The Occupation Review

By Mark Delaney, 8 days ago
While some studios shy away from even their games' most overt political elements, White Paper Games makes them the centerpiece of The Occupation. The second game from the studio, The Occupation is a combat-free immersive sim which takes place across several fixed-time levels. This setup helps deliver one of the year's most interesting games — though as it so happens, the developers may have needed more time themselves to work out some of the game's bugs.

The Occupation Achievements

The Occupation puts you in the first-person view of a few characters, but mainly it follows investigative journalist Harvey Miller in the time following a terrorist attack in 1987 England. Right away, this setting is used to great effect as era-appropriate tech like sluggish computers, fax machines, and payphones will aid Miller during his investigation as he tries to confirm the official story or uncover a vast conspiracy behind the Turing Bomber. The game has a great sense of time and place, and it mixes this decades-old setting with political commentary that can easily be applied to today in a lot of cases. Privacy matters and the ethics of immigration are the center stage in the game and the developers handle the topics well.

Some sections are linear, but the bulk of the game takes place in free-roaming chunks that last an hour in real time. Miller is free to sneak, crouch, and snoop all around the various office buildings — gathering passwords to employee computers, piecing together disjointed clues, and following figurative breadcrumbs into office spaces he isn't permitted to be in. A successful hour of investigation should form a narrative. During this time players must try not to get caught by office security. Failure to comply can result in different kinds of penalties and even outright losses of interviews or other opportunities, leaving massive holes in the story which hurt Miller's investigation. When time is up, Miller sits down to interview a person of interest. Miller needs as much evidence as possible to catch liars in the act or to corroborate more truthful interviewees. These moments are great in similar ways to equivalent interviews in L.A. Noire.

Level design of The Occupation isn't so different from other immersive sims like Deus Ex or Dishonored, but it seems a lot more interesting at times because you're not a borderline superhuman navigating various crawlspaces, hacking alarms, and breaching people's privacy. You're just a writer on a mission to uncover the truth, whatever that may be. There is always a number of solutions to any one problem, and it's repeatedly rewarding to find various paths, especially when one or more have been made unavailable to you. Working around obstacles like this leaves you feeling very smart.

No investigator is worth their salary if they don't have taut strings on a corkboard.No investigator is worth their salary if they don't have taut strings on a corkboard.

There's a right answer by game's end, but how much of it you gather is entirely up to you. The game pivots exceptionally well when you do fail. I got one variation of what may be considered the bad ending in my first playthrough and unlike lots of games, I wasn't left wholly unsatisfied with that. The story still wraps up nicely in the context of Miller failing to do his job. That kind of elasticity is something much more expensive games struggle with, but not The Occupation — successes and failures feel appropriately heavy in ways that are extremely rewarding. It's the kind of game that could be perfected with a good step-by-step guide, but you'd lose almost all of what makes it special. Uncovering the narrative mystery is fun and worthwhile, but earning each clue and wrapping up each lead on your own is as thrilling and interesting as running out of time or hitting dead ends.

Even the acting is pretty good. There's an emotional core to The Occupation as Miller deals with the aftermath of an explosion that rocked the small English town. The game does well to remember characters' loved ones have died alongside the big-picture politics. There's a cartoonish quality to the game's environments and characters that surely isn't unique in today's games, but lighting and the level of detail poured into every area are both awesome. It's carefully crafted in nearly every way.

Levels offer more routes than you'll probably see in your 60-minute investigations.Levels offer more routes than you'll probably see in your 60-minute investigations.

The exception to all of this glowing praise is the game's bugs. It should be noted that my review time with the game came after one patch, so my experience was actually better than what you may read elsewhere. Regardless, I still had my fair share of issues. NPC behavior was regularly an issue, with security guards sometimes hovering in my general area for far too long in a game that demands you use your time wisely. Other times they'd collide with each other when my behavior took them off their usual routes. Some Telltale-like stuttering appeared at times too, and I even had a quest item disappear from my hand's once, demanding a restart. I was fortunate to be early into the level, because the 60-minute investigations can't be saved in the middle. While the game is already much improved from what I heard from others, it still needs more work before I can consider it a game everyone should consider playing.

The achievement list is a short one, but it'll take some work to get all 15 unlocks. You'll want to always be on time for interviews and see a few optional scenes. There are achievements for both disrupting the security and avoiding detection while out of bounds, which may require more than one playthrough (or at least another partial playthrough). Two achievements were not unlocked by anyone at the time of writing, but there's no indication these are unobtainable. Others will pop with the story, and you'll have to do some collectible-chasing too.

Check out our Best Xbox Stealth Games Available in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

The Occupation brilliantly blends elaborate levels, breadcrumb-chasing, gotcha journalism, and a politically-charged drama to become one of 2019's most interesting games. It deftly adapts to the many successes and failures you can have and always leaves the clues in the open for those with a keen eye, rarely holding your hand. It's ironic that a game that so smartly builds urgency through strict time limits would've done better with some extra time of its own in the studio, but the bugs I saw can't prevent The Occupation from being the game I won't stop talking about this year.
4 / 5
The Occupation
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent five hours in 1987 England, uncovering the truth about the Turing Bomber and gathering a third of the game's 15 achievements. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.