The Thing Review (PS2)

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Publisher: Black Label Games (Vivendi Universal Games)
Developer: Computer Artworks

Platforms: PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

An American station in the Antarctic has ceased communications, and a military rescue team has been dispatched to determine the outpost's status and recover any survivors. As part of that team, you have been left to uncover the gruesome terror that is lurking at the bottom of the world.

Kyle Ackerman

The Thing is a rare game that presents realistic responses to a horror so terrible, it would be entirely outside human experience. Colorful language and gruesome detail have rarely been used maturely in games – to actually further plot rather than prompt puerile glee – but The Thing manages to present a cohesive and compelling story line that is a worthy sequel to John Carpenter's 1982 film (which drew upon John W. Campbell, Jr.'s story "Who Goes There?" and the 1951 film The Thing From Another World). Set soon after the events of the Carpenter film end, this game integrates the elements of a good horror film into the framework of a tense narrative and game.

An alien force that appears to straddle the boundary between sentient menace and virus has infected a good portion of everything alive in the Antarctic. It can rapidly kill and control nearly any creature, and can perfectly mimic things as complex as dogs or humans, leaving you to discover who is still human, and which of your allies might try to consume you when you turn a dark corner.

The Thing is certainly not the first title to successfully horrify gamers, nor the first with a theme of organic assimilation. Releases such as System Shock 2, which set a new standard for terror in gaming, have explored the concept, but The Thing uses both colorful language and graphic violence appropriately, in keeping with the style of the film, to build dramatic tension with a palette of grotesque horror. No one would imagine that a veteran marine, terrified by a threat outside of human experience would maintain clean language or avoid colorful metaphors. But he doesn't throw them around with no provocation, either.

Often, games work to frighten you by isolation, leaving you alone in a threatening environment with unknown horrors. While The Thing sometimes leaves you alone in the dark, with threatening noises at every turn, the fright of your squad enhances the experience. Fear is infectious. When your squad starts cursing, you know they are scared, and as terrifying as the alien threat may be, one of the most dramatic moments I experienced was when my medic lost his wits at the sight of a dismembered corpse and started shooting his shotgun off at random. Knowing that something scary lurks around the corner is a form of comfort – you know where it is. Discovering that your ally could suddenly become your enemy throws you permanently on edge.

There is no shortage of aliens to kill in The Thing, but the game is also good at scaring by implied threat, rather than just having slavering jaws emerge from the darkness. This is truer in the early game, but the Antarctic is apparently always full of incredibly graphic scenes of death and alien conversion, with body parts and limbs scattered everywhere. The glimpse of a shambling Thing outside a window is accentuated by the sound of aliens somewhere, just out of sight. True to real life, it's the small touches that are most terrifying. Polygonal organs, lying in a heap in the corner might invoke mild nausea, but it's the cone of your flashlight's beam, illuminating a handprint in a fresh pool of blood on the floor, streaking away as if someone was dragged off that truly shocks. These sights are not just designed to scare you alone. Your squad reacts in horror and revulsion. These messes of human remnants will not only frighten your teammates, but also will cause them to double over and wretch, mingling their latest meal with the viscera of The Thing's latest meal.

Non-gamer passers-by actually shuddered at the corpses of partially transformed Antarctic researchers. If you let yourself look beyond the limitations of a computer graphics engine, you might also experience a reaction when you realize that a urinal in a restroom splattered with blood contains an inverted human head. Much of the graphic violence is tied to the emerging plot of The Thing. A particularly gruesome sequence involved an infected man committing suicide. He blew his brains out the side of his head with a pistol, splashing them onto the wall. This scene was repulsive, but genuinely made the game's horror visceral by providing a counterpoint to the insatiable hunger of the infected Things. Rather than face that certain fate of transformation into The Thing, a veteran soldier chose to take his own life, presenting that gore as a matter-of-fact, viable alternative to the unthinking hunger of the aliens.

The plot is not merely an afterthought. It remains true to the horror-matinee or teenage-date-movie level of sophistication established by the source film, but works hard to integrate some story line into the action, replete with cut-scenes rendered using the game engine. The story is more engaging early in the game, when it relies on the very alien nature of the unknown Thing in an inhospitable wasteland, and lags a bit when it descends into conspiracy theories towards the end. That said, the cut-scenes often attempt interesting cinematic effects using creative angles and lighting effects, making the whole thing a cut above the usual "characters talk and wave their arms" found in many games. During the action, the game also occasionally goes for cinematic angles. Sometimes these provide intriguing views and movie-like shots, while other instances are just distracting and make it difficult to maneuver.

