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Played On: 10/16/2005 (11:00 AM to 1:30 PM, 9:20 PM to 10:50 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 7.5 (7.0 base with +0.5 skew)
Xen: The Contest feels like a CYOA taken apart bit by bit and reconstructed in Interactive Fiction form. Each chapter (and there are several) gets shorter and less interactive than the one before. Even when key story points can offer no real choice, itís better to keep the illusion of choice. Or, if action happens a la cut-scene, itís better to minimize it for effect. The second half of the game, looking back, seems like one big cut-scene with prompts added for good measure.
The author put all his creativity and effort into the story. Itís an interesting story, and one that really grabbed me. The problem is, the framework on which the story sits was shortchanged as a result. You canít wear the backpack. You donít need to, but what would it hurt? You canít unlock doors Ė you have to swipe cards. That took a little while to figure out. You can talk to ďKevinĒ but the game doesnít understand ďKevĒ Ė not a big deal, except he asked to be called that. Trying to go east from the bus stop just shows a blank line when itís not appropriate to the story. When the time is right, you board the bus and all is well. Much of the time, the same series of actions (visiting the cafeteria, going to class, going back to the dorm to sleep) are repeated, as the bridge between one cut-scene and the next. You can phone NPCs by name, but not by number. At a few spots, itís necessary to ask an NPC something that requires either a hint request or exceptional intuition.
The writing is fine. It never felt forced, and the dialogue was convincing. The puzzles arenít complicated. Usually, the game is looking for a specific action or two. I guess these arenít puzzles so much as they are brief interactive bits, allowing the player to take part in the transition between one cut-scene and the next. Again, this becomes more obvious in the later chapters, but itís like that from the start. The interactive bits usually take some thought, so it doesnít really qualify as puzzle-less IF either.
Donít worry. The built-in hint system helped every time I needed it, which makes this a game anybody can complete. The included walkthrough (I peeked after I finished) seems well-written too. I mapped the campus on paper, and that also helped.
What starts as a generic college sim becomes a pretty cool sci-fi story, full of interesting NPCs, trust and betrayal, magic and murder, mystery and discovery. I considered upgrading its score with a +1.0 skew from its 7.0 base because of the cool and entertaining storyline, but in the end, the good story is already why the base isnít lower. Instead, a skew of +0.5 serves to compliment what I felt was some great dialogue between the PC and his various peers. I liked Xen: The Contest, and two transcripts are available if the author is interested in checking my comments for an updated version.