I?a! I?a! Cthulhu f?thagn!
Never has such a phrase created such terror in mortal hearts?at least, if said mortal hearts were fictitious characters in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, American horror writer extraordinaire. The horror fiction penned by H.P. Lovecraft would prove to be way ahead of its time and highly influential for later horror writers. So much so that Lovecraft has become a pop culture figure of sorts, his ideas, characters, and settings shamelessly borrowed time after time in other writings, movies, comics, and naturally, video games. His stuff is borrowed so often that sometimes the original source is forgotten. Do you know where id Software got the idea and name (Shub-Niggurath) for the end boss for the first Quake? Plenty of other games have ripped from Lovecraft like a Fishman rips flesh from a victim, such as Alone in the Dark, Blood, X-COM: Terrors of the Deep, and plenty more, but are never true to their sources. Developer Head First (http://www.headfirst.co.uk) sought to rectify that problem by invoking the oaths of Dagon, signing their souls over to the Great Old Ones, and bringing us Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Head First had to deal with many sanity-sapping obstacles of its own while developing Call of Cthulhu, as this game about the Things That Should Not Be almost wasn?t. Head First had to deal with nightmarish publisher conflicts, delays, and a lack of marketing that gives the impression that publisher 2K Games is treating Call of Cthulhu like a lunatic out of an insane asylum. Now, though, it has been released from its six year developmental prison, and while it?s not great enough to wake Cthulhu himself to play it, Call of Cthulhu is at least decent enough to get the people at Head First off of Cthulhu?s hit list for when he does finally come around. Maybe.
Call of Cthulhu seeks to please the Great Old Ones in the most direct way a game of its nature can ? by adhering to the Cthulhu mythos as closely as possible while still weaving together a story of its own to fit in the context of a first-person action game. (A straight-up first-person shooter this ain?t, but more on that in a bit.) The plot itself is unique, in that it follows the exploits of private investigator and all around Humphrey Bogart-type Jack Walters, as during a simple missing person investigation he comes across a Cthulhu cult conspiracy of hideous proportions. The story winds through interactions with strange (and also unique) characters, as Jack struggles against both the monsters and foot soldiers of the Lovecraftian bestiary, and his creeping insanity. The plot is incredibly and faithfully grounded in the Cthulhu mythos and universe, using familiar locations like Innsmouth, characters like Zadok Allen, and organizations like the Esoteric Order of Dagon. I used ?struggles against? instead of ?battles against? because, as I shall get into, this isn?t another Doom or Quake clone ? the emphasis is not on action and mindless blasting, but on using stealth and your smarts to stay alive, and sane. Faithfulness to the source material is undoubtedly Call of Cthulhu?s strongest suit, which is a good thing, because while it?s well-executed in many areas, some shortcomings are apparent right from the first few minutes of play.
Call of Cthulhu spent six years in undersea development slumber before finally coming to the surface, and in terms of the graphics, the age clearly shows. The graphics of Call of Cthulhu look significantly behind the times, with blocky environments, minimally detailed character models, and lots of jagged edges. Some wheels on vehicles look like stop signs (i.e. suspiciously eight-sided) in terms of polygon count. There are a lot of sharp angles in the environment, especially in areas like street corners, and even some of the hills look creepily angular (though unintentionally creepy in that case). The animations for the main characters and the least human monsters are decently done, but the more humanoid bad guys move stiffly. Plus, there?s absolutely no lip synching Clipping errors proliferate, for as bad guys hunt you, sometimes parts of their bodies get partially shoved through solid objects like doors and walls. Sometimes they clip right through doors when you close one right before they run up to it.
Although technologically the graphics of Call of Cthulhu look like the product of obsolescence, their low-tech aspects become unimportant in light of the visual style and how it?s realized. The ambiance, drudgery, and the unique filth that comes with the Lovecraftian setting of Innsmouth is captured frighteningly well. From the blood-stained walls and floors of jail cells, to decomposing flesh-encrusted tiles and grout in bathrooms, to the sickly green sponginess of the dwellings of the Fishmen, you will be creeped out by the sheer horror and darkness of this game?s look, polygon counts be damned. Plenty of small touches crank the immersion factor to new heights. For example, the lack of a heads-up display of any kind. As much as you might think the lack of any HUD would impede the playability of Call of Cthulhu, it works surprisingly well, because of the audiovisual cues the game provides to indicate states of being. Damage causes splatters of blood to appear on the screen, and low health (that?s likely to creep even lower) is indicated by graying vision. Cut scenes are staged in a way that draws you in, from the opening black-and-white playback of Jack?s time in an insane asylum, to your opening bus trip through the town, to the flashbacks, hallucinations, and sensory haze that clouds your crazy adventure. Yes, there are hallucinations and sensory haze; it?s the sanity effects of Call of Cthulhu?s graphics that suck you right in, and make this game truest to its source material. Whenever Jack encounters something horrific or is under great stress, such as a gruesome death scene, a horrible monster, or being beset on all sides by hordes of foes, Jack will feel it in the mind as well as the body, and it will affect how Jack can move, interact, and even fight. You can really tell when something?s eating at Jack?s mind by the distorted vision, controller vibration, and other signs such as Jack talking to himself. It gives Call of Cthulhu a more realistic feel, as these features make it clear that Jack?s no Rambo-wannabe.
