“…the most gruesome video game ever”. This proud boast is emblazoned on The Suffering’s packaging like a medal on the puffed chest of a war veteran or, more fittingly, the stars of merit on a McDonalds’ staff name tag. An IGN score of 8.5/10 accompanies the quote and both sit just beneath a poor chap enjoying a quiet moment of reflection in an electric chair.
Arcing bursts of light and streams of burning energy engulf him as he sits, teeth clenched, straps straining, sinew popping and brain melting within the torrent of The Suffering’s blinding power. Perhaps he’s the IGN reviewer.
Carnate Island, owned by Maryland’s Department of Corrections, is home to Abbot State Penitentiary and a sordid history. Before its conversion to a State Correctional Facility in the late 1930s, the huge mansion, now home to some of America’s most loathsome criminals, was an asylum called The Carnate Institution for the Alienated. Overseen by a certain Dr. Killjoy during the 1920s, the institution’s ensuing reputation, and Killjoy’s unscientific methods, verged on the barbaric. The island was acquired by the federal government during World War 2 for the use of the US Army, after which the facilities were converted into the forbidding penitentiary that still exists today…(insert dramatically overblown cliffhanger music).
Yawn. It’s the same clich riddled back-story that we’ve all born witness to countless times before. Yes, yes, it’s survival horror; there are vicious mutant creatures aplenty and blood pumping across environments from every conceivable angle. It’s you against the odds, and the odds look frighteningly stacked against you. However, progression garners bigger weaponry and soon enough the odds are simply stacked, strewn and sprawled as far as your gore-soaked eyes can see. In fact, it’s difficult to keep them open. The blood and guts is on the screen, though; it’s just a game. Oh, hold on! This must be boredom.
Okay, enough of the bitter diatribe. Surely there must be something positive to say here. IGN, GameZone and PS2 Magazine, in their (in)finite wisdom, cast The Suffering as some long-awaited messianic survival horror event. Are they wrong?
It’s shocking. The opening introduction sequence, where you don the skin of Torque, a new inmate to Abbot State Penitentiary, is positively bursting at the seams with razor-edged profanity that makes the ears ring. Fellow (soon to be slaughtered) inmates trade insults subtly woven between carnal expletives as Torque settles into his 8×8 surroundings. It’s brutal stuff, but a fair preparatory indication of what’s to come. The Suffering doesn’t flatter to deceive, it gives everything to you straight, and whether you want it not. It’s an uncomfortable experience, and not because of bone-chilling gameplay tension or blood curdling encounters within shadowy confines. The heart never pounds with taut expectation, not like that first time it endured Silent Hill. The game plays somewhat like a paint-by-numbers schlock horror mutation of bygone classics; it makes you pine for the good old days when originality wasn’t on the endangered species list. Yes, it’s shocking, but for all the wrong reasons.
The level design is fairly unimaginative and seldom offers more than room exploration, button pushing and item retrieval. There are some outdoor elements but they amount to little more than linear point-A to point-B distractions. Environments are oddly vibrant where lighting is concerned, but then you wouldn’t want to miss any of the blood smears, or the decapitated bodies. Surely dark claustrophobic spaces covered in veils of shadow would only serve to detract from the all too obvious ‘horror’. Guns, medication and other inventory stock generously adorn Torque’s person without him ever feeling as though matters may be about to drop from his control. “Hey, I could do with one, or maybe two, bottles of Xombium to perk me up before I open this next door unto carnage…oh, there’s six here in this locker. How fortunate.”
Style over substance, that’s the problem with The Suffering. It looks fabulous and it’s packed with detail and well-observed nuance, but it’s highly sterile and void of ingenuity. The voiceover work is, by turns, unfailingly offensive and excessively melodramatic, but nevertheless professionally acceptable considering some of today’s disgraceful offerings. The character animation and camera execution are both fluid and natural through their lack of obvious intrusion on the gameplay. The sound is suitably eerie, but wanes rapidly without visual enhancement from either the level design or the environments. Torque’s ever expanding arsenal finds him resplendent with the very best mutant eradication tools available, and each one doles out pain with typically satisfactory results. But where’s the urgency, where’s the breathless sensation as you feverishly reload the shotgun as more adversaries rush from the depths of hell to tear you limb from limb? Where’s the intriguing storyline that effortlessly provides player motivation in tandem with a great gaming experience? Where are those priceless moments of joyous terror that instantly raise you off your chair amidst suppressed laughter at your own childish gullibility?
I’ll tell you wear those things are – they’re safely back in the games that The Suffering tries SO hard to emulate. There are smacks of Resident Evil but without any of the portentous set pieces that made you want to turn the light back on. Max Payne lays a blood-soaked thumbprint across the story as Torque is repeatedly rocked by ominous and disorientating flashbacks; who is he, what terrible crime has he committed, is he really guilty? And The Thing rears its ugly head, too, as you cautiously befriend various NPCs who may turn the moment you drop your guard. In a blueprint format it’s a winning design, and Midway so easily could have attained that goal if they’d simply stuck to one hard-and-fast rule: People are universally afraid of the dark. Bathing everything in the clear glow of fluorescent strip bulbs illustrates the gore, without a doubt, but it also shows where the next attack is coming from. The tension is palpable by its absence, and that’s a damn shame when the rest of the game is so ably assembled and presented.
Don’t be fooled, this is not a blessed reinvention of survival horror, this is little more than an “M” rated third-person shooter with more blood than it knows what to do with and an obnoxiously colorful NPC attitude problem. See it through to the finale, stomach and boredom permitting, and varying ‘choice led’ endings await you. It’s doubtful that you’ll care, though, and certainly not enough to play through it all again anyway.
The Suffering. Apt title.