Whenever I find myself playing a game set in dear old England, a little tear wells up in the corner of my eye.
This last year has seen me spoilt with a 60’s weird dystopia in We Happy Few to the gorgeous mash-up of the UK in the brilliant Forza Horizon 4. But now there is a completely different game, one that is set in the north-west of England, taking us back to the mad heady days of the 1980s and a very different history to what the world was like back then. That game is The Occupation and it whisks us to a place of political cover-ups and detective thrillers, all made rather brilliant by some superb writing and world building.
The Occupation is a wonderful game that makes me want to bang out a five-star review and talk about it being a game of the year contender… but there are a few problems that brings it down, and I feel it never reveals the true ambition or manages to scale the heights the development team want it to do. I shall try to tell you why.
The Occupation is set in a fictional time where a government building has been the victim of a terrorist attack, one that resulted in the death of 23 employees. As a result of this attack an immigrant – Alex Duboisthe – is blamed for the terrible deed and the government puts through a new “British act” of law, deporting all non-nationals from the country. This sees you playing out proceedings in a couple of roles; one being that of an investigative reporter, who examines and juggles with the truth of the situation, discovering that things aren’t as straightforward as first thought. The story it tells through the overall narrative arc and visuals in terms of newspapers, documents, floppy discs, and characters are excellent throughout. But it constantly made me yearn to spend more time in this world and see more than was viable. I wanted a fuller experience because the world building is so strong… but then, I guess that is why it’s being marketed at the price it is.
The gameplay that you will find is a mixture of exploration, stealth and real-time jeopardy. You start the game hunting around for clues in a building, then head off on an atmospheric walk through the city to your home. When you play as the journalist, the real-time jeopardy elements begin to come into play, seeing you interviewing employees, killing one real-time hour in the process. It’s up to you what you do at that time: You could just potter around the art gallery with the other visitors for an hour, listening to audios about the exhibition and then go to the interview. You won’t have much to talk about in the interview though, because you wouldn’t really have done any of the more important investigative work. But hey, at least you’d have had a nice day out.
Or of course, you could do some work and follow some leads from overheard conversations, documents or tapes found around the building; it is these which may just lead you to a new area or unravel a whole bunch of information that would have otherwise been missed. See, in The Occupation there are areas that are out of bounds, like private offices, which will be unwise to enter if you’re not in stealth mode. Security guards patrol the area and will respond to both alarms and sound, reacting to things that seem out of place. Your job is to find a way into an area quietly, without arousing suspicion and leave. If a guard does find you, then you get a couple of warnings before any action is taken. Thankfully you can crouch behind desks or hide in vents between rooms to help with your stealthy pursuits.
The main problem I have with The Occupation is that this gameplay feels a bit broken. Now it’s worth noting that there have been a number of patches since launch – and they have helped the first batch of issues that were encountered – but there have still been a few crashes which would cause a full reload of the game. Further to that, there is a problem with interacting with objects. See, when you look at an item, like a ringing phone for example , your natural choice would be to put the central crosshair on the receiver to answer it. In this game however, there have been times where I’ve had to place it to the right of the object, by just a few inches, in order to be able to interact. Other times you will have to madly swing the cursor around until the interactive prompt pops up. This is a massive shame because this control issue leaves a huge blemish on an otherwise fantastic premise, atmosphere, and narrative.
Away from that though and The Occupation on Xbox One does have a very nice visual tone to it, with a lot of retro additions from the ’80s included; cigarette machines, floppy discs and DOS load up screens. The attention to detail in the rooms is great, with some nice character models and some glorious cutscenes. I love the world the developers have created with The Occupation and as I said before would love to spend some more time in this gaming universe. Sound-wise it is also decent, with a great musical score that mixes a dreamy, yet scary, melody with some great tracks. The voice over work is some of the best I’ve heard in gaming too, and those behind this and the writing have done a stellar job.
To conclude, I really love The Occupation and what the team behind it have managed to create. The great story, in an amazing universe, has been brilliantly written and performed. The downside though is that the actual gameplay – you know, the important bit – isn’t quite right, even after the patches have dropped. It is this which has caused huge frustration, particularly in the latter parts of the game, interrupting the otherwise involving concept.
But that said, I will be waiting with bated breath to see what this team of creatives does next, hoping that they can expand this wonderful world.