The Occupation is one of the most interesting and unique immersive sims to come along in recent times in terms of concept, but boy is it flawed in its execution. For every unique idea or mechanic the game has to offer, it also brings with it infuriating bugs, bizarre design choices, and just a general lack of polish that will really test players’ patience. There really isn’t anything else like it though, so credit where credit is due.
Set in Northern England following a terrorist attack on Bowman Carson Group – a company that is helping the government co-ordinate an anti-immigration policy called The Union Act 1987 – the story follows Harvey Miller, an investigative journalist who is writing a story on the attack and its prime suspect, Alex Dubois. One can easily see the melting pot of influences from the likes of Orwell, Huxley, and Wells, but there is a decidedly contemporary feel to the issues addressed by the narrative, which is likely to be more than just a timely coincidence. It’s all handled with a degree of maturity and intelligence that is rarely seen in video games, and the story and its characters are a major highlight of the game. It’s not the most ground-breaking narrative but it is told extremely well and every character has a unique, complex personality, brought to life with very high quality voice acting and writing.
Players are tasked with conducting a series of interviews with Bowman Carson employees in order to uncover the truth about the attack (and in the process get personally wrapped up in a much, much larger political clusterfuck). These interviews are broken up across chapters and serve as the climax of each level. The game is not just a series of static conversations with dialogue choices however (though there are plenty of those). Players must “prepare” for interviews by snooping around and gathering evidence prior to the meeting. Most of the employees are not going to want to tell Miller the truth. It’s up to players to follow important leads and uncover hidden facts so they can watch interviewees squirm as they get tangled up in their own web of lies. How interviews – and ultimately the story – play out is heavily determined the quality of players’ investigations.
Obviously, this being a world filled with authoritarianism and political violence, much of the “preparation” is going to require players to be shady little bastards. They will regularly have to sneak into restricted areas, hack into computers, and eavesdrop on conversations to get the information they need. This isn’t necessarily anything new: Most immersive sims allow for (and often encourage) breaking the rules. But where The Occupation stands out from other titles in the genre is just how densely packed and reactive the world is, and that it runs entirely in real-time.
Each chapter lasts for one hour, with players having exactly that amount of time to do all the digging they can before an interview. It’s downright impossible to see and do everything in a chapter within an hour, though. As a result, players will frequently find themselves having to decide which of multiple leads is the most pertinent, anxiously checking their in-game watch as they wait for a security guard to leave a room, and cursing 1980’s technology as a dot matrix printer sloooooooooowly prints out a sensitive document one painstaking word at a time. It’s a clever design choice, and it creates a palpable sense of tension and places a tangible weight on every decision made. The addition of many in-game actions requiring a series of inputs to complete (e.g., opening a door actually involves turning the handle, opening the door, closing it, and turning the handle again) and making various levels of noise depending on how carefully they are done is another way the game creates a fine balancing act between trying to remain undetected while also being cognisant of the fact time is literally running out.
The world feels lived-in and responds in surprisingly complex ways to players’ actions. NPCs all have routines which they follow but will be altered (sometimes for the rest of the game) if they become suspicious, making scoping out an area a must before proceeding. If players get caught in a restricted area they’ll be politely asked to leave (Bowman Carson Group is a corporation, after all). If they keep disobeying the guards though they’ll be reprimanded, losing 15 minutes of the time limit in the process. The guards will also be much more on edge after that, making it harder to snoop around. Annoy a certain character in an interview and it may make following certain leads in later chapters more difficult as their office suddenly has more guards patrolling it, or an alarm installed. Accidentally forget to log out of a hacked computer and the owner will rightfully be suspicious, especially if they’ve seen Miller recently in the vicinity of their workstation.
The problem is the game is really unpolished, and these admittedly very cool mechanics end up being undermined by that. The reticule can be incredibly finicky when it comes to selecting items or carrying out commands, which leads to wasted time and frustration. Climbing objects sometimes simply doesn’t work, making sneaking around in the air vents an untenable approach because they can’t be reached. The controls feel floaty and unresponsive at times. In a game where managing time is so important, and a single mistake can wildly alter the course of the story, this kind of lack of polish is just unacceptable and it really hurts the overall experience.
There are also numerous bugs and glitches. Some are fairly minor, like characters getting stuck on objects momentarily or incorrect button prompts appearing. There are serious game-breaking issues as well. It’s entirely possible for players to fall through the world and into the infinite void of descending geometry way more often than it should be. The AI breaks at times and does not even notice highly suspicious behaviour. Sometimes interviews just don’t even trigger and NPCs sit there staring into space leaving no other option than to load a previous save. That wouldn’t be so bad if the game allowed manual saves or had frequent checkpoints, but it doesn’t. It only saves at the completion of a chapter. So, if a player encounters the interview bug, that’s an entire hour of progress lost.
The Occupation is a game that on the surface sounds like something that warrants multiple playthroughs to really get the most out of it. But it’s in a state that many won’t have enough patience to even make it through once. Hopefully future patches address the technical issues since at its core, this is a game that has a lot of potential and a really unique premise.
The Occupation (Reviewed on Windows)
The game is average, with an even mix of positives and negatives.
A great idea executed in a mediocre way. If you can deal with the lack of polish, there is an interesting game here.