Looking Back on: The Thing (Sony Playstation 2)

The Thing
Console: PS2
Genre: Survival Horror.
Developer: Black Label Games, Computer Artworks.
Publisher: Universal Interactive.
(This was written for YHCOR, and was essentially the last review for the site until I stopped writing for 411 about eight months after the fact, so we’ll swap back to those for a bit after this posting. I don’t know why I didn’t post this over at 411 since it coincided with my starting with the site well, though I think I had intended to update both sites with reviews routinely and it just didn’t pan out. When I think about how much free time I had back then, though, man, the things I could’ve done with a bit more drive. Oh well.)

Y’know, I enjoyed the movie The Thing when I sat down and watched it. I was really surprised that a movie made in the 80’s could be so stunning and creepy by today’s standards, and yet there were more than a few moments when I honestly was shocked and nearly jumped. It was one of John Carpenter’s finest films, and a classic that will endear in the horror movie classics for a long time to come. (Still agree; the acting was excellent and the practical effects are still awesome. I’m really depressed that the modern prequel invested so much money into practical effects, then replaced them all with CGI instead of enhancing the practical effects with it; think about how great that COULD have been, man. Well, the plot was still kind of eh, but aside from that.)

When I picked up the game, I had high expectations. Releasing the game on what would be the movie’s 20th anniversary, the game was set to take you beyond the movie, and hopefully answer any questions that had been burning in your brain after the movie ended. I had been hoping for a faithful adaptation of the movie’s facts, an answer to my questions, and a kickass experience overall. (As I understand it, John Carpenter does, indeed, consider the video game to be part of official franchise canon, and endorsed it when it came out, though whether or not it can be considered to have answered questions asked by the original film is another matter altogether.)

The first four hours more or less satisfied that desire. The rest…

Okay, to sum up: The game takes place about three weeks after the events of the movie. You are the leader of a group of Special Forces soldiers sent in to figure out why the Antarctic base is no longer communicating with the outside world. (This seems silly in retrospect, as after rewatching the film, it seems like it’d take longer than three weeks for someone to get out to the base to assist, based on how everything was explained in the film, but that’s honestly the least of the game’s issues.) In this, the first, oh, half-hour, hour of the game, you learn about the trust/fear system, controls, and how to use your teammates effectively. You also get some amusing moments when your characters discover bits and pieces of the goings on in the base, like the miniature spaceship or MacReady’s tape recording. Eventually, you discover no survivors, set some charges, and move on to the Norwegian outpost, hoping to find answers. This is where the game picks up, so I’ll leave the story at that. (Basically this is when the game begins siccing Thing monsters on you full-force.)

Graphically, the game is about as accurate as you can possibly imagine it. The characters are rendered well, and express the appropriate emotions on their faces when needed; IE, they see a decapitated body having bled out all over a pool table. (That was one of the cool things about the game; if someone wasn’t mentally equipped to see a person completely ruined, if you brought them into a room where someone was in multiple pieces, they’d basically blanch, run into the corner and throw up. It was pretty interesting, even if it didn’t come up as often as you’d expect.) The in game animation is very nicely done, and the Things themselves are all very horrific, for the right reasons. The background graphics do the job well enough; the outside effects are particularly well done, and add life to what would otherwise be, well, snow. The indoors effects seem a bit bland at times, but make up for that with rooms filled with blood and gore, decapitated heads, and mangled bodies… nice touch, to say the least. (In the early going the game made an effort to make this sporadic and effective, though by the end game this wore out its welcome and ended up just being gore for the sake of gore, though it made a certain amount of sense.) The fire effects are decent, and light up the room well, but at times seem kind of cheesy by comparison to the in-game stuff, and the lighting effects are well done overall, and make for a moody sort of atmosphere that accentuates the game’s dark feel. And also of note, the camera DOES NOT SUCK. Mainly it follows behind you from a 3rd person perspective, and only seems to be problematic when looking down, as creatures chewing on your feet can make the camera their bitch. (Oh yes, that was the single most annoying part of the combat: small monsters that got in close were a beast to fight because aiming down was such a chore. I feel like this game, conceptually, would’ve been much better if it’d come out after Resident Evil 4 and could’ve borrowed some of the tricks used there to accentuate its design.)

