If you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment – would you capture it, or just let it slip? That’s the choice you’ll have to make within The Occupation, the new fixed-time investigative thriller from Manchester-based White Paper Games. You see, if you don’t take the opportunity when it’s presented to you, you can risk your entire operation as time stands still for no man, and time is precious within this intriguing game.
It all boils down to what type of person you are; Are you the kind of person who rushes in without a care in the world and are willing to risk everything, including getting caught, in order to fulfil your mission, or are you the more reserved type who likes to plan things so that you’re always five steps ahead? Either way, you’ll be pushed to your limits as the game adapts to your playstyle and laughs at you whilst you fumble around within its domain. So, come with me as we go back in time to the 1980s, here in Manchester, as we live out a night we’ll never forget…
Very nostalgic! Wrong coloured bin though.
One of the big things I love about The Occupation, before I dive into its story and spoiler-free details, is the setting and time period. It’s Set within Manchester – well, it says a ‘North Western part of England’ but we all know it’s Manchester, Leeds or around that area due to the housing design and various items within your home. Being a Manc myself, just like the development studio, this made me smile as we aren’t really referenced within games. The last game I can think of is Resistance: Fall of Man, which basically had the Manchester Cathedral within it. Anyway, this fact doesn’t make this review biased, it just brought back fond memories of growing up in similar settings.
Set in the ’80s, An explosion which killed 23 people has triggered the rushed legislation of an Act which basically threatens to effect and break down everyone’s civil liberties. However, was this explosion a planned event in order to force this into play asap, was it simply an accident, or maybe it was a targetted assassination gone wrong, who knows? That’s where you come in. Taking the role, primarily, as Harvey Miller, a reporter who has been called in to investigate the whereabouts and actions of the various key members of staff within the Bowman Carson Group (BCG), you must come to your own conclusions of who to trust and what to believe.
As such, The Occupation is a narrative drive thriller in which nothing in pre-determined or set in stone. You can go about your time in the building as you see fit. It’s up to you if you wish to find incriminating evidence and focus on the ramblings of your client, or literally sit there patiently and listen to what the staff have to say. Everything you do and say will affect the outcome and ultimately the decision the public will make in regards to this rather intrusive Act.
Let me tell you about my experience, the experience of a clumsy detective…
First up, controls. Some things I liked, some I didn’t. Let’s start with the literal controls, It’s about as basic as you can get with nothing being too confusing or annoying. You’re armed with a pager, do you remember those? so you’ll never miss a call, as well as a briefcase which you can store all the documents you stea… borrow. However, this isn’t Hitman 2, so don’t expect to throw this at anyone and hope for a nice easy kill! One action I will praise the devs for is the ability to lean! Simply hold the L2 trigger and you can lean in pretty much any direction – this is the core mechanic which I feel Intruders: Hide and Seek is missing.
Also, as you’ll be using various objects with small, fiddly buttons and PCs a lot during your time at the BCG, there’s an option to zoom in on the thing you’re looking at so you can have more precise actions. Perfect! Oh, and you also come equipt with bionic eyes so you can zoom into anything at all – which is always nice and very realistic…
Now for the things I didn’t like. Your character doesn’t seem to know whether to give you full control or not sometimes. Basically, you have to press Cross when pushing against an object to climb it, yet sometimes you’ll do it automatically and just stand on the desk. Similarly, if you crouch then go near a table or small object, you’ll prone under it and hide. However, it didn’t always work and would sometimes make you go under the desk even if you’re stood up fully – thus making you bob up and down like a Whack-a-Mole mole! This isn’t a big issue, but in a game where stealth is its core gameplay mechanic, it didn’t feel as tight in certain areas as it should have been.
Thankfully, the game isn’t too harsh with the punishments if you’re caught – no torture dungeon or slow, painful deaths in this game.
Stealthily does it…
The Occupation is, as I previously mentioned, a stealth game in which you’re tasked with uncovering evidence and information so that you can come to a solid conclusion on what had happened. However, the game only slightly holds your hand as it leaves the majority of the gameplay and uncovering of crucial information to yourself. Upon entering the BCG, the guards are well aware of your intentions and will cooperate with you fully as long as you obey one rule, stay out of the Staff-Only areas. However, that’s no fun! So, you’re on the lookout for keycards, secret entrances in the air ducts, open windows, and opportunities to sneak into rooms whilst people aren’t looking.
This is the point in the game where I became quite anxious and clumsy, as you’d know if you’ve read my Intruders: Hide and Seek review that I’m not the greatest at these games. My main issue with it was the inconsistency of the AI security guards. Okay, that sounds worse than it is, they are consistent, consistent in being a pain in the arse! Unlike other games where you can watch over the guards, learn their movements and then sneak in and out whilst they’re grabbing a coffee or something. The Occupation moves the single AI guard to your location every time you change your locale! This was annoying and rather suspenseful at the same time.
