There are the video games we expect to be great, games from which we expect innovation and sophistication. Trauma Team, an interactive medical adventure sold at a discount price, was not supposed to be in that group. But it is.
Trauma Team is the fifth game in the Trauma Center series. On both the DS and the Wii, the games have stitched a narrative around missions that require the player to use stylus or Wii controls to scalpel, suture, defibrillate, set bones or perform any of the other actions a medical professional might have to do while trying to save a life. Trauma Team greatly expands that, chronicling the interactive adventures of six medical professionals. The game weaves the playable narratives of these people who mostly work in the same hospital while adding several new types of medical gameplay not seen before in the series.
What makes this game so special, though, is how progressive it is, how smoothly it accomplishes the unprecedented task of letting a gamer play an interactive workplace drama, the best equivalent to a good TV show about doctors, cops, or lawyers that I've played.
Life-Saving Fun: You shouldn't play Trauma Team if you don't want to have a patient laid out on you operating table with some hemorrhaging that needs to be stopped or a tumor that needs to be removed. Since the first Trauma Center, this has been the core gameplay of the series. In Trauma Team it is but a sixth, though it is still as fun as ever. You operate by selecting medical tools with the left analog stick of a Wii Nunchuk while wielding them with the Wii Remote in your other hand. Trauma Team doesn't put surgeries on a time limit, which the older Trauma Center games did, but you can still fail by being clumsy. You can kill your patients, but it is a lot more fun to stitch them up.
A Lot More Than Surgery: The surgery gameplay described above is the gameplay for just CR-S01, a convict who has been allowed, for reasons I don't want to spoil, to go to a hospital in Portland and operate on people. If you play his storyline, you get story scenes mixed with surgery challenges. If you play Gabriel Cunningham's campaign, you get something very different: No surgery at all... just interviewing patients, checking their X-Rays and MRIs, using a stethoscope on them to listen to their heartbeat, and checking a computer to see what their malady is. I promise you that Cunningham's missions are well-designed and fun. Another character uses an endoscope for Descent-style gameplay that has you flying though a person's small intestine or other organs looking for infections to zap. The orthopedists' gameplay mixes a variety of bone-fixing game-modes, all of them set to an arcade-syle chain-scoring system. A first-responder's missions involves light versions of the surgical gameplay, but with you juggling multiple patients. The medical examiner's extensive and wonderful campaign is a Phoenix-Wright-style hunt for clues. You are scouring recorded interviews, scrutinizing dead bodies, comparing pieces of evidence and, eventually solving the mystery of how someone died. Seldom have I seen such a wide variety of gameplay in one game, let alone so much of it so fun to play.
A Little Like Inception Or Pulp Fiction Or... E.R.: One of the best things Trauma Team's designers did was lay their game's six campaigns in a grid. Each column represents a character's campaign, each cell in the column a story or gameplay mission. The cells are lined up to match the times when they occur, so there might be many blanks in one character's column, because they have no missions from a given moment in the overall plot. You can play any of these campaigns straight through or hop around, consuming the story out of time sequence or trying, as I did, to play each row in order rather than play by column. Either way exposes you to some wonderful narrative tricks rarely used in games. Why is the surgeon let out of prison at the beginning of his campaign? Play deeply enough into another campaign and you will reach the event that occurs right before the prison release and all will be clear. Who is this person I am doing orthopedics on? The person I diagnosed in another campaign. Non-linear storytelling is still rare enough in video games that it is refreshing. Better than that, ensemble casts are rarely given such balanced time in video games. The Trauma Team developers figured out how to present the kind of multi-character drama we often enjoy on TV. That's a breakthrough for games.
Sharp, Clear Visuals: No single screenshot of Trauma Team looks very good. All are simple, clear enough to make the game missions comprehensible. That's what matters when you are trying to work on four patients at the scene of a bombing... you want to be able to shift from one body to the next and know right away that this one has glass shards that need to be pulled from its arm and that one needs a tourniquet. See the shot atop this review? It may not look like next-level graphics, but it makes it clear that you must intubate that patient. Slide that tube down in so they can breathe (hold the A button on the Remote and drive it down like a hammer to do that). The graphics of Trauma Team tell you what you need to know, stat. They succeeded for me.
Wonderfully Goody, Semi-Perverted: I like that the orthopedist might also be a super-hero and that the surgeon may have done something that warranted his 250-year sentence. I'm amused that the diagnostician doesn't get along with his talking computer. I can tolerate some of the sappy romance late in the game. I can even chuckle at the obvious indulgences in a certain brand of Japanese-developer-style perversion: the first person you can ask to lift their shirt so you can listen to their breathing with a stethoscope is a Japanese schoogirl. It's all PG-rated, thank goodness and played clean. That's a wink at where this game could go, but never does. This game is goofy at times but thankfully not depraved.
It's Not Brutal:Previous Trauma Center games were crushingly hard. This one is not. You can beat it on the normal difficulty without much trouble, then unlock tougher challenges.
Mid-Game Difficulty Tweaks Permitted: One of the most forward-thinking elements of Trauma Team is the fact that it lets players raise or lower the difficulty level of any of the game's medical missions before the mission begins. Dear rest of the video game industry, why don't you do this sort of thing in your games?
Fascinating Co-Op: Many of the gameplay types can be played co-cooperatively, in all sorts of interesting ways. The orthopedist's missions can be played in a hand-off style, with control switching from one player to the other during phases of an operation. The co-op surgery gameplay is even more of a stand-out. Before the mission begins, players can choose which of the array of surgical tools will be available to which player. I might take scalpel and sutures. You could take forceps and syringe. With our respective sets of tools "in hand," we then start the surgery. I've never seen players get this option to determine how to divide their co-op labor — from an array of options that would normally all be available to a single player — before embarking on a mission before. It is great. It allows players to become specialists, and it ensures that missions will be completed more efficiently. More of this, please.
When It Gets Far Out: Trauma Team is the least sci-fi of all of the games in the series. But once you think the game is over, it converges into a several-hour-long final campaign that involves all of the medical team together. It is a good all-combined series of missions, but the creators get carried away with a tonal departure from the rest of the game. This is also the phase of the game when the characters become preachy moralizers. For much of the game there is narrative restraint. But at this point it is sci-fi and sappy.
I expected Trauma Team to be a somewhat tired sequel, the fifth of a something that surely was tapped for all its best ideas by now. Not the case. Whatever you may think of Japanese-developed surgery games that involve macho surgeons and delicate ladies.. whatever you may think of a game that looks like it could be a bad anime or a bland third stab at the Wii ... think again. This game takes chances most games on any platform don't. It plays well, tells a good story in a great way. It should be on best-Wii-games lists. It makes the cut. Easily.
Trauma Team was developed and published by Atlus for the Wii on May 18. Retails for $39.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through all the campaigns in about 25 hours and would happily play a full game based on any one of the six gameplay styles presented within.
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