When Nintendo first announced the DS' touchscreen, there was plenty of speculation: what sort of bizarre games might make use of such an interface? Even the most imaginative thinkers would have been pushing the limits of their creativity to come up with Trauma Center: Under the Knife.
But here it is: the world's first touchscreen surgery simulator.
Actually, Trauma Center is more like a cross between party board game Operation and the more gory elements of the TV show Casualty. It also boasts a dramatic plot and some simmering love interest that wouldn't be out of place in Holby City – although whoever named the main character Derek Stiles was probably missing a funny bone…
Still, it's in the role of rookie Dr Stiles that we take to our scrubs. As each patient is prepared, your nursing assistant will provide an overview of what's to be done. In the early cases, it's pretty obvious. Gaping wounds need to be sown up, so choose the needle and thread tool from the right-hand touchscreen menu and join up the two sides using your stylus. If there's embedded glass, it will be a case of selecting the forceps and picking it out. This is slightly harder, as not only do you have to grab the top of each shard but you also have to draw it smoothly out. Any wobbling and you'll get a red flash across the screen while your patient's pulse rate will start to drop. Too much cackhandedness or unheeded bleeding, and you'll get a vital signs warning. You'll then either have to be quick finishing off the operation, or resort to injecting syringes full of adrenaline to raise the pulse.
It's not too long however before you'll be moving beyond mundane tasks, such as draining and removing tumours. It seems our Dr Stiles is special – and we're not just describing his ability to flirt with (or annoy) his uber-manga blonde bombshell nursing assistant, Angie Thompson. No, like all good game characters, Derek has a special power up. Called the healing touch, it's a vital part of successfully completing operations since it slows down time for brief period. It's also another interesting use of the touchscreen, as to trigger the healing touch you have to select the hand tool and draw a five-pointed star on screen.
As you progress through the increasingly apocalyptic story of biomedical terrorists who are trying to infect the world with various forms of their GUILT virus (yes, really), you'll find the healing touch becomes a necessity as the pace of operations speed up. Instead of just clearing out wounds, you're zapping what look like tiny dragons with lasers, or you'll be in a frantic rush to suture a patient who seems to be in the process of being dissected from the inside outside. Be warned – on occasions Trauma Center can be quite nasty, with some stomach-churning moments and surprisingly fruity language.
More fundamentally awry, however, is the pacing. On one level, this is the commonplace annoyance of an excessive amount of dialogue. It's definitely a game with a medical consultant's ability for verbosity. Unfortunately this is combined with an incredibly unbalanced difficulty curve. Some operations you'll sail through. More often, you'll repeat complex operations dozens of times before you luck out and discover the correct order to solve the simultaneous crises. But you can only save in-between missions – so until you succeed, you'll have to listen to all the pre-op dialogue each time.
It's this growing frustration that eventually makes you realize that like many simulation games, Trauma Center just isn't much fun. Sure there's a sense of bitter achievement with each successful operation – even though you'll seemingly be rated a 'rookie doctor' after most, no matter how well you think you've done – but this is a game that quickly becomes a sterile matter of doing the right things in the right order.
In terms of medical science, of course, this is probably a fair reflection of how doctors work. Amazingly, it's not the reason people play games. So while it's hard not to be impressed by the core innovation in Trauma Center, it's more difficult to actually enjoy it.Trauma Center: Under the Knife: On sale from April 28th.