RETRO – Three months after the events of the John Carpenter horror film of the same name. There must be some guilty souls who have not seen the 1982 film: for them, the ‘Thing’ mentioned in the introduction is essentially an alien creature that infects the human body like a virus, and then completely assimilates it by identifying its particles. Our Special Forces commandos are sent to a ruined Antarctic research base from which they have received no response for a long time. Our mission is to find out what the hell might have happened here and rescue any survivors.
The biggest question for viewers of the original film, of course, is who or what survived the horrific events. What was so odd about the film was that there was no way of knowing who had been infected by the carcass – this was only revealed when it suddenly transformed into one researcher or another, to slaughter the unfortunate few who were near it like a rabid, bloodthirsty creature. After the game’s protagonist and his small team are sent to the base, which is in total ruins (though still too intact – I don’t quite understand, for example, why, while the Blair/Thing-built “spaceship” explodes in the film in an obvious and spectacular way, it remains intact here…?), we soon discover that the “Thing” has somehow survived. How he managed to do that, we won’t know for a long time…
At first glance, the game itself looks like traditional survival horror. Still, it quickly becomes apparent that it has very little in common with the simplicity of Alone in the Dark/Resident Evil games. Whereas in those games, you always control a single character, here you manage an entire team – albeit one directly led by Captain Blake, with the others only being given weapons, ammunition and orders. So apart from Blake, we control three types of unit: the engineer repairs the various broken, sparking switchboards, the medic heals our broken (bleeding) bodies, and the soldier mows down enemy dogs.
The engineer plays the most crucial role in the game because you can only get ahead if you “master” the electrical equipment in many places, so you have to watch him like the apple of your eye. The doctor is also extremely useful, as he saves us from wasting the very few first-aid kits available. Strangely enough, the doctors cannot heal themselves (while we can…) – an understandable difficulty from a gameplay point of view, but not very realistic, to say the least…
The casting of the soldiers is not quite well thought out either, as they are no better shots than their more skilled counterparts. The developers probably felt this during testing because I hardly ever saw such units in the final version. As the story unfolds, the people in your team will change throughout the game.
Some will not be able to stand the wrinkle and will put a bullet in their own head, others will go completely mad and cower in one place, dying rather than move on, others will betray us or be killed by the betrayers, and most will undergo a “complete transformation” infected by the alien virus. Even if one of our men dies, it’s not too bad, as we’ll meet another soldier on the next track. There’s a strong Half-Life feel to this “set-up”, with the difference that the scientists there at least spouted some kind of text when they met, whereas here, our would-be companions mostly just stand there, staring silently ahead of them…
Who will be the next “thing”?
In principle, the greatest part of The Thing is that we never know when one of us will turn into a “Thing”, and of course, our peers never know about us. The first part of the game really gave me the creeps when the previously peaceful guy next to me turned into a tentacled horror, snarling and sputtering. The problem is: it happens so often that after a while, you know it’s going to happen, and so later, you’re only annoyed because you’ve lost another helpful companion.
Plus, because of the game’s structure (?), the makers were forced to tie this to specific locations, so if you were backfilling an older job, for example, you knew in advance where Joe the engineer would be green trash. Unfortunately, the idea of a blood test, familiar from the ’82 movie, doesn’t make much sense either. For, like McReady in the film, we are allowed to draw blood from our fellow creatures, which, when destroyed, provokes hostile reactions from the shape-shifting aliens, who immediately reveal their identities and fall on us.
That’s all well and good, and it made sense in the movie, but from a gameplay point of view, it’s an entirely ill-conceived design decision because it’s fine as long as my partner is fighting alongside me – why the hell should I expose him earlier if I’m not going to get anything out of it! I just lost a valuable team member sooner! Another over-hyped and ultimately only sort-of-working feature is the trust factor of our peers. The idea is that if we act “senselessly” or don’t shoot the aliens hard enough or take their weapons away from them, we will lose more and more “credibility” in their eyes, and they will increasingly think we have turned into a “Thing”.
They remain stubborn mules at a medium level of suspicion and refuse to follow us or do our bidding, but when they are convinced we are infected, they attack us. This trust/distrust factor is an excellent idea from the developers, but unfortunately, it was implemented in a rather clumsy way in the actual game. Most of the time, it’s enough just to give your teammates weapons and ammo to turn the trust factor to 100%, which I did anyway; I think I found plenty of them; why would I shrink? (When a teammate turns into an enemy creature, they drop their weapons and ammo, so you can pick that up after they’re eliminated.) The fear factor was similarly half-heartedly implemented.
The trailers tell us that it will also play a huge role when our people slowly freak out: they get more nervous, start shooting madly at the slightest sign, maybe attack us, and so on. (In this case, the only antidote is an adrenaline shot, which can be injected with a needle). Well, I didn’t notice any of this; all I noticed was that at the sight of the mutilated bloody corpses lying in various places, my companions started to wail (“Oh God, we’ll never get out of here!” “Christ, what’s going to happen to us now?”) or simply vomited. Still, when we moved away, they said that everything was OK now, they were better. The park and quiet areas were divided into zones, and getting in and out of these zones was repeated regularly, which made the whole fear factor of the story rather ridiculous and annoying after a while.
