Yes. We know The Thing has been out for a few months now, but given that we got sent it late in the first place (in true Vivendi style), we thought we'd return the compliment and take a look at The Thing once the traditional post Christmas lull kicked in, and the sales are in full swing.
In the company of an unusual number of big name releases, it's perhaps a better time to evaluate The Thing than when it first hit the high street. Set in the aftermath of the 20 year old John Carpenter horror movie, it's essentially a third person squad based survival horror game with some rather nifty innovations - namely the much vaunted trust/fear elements that decide whether your team mates will co-operate with you.
Despite its squad based nature, you only get to control one character - that of Captain Blake, the leader of a military rescue team sent to Antarctica to investigate the scenes of carnage at an American scientific outpost. Aliens, you see. Shape shifting, vile, horrifying, and plain bloody angry for some reason. Whatever their beef, these writhing, slimy beings from another world aren't nice 'Things' to do business with and hence must be dispatched with the minimum of fuss - except they have a rather irritating and deceptive ability to sneakily host themselves in the body of human beings, and burst out without the decency of warning us first.
But despite such ominous overtones, the start of the game is a mere taster of the horror to come. Accompanied by three (mostly dispensable) team mates Blake must work his way through the icy outpost in temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees centigrade, but despite his leadership abilities, he mostly needs the skills of others to progress. Early on, you have to call on the Engineer to repair damaged electronics, while a Medic will be on hand to administer help if you need it. Meanwhile, the Soldier helps out in a fire fight situation, and can be relied on to be the bravest of your (fairly lily livered) team.
It's that old devil called a locked door again
Similar to most action adventure/survival horror titles, The Thing relies upon the locked door/puzzle gameplay mechanic, so you're forced to scuttle around searching every nook and cranny for that all important discarded key card or passcode. Likewise, weapons and ammo are vital to your progress, and you'll be doing a fair bit of backtracking within confined areas in a simple linear 'level' progression.
Seeing as it's bloody cold outside, Blake can only cope for a short while in such conditions. A blue bar depletes gradually to let you know how close to hypothermia you are, but nipping inside for a few seconds usually does the trick - although curiously your team mates seem to be able to withstand the cold indefinitely.
Often, you'll find yourself forced to 'prove' your trustworthiness to your extremely paranoid team mates. Early on, you have to find some blood test kits to show that you're not infected by an alien - the fact that two of your team mates become aliens at that exact point goes to show that you can't always trust them either. Some NPCs merely need you to give them a weapon before they'll budge, but otherwise it's a fairly straightforward system that's nowhere near as much of a neat gameplay innovation as the hype had some people believe.
Trust? It's a gimmick
Basically, it seems that your team mates will either work with you or not, and the whole trust system just serves as another reason to troop around looking for some random object or an excuse to bring on a posse of baddies that you have to kill before you can move on. Certain things you do will increase or decrease that trust; for example giving them health will increase their trust in you, while hitting them with a stray bullet won't do you any favours.
On the fear side, some of your more delicate team members freak out at the sight of dismembered bodies and weird shape shifting aliens. Understandable, but there is a way to calm them down, which generally involves either moving them away from the source of the terror and waiting a while, or administering an Adrenaline Hypo shot, which speeds up their return to normality.
The whole system is icon driven, and hence gives you the ability to direct your team's actions, but during our time with the game it serves as a constant interruption, and seems to involve far more button presses than is strictly necessary. For example, you'll regularly need to give health to your idiotic team mates, who couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag. But in order to do this, you'll find yourself having to go through several menus, select the medi kit, then go back to the game, wander over to the afflicted, administer the health and hope that you're not getting beaten up in the process, which is not easy when there are dozens of scuttling critters biting every part of your body. Similarly, the transfer of ammo and weaponry isn't as slick as it could be, and again, you'll be fiddling around checking everyone's tooled up rather than getting on with the game itself.
The more you play it, the more it annoys
Compared to the neat system featured in Conflict Desert Storm, it feels clunky and irritating, and the fact you can't control anyone else but Blake seems like an oversight. Another annoyance that will have you howling at the moon is the way you can use a health pack on yourself, even if you're at full strength. And given that you'll be regularly under attack, you need every medi pack you can get. It's often the little things that make you irritated, and the more you play it the more of these foibles crop up.
As a squad based game it would work far better if you ever had to care a great deal for anyone's survival. As it is, most of the team seem to split off once a level's over (or turn into aliens at pre-determined moments during it), so you're left merely using each NPC as a means of progression. You never build up an affinity for your team mates, and that strikes us as a missed opportunity.
Once the combat element kicks off in earnest, it becomes apparent that the game design is once again beating the player over the head for no good reason. Firstly the lack of friendly fire option means it's all too easy to injure your (already paranoid) team mates, while the game's insistence that you can only finish off aliens by roasting them with the use of a flame weapon means you're faced with the crushing spectre of having a weapon that you can't move forwards with. "But why?" I hear you cry. Because you'll set yourself on fire, that's why, and be dead in approximately three seconds. Genius game design eh? Having dispensed with the Resident Evil problems of dodgy camera angles, giving players the welcome ability to control the viewpoint yourself (with the movement assigned to the left stick and camera to the right, and a first person mode to target the really annoying enemies), The Thing merely introduces a whole host of baffling quirks of its own, and manages to make you long for Capcom's far more polished approach.
The proliferation of save points also strips any element of tension away from the experience. Its level based structure is obviously a world away from Capcom's more free form approach, but giving the player multiple save points on the same level just seems generous in the extreme, meaning you're rarely tested for any length of time, and as a result we'd blitzed though a huge chunk of The Thing in no time at all.
As a spectacle, The Thing really doesn't excite a great deal, either, using a functional engine that wouldn't have impressed PC gamers four years ago, never mind now in this far more demanding age. The icy wastes and indoor environments are lacking in panache and detail, and are far from the promised "groundbreaking snow and lighting effects", just managing to look ordinary. Also, every version we've seen looks almost identical to the PS2 one, giving the impression of a game ported onto multiple platforms with the minimum of fuss or optimisation. The character models for both the humans and the enemies are average at best (hardly what you'd describe as "hyper detailed"), and while no one could be offended particularly by The Thing's overall look, there's nothing on show that can touch the more technically impressive action adventures out there - and judging it in the context of Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Splinter Cell or even Halo, it merely looks old school, with bad texturing, uninteresting particle effects, and vanilla architecture.
Videogame in shite voiceover shock
The voiceovers are also crushingly generic, featuring the kind of stereotypical scripts that gamers ought to be well and truly sick of by now. Nearly every character in the game could get a job doing voiceovers for movie trailers, adding ever dramatic and smoky throated Yankee punch where it's just not needed. Fans of the movie might get something from the game if they're an obsessive, but for those of us that just want a cracking horror based action adventure, the license means nothing - and stood next to something like Half Life it's faintly embarrassing.
If you can pick up The Thing cheap you won't be too disappointed; it's by no means a bad game, but it's all the more disappointing thanks to the fact that it could and should have been brilliant. As it stands, it pales in comparison to any number of quality releases that have hit the shelves recently, and at full price should be avoided.