Reviewed: October 4, 2002
Released: September 3, 2002
I can still remember sitting in that dark theater back in 1982 and getting the crap scared out of me by John Carpenterís fantastic remake of The Thing. There were so many individual elements of that movie that just freaked me out, and when combined by the master of horror, himself, it was an unforgettable experience.
When I first heard that Universal Interactive and Computer Artworks were bringing this classic horror movie to life in video game form I admittedly had some mixed emotions. As a general rule, movies seldom translate well into video games and vice versa, but I patiently waited and even stole a quick peek at the E3 show this year.
Now that The Thing has finally released I can say with certainly that not only does it live up to all the horror and suspense of the movie, it may have actually broken the movie-game curse. Not only does The Thing deliver more than its fair share of chills, there is also a robust strategy element present that takes this game beyond the traditional third-person action genre.
In a bold move by the designers, they wisely chose to maintain a certain level of horror realism, which means the blood and gore in this game border on the excessive. And since you are in command of soldiers, you can expect plenty of mature language to go along with the story. While some may think profanity has no place in video games, in this case it is used to realistically depict the emotions of the squad you are in charge of. Itís not excessive, but used in just the right amount to let you know that your medic is freaking out or your engineer is about to pee his pants (yes, this actually happened).
Rather than try to recreate the events of the movie, The Thing picks up right after the movie ends. Hopefully everyone reading this review and considering this game have already seen the movie and know how it ended. Our story picks up with a rescue team being sent to investigate the Antarctic base that has been destroyed with no obvious survivors (see movie). Once the chopper sets down your team you are in command and can begin your investigation.
Iíll say it right now. The Thing is complicated, both in interface and gameplay. By design, there is a good mix of exploration, puzzles, and of course, combat, but what will take many casual gamers off-guard is the complicated squad dynamics present in this title. Thankfully, there is a decent tutorial in the form of pop-up hints that carries through the first several missions. These can be toggled off on subsequent replays or when you feel you have mastered the interface.
In addition to your own character, you are directly responsible for three other members in your party who all act and react based on all sorts of criteria that make up the innovative ďfear/trustĒ system. What this means is that your teammates will get scared when an alien bursts through the wall or you stumble into a room full of bloody bodies. You will need to take appropriate actions to calm their nerves and make them more productive. Giving them a weapon or an adrenaline shot works well in these instances.
The trust dynamic is equally as important. Paranoia quickly becomes everyoneís worst enemy, and you will constantly be required to prove your trustworthiness by killing aliens in the presence of your men or taking a blood test to prove you are not an alien. If you fail to kill an alien or accidentally shoot one of your men (yes, there is friendly fire) your men will get suspicious and if they get too suspicious they might just jump and kill you out of fear.
You can monitor the morale of your men through bubble icons above their heads or by listening to the dialog, which surprisingly isnít as random as you might think. You can also check their facial expressions in the command interface. If the men are shaking or looking around nervously they might need some reassurance.
Other factors come into play the moment you step off the chopper. You are in the Antarctic at night, so it is cold. You have a hypothermia meter that you need to keep an eye on. If it gets too low your men will start to take damage from the cold. Stepping inside will replenish this meter. Visibility is also quite poor and it is easy to get lost. Most of the major sections of the camp are connected with a chain of blue lights for you to follow, but donít get caught too far from camp or you may just get lost. Itís nice to play a game where the environment is just as dangerous as that multi-tentacle alien lurking in the tool shed.
Many of the puzzles in The Thing require a cooperative effort from your team. You have a soldier, a medic, and an engineer to begin with. The engineer is good at fixing things, the soldier kicks ass, and the medic heals you when you take damage. Oddly enough, the medic will not heal himself, so you are responsible for keeping him alive. A lot of the time I felt like a shopkeeper or warehouse manager, as I seemed to spend a majority of my time organizing everyoneís inventory and passing out ammo.
Puzzles can be as simple as locating a door code on a nearby computer terminal to using your engineer to restore power to light a hall or open a door. One of the cleverer puzzles required using a security camera to look around and zoom in on an access code. Many of the puzzles have multiple paths leading to their solution, so you are free to explore and experiment without trying to guess how the designers wanted you to solve a problem.
Those of you familiar with the movie will remember the blood test scene Ė perhaps one of the most tense and scary scenes in the film. In the game you will be required to take and administer frequent bloods tests to yourself, your men, and any NPCís you might meet. While blood tests are a great way to reassure your men and restore lost trust, it seldom proved useful to me. As I progressed through the game I quickly realized that certain characters (almost everyone sooner or later) were destined to become aliens. So even if you gave somebody a blood test and they were negative at the time they could easy morph into an alien moments later if the story so dictated. Ultimately, you learn to trust no one.
