Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy

Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy / Psi-Ops: Psychic Operation - PlayStation 2, Xbox, Windows (2004)

 Remember ragdoll physics? As we entered the sixth console generation, ragdoll physics were becoming all the rage in the gaming world. Developers were starting to get how to make 3D games, grinding their teeth in the last gen, and as physics evolved and changed, it was all but certain that game companies would go wild with the newest toys. Ragdoll physics were especially popular in action games, allowing wild and dynamic animation of bodies not possible before. Granted, it looked terrible and hilarious in motion, but at the time, this was ground breaking. Eventually, people tried making games that took full advantage of ragdoll physics beyond just letting bodies flail around wildly (though that was still there). One of those games was Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, a Midway developed game released 2004 that tried to be an action game with a psychic twist. This became one of those games at the time that tried to weaponize ragdoll physics, the other major one being Free Radical’s Second Sight, released just three months later. And yes, that game was also about psychic powers. But the similarities end there, as Second Sight was a rather grim game with a heavy focus on stealth, while Psi-Ops‘ has this theme and this Japanese box art. Psi-Ops is as video game as video games can possibly get.

The game cast you as Nick Scryer, a man mindwiped by a group called Mindgate to go infiltrate a terrorist organization called The Movement, which includes a series of specialized psychic soldiers who seem to have a history with Nick and yes the plot goes exactly where you think it does. The intro makes it very clear Mindgate is evil with an Albert Wesker looking doctor talking to a general about vaguely bad things as they wipe your brain clean. But The Movement employs a man who controls people like puppets and explodes them for fun, so they’re not much better. Nick gains a sidekick in Sara, while fighting against such colorful characters as giant overweight black guy with a very tiny head in a purple suit that makes him look like a giant plum that throws 18-wheelers at you with his mind powers.

Psi-Ops is so hilariously stupid, and it works because it believes in its stupidity so much. Every single cutscene is insanely sincere, despite every single character being just the most ridiculous thing. You fight a Chinese woman in a Chinese tomb in her Chinese skyscraper who has terracotta soldiers. She controls them with mind powers, of course. There’s an old guy who pointlessly has a mess of TVs that only show a single part of his face each flying around his room for no reason. And then there’s plum man. Because he’s one of the first villains you see in the game and he’s just frankly the greatest idea for a video game bad guy in the history of video games.

There’s just so much effort here. Villains poke and prod at a confused Nick, there’s a ton of politics talk that blurs the lines between the two main factions, Nick himself has a strangely intricate back story (despite being so cliched and predictable), and they even find time to toss in an evil twin for one of the characters. The script for this game is actually pretty well done when it’s not in exposition mode, but the context is so utterly baffling. This narrative is basically the best parts of 90s X-Men comics, with the dumb outfits and casual racism tossed in for good measure.

The game proper is genuinely good without any irony, though. Nick do the usual good guy shooty shooty bang bang thing, though his arsenal is very limited. He can only carry two guns at a time, and one is always a pistol (which packs a bit more punch than you’d think). The variety is also very limited. This is perfectly fine, though, because the main attraction are the psychic powers. You get six in total, and you get the most fun one at start: Telekinesis. This power is the entire reason this game exists. When your aim cursor is over a movable object and the cursor changes, you can tap and hold a button to lift that baby up and move it around with the position controlling stick. Move it in one direction long enough and release, and you have just created a projectile that instantly smashes enemies into heaps of boneless piles. You know that scene from Batman Vs Superman where Batman tosses a giant crate right into a guy’s head? You can do that almost all the time here.

Keep in mind that you do more than toss boxes. You can also toss enemies themselves. Soldiers panic when you mind grab them, and you can use them to soak bullets, toss them into a pit, or maybe toss them at their friends and create some fun confusion. Despite how stiff the camera feels at times, using these powers never stops being fun. The wonky physics are just too silly to not enjoy, and you can even do more complicated tricks with it at points. For example, there’s one later game segment with a broken bridge that requires you to stand on some rubble, then control it and guide it to the other side. The game does a good job of balancing action and puzzles, especially with the bosses. Every single one has a different challenge to them due to their power specialization. The first boss, that guy who mind controls and explodes people, is a great example of how wild these fights can get, as you have to figure out how to get to him while fighting soldiers coming out of tubes, plus keeping track of which ones he’s using to suicide bomb you. Every boss is a bit of a puzzle and a fight, which keeps the game from feeling stale.

Mind drain is a useful ability to regain mental energy, plus is makes people’s heads explode if done fully. Yes, this never stops being fun. Remote viewing is useful for checking ahead, while its bastard cousin mind control does exactly what you’d expect and it is constantly hilarious. Aura view is just a means to an end for puzzle solving and seeing the most obnoxious enemies in the game, but pyrokinesis is so powerful that it makes guns almost useless, as long as you have clear ground to spread it on. Pyrokinesis and telekinesis working together is a thing of terrible beauty. The sheer amount of awful things this power set lets you do would make the Infamous series blush.

The game is still challenging a lot of the time, despite these amazing powers, though not always for fair reasons. The late game enemies called the Aura Beasts are fun killers to the highest level, while levels tend to toss in momentum killers in the form of mounted turrets and other “fun” surprises. Truly, the way to make a game more difficult and satisfying is to give nearly every enemy a rocket launcher. A+ game design. The wild physics also results in a lot of unexpected outcomes, like on that aforementioned bridge segment. If you try making a junk bridge so as not to deal with the soldier guys pot-shotting you as you try levitating across, you may find the pieces will randomly twist in the wrong position and fall through the hole. Lots of lazy difficulty shortcuts really take some of the enjoyment factor of being a horrific psychic demi-god. Challenge is fun and all, but it should be challenge that remains fun in the way the rest of the game is.

The presentation is also a very mixed bag. There’s fun to be had from the generic Western action game graphics and art style set against the more ridiculous characters, but everything else just lacks an identity of its own. Nick is one of the most generic looking videogame heroes out there, and Sara is the same for videogame sidekicks/damsels. The soldiers and military hardware all scream “literally every other shooting game ever made,” and most levels take place in uncreative bases and warehouses until the later half. The music is equally forgettable, with a few good pieces that instantly vanish from memory within moments. The game lacks the art assets it deserved, and that may have been one of the main things that crippled it from becoming a bigger deal.

Psi-Ops left on a cliffhanger, and it never got the follow-up it promised. Midway struggled for a long while before closing, and that closing has left Psi-Ops‘ holding rights up in the air. It was well received, and it still gets brought up in a good few circles, but the surprisingly ambitious ragdoll fiesta seems doomed to a single title. At least it’s easy to find. Despite some significant flaws, there’s not really another game quite like it and is well worth collecting.


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