The in-game music is rather bland, honestly… when it’s there, it’s dark and suitably spooky, and speeds up to add tension to important scenes, but otherwise, is rarely there. (The tracks from the movie only show up occasionally and blow everything made for the game out of the water, because John Carpenter used to have his own people to do this thing, and they were kings.) The sound effects, on the other hand, are very well done, for the most part. The gunfire sounds about as realistic as I could expect it to be, noises are more muted the farther away you are from the source, and the in-game voice acting is actually not bad, something I was dreading. The voice actors seem genuinely interested to be there, and pull off their roles with gusto and vigor, something I don’t hear enough of these days. It’s not Metal Gear Solid 2, but it’s definitely close. My only complaint here is that, even though your allies are all meant to be unique, some of them repeat voices, to the point that two different guys will say “looks like your old girlfriend”, in the same voice, at the same sort of circumstances, and yet it only makes sense for ONE of them to say it. That’s a bit annoying, to say the least. (Specifically, the first half of the game uses a lot of unique voice work for the characters who follow you around to give them real personalities and make them seem like actual people, and the second half of the game reuses a lot of those voices, to the point where it makes no logical sense. This is a running trend, unfortunately.)

The controls are actually quite easy to adjust to, overall… the left stick moves you around, the D-pad selects from your inventory, and you can strafe, aim manually, and monitor your teammates’ feelings all with the press of a button. It’s very easy to negotiate, and within the first hour or so you pick it up like second nature. This is a good thing, as you find yourself constantly switching from ballistics weaponry to flame weaponry during the game, and it’s rarely a problem or a sticking point here. Kudos to everyone involved for making that a saving grace.

Now, had the game been left as a you vs. them sort of thing, the game would have stuck out as a good effort to continue the movie, and been left at that. Sadly, so many other things were added in to make the game seem like more than the sum of its parts, and while these things DO add some longevity to the game, they are ultimately what make it seem like squandered potential in the long run. First, the team-based combat and the trust/fear system. Essentially, you can have a team of up to four additional people at one time on your side to help you kill Things and solve puzzles. In theory, this is a nice idea, as it makes team management an important factor. In practice, it really doesn’t do too much for the game overall. There are three character classes: Soldiers, who are only there to fight, but are the least likely to panic under pressure; Medics, who panic the easiest, but make up for that by healing your teammates for free; and Engineers, who are even tempered, and repair stuff for you. Theoretically, all of your teammates are important to you. However, the only person who really impacts the game is the Engineer. If he bites it before everything he needs to fix before he disappears or turns is fixed, hey, GAME OVER. Anyone else is free reign. (It was really stupid, in retrospect, that the game literally set itself up in a way such that any of your allies could die but the Engineer, but only during specific sequences, because it felt like a sporadic forced escort mission. Honestly your main character should’ve been able to accomplish everything, and having the Engineer should’ve allowed you to perform the relevant tasks faster or more safely, instead of acting as a mandatory gameplay crutch.)

Also of note is that the Trust/Fear system is basically bullshit to anyone who knows how to play a videogame and not die too often. Basically, your teammates will freak out if they see scary shit; IE, they see said decapitated body bled out all over said pool table, they will either barf, wet themselves, or go nuts, shoot at random, and go fetal. The simple solution to that: DON’T LET THEM. Most of the time I’d move my guys to another side of a room, leave them there while I explored, and come back for them when done. Simple enough, fear system conquered. (It was a really novel system, and if the game had done more with it, IE forcing you to bring weak-willed characters through scary shit, or giving you options to get the characters to overcome their fear, it might have worked. Sadly, since your teammates were expendable there wasn’t a lot of development here, and it worked, but it wasn’t anything amazing.) The Trust system was equally interesting; if you don’t shoot your guys too often, give them ammo or healing when they need it, and shoot Things, they love you forever. If you shoot your guys a lot, leave them empty on bullets or health, and let THEM do all the shooting, well, you should be playing something else. Now, the REAL benefit of the Trust system is that you can essentially shoot anyone you suspect of being infected, and if a guy trusts you, he’ll follow your lead. (Yup; you could literally insist someone was infected, kill them, and if your allies trusted you enough, they’d light that person up along with you without a question. It was kind of fucked up, but in a world where monsters took over your body it made sense.)

And that’s the sticking point of the game, in a nutshell: You never know WHO’S infected. (In actuality a lot of the transformations were scripted, as I mention below, so if you play through twice, yeah, not so much.)

