The Great Escape

German POW Camp Escape Simulator.

There are a lot of films-to-game cash-ins released each year and The Great Escape is just one more, except it comes 40 years after the film’s release. Still, its timing is actually pretty good, despite its tardiness, as stealth and WWII games are both interesting genres that could potentially yield fun games.

Snap68The Great Escape isn’t only about escaping, having various arcade mini-games here and there. You need to get out of the camp and then make your way across the countryside to the Allied lines. How you do this is a bit of a letdown, as it mostly involves sneaking to get something, sneaking to bring it to the person who wants it, sneaking to bring it back where you got it from, and sneaking to find out who you have to sneak to next, in order to find out what your next sneaking assignment is. Failure is common, and it always means reloading from a saved game or replaying the mission.

The game loosely follows the plot of the film and has you playing its four key characters. They’re so keen on escaping and fighting the war that the Axis ships them off to a super POW camp. You get to actually experience how each of them came to be imprisoned, and these are often exciting sequences filled with surprise, like taking control of the guns on a bomber as Messerschmidts harass your aircraft. Eventually, you get to portray the stoic and macho American Hilts, who even looks like Steve McQueen as the designers got permission from his estate to use his likeness. Each character is played in turn, and the story covers the attempts, the escape (the great one), and then it’s on to Allied territory.

The Great Escape is played in third-person with a mouse/keyboard or gamepad. The latter lets you take advantage of the auto-aim feature (it’s a console port), but the mouse is more precise. Comparing this game to something like Thief or Splinter Cell just isn’t fair, as The Great Escape’s stealth controls and feedback are at best poor and frustrating. Even worse is the enemy AI, which either miraculously sees you or remains unaware of your presence even if you’re standing right in front of an enemy soldier.

Snap25It seems like sound is modeled, but the AI sometimes “hears†you when you’re sneaking or crawling, and sometimes it doesn’t. The game teases you with the ability to punch and strangle guards, but doesn’t tell you when doing so will result in automatic failure for most missions. Once spotted, the enemy chases you down like a bloodhound. You might as well stop and reload the mission again. Since getting caught is often arbitrary, the fact that you’re limited to three saves per level, in a PC game, is all the more galling.

Graphically the game is uneven. The character models are goofy and stiff, but the backgrounds are gorgeous. The fact that every character that isn’t mission specific ignores you—even if you punch him through the head—hurts what little believability the game has. This isn’t an interactive world, it’s a movie set with mannequins as actors. At least Hilts looks, sounds, and swaggers like McQueen, and the audio expands on the film’s excellent score. The best thing about the game is its varied locations, but the repetitive step-and-fetch missions, lack of inspiration, and annoying stealth portions diminish whatever strengths it possesses. The Great Escape is a classic film, but this is far from a classic game.

System Requirements: Pentium II 233 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 16 MB Video, Win98

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