Reviewed: September 12, 2002
Released: August 20, 2002
The growl of the wind outside the compound dominates. There is no escape from the sound; there is no escape from the cold. The safe haven that was the Norwegian research facility, has succumbed to twisted metal and falling debris. The lives that made this a warm oasis in the Antarctic winter have been cold and silent since the last recon squad went in, and never came out. Something is happening here, and you, Dr. Blake Faraday have been assigned the mission of finding out what that something is.
The week before receiving The Thing for review, I had the opportunity to watch the original 1951 black and white The Thing movie, and the 1982 John Carpenter remake back to back. The game is based on the 1982 version, but it’s not a rehash of the movie; it picks up the storyline at the point where the movie ended.
The first movie is a true 1950’s sci-fi thriller, all camp and corn. It plays like a comedy now, and probably played like a comedy in 1951. Big contrast with the 1982 version, which is all dark and serious like, and reminiscent of the 1978 sci-fi horror blockbuster Alien. The game duplicates this dark vision in an attempt to provide a suspenseful edge to the game. Suspense is tough to achieve when ninety-nine percent of the players will have seen the movie and know the plot.
The Thing uses the third person perspective, but because the game camera is always behind you, it feels just like a First Person Shooter to me. You can switch to “freelook” mode for a true FPS view, but you can’t move anywhere until you switch back to third person.
The Thing has extended the lone gunman hero by giving him a three-man squad to watch his back. Now before you take off screaming into the night, squad play here is limited to a handful of commands activated with a point and click interface. It’s easy to learn, streamlined in use, and is successful in making the game new and different. I know some players are put off by squad games that have so many commands to remember that it stops being fun. I know this because I am one of those players. If this aspect of The Thing is holding you back, fear not, this is squad done right because it’s squad done lite.
Your team is never more than three strong and the initial mix consists of a soldier, a medic, and an engineer. You command them individually or as a group. Commands are limited to “follow me”, “remain here”, “go to a location”, “give me your weapon”, and “take this weapon”. In combat situations they each have enough artificial intelligence to shoot back without being told. So you are never in the situation where your life is on the line because you can’t remember the right &*@$ command.
The worst habit exhibited by the movie monster is to turn the local population into amazingly gross skinless shapes with the face of your best friend sticking out of one side. This assimilation process is complete when the monster has become a faultless mimic of the original host. Is it human or is it alien? This uncertainty factor is modeled in the game with Trust icons that appear floating in the air over each squad members’ head. These icons tell you how much each squad member trusts you, and in which direction that trust is headed. The icons depict levels of trust that range from “you must be the devil”, to “I am your dog”.
Fear levels are also communicated with icons. Here is an example of the Trust/Fear interface in action. When your squad stumbles across the first half human, half alien, and all dead corpse, your engineer gets a bit shook up. The fear icon for “Crack Up Level One” appears over his head. You press the Q key and check the squad status. A close up view of each members face reveals that the engineer is nervously looking left to right, and his health bar is whacked out. You could give him a hypo of adrenaline, but that might be over kill for level one fear. What else could you do? Well how about a nice warm gun to steady the nerves? Since he starts off unarmed, you give him your spare pistol and a full clip. Now he’s calm and ready to rock.
In the first four levels the game tutorials interrupt the play whenever a new element is introduced. Some tutorials are strictly text, and some include a short cut scene. The text font used by the developers is really, really big. This forces you to scroll down just to read the last three words, and all without the benefit of your scroll wheel. This and a few other small nuisances make it clear that the game was written for consoles first, and for the PC second. Too bad the developers didn’t spend the extra effort to optimize the PC version. Game options allow you to toggle the tutorials off, toggle the Trust/Fear icons off, and toggle various game aids like such as easy aiming and auto loading.
Our hero, Blake, is controlled with a combination of the mouse for direction and the W and S keys for forward and backward movement. Looking up or down requires using the left shift key for a “freelook”. Mouse buttons and the scroll wheel control firing and selecting inventory. This is nearly a textbook standard FPS interface, and it works just fine here. Even with the additional squad commands and the Trust/Fear interface, the learning curve is not steep, perhaps a half-hour.
There are puzzles, useable objects, and different weapon types to be found throughout the game. The puzzles are easy, usable objects are sparse, and weapon types are limited. In this aspect, The Thing occupies the opposite side of the spectrum from games like Morrowind: The Elder Scrolls>, in which nearly everything is a usable game object.
Graphics are well done. In particular the actors are modeled with detailed and unique facial features. Because of the narrow field of vision created by the dark blizzard conditions outdoors, and the equally dark interiors, I could see little advantage when I ratcheted the resolution up from the default 640x480, to the maximum 1600x1200.
System requirements are modest, the minimum specification is 64mb ram, a 500mHz processor, and a 16mb DirectX8 video card. During my testing the game always played smoothly and without any issues.
Music is also used sparingly, most often as a preamble to the appearance of the bad guys. I had expected the game to support positional sound, because this script could make effective use of it. There is nothing else quite like hearing those bumps in the night actually coming from behind you. The buyers of this game are likely to take their games seriously, and all the serious gamers I know have positional sound.
Experienced players could play through this game in about eight hours, where a more casual gamer might take twice as long. Replay value is limited to running the same levels with easy, normal, and hard settings. There is no multi-player, or online component. This game is best suited for casual players who like to play a game to the end, but like to do so over the course of days or weeks, instead of a single marathon session. This approach would give you time to enjoy the squad play, and the nuances of the Trust/Fear interactions.
This game is based on a movie, and successful movies are based on interesting characters. Characters that you can identify with, characters that you can either love or hate. For myself, The Thing would be a far more enjoyable game if the characters had more personality. These actors all have the same accent, and they all use the same vocabulary. The developers went to considerable effort to make each actor look like an individual, but in this dark a gloomy game much of that is wasted. Some of that time should have been spent writing better lines.
There I am, playing the game with three guys following me around, and by the second level I’ve heard all the small talk and banter they have. These lines are real gems; “let’s get this over with”, or “I don’t know what weren’t doing here”, or “I hate this job”, and of course “this cold is killing me”. With very little background music it just seems like a lot of dead air. Will there ever be a game with real movie quality production. Could we afford to buy it?
Technically, The Thing is a competent game. Both the outdoor and indoor sets are convincing, and the actors are visually detailed. The squad play and Trust/Fear interface is easy to use and the game offers a combination of features that is different and new in action shooters. The game lacks suspense, not because the developers didn’t try, but simply because most players will have seen the movie and already know what to expect.
The game missed a real opportunity when each character was not developed into a real person. Perhaps then we might care more if they are infected or not, and would feel the responsibility that comes with leadership. Dr. Blake Faraday is a good looking guy, in a pixel shading kind of way, but he doesn’t make me smile the same way Duke Nukem did, or even that nerdy guy in Half Life. Maybe I was expecting to be given the lead role in a movie with a supporting cast of funny and interesting artificial intelligences.
The Thing shows us how far computer games have come in some ways, and just how much room there is for growth in this rich and exciting form of entertainment.