The game manual, field manual, and in-game tutorial all make a big point of watching who will turn on you. FUCK THAT. Almost all of the turns that occur in the first half of the game are scripted; I know, I tested it out. I mean, I tested a guy RIGHT before a point when I KNEW he was going to turn, test comes back negative, I walk forward, and BANG, he turns! I shot the guy right before he would have turned, he dies, nothing happens. Replay, do as normal, HE TURNS! I mean, come on, I’m not stupid here people, even if they WERE scripted, either don’t make a big deal over the tests, or make them work properly. They never even give you any real lead-in to possibly infected people; none of them do anything that would deviate from their normal behavior, like draw attention to the fact that YOU might be infected, shoot you “by accident” or run off in battle. It’s all hunky dory until the story kicks in, and then WHAM, a new Thing emerges. (I hated this so much when I realized the game was doing this, too, because it was really disappointing. It’s not that the turns were scripted that was the issue as much as it is that the turns were scripted and the game ignored them until the second they were supposed to happen that was a problem. If the game had a flag that said “this person is infected” and kept them in that state until tripping the transformation flag, that would make sense, but as it was, none of the actual safeguards or instructions on how to detect Things worked. if your own features in the game are bullshit placebos designed to delude the player into thinking they work, fuck you, you’re a bad developer.) This is the staple throughout the entire first half of the game, which actually elicited a response from me, as I actually felt BAD having to wax my own teammates… so much time had been invested in their backstory that it felt kinda evil to have to kill them. (Indeed; the characters in the first half of the game would often talk to you about random crap and give themselves actual personalities you could identify, so it kind of felt like an XCOM situation where their deaths meant something even if they were just random NPC’s. If the game had been able to support itself better on the whole little things like this would’ve made it a classic, I think.)

Then, the second half of the game starts up, and it all goes to hell.

Essentially, from the moment you wake up, weaponless, until the game’s final “shocking” ending that fans of the movie will guess long before that, the game’s second half plays out like some sort of Half-Life/Resident Evil knockoff. It’s not BAD, per say, but it didn’t elicit the feelings the first half did. (I would argue that it was, in fact, bad, since you have to collect all of your weapons again, the game wasn’t an especially good action game, and the combat was frustrating in points because the mechanics worked well when fighting Things but not so much soldiers. Either way, though, the concept was stupid.) People have substantially less scripted changes, but so much less time is spent on character development that you never really notice. Characters randomly disappear from your group between levels for no explained reason. The entire weapons set, though useful, does not change one bit between parts. It’s like you’re playing through some sort of bizarre expansion pack done by an inferior developer. The game never hit that BAD part, but it never managed to live up to the promises the first half made. (I’m totally serious about all of this, by the way; aside from human enemies and a giant final boss the second half of the game is laid out almost exactly like the first half, in compressed form, and it’s really annoying.)

Bottom line, there’s no real reason to OWN The Thing. It’s short enough that you could beat it in a rental, has absolutely no reason to come back to it once completed, and offers nothing substantial enough to merit owning the game unless you either loved the movie or loved Resident Evil or Half-Life. That’s not to say the game is bad, which is not the case… it’s just to say that for all the enjoyment and emotion that the game got out of me in the beginning, it’s sort of depressing to say that I never really felt all of that by the end. (I feel like that’s kind of a “it’s bad” point for a game but whatever.)

1. Well put together package overall, with proper ambience, (Which I don’t learn how to spell for a few years, I guess.) strong environment, and an attention to detail.
2. The Things look as they should, bonus points.
3. Voice acting is surprisingly good.
4. Controls take little time to adjust to.
5. Nothing too over the top, considering this WAS 1982. (I feel like a Thing game set in a different environment/system of mechanics would actually probably work better, on consideration. Maybe set the game now and give the characters all kinds of modern weaponry, or in the future with lasers or something. Alternately, make the game a visual novel or a Aliens: Isolation style experience where it’s more about the isolation and terror than five monsters being gunned down in the snow. Of course there’s that free RPG Maker sequel someone made, but as cute as it is I don’t think that’s quite the same thing…)

1. First half of game and second half of game seem like two different games. (Or like a game and its inferior sequel made by a cheaper developer, which, since the developer went under shortly after this, makes more sense.)
2. Not enough background music.
3. Too many people either turn on you or disappear for no good reason.
4. Fans of movie can figure out surprise ending before end game. (If you haven’t played the game by now you ain’t gonna, so: Macready saves you at the end and the game plays the franchise track to imply that maybe Macready was infected, which is more or less impossible if you think on it for more than five seconds but whatever.)
5. No female commandos. Hell, no females ANYWHERE. A bit too sexist for my taste there. (To be fair it was 1982 and everyone was supposed to be part of the US Military, so it doesmake sense sense, whether I liked it or not.)

1. Watching a grown man piss himself.
2. Dude, there’s a LOT of blood…
3. Some of the Thing Beasts were… ew, man, ew.
4. Blowing a man’s head off and only seeing the bottom jaw, complete with teeth, left over. (Oh man I forgot that. Yeah this game got a bit rough at times.)
5. Fire effects seemed kinda ridiculous at times.


OVERALL: 7.25 (Extras and Impression would be a good couple points lower relatively speaking, I think; I feel like this game was a solid 6 for its time and time hasn’t been kind to its existence or my opinion of it. I feel like it’s really depressing as a product anymore, and I honestly have no desire to ever play it again, so I feel like that says everything about it that could be said.)

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