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Long Play: Trespasser

The game that no one loves.

A while ago I mentioned I liked Trespasser in what I thought was sympathetic company. The reaction was brutal.

Hate websites sprang up overnight, someone burned an effigy of my lawn on my lawn, and my neighbours tried to get their MP to introduce 'Craig's Law' in parliament - requiring me, and me alone, to register with local tabloid papers so the angry mobs could organise. Worst of all, my mum phoned up, her voice all a-quiver: "you don't really like Trespasser, son?"

The answer is "yes." To those who know the game that must seem a crazy admission: Trespasser was the Jurassic Park-inspired FPS that collapsed under the weight of its own Brontosaurus-sized ambition. It tried to introduce physics about six years before PCs were powerful enough; instead of a HUD it had a massive pair of breasts; it was the shooter without crosshairs; and the way you interacted with the world was to directly manipulate your character's in-game arms. What's not to love?

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You're Anne, lost on an island overrun by dinosaurs. Isla Sorna: the breeding ground for Jurassic Park. Nor is Anne here to titillate. Her character is devoid of macho bullshit and quips. With her, Trespasser taunted (and still taunts) gaming conventions. The developers used her as a way to remove the HUD, instead painting the life meter as a tattoo on her breasts. Gamers of a certain age only remember Trespasser for the fact that you had to check your cleavage every so often, missing the point that it was a smart way to strip the screen of immersion-ruining icons. The traditional on-screen ammo counter is also missing: Anne will instead weigh her gun and tell you how many bullets remain. "Seven left", or "nearly empty". Without the distraction of screen furniture, you're free to admire Trespasser's world.

Other shooters of the time, such as Half-Life and Unreal, feel claustrophobic compared to the massive landscape of Isla Sorna. It's not just a series of corridors, it's an attempt to make real that blurb we see on the back of so many game boxes: a "living, breathing world". The dinosaurs are each other's enemies as well as yours. While the grand plan of creating an entire island without any loading points was never realised, there's still plenty of opportunity to use the hunter instincts of the larger dinosaurs to lead the smaller (but still deadly) creatures into their jaws.

Yet they're oddly animated, moving like broken toys. It's Trespasser's greatest tragedy that the main thing it got wrong was the dinosaurs.

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To fight them, you use one of the most contentious ideas in modern gaming: Anne's controllable hand. To make Trespasser as 'real' as possible, you're asked to manipulate Anne's arm and hand to interact with the world. Things you take for granted in other games - door opening, gun collection - are manual here. To pick up a rifle, you extend Anne's arm into the screen, use the mouse to move it around, then drop it on the gun. Then you lift it to aim. I'm talking about a rewrite of FPS conventions here: the point upon which the gun is trained shifts from the centre of the screen as your arm moves. It may seem like realism gone awry, and under certain circumstances you can actually shoot your own foot, but as a human with a confirmed inability to aim a real-world gun, it feels as lifelike as my own real-world lack of skill.

In your long journey to escape the island, there are sights: brontosaurs nibbling trees, a half-finished monorail, the abandoned town where the workers once lived - now given way to rust and raptors. In all the criticism levelled at Trespasser - the frightening controls, the skittish dinosaur movements - no one dares take a shot at the atmosphere. It nails it. It's a never-ending parade of gripping locations, with a story glued together by two voiceovers: Anne's, provided by Minnie Driver; and park owner John Hammond's, provided by Sir Richard Attenborough. Each actor picks up the thread of the story where appropriate, and both do their best with the characters they're given, making the sort of barking idiocy that usually passes for voice acting nowadays all the more embarrassing.

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