee herself. The objective of each case, which range from a seemingly casual drug overdose to the murder of a bedridden hotel heiress, is to search the crime scene and related locations for clues, analyse evidence in the CSI’s state-of-the-art lab, investigate and arrest suspects, and interrogate them until they confess their crimes. Interrogations are based mainly on the irrefutability of physical evidence, and loose ends are tied up neatly – if overly simplistically – to close each case.
Onsite investigation follows the same routine as previous editions: pan the camera across the screen and click on hotspots to check furniture, floors, ceilings and walls for evidence. The CSI toolbox has four sets of instruments – besides the camera, a particle collector and the indispensible Integriswab, the kit also has Luminol and LCV for fluid identification, brushes and Ninhydrin to secure fingerprints, and Mikrosyl and plaster for casts. While descriptions of the tools are flashed randomly on load screens, their use is never directly explained during the game, an oversight that is certain to pose problems for players unfamiliar with the series. Rolling the cursor over an evidence hotspot opens up the toolbox, but only a small subset of tools is usable on a particular item, leaving little to deduce – the player simply has to click the likeliest preselected tool, and then the hotspot. Each item collected can be rotated three-dimensionally and checked from every side and angle for clues. Completely processed items are theoretically noted in inventory, though many items remain unmarked until the end of the case, leading to confusion.
The collected evidence – up to 33 items per case – is listed in a PDA placed at the bottom left corner of the screen. This device also contains the case file and a list of available locations. The case file holds the immediate objective, the details of the case (including a crime scene map marking the positions of evidence items), reconstructions of key events and emailed hints, as well as the player’s score on thoroughness, skill and cunning. The objective is updated with every breakthrough in the case, and there are far too many direct instructions given during the game, the most intrusive of which are your emails, usually from Catherine. There is no deducible pattern to the emails – sometimes they arrive after the task is done, sometimes right on time, and at other times preempt the player’s next move. There are fewer emails offering hints on the hardest of three difficulty settings, but even on the ‘medium’ setting they definitely dilute the gameplay.
Processing the collected evidence is the primary activity of the game. The CSI lab is well-equipped to analyse fingerprints, chemicals, DNA, documents, microscopic objects and photographs. Evidence can be compared with databases or to other evidence. Some of the exercises are interesting in concept – for example, unverified fingerprint fragments have to be marked on five unique points to match existing records, while chemical analysis throws up multiple spectrometric bands that must be combined to identify the compounds in a sample. Unfortunately, constantly repeating the same easy tasks soon grates on the nerves out of sheer tedium. Some analyses involve no activity at all: decoding computers, medical data and videos requires no more effort than selecting the evidence and then clicking the ‘Search’ button, while a few items are processed entirely by external agencies.Continued on the next page...