Another day in Wheaton City. I get a letter from Mr Richmond, director at the Richmond Water Plant, asking me to see him urgently. He's being blackmailed - find $10,000 by tomorrow, or the city's water supply will be poisoned. He doesn't want the police or the press involved, and so he's come to me; the latest PI to hit the city streets.
A brief visit to Mr Richmond soon fills me in - and provides me with some suspects. Could his ex-wife be behind this business? Is it one of his competitors, such as Morton Utilities? Or could it be the displaced owner of the farmland the water plant is built on? As I go around the city, snooping, questioning and occasionally breaking in, it seems there are more questions than answers.
Gumshoe Online is a rather unusual game for us at Bytten, as it is played entirely online. The tutorial case is free, but their bigger cases are available to buy from their website - such as their latest, "Something In The Water", which I've been exploring for this review. Once bought you can replay a case as often as you like, and you can save/load at any point.
So how does one sleuth? You start off in your office, where you'll periodically return to check for any mail. In this room there are plenty of things to click on, such as the noticeboard where you solve the mystery and the filing cabinet where you can review old cases. You can also send messages to other detectives in the agency directory - basically, any other players who've signed up. Click on your office door and you're on the streets of Wheaton City.
The game chiefly involves clicking on things in the main window, looking for clues. Controls here are very simple - just click your left mouse button on things. If you can move something, it moves when you click on it. If you want to unlock a door and you have the key, you will automatically use it. The challenge here is finding the things to click on - a detective needs sharp eyes and an analytical mind. Finding that vital scrap of paper can often be difficult.
There are also puzzles - such as putting together torn up documents, lock picking, safe cracking and others I don't want to mention for fear of spoiling the mystery. These are logic-based problems in which you click on elements or place components into a puzzle. You can try as many combinations as you like, but often there is a time limit in place. Some puzzles may require you to find missing pieces or some clue to the solution (like a coded combination for the safe).
A vital part of your detective kit is your notepad. I was utterly flummoxed when I started the tutorial case as I did not know how to access this - be warned that your notepad appears in a separate window and will often be blocked if you have an overzealous pop-up blocker! In this handy window you'll gather clues relating to the case, not all of which will necessarily be relevant. Red herrings are frequent. From here you also access items you have picked up (generally not many) and can combine them together. It also lists characters encountered, possible solutions and has a section for your own notes should you make any.
Gumshoe Online is big. Locations on the city map that you can visit are introduced by talking to people and examining clues, and each of these can have a lot of 'rooms' to explore. Often these are filled with clickable items, many of which are background but many can be clues. Add to this the revisiting of locations (and your office) and you can lose many hours in Wheaton City. If you get utterly lost, the game forums are available for you to ask for help - note that, in order not to spoil things for other people, most hints are given as personal messages rather than posted.
Once you have found all the evidence you can, and the case seems to have reached an end, you need to solve the mystery. This is done in your office, through the noticeboard. Choose a scenario (A hoax? Is someone out for revenge? Is this Richmond's own doing?) and then a suspect (or suspects). Then choose the five key pieces of evidence for the case and submit it. You then get a response telling you how you did.
This summing up is, alas, the weakest area of the game. Given the large number of red herrings and false leads it is never entirely clear which outcome is correct, and that is good - but if you don't get everything exactly right in your summary, you won't know which parts were wrong. The Osborne Mystery is a good example - what went on, and the evidence you need, are very subjective. When I'm told I'm missing something, is it because my evidence was wrong or because I picked the wrong conclusion to start with? One can save the game before summing up and retry, but this brute force method rather undermines the investigative style of the rest of the game. Gumshoe Online is an original, classy and well constructed game. I've not even had pause to touch upon the period style, easy-download graphics or the choice of three jazzy background tracks, nor the way you can update your record with "City Hall" with details such as your name, birthdate and badly punned slogan (in my case, I was provided with "Once Bytten, twice shy"). It costs nothing to sign up and try it out, so stop reading this and go take a look. Are you still here...? Go! There's a mystery to be solved!
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