Is it a scoop?

Title: The Occupation
Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: White Paper Games
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Price: £25/$30
Release date: March 5, 2019
TL;DR: A brilliant idea supported by a great cast and world but let down by the simple things
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Political journalism must be a tough gig. In comparison, us gaming journos have it pretty easy for the most part, I’ll take someone bitching about my opinion on Resident Evil 4 over the late nights spent crawling through vents, hoovering up documents or ID cards, and performing enough computer-related jobs to make you an ideal candidate for a high level IT role. At least, that’s the idea I get of a political journalist based on my time with White Paper Games’ investigatory stealth ’em up, The Occupation, a game with a brilliant idea but an execution that lands a little flat.

The Occupation puts you in the story-blowing-shoes of journalist Harvey Miller as you go digging into the story of Alex Dubois, an immigrant who’s carried out a terrorist attack in an alternate 1980’s Britain that’s in the midst of a worrying anti-immigration Union Act being passed. It’s up to Miller to find out the truth to all of this over the course of a day that has you doing some real-time investigating in the lead up to three different interviews.

It’s an absolutely stellar premise to the game, with the real-time hour you have to investigate before each meeting giving way to some top-notch sleuthing at times. A lot of this investigatory work is spent running around the three different buildings you’re in, trying to find the right office which houses a document or computer you need to use to follow up a lead. And there are leads aplenty for you to follow up on with each investigation, so much so that it can be quite difficult, at least initially, to figure out which avenue is best to explore.

A lot of this variety adds to the replay value of The Occupation, with each new game affording you another chance to uncover new evidence to bamboozle your interview subject during your meeting but, especially early on in the game, I found that the sheer volume of leads I seemed to fall over with every document meant that I was at a loss on where to go. I should note that this sensation of being lost in a sea of clues does subside somewhat, though it’s fully dependant on you being able to show some modicum of self-constraint and knowing that each investigation requires a degree of sacrifice as you figure out which lead is best to follow up.

You don’t have free roam of the trio of buildings you visit for each investigation either, with some area that house sensitive information being strictly off-limits to you, the curious newshound. A locked door doesn’t do much to dissuade Miller though, and with the majority of useful rooms usually housing an open window or – more likely – a vent, you’ll be spending a lot of the game watching Miller squeeze into a shaft that’s far too small for a grown man. Along with the locked doors is the entirety of the company’s security team, amounting to a staggering two guards. Though, you’ll only really have to worry about one guard as you slink around the restricted areas of the building. That guard, Steve, is an absolute bastard; not because of any real ability to do his job well though. Steve is an astonishingly bad security guard and you’ll often hear him reciting lines for an audition or stumble across his audition tapes that showcase him practising British accents very, very badly.

The reason Steve is such a bastard in the game is that the stealth mechanic in The Occupation is just horrible. There’s no real way of knowing when Steve can see you if he’s in the vicinity until it’s too late, something that’s made more painful by the severe lack of middle-ground in the ability to sneak. You’re able to hide under table and desks or peek around corners but it’s not that helpful because when Steve manages to somehow inexplicably spot you, he becomes something of a bloodhound, mercilessly walking after you sayin ‘that’s enough now Mr Miller,’ and other such terrifying lines.

It’s a shame that the stealth is such a flawed part of the game because the actual investigating is a lot of fun. Leads become these multi-step quests that have you bounding around all over the place, and if you find yourself stuck on what to do or where to go, your editor helpfully gives you a call to deliver a hot tip. It’s strange just how quickly these snooping sessions eat into your time though; on more than one occasion I found that I was cutting it incredibly close from getting my hands on some concrete evidence before having to bolt across the building to make my interview appointment. It’s a system that works so well in crafting a rigid environment that’s open for you to play around with, and while it can take some getting used to, the investigatory sections in the game lend themselves to a real diverse bit of play.

All this snooping and running away from the bad actor, Steve, is so that you’re able to drop a handful of mind bombs on whoever you’re interviewing when your one-hour or searching is done. These interviews are only as effective as the evidence you’ve managed to unearth. As you’d expect, a successful uncovering of even one or two bits of solid evidence that contradict the story you’re looking into sees your interview subject stagger a little in their answers and can even see them question what they thought was the truth. Of course, these conversations aren’t all that useful if you have nothing damning to present them. My first interview quickly turned into a series of aimless questions followed by me apologising and agreeing with what my counterpart had said.