It happened only once: one of my companions got so scared that he simply refused to continue the journey: he knelt down, shaking, and stayed put. I looked back at him from time to time, but he didn’t move until he quietly and politely died… (Unfortunately, I didn’t have an adrenaline ampoule with me.) I’m sure the developers really wanted to do something original with all this “psychology”. Still, unfortunately, they didn’t have enough time/energy/skill to add artificial intelligence comparable to Black and White, or at least close to it.
The colour of fear
Computer Artworks has always been famous for its twisted graphics of alien creatures, but other work was featured in a magazine named after the team, which was available here for a short time in 2000. In The Thing, the CA boys hit their stride when depicting monsters: the beasts were so disgusting and terrifying that even H.R. Giger could envy them. A bit more variety would have been nice, though, as there are only three monster types in total that need to be dissuaded from kissing hello.
The scuttlers are the familiar mutants from the film, consisting of scurrying human heads and spider legs that can travel through various pipes or emerge from sewers to jump into our hero’s face. There is some variation in their appearance, but you won’t notice it in the heat of battle. The walkers look a bit like humans, but you can quickly forget that when they attack, as they spit out various disgusting bits of their deformed bodies. They look sluggish by default, but they are lightning fast during attacks and deliver a real Macarenko punch, so it’s a good idea to back off quickly and flamethrower them. Finally, the ruptures are massive, disgusting, shapeless masses of flesh that have absorbed the bodies of their unfortunate victims.
As in the film, we can see the remains of dogs or older, stranded companions poking out of the slimy, foreign parts. The developers have not neglected the depiction of humans, either: the facial features of the notable characters are perfectly rendered, and the animation is adequate. The only thing that bothered me a little was the lack of variation in the appearance of the characters that can be picked up… The creators were also a little stingy with the special effects: perhaps they were more focused on the Xbox version and didn’t push them too hard.
The elaboration of the locations is generally satisfactory, but not very varied, although it is true that it is difficult to develop too many variations for Antarctic research bases ?. Only the realisation of the snowfall is noteworthy: the drizzling snow does swirl in the wind in a beautiful and lifelike way. Overall, the graphics of The Thing are pleasant, but it’s not the game that makes you think back with satisfaction to the moment you blew all those pretty banknotes on your graphics card…
Demonic alien beings + evil government experiments = all hell breaks loose
Of course, most of you probably wonder what the game’s ambience is like. Is it as parahuman as Resident Evil, Blair Witch Project, or maybe on the other line Half-Life? Well, in the first half of the game, when you’re barely encountering a few monsters, it’s pretty scary to be stumbling around in the dark, foggy snowfall, waiting for the unexpected onslaught of bloodthirsty beasts to rip you to shreds.
Later on, however, the emphasis shifts to a slightly monotonous shootout – in some locations, you even have to engage in Serious Sam-esque UFO killing, which doesn’t fit the feel of The Thing, to say the least. The story starts well, but then, unfortunately, it quickly devolves into the familiar alien/half-life plot: of course, it’s the evil government and military again, experimenting with monsters to create perfect and docile killing machines, but then the monsters break out and wipe everyone out, blah blah blah… Dear developers, why can’t you come up with something more original?
I’ve often been annoyed by clunky controls in other such programs, so I was afraid that this more complex tactical action game would be screwed up with them. I also felt it was a mistake that I was so often shod of more and more of my picks, because ultimately I didn’t care much about their fate: when one unfortunate one turned, I just waved him off, took out the flamethrower and fried him to a nice crisp. Fortunately, there were no significant problems in this area: the cleverly solved tutorial made it easy to learn everything quickly.
Only the use of the flamethrower is a bit clumsy: our hero must have once earned his living as a cleaner because he tends to cook the ground instead of the monsters. If you want to aim the flamethrower precisely at the creature, you have to get an internal view, making it very difficult to escape from the angry, flaming beasts quickly. The external view has also taken the burden of accurate aiming off your shoulders: it’s usually enough to face the bastards to aim, making the action part of the game a little too easy in places. It’s probably also due to the console ‘companion’ version that you can’t look up and down in external view, which is much needed to explore the environment. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, there’s no map in the game either, which would have been nice because sometimes you can get lost in the dark.
By the end of this article, I am forced to admit that I have trampled poor The Thing to death. I actually had a lot of fun with it, and no doubt the atmosphere of the original film is back (which is no coincidence, as John Carpenter himself was supposedly a consultant to the CA team.) I’m only disappointed because they tried to incorporate many good ideas (team management, fear/confidence factor, etc.). Still, unfortunately, the execution was not up to scratch, and the AI was not well developed.
+ Great ambiance
+ Great monster graphics
+ Lots of good ideas
– … but medium implementation
– The story isn’t that great
– Not scary enough
Publisher: Black Label Games
Developer: Computer Artworks
Release date: 2002