I'm a big fan of spooky sci-fi flicks like the Alien films, and long for the day when the tension, artistic vision and dramatic contexts of such films can successfully merge with the interactive nature of videogames. Survival-horror is still a young genre by industry standards, so it'll be fascinating to see what directions it can go in the near future (Doom III comes to mind). As games like the Silent Hill series have demonstrated, fear can be a powerful tool in the hands of skilled games developers. And, as Run Like Hell (RLH) demonstrates, a game can be a real bore if that tool is not successfully integrated into the gameplay. Frightful tension makes for mercilessly engaging games, but in order to be integrated successfully, it has to overcome the myriad of obstacles that separate players from their virtual avatars.
RLH begins with a lot of promise, from actor Lance Henrikson (Alien, the Millennium series) providing some refreshingly well-done voice acting (complete with Shakespeare quotes), to a well-paced setup and eerie, crisp aural engrossment. But right after the first alien beast rears its ugly head, it becomes hard to figure out exactly what RLH was trying to accomplish. Judging by name, the setup and the atmosphere, I'd say it was going to be an edge-of-your seat survival thriller. But once you take control of Nick Conner (the protagonist, who is voiced by Henrikson), it feels more a typical Resident Evil takeoff.
Not that I'd want to berate RLH for being like the tragically stillborn Resident Evil series. The movement is better (though it has its share of problems), and none of the trite item management that plagues Resident Evil is present. There are even a few intriguing concepts here, most notably a nice weapon and item system that allows for upgrades and combinations of various kinds. You can turn your standard-issue rifle into a standard-issue alien mopping unit over the course of the game. The story is well-paced and littered with appealing characters that are skillfully voice-acted, and even the puzzles are given a logical context that Resident Evil has rarely approached. But the name of the game is misleading. Run Like Hell should read Walk Like Heck And Shoot Stuff. The mischievous alien creatures rear their heads very early on in large numbers, hopelessly killing the fear of the unknown, which I believe is by far the most potent barometer of tension. Right away, you begin shooting aliens like any standard third-person action shooter. The targeting is done automatically, so there isn't really even any skill involved in dispatching the strange critters. I kept thinking of the shadowy atmosphere of Doom III, and how much more exciting it would have been had this game been in a first-person perspective, perhaps requiring me to shoot specific areas of the aliens to take them down. Instead, ammo is plentiful and the aliens go down fairly easily. And unlike the superior survival sci-fi game The Thing–which maintained its tension throughout much of the game–RLH looses it all fairly quickly and fails to recover it. The mechanics are simply too routine to effectively meld the tension of the storyline with that of the gameplay. I never felt engrossed in the somber, frightfully uncertain mood that is so overtly suggested by the cutscenes.
So without the tension that is so forthrightly suggested by the game's title, all that's left is a game that falls on some very standard, unexciting gameplay conventions. Progressing involves a predictable cycle of puzzle solving interspersed with the aforementioned mundane shooting sequences, which lead to assorted cutscenes that further the story. With very linear level design and bland graphics that take no advantage of the lighting capabilities of the current crop of consoles (which could have undoubtedly added tremendously to the fear factor), Run Like Hell is just a decent sci-fi story mixed with some rather unambitious gameplay. Nothing is done gratingly poorly, but neither is anything done with any sense of innovation or panache. It is high time developers begin realizing that mixing games and movies is not as simple as combining their most outwardly apparent characteristics into a haphazard formula that simply alternates between them in a disjointed fashion. Instead, they must be woven into a seamless whole where players are compelled by the uncertainties of their own decisions, and are never allowed to be mere spectators.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.