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The Thing

Review By:  Siou Choy

Developer:   Computer Artworks / Konami
Publisher:   Black Label Games (Universal)
# of Players:   1
Genre:   Survival Horror
ESRB:   Mature
Online:   No
Accessories:   Memory Unit
Date Posted:  

12-16-02

Fans of John Carpenter’s seminal 1982 sci-fi horror extravaganza The Thing most likely found themselves as surprised as myself to hear of Black Label Games plans to produce a virtual gaming version for the Xbox. I mean, as great as it was, did anyone out there hold their breath waiting for any 20 year old horror flicks to be licensed for gaming use? What next, Halloween, where you get to stalk and slash brainless oversexed non-actors pretending to still be teens? Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, where you follow a semi-linear narrative involving zombies, Lovecraftian ethos and randomly inserted drill press scenes? Strangely enough, the development team were able to both maintain the feeling of the movie and produce a credible gaming mileu; quite a feat given both the obvious absurdity of this premise and the usual well below-standard quality of the average licensed-property-as-marketable-game. What makes The Thing even more interesting is the fact that the game manages to include a few innovations over the standard survival horror fare du jour.

One new element to the survival horror genre per se (if not to gaming in general) is the use of the Fear/Trust meter. To gain the trust of your squadron members and rescuees, you’ll have to make a show of faith by providing them with weapons and ammunition and healing them when they’re injured. In some cases, you may need to run a blood serum test in front of them to prove you’re not among the infected. Even after "proving yourself", members of your team tend to lose trust (evidenced by both dialogue hints and a nervous, shivering head shot in your party menu), and if not mollified, may turn on you. Aside from yourself, your squad is generally comprised of a medic, soldier, and engineer. Each member has a special skill necessary for survival at various points in the game. Some strategy is involved; for example, giving a gun to a soldier should help you fend off monsters better than if you gave it to the medic. I found the engineer to be the only truly essential member of the party (at least in the early stages of the game), as he is necessary to fix the many broken junction boxes sealing doors throughout the base. That said, the medic is obviously useful for healing purposes, so you don’t have to waste quite so many precious medical kits.

Extremely difficult controls.

Since you’ll be leading a squad of several people at any given time, the controls can be quite difficult to manage, and even harder to initially learn. The control setup consists of numerous menus, each of which prove both unintelligible (due to the game’s nigh-exclusive use of those annoying and incomprehensible "universal symbols" that have been popping up in cars and the like over the past decade or so) and complicated to navigate, particularly in regard to communicating with, healing, or giving weapons/ammo to other team members (which, as mentioned previously, is an absolute necessity from the start of the game forward). This can be especially difficult since the game’s preset controls are actually different from those listed in the manual! That’s right, you heard me. The control setup listed in the manual is not the one the game starts you on (leading to even more confusion and possible instant death)! You have to go to the control setup menu to select setup B just to operate in tandem with the manual’s instructions! And yes, even the proper, manual-consistent control setup proves to be a problem, owing to the somewhat odd button arrangement (which leaves your trigger finger a mite too itchy for the many talking sequences).

Allow me to pause for a personal gripe with one aspect of the controls in particular. As the game progresses, you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll need to switch back and forth between a gun and flamethrower with all due rapidity, to prevent being killed on the spot. This isn’t half as simple as it ought to be, since both are accessed from what effectively acts as the "weapon" menu. This is doubly inexplicable, given that in the usual control setup, the weapon is on the right, accessed all too easily by the A button, and your selection from the item menu is (potentially) omnipresent on the left, accessible by means of the X button. Given the necessity for this switching back and forth in the course of gameplay, why can’t the flamethrower be accessed, in such situations, as a toggle function with the gun (i.e., A/right for the gun, X/left for the flamethrower)?

Another thing. You can’t carry much of each item (for example, you are limited to 5 flares), and what you can carry isn’t always what you need. Your comrades are continually weaponless, and as mentioned previously, to gain their trust (so they will come along with you, not to mention not shoot you down like a dog), you need to give them weapons and supplies continually throughout the course of the game. With this understanding, I gave away my pistol early on. As might be expected per Murphy’s Law, all I could find throughout the next hour plus of gameplay was pistol ammo – which the game will not even allow you to pick up and store! I also found 2 flamethrowers, one of which I gave to a colleague, who I was able to give some of the flame ammo. However, I soon discovered that, for no discernible reason, I was unable to refill my own flamethrower with the remaining ammo! A programming glitch? Or more of The Thing’s impossible control navigation at work? You decide. I have no frigging clue.