The sound also follows the original film. Many effects are surprisingly powerful. The crunches of footfalls on snow are just right, and combined with the howling wind, evoke the deep cold. The game is largely lacking in music, relying on occasional, sinister chords to signify portentous events. Some of the aliens' cries (especially in death) become repetitive, but one of the nicer touches is the heartbeat that softly intrudes at times. On the Xbox and PlayStation 2, it is accompanied by a slight vibration much more understated than most force-feedback responses. Together with the visuals that carefully map to scenes from the film, The Thing feels like a continuation of the film, in just the right environment. Your squadmates will even tell you exactly what they think about your predicament, and while the voices are well done, the speech can become repetitive. Very different soldiers will sometimes use the same off-color phrases to express fright or disgust.

The most prominent influence of the film is in the trust and fear interface. You have help from squadmates at times during the game, who can heal, fix machinery, or just fight at your side. At times, they are necessary aid, and at others a deadly alien threat. Of course, they don't know for certain if you are human, and are scared out of their wits, so they react to your actions. Give them weapons or fight Things and you earn their trust. Take them into scenes of carnage and their fear will heighten. Lose their trust and they will refuse to help or might attack. Allow their fear to get out of hand and they might go insane. In concept, this is a brilliant attempt to capture the human relationships that made the film of The Thing so interesting. In truth, it is a good first step towards something which should be considered for future games. In The Thing, however, this dynamism doesn't go far enough. Gaining absolute trust (except in certain sequences) is very easy, and the fear reactions are too predictable. Realizing that simulating human relationships is unbearably complex, a little more randomization would have gone a long way. Even immediately before a squadmate is scripted to transform into The Thing, testing will identify him as cleanly human. That said, there are a lot of moments that let you see the potentials of trust and fear, such as the moment that a hostile medic shoved his middle finger in my face when I was hoping for help.

The Things themselves are hideous, fleshy and dangerous. While different types are revealed gradually, there are only a few kinds overall. Given that the Things seem to have an infinitely flexible anatomy, it would have been nice to see a few more forms, perhaps with varying modes of locomotion, infected dogs and the like. The developers were able to get truly creative with the appearance of "boss" creatures, which are vast agglomerations of assimilated victims. Killing normal Things can be suspenseful. Only after they've taken a bit of damage do they become vulnerable, and they keep coming until finished off with flame. The damage taken is shown only by the color of your targeting reticle, which only offers broad categories, so you can't be certain when this Thing will finally die. Normal monsters also tend to light on fire to let you know your actions are on the right track. With boss monsters, the feedback is often poorer, so it is hard to tell whether you are about to administer the coup-de-grace, or you're hopelessly flailing at the creature. Ultimately, you die a lot. Better feedback on your progress would make the bosses more suspenseful and climactic, rather than frustrating.

This leads to the main criticism of the game. The early levels vary a lot in pacing. Some areas contain no aliens, relying on plot, noises and environment to create fear. Others are frenetic assaults by creatures from the Antarctic cold, or single horrifying creatures. Late in the game, areas become more like shooting galleries, and are populated by surprisingly numerous humans. It seems odd that what should be the tensest moments of the game are surprisingly like other shooting action games, filled with armed sentries. Fortunately, path finding for your enemies is as problematic as for your allies, so many opponents are fairly easy to fend off. For most of the game, save points are plentiful (even the PC version relies on save points), but near the end become rare. This means that some of the exciting final areas need to be replayed too often, breaking the dramatic tension. The save points or health packs that are plentiful throughout the early game would have fixed this problem. These issues only detract slightly from the game, which is particularly horrifying and impressive in its early moments. The late game is simply too hard, and loses much of the subtle horror that makes the early game so enthralling.

The Thing has been released for the PC, Xbox and PlayStation 2. All are essentially identical, save the vagaries of the three systems. On the PlayStation 2, the game looks a lot like a PC with the minimum system specifications, while on the Xbox the game looks better – like a PC with the recommended system specifications. In some ways, the game seems more natural on a console, especially with the way menus are set up, but the game is playable on any system. Given the fast-paced nature of some of the combat, it's hard to recommend a console for The Thing over the PC, simply because the keyboard and mouse-look setup is probably the most responsive, and higher screen resolutions only help. On the other hand, the Xbox and PlayStation 2 have force-feedback and allow you to sit on the couch.

The Thing is a good action-horror game that allows you to face fear with allies at your back (at least, you hope so), and introduces a novel trust/fear element to your relationship with Antarctica's remaining humans. It manages to capture much of what was great about the 1982 film, but never quite transcends its video game heritage, such as boss battles, to become truly great. The Thing will still provide you with a weekend's worth of action, horror and fun with flame, while resolving a mystery begun in the Antarctic twenty years ago.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on September 23, 2002 6:33 PM.

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