The Learning Company and Blue Fang Games have released another classic PC title to Facebook with the recent launch of Carmen Sandiego. Following on the heels of The Oregon Trail this new title attempts to trigger the nostalgia of the past gaming generation while attempting to induct a whole new crowd of internet sleuths to ask the question: Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?
A game of piecing together clues in order to locate and apprehend criminals of Carmen’s V.I.L.E. organization, it tacks on a handful of social elements on Facebook but lacks the difficulty and style that made the original version memorable.
Carmen Sandiego, if you’ll recall, is a former member of the police agency ACME, and the most notorious criminal on the planet. Traveling around the globe, she and her criminal underlings steal everything from the bizarre (all the pedestrian signs in a city) to the grandiose (e.g. a monument).
The idea behind the game is that players need to travel around various global cities in search of clues that will either (a) narrow down their list of suspects in order to issue a warrant, or (b) point the player to where the criminal may be hiding. For each area of a city investigated, a bit of time is consumed, and for each time the user must hop a plane to another city, even more is eaten up. The goal is to find the correct city the criminal is hiding it, narrow down the suspects enough to issue a warrant, and do so within an allotted amount of time.
As a social game, it tends to have a finite amount of play in any one sitting. Players are given a series of missions that change every couple of hours, with the experience reward depending on how difficult the case is. As best we can tell, cases that change every, say, 30 minutes, are easier than those that take several hours.
Yet, none of the cases seem very hard. Possibly, “harder” cases will be come about at higher levels, but based on initial impressions of the game, difficulty is likely going to be increased along arbitrary lines of less time to do them. It’s the clues that need to be harder, and for the several cases we solved, many of them were cringe-inducingly lame. Some examples are his eyes “were on the non-green side of teal” or “her eyes nearly set off my smoke alarm” (when there is an eye color called “smoky”). [Update: We did hear from the developers and there are, in fact, significantly harder clues that take on a more riddle-like feel such as “When he switched the lights off, I thought he was trying to hide his face. Turned out he was trying to offset his morning toast.” Unfortunately, it may take some time until players are presented with these challenging, and much more fun, cases.]
Even clues in terms of figuring out where the suspect is headed are easy. Each one is worded in such a way that one merely has to type it into Google and the city and country are probably within the first two results. Heck, players don’t even have to type: They can copy and paste! In a sense, this is a problem caused by the Internet age — something that was obviously not an issue in the 1980s. Even so, many of the original clues were at least a bit more vague, describing a landscape or a “striped flag of yellow and blue,” or some such. At least then, should players “cheat” with an almanac, some research — and by extension, they had to learn.
To further trivialize the game, players don’t even have to really worry about making mistakes. If they need an extra clue, they can purchase it with a marginal amount of virtual currency. If they are low on time, they can take a “fast” plane that consumes zero travel time. They can even post to their wall, asking friends for help. In truth, that’s not a bad idea, but because of the Google element, it’s pointless.
As for other social elements, these too feel a bit of a stretch. Other than some simple leaderboards (based on level), the only noticeable mechanics appear to be cases that require a set number of friends to unlock, and an apparent ability to gift cases. That said, we did learn about a much more interesting feature, and that is that friends will occassionally appear as criminals in the game, ripe for apprehension.
Yet another aspect of the game that feels lacking is that none of the criminals the player apprehends (when apprehended or when a warrant is being issued) ever looks unique. In fact, most of the characters in general don’t feel all that unique. No matter where the player goes, there is always the same handful of witnesses and two ACME characters (the chief and a robot named SAM). Yet if players visit the robot SAM, he has a database of all the criminals and there is actually unique artwork for them.
In the end, Carmen Sandiego on Facebook has all the parts that made the original game good, but but not as much style. Everything is just far to easy and obvious clue-wise, and the social mechanics feel more forced than anything. Additionally, if the Internet age didn’t trivialize the game enough, the ability to circumvent core game play mechanics (e.g. flight time) with virtual currency makes any remaining challenge moot. On a final note, the social translation of the game has altered the whole point of Carmen Sandiego! People played this game in the hopes that their next case would be to find Carmen herself, not to try and be the top of a leaderboard! Where is in the world Carmen Sandiego? Probably crying in a corner somewhere after this.