The interviews themselves are fairly straightforward, with questions options being opened up for you based on the evidence you have, while even those aforementioned aimless question can sometimes give way to a new topic. It’s a wonderful realisation of cause and effect in the game, one that plays out naturally, taking into account the evidence you’ve managed to scramble together in a way that when it works makes you feel like a top-notch journalist, while those fruitless interviews only work to fire you up for the next round of clue searching.

It helps that these interviews, along with the entirety of The Occupation, is backed up by a sublime set of voice actors. The three subjects you interview all embody this spirit of a closed off team of upper-management, whether it’s the withdrawn northerner who seems to only pity the actions of Alex Dubois, the cock-sure superior of the former employee or the grizzled boss, all three characters hold a certain gravitas about them, making your job of being able to spot a lie or inconsistency that much more difficult and making your investigatory work all the more pertinent. A special mention should go out to the voice actor of Scarlett, whose narrative you’ll switch to from time to time and hear some astoundingly emotive monologues as she speaks about her late husband, who was killed in the bombing that left 22 other dead.

It’s a cast that compliments so much of the game’s plot, helping to frame a shady and ultimately frayed snapshot of this game’s world. It’s an atmosphere that’s backed up by the game’s environment as well. A stylish recreation of 80’s Britain that’s full of hulking computers, pagers, and phone boxes. Then there’s the music, a collection of original pieces that span from synth-rock to classical ballads, pumping out from the various radios littered around each building. And when you’re not stuck in the grand and imposing architecture of the different buildings, you’ll be able to take a stroll through corridors of the outside world. These moments are brief but play out in such a way that manages to show you so much in a wonderfully offhand manner. Sure, there are moments when hateful messages are smeared on walls that underline the tribulations of this world but there are moments where the distant rumbles of protesters mixed with the train passing overhead work to show how these bouts of unrest have wormed their way into the everyday.

Yes, The Occupation does a lot of good work in its world, its acting, and its core gameplay, yet I came away from the game with the distinct feeling that it hadn’t managed to do itself justice. Annoyingly, the cause of this feeling is pretty easy to identify, along with the pretty lame stealth mechanics, the game’s lack of direction works to dampen so much of what it does well. As I said, the game’s design feeds into a natural sense of urgency, with real0life minuted ticking down as you hunt for clues. This works wonderfully in the early parts of the game though later on these quickly devolve into maddening sprints through a building as you try to guess what to do, birthing frustration more than the urgency the game had delivered so well beforehand. It happens time and time again in the latter parts of the game, defusing tense moments of explanation into impotent walks around a room as you look for something, anything, that you might use to progress.

The Occupation is very much a game that can’t quite house the lofty expectations it sets itself. There are moments where the game’s genius shows, with the use of real-time investigation forcing you into making snap decisions on what evidence to follow up on and how best to do this; the cast and world of the game paint a wonderful tapestry that deliver a real sense of worth for what you do as well. Unfortunately, The Occupation falls short in a couple of it fundamental aspects, working to nullify so much of the good work its design and plot deliver. It’s still well worth your time both for an initial playthrough along with a second and third playthrough but it feels like time will be the game’s best friend. Hopefully, the developer will be afforded the opportunity to iron out the areas where it falls short, if it does get that then The Occupation should certainly be on your To Play list this year.

The Good:

  • A unique and compelling story
  • A brilliant cast of voice actors
  • The real-time investigation sections are a lot of fun overall

The Bad:

  • The stealth mechanics can do one
  • Steve the security guard can also do one
  • There’s a distinct lack of direction in the latter game that almost feels as if the game hasn’t had that final dollop of polish

Family Focus

Pegi: 3 ESRB: T for Teen

I’m quite surprised that, given the subject-matter and a handful of strong language, The Occupation has the Pegi rating it does. If you’d rather keep the kids away from hefty topics and bad language maybe hold off for a while until they play this.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy of the code provided by PR for the purpose of this review.