For example, say I was on the ground floor of the BCG, the guard will be patrolling the Staff-Only areas around there, waiting to catch me as I furiously look for dirt on the execs in charge! Yet, if I then change my mind and go to the top floor of the building, you’ll get a few minutes of peace before you hear the “bum bum” noise which lets you know the guard is about. I know it’s so that the game keeps you on your toes and always looking around every corner, as there is only one guard (the other is quite lazy), but I do wish I could have created distractions or something in order to gain more time.
One other thing, which may annoy people as it surprised me, is the fact that you can’t just hide under a table if you set off an alarm. You need to hide then GTFO of there whilst the guard’s back is turned. Why? Because he’ll randomly check under the tables and behind things – you know, like you’d expect a real guard to do – so if you’re there, he’ll ask why you’re hiding under a table holding a document whilst the safe is wide open! Also, if you don’t check your surroundings, you can end up setting off alarms as you open various doors. This results in the staff being unable to accuse you if they didn’t see you, but they will start to hover around the places you’re going more often.
So, other than lying on your belly and squirming around the place as you hide under tables and crawl through air ducts, what else can you expect from The Occupation? I’m not sure how to describe it so I’m going to say an adventure collect-a-thon in which you comprise factual and questionable evidence in order to present it to your interviewee, providing you make it there in time. That sums it up nicely I think! So, as you’re let loose within the building with only a clipboard of a few pointers on what to look out for, you’ll regularly see passcodes, read about juicy information, or see something which looks out of place. All of these are automatically jotted down into your dossier and some of them will either create new ‘question points’ for you to raise later on or they’ll give you a clue on what to look for next.
Now, the rather unique and interesting thing about this is that literally, everything is optional. You can go to the interview, wait to be called in, ask the generic questions and move on to the next time period, or you can spend your time wisely and uncover as much dirt as you can and turn the interview into an orgasm of exposition and information! The more things you find in your ‘free time’, the more you’ll get out of the interviewee. This leads to you understanding more about what’s going on and allows you to come to a more definitive decision on what’s right and wrong. As such, everyone’s playthrough should technically be a little different, unless they collect everything within the timeframe.
Also, The majority of the time you’ll be playing as Harvey but you’ll also play the part of Scarlett Carson, the COO of BCG, as she has a rather big role within the current events as well. Just to point this out now, Scarlet is voiced by the brilliant Amelia Tyler, a voice actor I first heard, and loved, in The Spectrum Retreat. She’s popping up everywhere at the moment and you can see why, every character she plays, she literally becomes that persona as she delivers an outstanding performance.
Time to talk about Time…
Tick tock, tick tock… That’s the sound of your opportunity passing you by as you sit there thinking about what to do next within The Occupation. This is one of the few games which I can think of which incorporates time as a core gameplay mechanic. If you’re old enough, think back to the ’90s for games such as Night Trap, or even more recent games like The Invisible Hours (Only without the element of time manipulation). Basically, everything plays out regardless of whether you’re there or not. The overall game doesn’t alter as much as the aforementioned games, as the AI guard still follows you around instead of going about his business, but if the game says you have a meeting in an hour, you have a meeting in an hour.
So, you’ll be playing around four time-sensitive segments at an hour each, as well as a few more relaxed in-between segments. I’d say there’s about 6 hours or so of gameplay per playthrough. It’s also quite crucial that you plan things out as certain events only happen at set times. Do you need to break into an office to find a file? Well, it’s being cleaned for five minutes within that time period – don’t be late! Also, if you’re too late for your meeting, the game will just progress without letting you attend – thus limiting the information you have. It all works really well and you have a watch on hand with a timer should you wish to create custom alarms and reminders.
One of the things I love, yet trophy hunters won’t, is the fact the game works a little bit like Vampyr did – choices, actions, progress, it’s all locked per playthrough. There’s no chapter select, no saving to other slots, no way to manipulate what you do outside of backing up the save file manually. This adds more pressure onto getting it right and not getting caught. Speaking of which, if you do get caught in a restricted area, you simply lose fifteen minutes of time – it’s quite a big knock as you only have an hour for each segment, but at least you can continue. However, there are certain parts in the game where if you’re caught then you’re thrown out of the building and the game continues whether you’ve done everything or not.
Attention to detail
Okay, I’ve talked about a few things within The Occupation which caught my eye, but the attention to detail the developers have put into the game goes far beyond what I was expecting. Sure, some things seem period-incorrect, like the green bin in the ’80s (as they were either metal or black back then), but other things are crazy. So, as I said before, Mr. Bionic eyes can read every single note or piece of paper in the world without even picking them up. I spent a while reading a load of memorial cards as they hung on the wall before I realised you could take them down and read them much easier. Also, you can pick up a number of items as you walk around the empty rooms. None of them matter, but the fact you can pick up things like a signed football and inspect the signatures, or a book and read about the author, is awesome.
Then we come onto the parts I was really surprised at, the music elements. If you want to play a cassette, be it music or an interview, you have to push the eject button, then pop in the tape, then hit play. But this isn’t the surprising one, that’s the record player. Take a record, open the sleeve, take out the record, put it on the player, start it up and then drop the needle wherever you want. I’m not sure if it’s 100% accurate, but lifting the needle and placing it in a different location makes the music start at a new point! Not only that, the record players have a 45 and 33 rpm switch, push that and listen to all your favourite hits of the ’80s being sung by sloths! If you’ve never used a record player before, you’ll probably have no idea what I’m on about.