The levels are fully interactive. You can use tape recorders to save your game, but before you go screaming about designated save locations let me reassure you that there are more than enough of these and they are spread out perfectly. I even skipped a few, as they seemed almost too close together sometimes. You will find documents and read journals and computers to get much of the backstory, which will bring back memories for those of you who have seen the film.
The Thing manages to maintain the perfect blend of all the various gameplay elements to create a perfect pace for a survival horror game. There will be long drawn out sections of almost total silence and suspense followed by frantic combat, or a brain teasing puzzle. The human dynamic has never been implemented this well in any game of recent memory. Everyone, especially your team, all acts so realistically that you come to believe they are real and really feel a sense of loss when they turn into an alien and you are forced to roast them with a flamethrower.
The graphics do a great job of bringing this game to life in a realistic fashion, but they certainly donít showcase the power of the Xbox. I played the PS2 version for a few hours just to compare quality and the Xbox does appear to run at a higher resolution, but at a regrettable loss of framerate. During the opening movies and almost all of the cutscenes there was a noticeable recurring hiccup whenever the camera was doing pans around a scene. The video would actually lock for a short second then continue. This seemed confined to the movies, and the gameplay didnít suffer from any frame issues.
Much of this game takes place in the dark so lighting (and lack of lighting) is used to exploit the fear factor of this title. Nothing is as creepy as walking into a pitch-black room with nothing more than a glowing flare lighting your way.
The outdoor environments are brought to chilling life with howling winds and streaking snow that obscures your already limited vision. You will be straining to see that next glowing blue orb that lights your path to your next objective. The snow reflects any ambient light including your pink flares, or the orange flames of your flamethrower.
Blood flows freely in this game and the gore factor is ultra high ranging from mangled bodies, severed limbs, blood soaked floors, walls, and even ceilings. Some of the transformation scenes are truly horrific as eyes burst, skin peels back, and all sorts of twisted and sick creatures burst forth from their host.
Veterans of the movie will remember all the various forms the alien took, and how if any single cell survived so did the alien. Be prepared to see some really awesome monsters unlike anything you have ever seen before. Even in death they will split off into smaller creatures and try to skitter away to safety. As good as these alien designs are, these creatures do lose some of their scariness when they start to move. Some of the animation is downright silly, but you will probably be too scared to notice.
The movie used silence to maximize the fear we all experienced while watching it, and the game uses this same silence to recreate that same sense of dread. There are plenty of sections with tense music subtly playing in the background, but it was those silent periods that had me on the edge of my seat.
Ambient effects like wind howling or the hum or fluorescent lights, or the crackling roar of a fire all enhance the environments. The Dolby Surround mix does a great job of making you feel like you are standing on a glacier. The positional audio also lets you accurately track the location of monsters, men, and other items. Weapons all have great sounds and nothing is more terrifying than that trademark scream of the Thing whether it is crashing through the floor or bursting out of your best friend.
The voice acting is topnotch and there is plenty of it. Speech is used effectively to communicate the current status of your men. They will talk to you and among themselves and it is often topical to current events. If you are in a firefight and a man runs out of ammo he will voice his request for a fresh clip. If you put a bullet in your engineers leg (either on purpose or by accident) and then ask him to do something chances are you will get a verbal bashing before he outright refuses to obey.
Itís going to take you at least a couple of hours to get comfortable with the interface and the squad-based gameplay, but once you do you can settle in for what is about a 20-25 hour experience in sheer terror.
The story is linear so the game plays out the same each time. Once you learn who is scripted to turn into aliens that kind of ruins any suspense on future replays. The wide range of puzzle solutions offers some minor incentive to possibly replay the game, but chances are one trip through this Antarctic base will be more than enough.
I love a scary movie and I love a scary game even more because I am in direct control of the action. The Thing is perhaps one of the scariest games I have played in a long time, perhaps ever. The innovative concept of putting you in command of a multifaceted team was a brilliant addition that carries this game well beyond any other title in the survival horror genre.
Not only does The Thing live up to the movie it is based on, it restores my faith that a movie franchise can actually make the leap from the big screen to my Xbox. When I left that theater back in 1982 I never considered the possibility for a sequel, but if I had this game would be exactly what I would have wanted to see.