The Thing PDF Print E-mail
Written by Doc_Brown   
Friday, 03 March 2006 18:00
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Developer: Computer Artworks
Publisher: Black Label Games (now a part of Activision)
Trailer
ESRB Mature 17+ (Blood and Gore, Violence)
PEGI 16+ (Game contains depictions of violence)

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A Drop of Time
This game and the film it's based on have a lot in common with the first two Alien movies.  The first entry in each is cut from the horror mold, with a group of civilians facing a vastly superior foe they’re ill equipped to destroy. The follow ups switch to action-adventure by pitting well armed soldiers against those same foes, foes who now have numerical superiority. My point in all this is simply to let you know that this game, while a sequel to the events of the movie, does not fall in the same genre. If you go in expecting a survival horror experience, you will be disappointed. If you can keep an open mind, however, you may well like what you see…

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Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere
Gameplay is situated at U.S. Outpost North 31, somewhere in the Antarctic. Contact has been lost with the research team stationed there, and your military unit is sent to investigate. Despite the vastness of the land the setting seems to be closing in… hostile, even. A perpetual storm rages throughout the game, individual flakes and blinding flurries limiting your vision and the time you can spend outside before freezing to death. The buildings provide shelter from the biting cold, but are themselves little more than charred husks. What’s worse, unspeakable amounts of blood stain the walls and floors, and remains—both human and… other—are liberally scattered about.

This all adds up to one very tense experience, and you haven't even faced one of the Thing Beasts yet. You have to hand it to Computer Artworks for crafting such a wonderfully realized world. I honestly can't think of a single situation where I felt I was totally safe. There’s always that flickering light down the hall, the howl of the storm at the windows, or the moan of one of the Thing Beasts elsewhere in the building to keep you on edge. The creatures themselves—from little ones that inspired Doom 3’s trites to big, hulking masses of flesh—are somehow… unsettling. The fact that you have to burn the larger ones in order to finish them off reinforces the notion that the place is dirty, contaminated.

At least you’ve got some company now and then. Other soldiers will join your squad along the way, and you’ll be grateful for their presence. In addition to standard sharpshooters, there are medics who will heal squad mates and engineers that can fix broken equipment. They are all, thankfully, great shots, and their path finding is solid as well. Each one is also a unique character with convincing voice acting. Best of all, as ranking officer you get to call the shots, and the command interface—consisting of a group follow/stay, and individual menus for each member allowing you to give or take away weapons and ammo—is very easy to use.

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Multitasking
Controlling your character may take a little getting used to at first. The movement mode utilizes a third-person camera, while aim mode employs a stationary first-person perspective. You can still attack from the former with the help of an auto-aim, but you can’t look up or down. Conversely, you have full control over where you shoot in the latter, but can’t move your feet. Another odd decision is that your character cannot jump. You can duck just fine (and improve your accuracy by doing so), but a foot-high fence will thwart your progress. To the game’s credit, though, you can strafe and lean in third- and first-person, respectively, both of which are tactically useful.

Combat is handled via a two-handed approach. In your right hand you wield whatever weapon it is you've selected, be it blowtorch, flamethrower, pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle, machine gun, grenade launcher, or stun gun. Your left hand holds either one of four kinds of grenade (regular, high explosive, stun, and incendiary) or an inventory item such as a medkit, fire extinguisher, flare, hypo, or flashlight. The genius of this approach is that it allows you to multitask. It's always a pleasure to engage multiple Thing Beasts at once, bullets pinning one down while a well-placed grenade takes care of another.

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Just One of Those Things
The Thing itself is something akin to a sentient virus. It takes over other cells, and eventually an entire host, in order to reproduce. Their ability to alter cellular function allows them to turn a host into a monster once operating incognito is no longer desired. This also explains why, after weakening them with traditional weaponry, you must ignite the larger Thing Beasts in order to kill them—each and every cell must be destroyed. But when you’re fighting an enemy that exists on the microscopic scale, how can you possibly contain something like that? How can you be sure it hasn’t already infected members of your squad?

Your paranoia is something the game attempts, unsuccessfully, to exploit. You can use blood test hypos on your squad members to find out who’s human and who’s a Thing, but it really doesn’t have much affect in an action game such as this. You wade through scores of Thing Beasts over the course of the game, so what difference does a few more really make? Worst-case scenario is that you’ve trusted your flame-based weaponry to the wrong guy and he jumps you from behind, but even then it lacks the impact it should have. Worst of all, there are a couple of situations where characters are supposed to turn into Thing Beasts and attack you, but beforehand they will always test clean. That’s just poor planning.

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Cracks in the Ice
The good news is that trust and fear are better utilized. Squad members have variables relating to either of these. If trust is too low, in the very least they won't follow your orders. If they really don't trust you and your genetic makeup they may even try to kill you (if unarmed they can literally yank the weapon out of your hands). Healing them, trusting them with a gun, killing Thing Beasts, and using a blood test hypo on yourself will all boost trust. Taking away their weapon, letting them do all the killing, and bullying them (you can actually point a gun at their head to get their momentary cooperation) lowers trust.

Fear, on the other hand, can make a man snap. If you're not careful a teammate can bolt, fire his weapon wildly while screaming like a madman, or just curl into the fetal position and weep. You'll need to get them out of the area that's affecting them (physically pushing them, if necessary), or if that's not possible calm them down with an adrenaline hypo. If they're just behaving too dangerously, you can always hit them with the stun gun or stun grenades to relieve them of their weapon. Popup icons over their heads relate your squad mates' levels of trust and fear, making it fairly easy to keep an eye on their mental well-being.

For all the game does well, it does have one singularly glaring fault: an insistence on archaic gameplay. By this I mean many of the levels and situations you find yourself in scream, "Game logic! " The final portions of the game are particularly guilty of this, as the developers begin to use some old school tricks to increase the challenge. We’re talking about nasty things like infinite spawn points for enemies and ambushes that guarantee you take damage. For all the brilliance of the trust and fear systems, and even the idea behind the faulty paranoia aspect, it’s such a shame to see the design fall back on convention like this.

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Conclusion
The Thing is surprising for several reasons: it establishes a different tone from the film on which it was based, aspires to explore the mental health of characters and its affect on their actions, and then unfortunately relies on a faulty core gameplay structure that saps some of the fun from the experience. I still recommend you give it a try if nothing else and see if it suits your tastes. And though the odds of a sequel are slim to none, I for one would love to see some other game—perhaps in the survival horror genre—delve even further into fear and trust like this.

Note: Originally posted at Hangar16.com on 10/05/01

 

Game Rated 7/10
 

 

 

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