Occupational hazards.

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Most first-person games that open with an act of terrorism are immediately followed by hours of machine gun-based retribution, but The Occupation takes a refreshingly different approach. Rather than drop you in the combat boots of a one-man army, it instead puts you in the well-worn shoes of an investigative journalist and forces you to examine your surroundings with an analytical eye as opposed to a set of ironsights. Sadly, what could have amounted to a novel and absorbing stealth-investigation experience is regularly ruined by numerous rough edges. Like the subjects of its in-game interrogations, The Occupation’s shaky facade is all too frequently exposed.

It’s 1987, and an explosion killing 23 people in North West England has triggered a civil liberty-threatening government act that’s resulted in widespread unrest among the populace. The man accused of the bombing, Alex Dubois, maintains his innocence, and it’s up to the player as journalist Harvey Miller to snoop around Dubois’ workplace and interview those who knew him in order ascertain exactly what happened on the night of the attack, and either prove or disprove his innocence as a result.

What makes The Occupation unique is that most of its levels are set against a real-time clock. While there are a couple of smaller flashback levels that aren’t timed, the main chapters see Miller arrive at a facility an hour before his scheduled interview time, allowing him to wander into staff-only areas and eavesdrop on conversations in an effort to develop multiple lines of questioning and gather evidence for the allotted interview, all while the time on his digital ‘80s-era wrist watch continues to march on.

[There’s] a palpable sense of urgency to almost every moment.

How you spend the allocated time is entirely up to you. You can make every minute count, rifling through filing cabinets for phone records, pulling passwords from post-it notes in order to access personal emails, tripping fuse boxes to knock out alarms, and chasing down each and every lead to ensure you’re armed with enough intel to confidently interrogate your interview subject at the chapter’s end. Or, you can pull up a chair in the building’s foyer and while away the minutes listening to the security guard hilariously spout classic movie lines to himself, unaware he has an audience. The Occupation’s story progresses regardless of how many lines of investigation you pursue, but the more efficiently you make use of your time the more options you’re presented at each chapter’s climax, which adds a palpable sense of urgency to almost every moment.

Snoop Buggy Bug

The Occupation is brought undone by a variety of recurring glitches.

It’s a shame then that frequently throughout its five hour runtime The Occupation is brought undone by a variety of recurring glitches, ranging from small and irritating to big and game-breaking. It’s a relatively minor nuisance when the onscreen prompt for the elevator call button fails to appear and forces you to take the stairs instead; it’s an absolute catastrophe when you’re 40 minutes into a level and you suddenly fall through the game world down into a shadowy void absent of geometry, with no option other than to quit to the menu screen and restart the entire chapter, which happened multiple times during my playthrough.

General movement, particularly when navigating air vents or narrow scaffolding planks can often feel unwieldy, and I frequently found myself clumsily rubbing up and down the side of crates spamming the jump button in an effort to find the specific sweet spot that would let me clamber up. The reticule also feels far more fiddly than it should to complete simple actions such as picking up a cassette tape or interacting with the play button on an answering machine, and when time is of the essence such a fussy interface grows ever more annoying.

It’s also a curious design choice that aside from documents and tokens for the payphone, you can only ever carry one item at a time, despite the fact that Miller is perpetually lugging around a briefcase. There were numerous occasions when I’d snuck past the security guard, disabled the alarm to a certain office and gone to insert a floppy disk into a computer to backup some sensitive documents, only to find that I’d automatically dropped the disk at my feet several rooms back without realising when I’d picked up an innocuous company memo. Again, precious minutes wasted for no good reason.

The Occupation’s strict adherence to a real-time clock combined with the absence of manual saves can also conspire to seriously hinder the flow of its narrative. In the first of my two playthroughs, I found myself just barely two minutes late for the second interview session in the game. I walked into the meeting room, my interview subject sat at the table smoking a cigarette. I expected one of two things, either I’d be chastised for my slight tardiness and the interview would commence slightly behind schedule, or I’d be told by the interview subject that the meeting was cancelled. Neither occurred.

Instead, I awkwardly stumbled around the meeting room searching for a prompt that would trigger the interview and never actually finding one, before the level abruptly ended and shunted me forwards into the next chapter, overwriting my save game and preventing me from retrying the previous one. Not only did skipping this interview cost me a sizeable amount of detail I needed to flesh out holes in the story, but also, as I found out on my second playthrough, a certain vital piece of information that prevented me from unlocking one of the game’s endings later on.

The Verdict

There’s some irony to the fact that in its effort to design a game to be played against a ticking clock, the developer of The Occupation seemingly ran out of time. There’s a compelling narrative here, and some wonderful performances from the voice cast, but an experience that had the potential to put me on the edge of my seat more often than not made me want to start throwing chairs. Through post-release patching The Occupation may yet be resurrected as a very good stealth-investigation experience, but at launch this innovative game about making the most of time is itself an opportunity missed.

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