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P.O.W. Preview (Xbox, PC)
game: P.O.W.
posted by: Aaron Stanton
publisher: Codemasters
developer: Wide Games
date posted: 09:10 AM Thu Jun 6th, 2002
last revision: 05:12 PM Thu Nov 3rd, 2005

World War II being one of the darkest times in human history, has served as the foundation for countless games--almost a genre unto itself. What\'s different about P.O.W. is that it\'s a World War II game without any death. As a downed pilot turned prisoner of war, you\'ll spend your time adhering to the established rules of a German camp, gathering intelligence for the allied war effort, and planning your next escape attempt. The worst that will happen to you is a few days of hospital stay to recover from your wounds. Don\'t expect to see gas chambers or golden stars, either. As Codemasters is quick to point out, the military prisoner camps were much different, much kinder, than the death camps we\'ve come to associate with the Nazi regime. While not trying to skirt around Germany\'s role in WWII, it does allow a sigh of relief from those of us without the heart to play an interactive version of Schindler\'s List. Instead what you\'ll find are meticulously reconstructed P.O.W. camps, from the physical architecture to the life of the prisoners, and a game that forces you to rely on your skill as an information gatherer and escape artist over your ability to disembowel a man with your thumb.

A newcomer to the life of the P.O.W., you assume the role of Lewis Stone, an Allied pilot shot down and captured during a reconnaissance mission in 1941. Finding yourself behind bars without any specific release date in sight, you immediately set about attempting, and repeatedly failing, to escape. Unable to further yourself through other means, being unable to read German and being short on English literature, you set about to dutifully improve your skills as a Houdini wanna-be, until you stumble across evidence that Germany is conducting some sort of secret research. Safe from the Allied bombers that won\'t drop their load on a P.O.W. camp, Stone and his fellow prisoner\'s find themselves sharing turf with the scientist developing the U2 Rocket (and possibly more). With this information in hand, you must escape, and you must escape now.

Oddly enough, though other games are claiming increasingly expansive universes, P.O.W. stakes claim to a relatively small part of the world. The entire game takes place, basically, between the confining bricks of a prison\'s walls (or barbed wire, as it may be), though there isn\'t any doubt that your character will be moved about quite a bit. In fact, the size of the camp is one of the more important elements of the game. Press a key or two, and up pops an information screen with the tally for your daily ritual, including times for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and morning and evening roll call. Get too busy taking snap shots and miss any of those, and you may find yourself on the guard\'s most wanted list. What\'s more, they\'ll pay more attention while looking around for you; they might even notice that military uniform you swiped earlier in the day. Figuring out the holes in the system without getting caught is part of what makes the game all the more interesting.

One of the game\'s selling points is Codemasters\' focus on AI. In total there are 12 friendly, and about 50 not-so-friendly, AI wandering about the camp aside from yourself. Each of them has his own intelligence, personality, and so forth. No mindless look-alike guards in this game ? they all have different intelligences, even to the point of some noticing things others might miss while on searches. Identifying which guard is which, and who might be bribable, is another element you\'ll have to master if you want out of your camp with the proof of the U2\'s development. Aside from paying off the guards, or avoiding their notice, you\'ll have to get around them in other ways too. Slip on that stolen uniform, and you\'ll notice that the guard towers don\'t care about you walking through the gates as much. Don\'t run into anyone though, or they may notice that your German is about as good as my French, and that all you know how to say is, \"I don\'t speak German, do you speak English?\"

If you\'re found out, you may end up hiding underneath a car as the enemy\'s boots crunch the gravel at eye level (sort of creepy, actually). With no death to signal success or failure, time is your only real enemy. The number of days it takes you to complete your goal will determine how well you do in the game. The more you get caught, or shot, the more time you\'ll spend in bed or in a cell. With a strong gritty appeal, its realistic recreation of the P.O.W. camp physical layouts, and nonviolent espionage outlook on your role in the game, P.O.W. has a lot of interesting things going for it.

As I try to do at the end of each demonstration, I asked the programmer what his favorite scene is. He lead me through the nighttime shadows past the enemy spotlights, mounted the rungs of a ladder onto the roof of a nearby building, and peered down with his camera to take a few snapshots of a rocket standing erect on its launch pad. Stray flecks of snow drifted into the screen, and the nighttime chill seemed to make its way onto my arms. Odd thing, considering there were literally thousands of computers, televisions, and people all together in a confined space. It should have been like a sauna, but P.O.W. has its own little climate and feel that it brings along with it. P.O.W. looks very promising. It\'s due out on the Xbox sometime this month (June), and in September 2002 for the PC. The PS2 version isn\'t being released, as of yet, inside the U.S.