Consortium: The Tower has a hell of a pitch – ‘Die Hard via Deus Ex’. You are not J.C. Denton or John McClane here, however. Instead you, the player, sat in front of your PC, are the main character. Using some sci-fi puppeteering technology, you take over the body of a special forces operative tasked with resolving a terrorist situation on a mile-high tower block. It is up to you how to proceed from there.
Love immersive sims? Read about the making of Prey.
Want to murder everyone as news drones buzz overhead? You can. Want to sneak through and incapacitate them all with electric shocks? Go ahead. Prefer to have a nice chat? Sure. Time goes on even if you do not do anything in Consortium, and every action you take is judged by your superiors who monitor your performance constantly, berating and praising you as you go. Occasionally, characters address you as well – yes, you, dear reader – breaking the fourth wall. It is a refreshing setting, and one that evokes the ‘One City Block RPG’ envisioned by immersive sim grandfather Warren Spector.
The first time I drop onto the tower, I walk up to the first terrorist I see and speak to him, all friendly. He tells me his boss is an idiot and that nobody on the tower is allowed to attack me unless I shoot first. Nice. This gives me free reign to stroll around chatting to these gun-toting goons. Eventually, I voluntarily surrender and am locked up, before being freed from a cell by some unknown, interdimensional ally.
During another time, I kill so many terrorists that I go rogue and my superiors pull support. After that, I creep around the rooftops subduing all the sentries, freezing them in place with my supersoldier tech so they can not be revived. If the post-mission ratings are to be believed, there is even a way of navigating this sandbox without ever being detected, though stealth runs are incredibly hard – in the game’s current Early Access form that last option seems unattainable. The AI seem to have a sixth sense, and there are not enough stealth tools in your current arsenal to overcome their alertness.
You begin the game with your systems malfunctioning and you have to repair your guns, gadgets, and armour with an energy source to make them functional. The same energy governs your abilities – your wrist-rocket hovering tech, the electronic pulses with which you can knock out guards, and even your super-jump. To recharge this energy, you have to recycle inanimate objects such as lights boxes, hard hats, and anything else lying around. It is a clever bit of game design since you will be making this space less complex as you hoover stuff up, freeing up resources, but it becomes tiresome fast, especially when you find yourself repeating long sections because you died.
If the last few years have taught us anything, it is this: immersive sims are a hard sell. While single-player games are not actually in crisis, as we proved, recent immersive sims – Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, Prey, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – have all underperformed, despite being excellent games. Those who know and love the genre do so because of the wide array of options each game presents them with, they enjoy how the world ticks on even without their involvement, and they adore putting their plans into action, watching them go to shit, and reacting to the ensuing chaos. This is how the genre is best played: by living with your mistakes and scrambling to a solution. These moments often create personal stories, stories born from mechanics instead of dialogue.
Design decisions in games such as Dishonored can, of course, make you feel like this is the wrong way to play. End-of-mission stat screens give you a tick of approval for not killing, and there is another for making it through each level without being seen. Perfectionists can not cope with looking at this screen minus the ticks, so they play by saving often, reloading whenever they are spotted. They also do not allow themselves to use some of the more exciting, lethal abilities in their arsenal.
To combat this mentality, developers Interdimensional Games do not allow you to save whenever you want in Consortium. You can only save the game at specific points, so you are forced to react. While they deserve credit for trying to solve this age-old immersive sim issue, it makes the game frustrating at times. Not only do you have to hoover up resources over and over again, but long conversations must be constantly repeated when you fail. You end up missing some of the hidden dialogue choices because you are trying to rush the conversation along.
It might be inspired by Die Hard, but Consortium’s world is one where you die easily. A wrong choice in a conversation can lead to a terrorist taking you down in one shot, giving you no chance to react. A simple quick save option could easily negate these criticisms. The developers clearly know this is a problem, too, since there is a key dedicated to speeding up time in-game. Unfortunately, it is not enough.
Obviously this game is far from finished. There are animations missing, entire sections of the map are stripped out, and no doubt some features are being held back. I just hope Interdimensional Games can address this frustrating save system for the full launch – it adds unwanted stress to an otherwise interesting take on the immersive sim.
The freedom you feel from being able to jump 50 meters into the air before engaging your freefall suit and gliding to another area makes exploration feel distinct. The tone of its conversations are witty and meta. The low-poly art style is striking. All the ingredients are there for an excellent game, the developers just need to remove the obstacles getting in the way of fuller enjoyment, perhaps hoovering them all up with some fancy sci-fi recycling glove.