These additions bring us to the gameplay, where the attempts to make it more believable both enhance and hamper the overall game experience. Since Jack Walters is no superhero, he can?t exactly take bullets and claw swipes like other video game heroes ? getting hit will make him lose blood, which is a big deal as you can bleed to death. Your legs can break, causing slower movement. As your health deteriorates, your combat performance deteriorates accordingly, causing slower movement, less accuracy, and other mean nasty things. Healing is far from instantaneous ? you carry medical kits around, but every time you want to patch yourself up, you have to sit down and do it the old-fashioned way. Therefore, rushing into combat guns blazing is usually a bad idea. It was thusly a wise decision on Head First?s part to have much of the game focus on sneaking around and evasion, like Thief and Splinter Cell. You spend about half of the game moving in a stealthy manner via the dedicated sneak mode, and even though there?s no HUD to tell you how much light?s hitting your body or your visibility level, sneaking around is still reasonably well executed. Usually the places where you can hide from the sight of your enemies are well indicated, as they appear to be logical choices (behind crates and barrels, obvious lack of light, etc.), and yes, you can do stealth kills with the crowbar or knife?nasty. Sadly, it?s nowhere near perfect. One big flaw with the sneaking is the controls ? when sneak mode is enabled, the player is unable to sidestep left or right, as left and right on the left analog stick are lean instead of sidestep, which can be quite annoying?especially if you?ve been spotted and are trying to run. Also, if you crouch while sneaking, you?re essentially stuck in the spot, because all you can do to while crouched if you are sneaking is pop up to take a quick glimpse over whatever cover you?re crouching behind, and lean left and right. No crawling on your belly here unless you?re out of stealth mode. Sometimes, when you want to be stealthy, Call of Cthulhu just won?t let you ? occasionally, either there is no visible way to hide and mask your presence, or you?re at the mercy of a cut scene where combat is forced on you at the end.
This brings us to the implementation of actual combat, and in this area, Call of Cthulhu gets much more sanity-sapping. The way gunplay is handled in Call of Cthulhu has some questionable elements to it, notably the way aiming is handled. When moving around, your aim is very inaccurate when firing weapons, which is realistic and reasonable, but when getting into precise aiming, you have to pull down the left trigger and hold it to look directly down the sight of your gun. While you?re doing this, your movements get slower and so does your aiming speed. This sort of system sounds good in theory, but in practice it can be quite cumbersome. When fighting multiple opponents, for instance, under a constant barrage of gunfire and charging monsters, it can be awfully hard to hold down the left trigger to get a proper bead on a foe quick enough to shoot before you have to move again so as to not die. You?re not completely immobile in aim mode, but the slower movement doesn?t help. A more streamlined system that would be believable would?ve been something like Splinter Cell, where moving full-tilt still makes your shots inaccurate, but moving slower or standing still automatically tightens your aim without you having to hold down additional buttons. Furthermore, the aforementioned sanity effects, while still cool, are a real pain to experience in combat. The blurring effects from the sanity drainers of combat can make it impossible to see where enemies are and where you?re going, making retaliatory combat extremely difficult. More realistic, I know, but sometimes it gets downright frustrating. The decreased combat performance that comes with taking hits can also be maddening; Call of Cthulhu attempts to counter this with a morphine injection you can administer to block the pain long enough to run to safety, but with such a slippery slope, you sometimes don?t really know you need to run until you?re already at the point of inevitable death. Yes, you can die from bleeding while taking the time to patch yourself up.
All these flaws aside, there are some moments in Call of Cthulhu which truly shine. One aspect that?s worth suffering through the flaws to play is the puzzles of the game, which truly test a player?s intelligence. The puzzles really get you to think like the detective you?re playing, as they have you using and analyzing anything and everything you can find, from literature, to notes other characters give you, to various found items. You literally have to use everything at your disposal to solve a puzzle and advance, and it?s done in the most satisfying way ? you really do get a sense of gratification from putting all the pieces together to put you forward.
It?s the polish and craftsmanship of such areas that will have anyone forgiving the dated, anachronistic look of the game?s graphics. Call of Cthulhu is living proof that graphics aren?t everything, which is especially needed in a time when graphics seem to be all that both publishers and gamers care about. While not perfect, Call of Cthulhu is an important demonstration of what should matter in a game.