With the dawning of online play for consoles this year, a big selling point is that players will get the chance to interact with live people for an increased human element in games. The idea has merit, but in my opinion videogames that take place offline haven't done more than scratch the surface of offering similar experiences through simulation and programming. I don't have anything against going online, nor am I a huge believer that A.I. can replace real people. That said, I don't think that implementing a modem feature is the final answer to providing qualities that the vast majority of videogames lack, or even ignore altogether.
Abstract feelings and concepts like companionship, love and trust are common everyday things that often don't translate well into the electronic worlds gamers populate. Most role-playing games (RPGs) make attempts with varying degrees of success, but very few games outside this genre even try to make social and emotional content a factor. It may not be an easy thing to convert into program language, but in my view its a frontier of videogames that has gone practically unexplored since the mediums inception. The Thing, from Computer Artworks, makes an attempt at combining the human psyche with the framework of an Action hybrid, and the results are mixed.
With its source material taken from the 1982 John Carpenter film starring Kurt Russell, the videogame adaptation of The Thing takes the form of a third-person adventure that picks up right where the movie left off. Plunging the player into the heart of Antarctica, it's your job to discover what happened to a missing science crew and take care of any situations that arise along the way.
In most respects, the game handles like a standard action outing. There are items to pick up, weapons to find and equip and locked doors to get past. In fact, beside the fact that I was mildly disoriented by the world spinning around your character as you re-orient, this could just have easily been any one of a number of similar games. However, The Thing's unique gameplay hook is the teammate system, which is what I'm going to spend the most time discussing.
In the film, the "Thing" was an alien that was capable of perfectly replicating another living creature. Because of this particular ability, the humans dealing with it were racked with paranoia and distrust for each other because it was almost impossible to tell the difference between real human and gruesome invader. The same elements of trust and fear are featured in the game, but this time in an interactive (and unsatisfying) fashion.
The games main character is a standard-issue action hero and must interact with three different classes of people: Engineers who fix electronics and unlock doors, Soldiers that possess good fighting skills and Medics, who are capable of fully healing any character except themselves. Each of these types has skills that are integral to your progress in the game. However, when you initially meet them, many will suspect that you of being alien and require some convincing before helping you.
The way you do this is based on a number of things, but the easiest and most common is to give them a gun and ammo as a token of goodwill, or to let them see you killing the monsters you encounter. Conversely, if you do things that seem questionable such as taking away their weapon or shooting humans (even on accident) during a firefight, their trust will drop. If they have faith in you, its smooth sailing. If they don't, they wont help you- and even worse, may even attack you. Fear is also a factor, and if a person in your party becomes overwhelmed with fright, they can go crazy and become ineffective.
This interesting system was the biggest draw for me, and at heart I think its great idea. However, the actual execution falls far short of the concept. The problem is that while the basic idea of "trust" is sound, the paper-thin characters are relegated to being little more than another set of implements for you to use. 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. The shallowness and obvious lack of any significant emotional content undercuts the games defining feature and ends up being only hinting at its full potential.
When coming across a locked door, the only thing required to convince an Engineer to open it for you is to give him an item- despite how much he mistrusted you only seconds before. While something along these lines wouldn't be so hard to swallow if it only happened sporadically, you'll replay this little game of favorites far more often than is tolerable. Each time you go through this process, it becomes quite clear that its more an overused gameplay gimmick rather than being a significant part of the plot or narrative structure. There is simply no lasting or emotional impact.
Besides my disappointment in the handling of the psychological and relationship elements, the game suffers from a number of rough edges that only serve to further tarnish the overall experience.
As I said above, the game picks up right where the movie left off, and I mean this in the most literal sense. The games intro and beginning sequences felt like they were specifically made for someone who was already intimately familiar with the source material. In preparation for doing this review I had re-watched the DVD so it was fresh in my mind, but I imagine it would be hard for people to understand what was going on or to feel drawn in if they hadn't seen it. Similarly, I found the direction, narrative and overall polish of the game to possess an off-putting "no-frills" quality. Things feel jerky with jump cuts and a lack of cohesive flow that are only magnified by the segmented progression through the areas and the large number of interchangeable teammates. Its especially ironic that the storytelling here is so shaky since the film was a virtual horror masterpiece.
Another barrier to immersion was that the level of realism is inconsistent, and conveniently tossed aside when necessary. While trekking through a blizzard, you're stopped in your tracks by a waist-high chain link fence that can't be destroyed or climbed over. You cant enter buildings except through the designated entrances even though there might be a gaping hole in the wall large enough to drive a snowcat through. At one point, my team was stopped by ankle-high rubble. These annoying choices combined with the shallow nature of the trust system did an effective job of never letting me forget that it was all just a game.
On a technical note, be aware that the game requires a massive amount of space on the PlayStation 2's memory card. I actually had to delete four other save files before I had enough free space for just one file of The Thing. I'm no programmer, but it reeks of laziness or unfamiliarity with the hardware since there doesn't seem to be an extraordinarily large amount of information to be saved.
Altogether, The Thing's trust and interface system is an interesting kernel that I'd like to see plucked out and transplanted into something more fertile. If this core element was reworked into a new game that smoothed the rough edges and added more depth, I think Computer Artworks would probably have something unique enough to stand out from the crowd. As it is the game isn't all bad, but with the promise of its sole standout feature being left mostly unfulfilled, it ends up being far too ordinary in the face of what looks to be an outstanding (and competitive) holiday season.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.