It's difficult to decide upon the worst aspect of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? 3. The obvious indifference with which it's been slapped together? The frustrating, poorly devised puzzles? The fact that even though it does little more than slide 2D pictures across the screen, it still manages to introduce a game-stopping bug? All good reasons to avoid Carmen 3 like the plague, but our main objection is that it's aimed at younger players and, therefore, likely to completely turn them off our magnificent hobby before they even begin. Much as you wouldn't introduce an eager young mind to the wonders of cinema by showing them Catwoman, there can be few worse ways to get into video gaming than Carmen 3.
The first few minutes are pleasant enough. It's bright, colourful and quickly gets down to business. Carmen Sandiego, flame-haired superthief, is once again nicking stuff all over the world and it's up to the player to guide two agents around the planet in an attempt to stop her. Armed with a handy PDA and some wise-cracking 'tude, skipping around the planet is as easy as clicking on a destination on a world map. On landing, the player is shown a couple of iconic landmarks and then taken to a location where the adventure begins.
The first task in each location is to talk to a local so you can work out how to find or protect a particular artifact. Conversation takes place via a standard dialogue tree, usually with two or three dialogue options on offer. The font used here is so large that you'll usually see only the first few words of a sentence and will have to click on a 'scroll dialogue' button to slowly reveal the rest of the sentence. And we do mean slowly. It's an awkward system, though we'll be charitable and concede that the large font might make the text more readable for younger players.
After having extracted the necessary information from a helpful local, there'll be some kind of puzzle to be solved. All the usual suspects are present: sliding blocks, mazes, jigsaw puzzles, and simple logic games. While the puzzles are kept understandably simple for a young audience, we still found ourselves utterly stumped on a few occasions - not because we didn't know what to do, but because there was no explanation as to how to do it. For example, one puzzle involved putting a key code into an electronic lock. The code is easily deciphered from an accompanying letter but even after clicking on the right buttons in the right order, nothing happened. After nearly an hour of deepening frustration we discovered that the buttons didn't need to be pushed, even though they are clickable and make encouraging, 'click-me!' sounds. The solution, it turned out, was to draw a line between the buttons, in a manner that has never once been used in the real world. Counter-intuitive hardly begins to describe it. When a puzzle goes against the most basic assumptions - that keys on a keypad need to pressed - it should be explained, or at the very least hinted at. The challenge of a puzzle should come from working out the solution, and not from trying to figure out how the heck to input that solution into the game.
Adding to the distinct lack of enjoyment is a mouse cursor that disappears every now and again. It's very difficult to enjoy a point and click adventure game when you can't point or click. You can't save a game mid-mission - we have no idea why not - so when the cursor vanishes, you can either push on, blindly clicking on the screen in the hope that something will happen, or restart from your last save. For a game that's already as irritating as Carmen 3, replaying anything is a big ask.
At the end of a mission, the player is given a rating, though there's no indication as to how this rating is calculated or how it could be improved. A central mystery involving microchips embedded in various treasures is unravelled at the agents' HQ between missions. The mystery is revealed at the end of the game, but, as a final poke in the eye, only functions as a set up for the presumably upcoming Carmen Sandiego 4. God forbid.
To be crystal clear, our problems with Carmen 3 have nothing to do with its simplicity or lack of flashy graphics and sound. These things don't matter at all in a 2D adventure if the storytelling and puzzle construction are imaginative and engaging. Carmen 3 fails on both counts, and unfolds as little more than an unusually colourful PowerPoint presentation. It could make a faint claim at being somewhat educational with the few paragraphs of information it presents about each country visited, but it's difficult to see how any young student will stay interested enough to actually absorb anything.
The bottom line is that this kind of shabby effort shouldn't be tolerated, particularly when it's aimed at children. While it's unlikely that any PALGN readers would have rushed out to buy it, Carmen 3 is the kind of game many of us might pick up for a younger family member or friend. Considering it will only give around three hours of play - less if you take out the time spent replaying the game due to the vanishing cursor - the AU$29.95 asking price is a bit cheeky. You could probably buy a decent children's atlas for the same money, and it'd be a much wiser investment.