Survival Horror is a tired and worn out genre with far too many games and not enough innovation. Theres a perceptible lack of creativity thats setting into it like gangrene. In the bigger scheme of things, its a relatively young genre that seems to have aged quite poorly before its time.
Its sad, really. I mean, who doesnt love the sickening crunch of blowing away zombies with a shotgun, or the rush of running for your life from a pack of slavering mutants? Survival Horror sparked off a revolution for a reason, and it was no accident that this style of game became huge overnight. With the amount of thrills and scares emphasized by the creepy action, its no wonder that every game publisher on the map wanted a piece of the pie. The only problem with all this success is that the formula has been over-saturated and diluted by far too many half-baked wannabes. Even the company that started off the boom, Capcom, has been guilty of milking the phenomenon with cookie-cutter sequels that do little more than upgrade the graphics.
Enter Extermination; developer Deepspaces attempt at slicing off a piece of the Survival Horror pie. The story revolves around main character Dennis "Dont mix me up with the Army" Riley, USMC. He and his team have been dispatched to Antarctica in order to investigate strange happenings at a research base located there. Without giving too much of the plot away (not that theres really all that much to give away) it quickly becomes evident that a mutant strain of bacteria has created all kinds of biological horrors, and its up to Riley and his fellow marines to straighten things out.
After a very awkward opening cinema sequence, its immediately evident that the gameplay is a very different piece of work than the usual Survival Horror offering. The biggest departures from the standard formula are twofold.
First is that your character is very action-oriented and agile, with the games beginning area functioning as a big tutorial to acquaint you with the different maneuvers you can perform. Getting comfortable with the controls as well as the new do-more mindset is key since the games areas are in fully-realized 3D, complete with small spaces to crawl in, objects to climb, and gaps to jump. Dennis has an extremely wide degree of freedom not usually found in this style of game. USMC training has empowered him to hop over obstacles, shuffle on narrow ledges, or use a zip-line, to name just a few. Most of these moves are performed using a context-sensitive "do-it-all" button, with the computer sensing the correct action based on your location. It works extremely well, and serves to make the overall control scheme feel far more natural than one that has all those different functions mapped onto separate buttons or button combinations.
Secondly, the games combat offers both third and first-person modes. Each mode is easily accessed at a moments notice by simply tapping its respective shoulder button. The third-person mode features auto-lock as well as manual aiming using a laser sight. The first-person mode looks much like the standard FPS interface, but items can be equipped to alter your rifles performance, such as multiple-lock sights, a sniper scope, or infrared vision. One thing to note is that Riley cannot move while firing a gun in either mode, and cannot walk in first-person mode. FPS vets may cry foul, but its fairly realistic since military personnel dont move while looking through gun-sights.
With those two major differences in design noted, the rest of the game is pretty much as one would expect with regards to the usual assortment of healing items, weapon upgrades, and a few objects that are needed to progress in the adventure. However, those two distinctions make a huge difference in Extermination. By adding a more logical and natural sense of movement as well as the first-person mode for shooting, Deepspace has created a very dynamic gestalt; something definitely more than the sum of its parts. Its also worth noting that the new philosophy of movement doesnt end with Dennis, but extends to most of the games creatures. It was weirdly shocking to see the first creatures in the game moving and slithering like something out of a Discovery Channel special. They will step over boxes and around obstacles and leap towards you at a fairly high speed. Couple that fact with the high level of combat control given to the player through the FPS mode, and youve got some intense and immersive firefights that are rarely seen outside of straight action games.
Another commendable choice in the games philosophy, while not as major as the movement or FPS modes, was the streamlined and logical feeling of the games progression. Unlike some other games, Extermination is very light on mystical objects that function as keys, with cryptic puzzles being at a minimum as well. Extremely rewarding was the fact that you can travel to nearly anywhere you can see, with only a tiny handful of places in the game off limits due to unrealistic boundaries. Hopping over a foot-high pipe and going on your way may not mean much in real life, but it means everything in a videogame of this nature. In fact, Id go so far as to say that the majority of the game operates on a very natural and intuitive level as long as you can accept the premise that youre there to kill mutant bacteria in the first place.
Another prime example of the innovative logic is how the player approaches a new area. In Extermination, rushing into a room and unloading on the first monster that approaches will get you killed very quickly. Its not successful and its easy to see why. If you were in that situation yourself, would you go into parts unknown with guns blazing? Of course not. The way to survive is to first survey the area (which is possible in the vast majority of the game) and then snipe out as many enemies as you can before entering close combat. If its not possible to do so, then look for a high place to get on top of, or a small space to crouch in for cover. This kind of lifelike, methodical, and dynamic thinking has rarely been used in the genre, if ever, before Extermination.
All of the aspects I just mentioned add up to one truly different and action-packed game. While Extermination takes some very bold strides forward, there are also a few small missteps along the way.
The biggest problem here is one that I found to be a bit troubling. With all of the imagination and willingness to move beyond the established conventions of Survival Horror, why did the creators choose to go with the most basic, tired, and predictable plot possible? While its true that I did enjoy Denniss characterization as the standard Tough-Guy Hero-type, nothing in the story can be viewed as very original. To be perfectly honest, weve seen every element here before a number of times. If I had to break it down to specifics, Id say that the bulk of the games story seems to be a combination of Resident Evil 1 and the second half of Resident Evil: Code Veronica with some bacteria added to change the flavor. Its a good thing the action is so hot, because the storys... not.
An issue I noticed later in the game was that the relatively short length of playtime still felt a little long and drawn-out for something with such a fast-paced combat style. It wasnt a huge problem since the entire affair can easily be completed in under ten hours, but there was definitely a bit too much backtracking in the final third. I assume that the creators didnt want to release something that could be finished in a day, but I would have preferred the addition of a second quest, unlockable characters, or some other such method of replay as opposed to diluting the finely focused flow at the end.
There are a few other nitpicky-type things Ill mention, such as the poor choice of using in-game graphics in some of the cut-scenes and rendered CG in others. The lipsynch is especially bad during close-ups and the graphics, though competent, are a bit on the rough side and generally lacking texture. Towards the end of the game, I was wishing there was a 3D map to help me avoid getting turned around while backtracking and I definitely could have used a few more save points throughout the complex. Oh, and the last boss is very, very cheap save those portable vaccinations. None of these are game-ruiners by themselves, but as a whole theyre enough to knock down the score a bit. A little more smoothing of the games rough edges wouldnt have hurt.
While Extermination definitely needed more sparks in the plot and storytelling, the game still manages to represent the significant conceptual leap in gameplay that Resident Evil should have achieved a few sequels ago. Comparing the two games, I thought it was quite interesting to note that Capcom has been content to simply advance their plotlines while leaving the play virtually untouched throughout the series. Conversely, Extermination uses an extremely tired story and revamps the gameplay enough to make it a sizable achievement. While at first glance the games are virtually indistinguishable from each other, the focus on different areas ends up resulting in two seemingly similar, but distinct products. Its really a shame that Extermination wasnt released sooner before the Survival Horror genre became totally played out. If it didnt come in the wake of more copycats than I care to count, Im sure that many people who are passing on it now would discover a great title that theyd otherwise enjoy. The bottom line is that despite needing a nudge here and a little polish there, its an outstanding first effort that breathes much-needed life into a nearly (un)dead genre.