A video game based on surgery is, in essence, a fantastic idea: It requires manual skills applicable in the real world, but condensed and diluted into a game experience that anyone can initiate and enjoy. If the concept of phenomenology has any place within video games, then Trauma Center communicates it better than most: Much in the same way that language is “felt” through the resistance of pen on paper, embodying complicated medical procedures through precise, real-time hand gestures in space allows these Wii and DS titles to realize their fullest interactive potential.
Because of this immediate translation of real-world skill to informal entertainment, I’ve always had a soft spot for Trauma Center games; they represent the innovation and value of Nintendo’s virtually tactile hardware in a complete and absolute way. Unfortunately, the experience I previously described isn’t entirely accurate when it comes to Trauma Center. While the controls succeed in approximating the way surgical tools are implemented and used, they can be unashamedly frustrating in their “obtuse accuracy,” requiring specific actions that many times are not obvious or logical. The first Wii title, Trauma Center: Second Opinion, was difficult, and its sequel, Trauma Center: New Blood, even more so.
While Trauma Team, the fifth in the Trauma Center series and third released for the Wii, isn’t a complete re-imagining of the franchise, it is a clear attempt to address the shortcomings of previous iterations—especially in terms of variety and difficulty—and, for the most part, succeeds. Those new to Trauma Center will find an excellent introduction, and series vets will be surprised by the changes, although Hippocratic perfection is still, for the moment, out of reach.
As its name suggests, Trauma Team focuses on several doctors—six in all—within an overall medical unit, and the player bounces back and forth between each main character and their particular expertise, whether it’s Surgery, Orthopedics, Endoscopy, “First Response” (meaning on-location treatment of emergencies), Diagnostics, or Forensics. Each playable character has their own individual “episodes,” used to provide personal backgrounds and story arcs, but one never gets the impression that each doctor is isolated and alone; characters weave in and out of the others’ scenarios, and even provide some NPC assistance when necessary. Trauma Team wisely chooses to put the emphasis on a medical unit working together, and with so many conflicts and motivations happening between each procedure, the pace remains high and some of Trauma Team’s more egregious plot holes (like all Trauma Center titles, an overarching story involving a mysterious super-disease is present here) are more forgivable.
A smart decision on Atlus’s part was to move away from the brooding and self-serious presentation of Trauma Center to a more lively manga-style look, complete with cut scenes unfolding within comic panels that are half-animated (still drawings are manipulated through camera movement and dissolves to appear in motion). The character designs lack medical realism, of course (one doctor permanently has a cigarette in his mouth, for instance), but it’s all in tune with the popcorn fiction being showcased; the innate ridiculousness is brought to the forefront instead of buried beneath stagnant pretension, a killer for credibility. Conjunctively, the ensemble voice acting is loose, well-acted, and impressive in amount.
Of course, the story of Trauma Center games isn’t what I particularly champion; it’s the gameplay that continually entices me. Surgery, the mainstay of the series, is again present as one of the six arms of play and is, for better or worse, intact almost exactly as before. Those without Trauma Center experience may be overwhelmed at first (multiple options and techniques for treatment are available at any given time and are selected with the nunchuck while being executed with the Wii remote), but one of the great things about these games is the way the player eventually “clicks” with the gameplay, and can select and use tools with a fluidity and grace that conjures up satisfying confidence. My favorite segments of the game involved orthopedic surgery, where the player has to make slow and accurate movements in order to repair bones or fit artificial joints, sometimes involving both remote and nunchuck simultaneously. These moments are the closest to representing a tense surgical situation that the Trauma Center series has come yet. The overall difficulty in Trauma Team seems to have been scaled back as well, taking some of the previous titles’ frustrations with them.
Ultimately, however, the package is still flawed; endoscopy, which entails precise maze navigation and quick reactions, became a chore due to its strange control scheme, in which you move your instrument forward by thrusting your arm back and forth, a tiring and inaccurate experience. I also found the cooperative portions of the game somewhat disappointing, as the majority of it is turn-based, with each player switching back and forth over the course of an operation. Ironically, one never gets the feeling that he or she is working with another player within a network of other medical professionals, but are rather just waiting for their time to inhabit a preexisting identity, the one that the single player should be embodying by themselves anyway.
Trauma Team’s premiere of two new single-player game modes (Diagnostics and Forensics), while entertaining, also have their own set of inherent quirks. Think of these as “point-and-click” investigative adventure segments, reminiscent of Ace Attorney but influenced by American television shows like CSI and House. Forensics has the player performing autopsies on corpses and applying forensic science to locations in order to determine how and why each particular subject passed on. Discovering the convoluted circumstances of a subject’s death was always interesting, and again, the large quantity of excellent voice-work keeps the chapters moving briskly, but some blind guesswork is involved in matching up correlating pieces of evidence, and knowing what to do next in the predetermined sequence of events isn’t always clear. Likewise, Diagnostics deals with assessing a particular patient’s condition by finding and recording symptoms and comparing them to a database of possible diseases, but it also suffers from somewhat obtuse direction, and your options for diagnosing patients are limited; observing X-Rays and CT scans, for instance, always boils down to Highlights-caliber “spot the difference between these two pictures.” That said, both Diagnostics and Forensics have potential and hopefully, if Trauma Team is given a sequel, these modes will return, albeit with less repetition and clearer points of advance.
Overall, Trauma Team delivers on relieving most of the issues with previous Trauma Center games, and I appreciate the new comic-book feel that eschews seriousness for more engaging characters. I could find value with every game mode, though some are decisively stronger than others; while the new adventure-style segments keep things varied, the intense Surgery and Orthopedics levels are where the game soars, and I feel like I am using my Wii remote as an actual tool, fused with the medical instrument shown on screen. The fact that I’m applying it to a stylized, unrealistic world with this level of sincerity is actually kind of miraculous. Trauma Team isn’t a medical game miracle by any means, but it deserves further observation.