Okay, so The Occupation isn’t as technically stable as I would have hoped for. Initially, I was really disappointed with the number of glitches and bugs I had spotted, as I thought I had the day one Patch, but then a patch came down last night and that resolved a lot of my issues. So, if any other reviews mention bugs and issues today, they may not have been on the latest build from late last night. However, I still encountered a number of issues which I’ve reported to the developer this morning, the main thing you’ll want to do though is:
Turn off supersampling if you’re on a PS4 Pro and you’re playing on a 1080p TV. Why? The UI isn’t scaling correctly and leads to incorrect placements of button prompts. This isn’t a major issue but it does make dialling the phone and operating the answerphones/PCs a pain as the UI overlay doesn’t map to 1080p correctly if you’re in supersampling mode. This also seems to fix the tiny subtitles issue as well.
I’ve also experienced items with a default <no name defined> tag, people floating around through doors like ghosts as they reset their positions, a woman going into her office and a minute later walking around the corner and reentering it without ever leaving!, tiny fonts in pre-rendered cut scenes, double voices in a single cutscene, and a few other bits here and there. I have faith that the developers will fix these issues and I’ll update this review and cross out the ones which get resolved. However, as it stands right now, there are a few funny and a few inconvenient bugs within the game but nothing game breaking. Just turn off Supersampling on a 1080p TV!
Visually, I’m on the fence. I’ve played in both 1080p and Supersampling mode and the game looks very artistic and stylised. It’s on the line between realistic and almost caricatures in style. It’s very interesting and parts of the game look great, yet other parts not so much. I’d say this is down to the low-quality textures used in a few areas, and there seemed to be a few lighting issues within the end-game area. But, as a whole, the in-game visuals look rather nice and with the power of your bionic eyes, you can zoom in and read every single piece of text on documents, cards, letters, posters, and even signs that you’d never even think of reading. I always love it when a developer does this as it shows the care that’s gone into it, rather than using a blurry text image to disguise there is no text there.
However, the pre-rendered cutscenes are quite blurry. I’m not sure if this is intentional or just a rendering issue. As such, I instinctively grabbed my cloth and wiped my glasses each time one of them started playing! There’s also the issue of the small text. These pre-rendered scenes have the smallest font I’ve ever seen on my TV. It’s as if the font is running at a size which would be good on a 1080p TV, yet when boosted to 4k, it’s not scaling the text, thus leaving it tiny. If you don’t use subtitles though, this wouldn’t be an issue.
In terms of the audio, Towards the end of the game, certain characters audio levels are messed up. People sat a few metres away from you sound like they’re literally screaming into your ears when they’ve been perfect up until now. Also, during a few of the stealth segments, a similar issue happens where guards that are near you will sound far away yet the lazy guard who is radioing the one walking around will sound like he’s shouting at you directly. It’s all very immersion breaking and annoying, but not game breaking.
However, both Jay Britton and Amelia Tyler were awesome, as usual, as well as the rest of the cast who all delivered believable and solid performances. Now, the music… If you’re going to be streaming the game or creating let’s plays, you may need to mute the music before you start your adventure. The game is crammed full of ’80s Britpop music, all fully licensed and from the original artists. One of your collectables is to collect records and tapes, these can be played if you find the relevant player. A lot of nostalgia was had whilst playing The Occupation!
Official Gameplay Trailer:
The Occupation is a game in which you can’t take anything for granted, especially the time you have to wander the halls of the BCG. At its core, it’s a stealth game in which you must avoid detection whilst you gather evidence and incriminating information so you can push your interviewees for more info, but it’s also a nostalgic trip back to the ’80s here in the North West of England. How you go about completing the game is your choice, key events are scripted and unmissable, but what you do outside of those is up to you. Also, regardless of how much you’ve found/uncovered, the show must go on as you’re forced into the next segment with or without the things you need.
I’ve seen time-sensitive games before, and I’m usually not a fan, but The Occupation takes this basic mechanic and utilises it as a way to push forward the narrative without an obvious ‘shove’. The game isn’t perfect, as I mentioned in my review, but it drew me in and had me hooked right until the end credits rolled, at around 5 am, after playing it all throughout the night.
(If all the above issues were resolved, I would have happily rated this game an 8/10)
- - Brilliant voice acting and music
- - Great attention to detail with things you'd not expect it to even care about
- - The time mechanic emphasises a sense of urgency and anxiety
- - You can choose whether to look for evidence or just sit there and do nothing
- - Interesting, if slightly confusing story which is told via flashbacks, reenactments and present day
- - There are a number of QoL issues such as the subtitle text and missing descriptions for items
- - The audio levels are way off in some areas. This makes it harder to stealth as you don't know where the person talking actually is
- - The AI security guard patrols the areas you decide to move to, thus making it more difficult to explore the building
- - If you own a 4k TV and a PS4 Pro, turn off Supersampling (unless it's been fixed post v1.03) as it messes up the UI