The camera in The Thing tends to get a bit herky jerky, particularly in close quarters or if you’re doing a lot of running over uneven territory. That aside, the close third person view the game generally sticks to is a nice touch. The camera hugs Blake’s back closely and in most cases, shows us both our operable character and what would presumably be in his own line of vision. My only other complaint about the camera is how you can’t always see what’s at Blake’s feet. This can become quite an issue when fending off smaller forms of the shapechanging alien which tend to scuttle and scurry about beneath your line of vision. While you get a nice view of your rapidly decreasing health bar, these nasty little buggers tend to remain both out of sight (if not out of mind) and more importantly, out of your character’s gun sights. Adjusting the camera back and forth between the ones underfoot and those still coming at you becomes another one of those fire extinguisher/gun quandaries that plague The Thing’s programming, and the player’s gaming experience.

The storyline.

Like the movie itself, The Thing manages to be great fun for the survival horror gamer looking for something beyond the usual zombie and demon ridden affair. You play as squad leader "Blake (no other name given)" (gotta love the military for managing to dehumanize even its most prominent players) who has been sent to investigate what happened to the Antartica military research base of Carpenter’s film. Unfortunately, none of the characters from said eponymous 1982 film are present; though there is someone doing a horrible impression of Kurt Russell-as-Snake-Plisskin on the radio at the start of the game, kind of like Christian Slater’s cut rate sanitized Jack Nicholson act. And more, though the game has a nice overall atmosphere of isolation and desolation, it does not even approach the levels of tension and claustrophobia of its filmic progenitor (but then, this was back when John Carpenter was making good movies, so this is perhaps to be expected).

Missing also is the wonderfully gloomy Ennio Morricone soundtrack, replaced by only the sparsest of musical stings. While the lack of music can be seen as something of a plus, being appropriate given the setting, the excellent soundtrack to the similarly tense and desolately wintry Parasite Eve proves that some subtle, well-crafted aural enhancement can go a long way; which is something that the movie version of The Thing understood.

The game does a nice job of drawing you in and involving you in its story in a gradual way, so you hardly notice the transition between your playing as casual observer and being sucked in as an active participant. Like any well written horror or mystery tale, the details of what happened on this lonely, isolated wreck of a military exploration base to necessitate your rescue mission reveal themselves subtly, doling out critical pieces of information piece by piece (of course, fans of the movie would already know the whole story, but that’s beside the point). It isn’t long before you find yourself unsure which members of your team are actually what they appear to be…

One of the nice things about The Thing is that how, like Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness, it doesn’t rely on cheap scare tactics to get a reaction out of you, instead opting for a more effective psychological horror paradigm, where a setting of ominous foreshadowing and gradually increasing tension infects the gamer to the point where one finds oneself jumping at virtual shadows. It can be rather nerve wracking to induce the blood serum test to your teammates, never knowing who has been infected by the alien spoor.

Graphics.

Fair, though pardon me if I remain somewhat unimpressed. If you’re expecting an Xbox level graphical experience, you’re sure to be sorely disappointed by The Thing. Essentially, we’re talking first generation Dreamcast (perhaps even sub-Dreamcast) level animation here. In this respect, not to mention in setting and theme of human/alien transmutation, The Thing resembles nothing so much as a beefed up, darker and more intense upgrade of the Dreamcast’s D2. Being an avid survival horror gamer, this was something of a minor point for me, but the wary should take into account that, despite their sundry and obvious limitations, I actually enjoyed Carrier, the original Nightmare Creatures, and Deathtrap Dungeon; so I may not be the harshest of critics in this respect…

Highs:

  • Neat storyline (if you liked the Carpenter film, you'll like this)
  • Spooky atmosphere
  • Inventive control system (see also: lows)

Lows:

  • Some cutscenes and animations come off a bit choppy looking
  • Controls are very difficult to master

Final Verdict: 

Could this be? A game licensed off a movie that actually manages to be good on its own merits? The Thing is a fun, moderately exciting survival horror entry that draws you into its claustrophobic milieu gradually and insidiously. There are a few new innovations that make it different from your average survival horror, but not enough to detract from what makes these sort of games so much fun in the first place. Not bad, Black Label. Not bad at all.

Overall Score: 7.5

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