The Thing

Game Description: Based on the same elements that made the movie so enjoyable—fear, suspense, and the possibility that your teammate might be infected—The Thing lets players creep into action with the help of several nonplayer characters (NPCs), whom you use to protect and aid your group. Using a core team of engineers, medics, and soldiers, players must manage the level of trust in, and fear of, you that these characters experience. They react to your actions and might betray you if they think you are the Thing. Conversely, you must constantly monitor which one of them might be infected. Other characters must trust you, but if they fear you, actions as drastic as coercion are necessary. For example, if a soldier doesn't have confidence in you, you may have to put your gun to his head to convince him you're not the Thing... and for his sake, he'd better believe.

The Thing – Review

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.Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

The Thing – Second Opinion

Like many of the other critics here at GameCritics.com, I'm always excited to see videogames evolving rather than steadfastly clinging to conventions. And if there is any genre that is undoubtedly guilty of sticking with the norm, it's survival-horror games. Few of these games even attempt to stretch beyond the basic formula established six long years ago by the first Resident Evil. The Thing, with its fantastic source material and unorthodox gameplay, is one of the few games that dares to break the mold. It is, without question, one of the most compelling survival-horror games I've played since Konami's Silent Hill 2 last year. Brad seems to have had a much less favorable experience with the game than I did particularly with regard to the trust/fear system so its those aspects I'd like to address first.

Brad said of the non-player characters (NPCs), "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." Perhaps this boils down to what one can expect from modern artificial intelligence. The characters exhibit fear when confronted with monsters or the sight of mutilated comrades and, if not directed away from whatever spooked them or given weapons and ammunition, will gradually begin to exhibit paranoid behavior. They may have to be injected with adrenaline or shot with a stun gun to be controlled. If left ignored, they may begin shooting erratically or take their own life. Never in a survival-horror game have characters been so profoundly affected by their surroundings. And while the trust/fear system does have a few loopholes (at one point, for example, I calmed a trusting but nervous comrade by taking all his weapons and ammo, then giving them back), the implementation fundamentally works because trust and fear are graded on scales: it is not as if they are either completely calm or totally paranoid; there are varying levels of trust and fear, and various solutions will be ineffective at different levels.

Brad used an example of an engineer showing mistrust one minute and then helping you the next, a kind of situation that may occur with some frequency. I asked myself what I would do in such a situation. I believe that in such a situation, people would desperately want someone to trust, and that the gestures of faith implemented in the game are convincingly executed. If a character mistrusts you for fear you may be infected but you hand him a large chunk of weapons and ammunition or restore his health with a med kit, it is logical that his sentiments would change. As the characters become psychologically unstable, such subtle gestures become increasingly ineffective and it may be necessary to resort to the more extreme tactics I mentioned above. This display of complex psychological behavior is a compelling accomplishment for the genre.

Brad was also displeased with the pacing of the games narrative, but I found the progression to be smooth. Cut-scenes occur when their implementation is logical, and slowly unveil an enjoyable (if not particularly original) story involving cover-ups, conspiracy and double-crosses. And while the problem of the "waist high fence" that can't be climbed or destroyed or the knee-high debris that blocks a logical path is still a rather tired convention, such elements are sparsely encountered. It is never necessary, for example, to sidetrack to find a key or item to progress when the characters should be able to merely step over an object. The Thing is a deliberately linear, story-based game and only rarely utilizes such elements to keep the narrative flowing.

Playing the Xbox version of the game, I found the presentation an element key to an effective survival-horror game to be superlative. Great lighting and texture work compliments crisp and often subtle sound effects. The characters are well animated and show their emotions quite colorfully. The control is also a step up for the genre. Rather than use the typical "directional" control scheme in which the directional commands remain the same regardless of a characters orientation (i.e., pressing "up" always causes a character to walk forward), The Thing utilizes a default control scheme similar to that of a first-person shooter such as GoldenEye 007, in which the left analog stick turns and moves while the right stick strafes. By utilizing this more modern approach to control, the developers have avoided camera pitfalls and allowed the action to take center stage.

But despite its successes, The Thing still suffers in a few ways that keep it from being as engaging as it could have been. Boss fights occur infrequently, but are often very difficult and require the player to figure out some kind of "trick" to win, which means a lot of frustrating retries. Additionally, the emphasis on action eventually causes the "thing" monsters to lose their mystique, and the gameplay subsequently becomes increasingly predictable and less suspenseful. And the trust/fear system, though generally well done, does suffer from a few small but exploitable loopholes. Combined, these elements cause the gameplay to lose tension later in the game even as the plot becomes more engaging.

Nevertheless, The Thing is still the best survival-horror game this year, and truly one of the more unique games to be released in recent memory. Despite its emphasis on action, the game is challenging for the mind as well. One particularly effective sequence, for example, has the lead character trying to escape from an infested laboratory unarmed while gathering a team to help him. Its emphasis on psychological elements propels it above the gamut of run-of-the-mill action games and brings the cult-film source material to life effectively and compellingly. The Thing is a strong, creative title no gamer should miss. Rating: 8 ouf of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

The Thing – Consumer Guide

According to the ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Violence

Parents should steer clear of The Thing. There's no sex, but it contains plenty of blood, gunplay and creepy monsters in addition to some instances of hard language. Definitely not a family-friendly title, although it shouldn't come as a surprise considering the source material.

Action Gamers will find a pretty good title, although one that is not particularly outstanding in any one respect. The ammo is in short supply, using teammates is a gimmick and its very similar to a lot of other games out there. You could do worse, but you're probably better off waiting for something else to come down the pike.

Fans of the Film will be in for a treat. There are a ton of bits taken directly from the movie and integrated (some more successfully than others) into the game. Its extremely faithful in most respects, and its rare that a licensed game will respect the original material this much.

Hearing Impaired Gamers get the shaft once again. There is a lot of dialogue and audio information that is completely inaccessible due to a lack of text options. Stay away.