Like many of the other critics here at GameCritics.com, I'm always excited to see videogames evolving rather than steadfastly clinging to conventions. And if there is any genre that is undoubtedly guilty of sticking with the norm, it's survival-horror games. Few of these games even attempt to stretch beyond the basic formula established six long years ago by the first Resident Evil. The Thing, with its fantastic source material and unorthodox gameplay, is one of the few games that dares to break the mold. It is, without question, one of the most compelling survival-horror games I've played since Konami's Silent Hill 2 last year. Brad seems to have had a much less favorable experience with the game than I did particularly with regard to the trust/fear system so its those aspects I'd like to address first.
Brad said of the non-player characters (NPCs), "They lack any convincing level of human behavior and are found, killed, disappear and otherwise get replaced so often, it becomes less about maintaining a relationship and more about tool manipulation." Perhaps this boils down to what one can expect from modern artificial intelligence. The characters exhibit fear when confronted with monsters or the sight of mutilated comrades and, if not directed away from whatever spooked them or given weapons and ammunition, will gradually begin to exhibit paranoid behavior. They may have to be injected with adrenaline or shot with a stun gun to be controlled. If left ignored, they may begin shooting erratically or take their own life. Never in a survival-horror game have characters been so profoundly affected by their surroundings. And while the trust/fear system does have a few loopholes (at one point, for example, I calmed a trusting but nervous comrade by taking all his weapons and ammo, then giving them back), the implementation fundamentally works because trust and fear are graded on scales: it is not as if they are either completely calm or totally paranoid; there are varying levels of trust and fear, and various solutions will be ineffective at different levels.
Brad used an example of an engineer showing mistrust one minute and then helping you the next, a kind of situation that may occur with some frequency. I asked myself what I would do in such a situation. I believe that in such a situation, people would desperately want someone to trust, and that the gestures of faith implemented in the game are convincingly executed. If a character mistrusts you for fear you may be infected but you hand him a large chunk of weapons and ammunition or restore his health with a med kit, it is logical that his sentiments would change. As the characters become psychologically unstable, such subtle gestures become increasingly ineffective and it may be necessary to resort to the more extreme tactics I mentioned above. This display of complex psychological behavior is a compelling accomplishment for the genre.
Brad was also displeased with the pacing of the games narrative, but I found the progression to be smooth. Cut-scenes occur when their implementation is logical, and slowly unveil an enjoyable (if not particularly original) story involving cover-ups, conspiracy and double-crosses. And while the problem of the "waist high fence" that can't be climbed or destroyed or the knee-high debris that blocks a logical path is still a rather tired convention, such elements are sparsely encountered. It is never necessary, for example, to sidetrack to find a key or item to progress when the characters should be able to merely step over an object. The Thing is a deliberately linear, story-based game and only rarely utilizes such elements to keep the narrative flowing.
Playing the Xbox version of the game, I found the presentation an element key to an effective survival-horror game to be superlative. Great lighting and texture work compliments crisp and often subtle sound effects. The characters are well animated and show their emotions quite colorfully. The control is also a step up for the genre. Rather than use the typical "directional" control scheme in which the directional commands remain the same regardless of a characters orientation (i.e., pressing "up" always causes a character to walk forward), The Thing utilizes a default control scheme similar to that of a first-person shooter such as GoldenEye 007, in which the left analog stick turns and moves while the right stick strafes. By utilizing this more modern approach to control, the developers have avoided camera pitfalls and allowed the action to take center stage.
But despite its successes, The Thing still suffers in a few ways that keep it from being as engaging as it could have been. Boss fights occur infrequently, but are often very difficult and require the player to figure out some kind of "trick" to win, which means a lot of frustrating retries. Additionally, the emphasis on action eventually causes the "thing" monsters to lose their mystique, and the gameplay subsequently becomes increasingly predictable and less suspenseful. And the trust/fear system, though generally well done, does suffer from a few small but exploitable loopholes. Combined, these elements cause the gameplay to lose tension later in the game even as the plot becomes more engaging.
Nevertheless, The Thing is still the best survival-horror game this year, and truly one of the more unique games to be released in recent memory. Despite its emphasis on action, the game is challenging for the mind as well. One particularly effective sequence, for example, has the lead character trying to escape from an infested laboratory unarmed while gathering a team to help him. Its emphasis on psychological elements propels it above the gamut of run-of-the-mill action games and brings the cult-film source material to life effectively and compellingly. The Thing is a strong, creative title no gamer should miss.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.