Sequels are all around us. Movies do it. Heck, even songs have sequels, as in the case with Metallica’s Unforgiven II. Usually sequels stick to their medium, though. With Vivendi Universal’s The Thing, the story has transcended media and done a good job of continuing a non-interactive tale in a thoroughly interactive format.
The Thing is a direct continuation of John Carpenter’s movie of the same name (which itself is a remake of a 50’s black-and-white classic). At the game’s opening, a dispatched expeditionary crew touches down by chopper to investigate the communication blackout caused by the destruction of the Antarctic base at the close of the movie. The game itself shrugs off the obligatory ?part 2′ suffix as it tries to incorporate many elements from the established mythos and really be an integrated part of one long and coherent story.
The first stretch of the game is something of a guided tour of the remains of the now desolate research outpost depicted in Carpenter’s film. Players familiar with the movie will recognize various parts of the environment, and even experience pangs of moving nostalgia as the investigators discover bodies of characters from the initial infection. Sub-zero temperatures have a way of preserving the dead?and extraterrestrials, evidently.
While the game uses an over the shoulder third-person camera the vast majority of the time, every so often it will swing around to show something creepy lurking in the shadows. Said creepy lurker might skitter away, or it might punch through a steel door and try to kill you. It’s a thrill, and while the lack of music would be penalized in a more lively game, the ambient silence – outside of icy winds and the ominous moans and footsteps of whatever’s waiting to attack – successfully creates an eerie and uncomfortably atmospheric sensation.
In terms of control, L2 and R2 are used for strafing, which feels somewhat archaic since the advent of the dual analog controller. There’s also no easy way to look around while moving. Aiming and looking is possible in first-person, but only while standing completely still. This becomes a drag since it’s sometimes necessary to aim up or down while on the move, especially during some boss fights. The inclusion of a Splinter Cell-style game camera would have been great.
To compensate a little, there is an auto-aim feature that locks onto whatever target is in front of you. Increasing the game’s difficulty decreases the arc of the lock-on, and distance to target affects accuracy as well.
It’s possible to equip two items at a time for ready use. For instance, the player can carry a gun in one hand and readily hold a grenade, fire extinguisher, flashlight, or health pack in the other. The D-pad also allows for easy access to inventory items, but if things heat up too much, tapping L1 opens an inventory selection screen – freezing the game in its tracks while you figure out which items need equipping. Weapons include pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, grenade launchers, and flamethrowers, all of which can be equipped or given to teammates. More on them later, though.
The third-person camera makes things feel less claustrophobic, and also makes it easier to take in the well-constructed environments. Light-sourcing and fire effects look decent, as do the character models. Everything, including the cut scenes, is done in game, so there’s no disorienting shift between pre-rendered sequences that may have sullied the game’s graphical grit. Some of the cut scenes can get pretty intense or gory and graphic. The story doesn’t lighten up and or pull any punches, either. The Thing well deserves its Mature rating, but nothing within it ever lapses into the realms of gratuity. From the gory transformations from man to Thing, to watching a soldier turn the gun on himself in terror, it’s bloody, gripping, and well executed. Voice acting is convincing and ably accomplished as well.
About halfway through the game, things take a turn for the somewhat clich?d, when a new adversary appears who has plans to genetically engineer the Thing, remove its weaknesses, and give it free reign over Earth. He seems kind of nutty, especially with the aforementioned aims as his motivation – but evil geniuses do tend to be a little kooky. In any case, now it seems our hero has no friends left in the world. The Things want to possess him, the humans are trying to kill him?really makes sense to hear Saliva’s After Me during the closing credits. It is nice to see the Things turn on the soldiers from time to time, though, killing each other in the process. Also, there’s a little surprise, a blast from the past if you will, when going into the game’s final battle – but I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.
Gameplay largely consists of on-foot travel, which means any time you’re outside, the weather is also your enemy. An exposure meter appears above your health bar and if it empties before you find shelter, you start taking serious damage. There’s a narrow, congested outdoor area the player must navigate while confronting enemy soldiers and snipers, and all the while keeping an eye on both health and exposure. Running back and forth from the fight to a warm hiding place really changes up the pacing, forcing survival instincts to emerge against both fellow man and Mother Nature.
There’s also a bit of on-rails shooting action, particularly a scene in a helicopter with a mounted M60. The pilot keeps it as steady as he can while avoiding a giant Thing trying to grab hold of the chopper, and it’s up to you and the M60 to keep it at bay.
Another significant portion of gameplay involves interaction with non-player characters. Throughout the various locales in the game, other people will pop up and may, or may not, group with you for safety, depending on a number of factors. For one, if they’ve just met you, chances are they won’t want to join up – you might be infected. Giving them weapons and ammo helps gain their trust, but the biggest bonding boost comes when they witness you killing Things. It’s also possible to administer a blood test on yourself in front of them to prove you’re human, or do blood tests on your companions to see if someone got infected when you left them alone for a moment. Hey, it happens.
If one of your party members becomes freaked out by events they won’t cooperate with you, they may even turn their weapon your way. It’s possible to take back their weapon if they look like losing control, but if they’re borderline on the trust meter you may have to tazer them to do so. The party members Switch and change during the game as Things sporadically and violently replace previously valuable teammates. Unfortunately, the game is designed to limit the number of group members at certain points. They’ll either randomly turn into the Thing and require barbecuing post-haste or they’ll just disappear when moving from one level to another or upon entering a boss fight. It perhaps would have been more convincing and authentic if some characters could have tagged along the whole time, a la Freedom Fighters. Isolation works in some survival horror games, but the groupies in The Thing are spunky and interesting enough to make you want them to stick around.
Managing your buddies’ fear is another entertaining element. Walk into a room full of corpses, dead Things, or find blood all over the walls and your chums may throw up violently, start to freak out, or run away completely, needing a lot of consolation (and maybe an adrenaline shot) before rejoining the group.
The last stretch of the game is almost entirely a solo affair, but in a way it makes your last Thing encounter more meaningful. By the end, the whole thing has come full circle, though some minor plot holes remain. The evil adversarial geneticist has bred an invulnerable form of Thing, injecting it into his own body, yet the same basic means of defeat apply to him – fire and lots of bullets.
Though upon completion the game clock indicated a finish of around 9 hours, that’s a little misleading. There are parts that require a little trial and error and memorization to successfully progress. It’ll probably take you closer to 15-20 hours to get through The Thing.
The central narrative holds up for the most part, the squad-based elements are terrific, and the suspense won’t let you down. Black Label and Vivendi had large boots to fill when taking this license, but they’ve pulled it off – more or less. Producing a good licensed game isn’t easy when there’s already established and comparative content, but both developer and publisher should be applauded for their fresh realization of The Thing.