The Occupation Review

March 12, 2019
Also on: PS4, Xbox One
No items found.
Also on:
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Steve Crow has a lot to answer for. Among the many flies speckling the ointment of The Occupation, this interfering security guard proved to be one of the most irritating. He would appear when least expected, hang around far longer than would be deemed reasonable and once, most egregiously of all, bug out to the point where I had to quit the game. Steve was my nemesis. Unfortunately, when it comes to major problems with the game he was not alone. Characters — including my protagonist, ace reporter Harvey Miller — got stuck in doors, browsing my inventory resulted in occasional screen freeze, and the control system did its damnedest to turn me off at every step of my journey.

Oh, Steve.

The most frustrating aspect of The Occupation is that I can see the brilliance buried deep beneath its surface. It’s an investigative journalism sim layered over a very British tale of subterfuge, where political machinations have resulted in an immigrant — Alex Dubois — being blamed for a bombing which caused multiple deaths. That act of terrorism has prompted the government to enact a sinister and far-reaching anti-immigration bill, but questions remain about the validity of their reason for doing so. Your job, as Miller, is to get to the truth of the matter by snooping around the offices that Dubois worked at, speaking to his colleagues, gathering evidence, and working out what really happened. There’s more than a hint of allusion towards Brexit here, but The Occupation crafts an atmosphere of its own in an 80s era office complex filled with cassette tapes, memos and fax machines. Some of the chapters give you thirty minutes or an hour and then play out in real time, promoting both urgency and care with how you choose to utilise your valuable minutes. Infocom’s text adventures Deadline and Suspect are the games that The Occupation most reminded me of alongside Tequila Works’ superb The Sexy Brutale, though mechanically it’s closer to 2017’s Prey given the amount of containers you’ll find yourself opening and sorting through.

The 80s aesthetic is well realised.

Leads, clues and codes to safes and rooms that you find are stored automatically in your portfolio to look at any time, while the game will point you to the next “main” task it thinks you should focus on. Early on for instance, you’ll be prompted to search for phone records in a detective’s office to find out if the bomber was actually present at the time the higher-ups at Bowman Carson — the shady government subcontractor — claimed he was there. Since you’re a visitor, “Staff Only” areas are off-limits, so you’ll need to find a way to sneak into the location you require. There are numerous approaches you can take for any given lead: vent shafts often connect multiple rooms, NPCs like Steve go on breaks or helpfully chat about their schedules for you to overhear, and if you’re sloppy enough to make enough noise to draw someone to your location you can always hide under a desk.

The freedom you have to explore the nooks and crannies of the office is wonderful, as is the organic way you’ll stumble upon new leads in your quest for information. Vents can bring you to new entrances of rooms you hadn’t even realised existed the first time you were there. Key cards found in discarded bags open further avenues, while files, tapes and pieces of A4 carelessly pinned to noticeboards offer more clues about the real reason for your growing disquiet about the case. Voice acting, too, is brilliant. Though Miller is mute, a host of regional UK accents (and a couple of American ones thrown in for good measure) made me feel right at home in Blighty, with janitor Marlon being a particular highlight as he skewers the immigration debate with a bang-on observation about people complaining about French migrants while they simultaneously wolf down baguettes and quiche.

As you uncover clues, more interview questions are added ahead of your meetings.

White Paper Games has nailed the atmosphere and the idea of an immersive detective sim, but when it comes to the implementation of the mechanics it’s a whole different matter. Nothing breaks your immersion in a game harder or faster than running headfirst into a wall of bugs, and unfortunately The Occupation is full of them. I got stuck in the scenery and crashed out on no fewer than four occasions. Three of these were mere minutes from the end of a chapter, where my progress would have been saved — thus destroying all of the time and effort I’d put in up to that point. If I could have reached into my monitor and shaken the game while screaming “WHY ARE YOU DESPERATE FOR ME TO HATE YOU?!” I really would have. Such is the schism between the enjoyable sneak-em-up tactics you need to employ and the soul-crushing technical deficiencies that plague the game, booting up The Occupation often feels like an exercise in masochism.

Even ignoring the genuine game-breaking issues, or the less fundamental but equally irritating bugs, serious further thought needs to go into the control scheme. Something as simple as opening a drawer requires you to hold down a mouse button and press a key. Sliding a vent is painfully slow, while opening a locked door requires you to first determine if it’s actually locked, turn the lock, then open the door — all using an awkward combination of mouse and keyboard buttons. While the tactile nature of turning on a computer, inserting a floppy disc, copying files or printing off an email are stepped processes which make sense, the way you have to flip between your normal FPS view and a more focused interface in order to utilise items like computer monitors, tape recorders and safes just feels like unnecessary effort.

The Union Act is pervasive and extreme.

Your inventory is equally odd. You can only carry one item at a time for some bizarre reason, although some items — like documents — can be stored in your briefcase. But if you want to read the piece of paper you just picked up and accidentally filed away immediately, you have to press a button to put your briefcase down, another to find the document pouch and another to locate that document. The inventory, like most of the item interactions you’ll have, conspires to fray your temper.

On top of this there are typos and weird syntactic choices. These range from simple clerical errors (like a capsule giving you the wrong input to open it), to subtitles displaying musical stage directions such as “CHARACTER LEFT AREA STING PLAYED”. But there are also game-affecting ones like a note saying that a stock room opens at a certain time, when your automatically recorded note states that it’s five minutes earlier. In a game which relies on minute-to-minute time management, this is just inexcusable.

If you miss a crucial lead, the game will continue regardless, all the way to the slightly disappointing finale. If you can gather enough evidence to support your accusations of a cover-up prior to interviewing one of the Bowman Carson staff, you’ll get a lovely, satisfying glow as you catch them in a lie thanks to your brilliant detective work. You’re rewarded for being inquisitive, going where you shouldn’t and generally being a pain in the arse. Getting caught by security in places you shouldn’t be amounts to a few warnings followed by a stern talking to in the security office. This doesn’t end the game, but it does whittle precious minutes off your allocated hour, which is fine.

Some chapters aren't time-limited and let you enjoy a stroll around the environment.

What isn’t fine is the save system. You can only save when each chapter ends and there are no do-overs for mistakes you make. Once you commit to a new run through, you’re there until the bitter end — forced to plod through the more linear chapters and participating in the same interviews (albeit with hopefully more evidence). Your buggy attempts end up being dry runs for a more fruitful go at the same chapter, which is absolutely not the way the game was designed to be played. The Occupation is crying out for a smarter way to save your progress, because when you once again get stuck in a door and have to replay the last fifty minutes you’ll find yourself weighing up whether the brilliance of the game’s construction can justify the potential misery of having to repeat everything you’ve just done.

The most heartbreaking reviews to write are the ones where it’s clear that the game has elements of genius, but where that genius is neutralised almost entirely by poor execution. The Occupation sits here, a promised day one patch of bug-fixes failing to make any sort of dent in the game’s litany of issues. Maybe this will be a game worth returning to in six months, when a serious overhaul of its more damning problems has (hopefully) been completed and you no longer have to worry about Steve ruining your game. In its current state though, The Occupation isn't a scoop — it's a cold case.

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Brilliantly conceived but sloppily executed, The Occupation’s potential as an immersive detective sim suffers from too many technical problems to recommend it.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.