The Occupation review – a very British Deus Ex

The Occupation (PS4) – return to the era of the digital watch

A new immersive sim set in an alternate 1980s Britain is an alluring prospect, but can this ambitious new indie game pull it off?

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All too often in video games it feels as though your choices don’t make any difference, and that no matter what you do, or how badly your character behaves, you’ll be funnelled down precisely the same path towards a pre-ordained conclusion. There are a few games that attempt to defy that rule though, most obviously The Walking Dead series and the splendid Life is Strange – both of which use conversations as your primary tool for making decisions.

But there’s also the likes of Deus Ex, Dishonored, and Prey, which rely on their environments to give you freedom of choice. The Occupation takes these as its inspiration, its wild ambition putting you in the shoes of investigative journalist Harvey Miller, as he tries to unpick what happened in a terrorist attack that’s being used by the government to push through a brutal anti-immigration bill. Any similarities with real life are presumably in no way coincidental.

The game’s four main levels play out in hour-long chapters that give you an environment to explore, and mysteries to tease out of it, before you have to use your discoveries to interview a key witness. This involves listening in on conversations, reading memos, examining objects, hacking computers, and finding ubiquitous four-digit PINs and keycards. To access an important room you have options such as crawling through an air vent, finding the door code carelessly scrawled on the back of a document, or sneaking in through an unlocked window.

But getting in and out safely involves more thorough investigation; learning characters’ schedules, noticing when they nip out for a crafty cigarette break, or finding out what time the security guard is due to have his lunch. There are also multiple parts to each clue, so finding out about someone’s dodgy past or involvement in a crime is only the first element. You then need to uncover corroborating evidence and find a way to print it out or fax it back to your office. Each confirmed clue then becomes a question in the interview that rounds off the level.

Speaking of faxing, the 80s period detail is a delight. It’s a world of floppy disks, pagers, CRT monitors, and mixtapes, all of which have been fastidiously reproduced. You can open a flap on monitors and adjust their brightness, twiddle the Venetian blinds, or lift and move the needle on record players to play different tracks. And that’s before you’ve started messing about with the game’s many inanimate objects, some of which have hidden messages or notes on them.

The Occupation’s biggest point of difference though, is the fact that its violence-free levels play out in real-time. So if your interview appointment is in an hour you have exactly 60 minutes to conduct your investigation. That makes Harvey’s watch a vital tool, adding to the dramatic tension as the time ticks down to your meeting. If you arrive unprepared, with only the default interrogation paths and no background evidence, you can expect evasive answers that you’ll be ill-equipped to challenge. But even in successful interviews there’s always material you miss, creating significant replay value.

The sandbox exploration levels are interspersed with briefer, more linear walking simulator-style interludes narrated by the mysterious Scarlet Carson, whose husband died in the terror attack. In these sections you listen to her inner monologue whilst strolling through what amounts to a winding, lightly atmospheric corridor. There are minor puzzles to solve, but the real strength of these parts is the voice-acting, which is solid and emotive throughout. It’s particularly nice to hear characters with English and Scottish accents after so many games spent playing as an American.

Architecturally its levels are interesting and often beautiful to look at, evoking recognisably British office spaces and housing. Naturally they also allow for crawl-able air ducts and handy pieces of scaffolding to give traversal more variety, but never at the cost of ambience. You’ll also come across plenty of 80s-sounding tunes to listen to either on vinyl or on one of the game’s many audio cassettes.

The Occupation (PS4) – a very British dystopia

Unfortunately, despite its soaring aspirations, The Occupation’s technical implementation is regularly its undoing. There are minor glitches like objects floating unsupported at waist-height, moments where you get hooked up on pieces of scenery, and others where the game breaks entirely and you have to quit and start again. However, even when everything’s working perfectly, the unresponsive controls and need to point your cursor at exactly the right place to interact with objects prove to be a hindrance.

The total absence of checkpoints is also an issue, with the game only auto-saving at the end of each chapter, some of which are over an hour long – meaning you have to see each one through to its conclusion or face starting from scratch the next time you play. If you have children or any other form of frequent, unpredictable interruption to your gaming time you’ll find that feature head-shaking in its short sightedness. A simple quick save could have prevented a world of heartache.

You’ll also discover that stealth isn’t always necessary and that characters’ artificial intelligence is can sometimes be overwhelmed. On more than one occasion we found we could simply ignore Steve the security guard ordering us to leave, and blithely carried on rifling through desks, stealing keycards, and noting down passwords and PINs with impunity, while he ineffectually repeated that there was no use running away.

Even more baffling are the subtitles that pop up: ’CHARACTER NEAR YOU DRONE PLAYING’ or ‘CHARACTER LEFT AREA STING PLAYED’. You eventually deduce that these caps lock missives mean a security person is nearby and that you’ve just left a room in which your presence was illegal, but it’s never explained. For a British-made game some of its syntax is at best deeply surreal.

All that makes The Occupation something of an enigma. On one hand it has its sights set on the very best the games industry has to offer, with a genuine sense of guiding your own fate in an uncertain situation. On the other, its highfalutin ambitions are sabotaged by technical flaws, many of which appear, at least on the surface, to be easily avoidable. For patient players and those with many interruption-free hours to spend, this may just be viable. For the rest of us its frustrations all too often outweigh the joy.

The Occupation

In Short: A staggeringly ambitious, gun-free immersive reality detective game set in an alternate 1980s Britain, whose admirable intentions are undermined by technical problems.

Pros: Excellent voice-acting bolsters an unusually deep plot in which your decisions and discoveries feel as though they really matter.

Cons: It suffers from frequent, sometimes game-breaking glitches, there’s no way of saving in levels that take over an hour, and its controls get in the way even when everything’s working as intended.

Score: 6/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Price: £24.99
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Developer: White Paper Games
Release Date: 5th March 2019
Age Rating: 12

By Nick Gillett

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