Just before the Christmas rush, the makers of Until Dawn released Hidden Agenda, a choose-your-own-adventure cop show. It's an entertaining romp for the most part, involving a Saw-esque killer on the loose and a dirty police department.
But rather than simply trying to unmask the killer, there's also a competitive mode where players get tasks encouraging them to force certain outcomes as the narrative unfolds. It sounds neat in theory, but in practice it ruins the pacing of the game and spoils the fun.
Hidden Agenda is probably the headline act in Sony's PlayLink range, a series of titles where players use their mobiles as controllers. It's not as intuitive as, say, the Jackbox games or Use Your Words, though.
First players have to download the specific app for each PlayLink game in question. Hidden Agenda tops out at 127mb, which isn't huge in the grand scheme of things, but if you're on a residential ADSL2 connection and you've got five or six people all grabbing the file at once, it slows the action down a bit.
Once that's done, players connect their phones to the same Wi-Fi network as the PS4 in question. If there's no Wi-Fi available, you'll be given an option to use the PS4 as a Wi-Fi hotspot so everyone can join.
After that, players ready up by dragging their finger on their phone, much like a mouse cursor. This happens at the end of every major scene too - rather than just hitting a simple continue button, you're tasked with moving a small, somewhat laggy dot. All decisions and quicktime events are decided with the same mechanics, the latter of which can be particularly infuriating.
You can't progress from one scene to another without every player's approval, and some choices won't progress without the players' unanimous approval. And while these are minor problems in the greater scheme of Supermassive's cop drama, they do fit into a broader problem with the competitive mode: the narrative and gameplay is brought to a halt, all too often, and for little reward.
Hidden Agenda's competitive mode basically turns the game's story into one about point scoring. Around the beginning of each scene, every player will be given a "hidden agenda", which is basically a prompt on their phone encouraging them to force a certain outcome in the story. It might be as simple as encouraging the protagonist to have a drink at a bar, avoiding conflict with superiors, or pissing a certain character off.
If the outcome is successful, you'll receive points. Players can also take control of the vote with tokens earned over the course of the game (usually for reacting fastest during a quicktime event, or finding clues in crime scene sequences), but for the most part people will hash it out over one of two choices.
The idea is that you'll get a prompt, and then you'll subtly debate with other players to convince them of your line of thinking. What often ends up being the case is that you'll be encouraged to make a decision that makes little sense - because unlike Until Dawn, Hidden Agenda is a show about cops.
One of the best attributes of Until Dawn was how well it played upon the teen horror movie trope, but what's less acknowledged is the leniency that gave the developers. Certain choices and lines of dialogue in Until Dawn made perfect sense, because you expect teens to be impetuous and a bit stupid.
You don't expect the same from seasoned detectives or criminal attorneys. So when you have one person actively encouraging the release of a serial killer, or another claiming that you'll get a better outcome by telling your partner to fuck off, it ruins the "hidden agenda" element a tad.
An example of one of the hidden agendas, which in this instance is pretty logical.
What hurts the game's momentum dead in its tracks is the announcement that not only is a new hidden agenda being given out, which not only spoils the flow of the narrative, but also puts everyone on high alert. And just prior to the next decision, the game explicitly warns all players that the next decision will determine the outcome of the hidden agenda.
Apart from making it more difficult for players to achieve some of the more ludicrous objectives - like encouraging behaviour that no sane cop would engage in - it also makes players less invested in subsequent choices. There's no points involved, so unless you really wanted to bugger up the story, it's natural for players to band together again to achieve the best possible outcome (or a specific outcome, if you're past your first playthrough).
Adding to the frustration amongst all this is a further prompt about who players think received the hidden agenda. It halts the action entirely for around half the points of a hidden agenda, although by the first act our group had stopped caring about points altogether.
It's a shame, really. Hidden Agenda's story is still fun and engaging, so much so that even after being supremely annoyed by the slightly laggy control scheme and constant pauses in action, our entire group spent the next hour watching alternate endings immediately after playing through the whole game in a single sitting. We wanted to see what would happen - we just wanted the game to get out of its own way.
It would have helped immensely had the game stored multiple saves, if not at various junctures then at least at the beginning of each act. That would have allowed us to replay proceedings in a slightly shorter timeframe. Instead, our save file restarted from the credits, which left a whole new game (in either story or competitive mode) as the only alternative.
There's still fun to be had with Hidden Agenda, gripes aside. And if you take food and drink breaks between each act - which you probably will, given each act is about the length of a full TV episode - you can get around two to three hours of story out of the game.
Hidden Agenda is selling for under $20 right now, which is a pretty decent deal divided amongst friends. Just make sure you give the competitive mode a wide berth, and make sure you've got plenty of snacks on hand throughout.