Review by Brad Gallaway on August 7, 2001
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 2
Final Score: 8
Survival Horror is a tired, worn out genre with far too many games and not enough innovation. There’s a perceptible lack of creativity setting in like a near-fatal case of gangrene. For being a relatively young genre in the big scheme of things, it seems to have aged quite poorly before its time.
It’s sad, really. I mean, who doesn’t love the sickening crunch of blowing away zombies with a shotgun, or the rush of running for their 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, scares and emphasis on creepy action it’s no wonder that every game publisher on the map wants a piece of the action. The only problem with all this success is that the formula has been over-saturated and heavily diluted by far too many half-baked wanna-bes. Even the company that started off the boom, Capcom, has been just as guilty of milking the phenomenon with cookie cutter sequels to the original which barely do more than upgrade the graphics.
Enter Extermination; developer Deepspace’s attempt at slicing off a piece of the Survival Horror pie. The story revolves around main character Dennis “Don’t 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 there’s 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 it’s up to Riley and his fellow marines to straighten things out.
After a very awkward opening cinema sequence, it’s 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 game’s beginning area functioning as a big tutorial to acquaint you to the different maneuvers you can perform. Getting comfortable with the control as well as the new do-more mindset are key since the areas in the game are 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 zipline, 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 it would have been to map all of those different functions to separate buttons or button combinations.
Secondly, the game’s combat offers both third and first-person modes. Each mode receives a shoulder button, and is easily accessed at a moment’s notice. 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 which alter your rifle’s performance such as multiple-lock sights, a sniper scope and 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 it’s fairly realistic since military personnel don’t move while looking through gunsights.
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 which are needed to progress in the adventure. However, those two choices are what make a real 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. It’s also worth noting that the new philosophy of movement doesn’t end with Dennis, but extends to most of the game’s 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 come over boxes, 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 you’ve got some intense and immersive firefights rarely seen outside of straight action games.
Another commendable choice in the game’s philosophy, while not as major as the movement or FPS modes, was the streamlined, logical feeling of the game’s 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, I’d 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 you’d be there to kill mutant bacteria in the first place.
Another prime example of the innovative logic would be 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. It’s not successful, and it’s 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 survey the area first (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 it’s 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, 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 it’s true that I did enjoy Dennis’s characterization as the standard Tough-Guy Hero-type, nothing in the story can really be viewed as very original. To be perfectly honest, we’ve seen every element here before a number of times. If I had to break it down to specifics, I’d say that the bulk of the game’s story seems to be a combination of Resident Evil 1 and the second half of Code: Veronica with some bacteria added to change the flavor. It’s a good thing the action is so hot, because the story’s… 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 fast-paced combat style. It wasn’t 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 would assume that the creators didn’t want to release something that could be finished in a day, but I would have liked to see them add a second quest, some unlockable characters or some other such method of replay rather than having them dilute the finely focused flow at the end.
There are a few other nitpicky-type things I’ll mention briefly such as the poor choice to have some of the cutscenes use in-game graphics, while others were rendered CG. The lipsynch is especially bad during close-ups, and the graphics in general are competent, but a bit on the rough side and generally lacking much texture work. During 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 they’re enough to knock down the score a bit. A little more smoothing of the game’s rough edges wouldn’t have hurt.
While Extermination definitely needed more spark in the plot and storytelling, the game still manages to represent a 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. It’s really a shame that Extermination wasn’t released sooner before the Survival Horror genre became totally played out. If it didn’t come in the wake of more copycats than I care to count, I’m sure that many people who are passing on it now would discover a great title they’d otherwise enjoy. The bottom line is that despite needing a nudge here and a little polish there, it’s an outstanding first effort that breathes much-needed life into a nearly (un)dead genre.
- So Videogames Ep. 329: Just So You Don’t Know - March 24, 2023
- Dredge Review - March 23, 2023
- So Videogames Ep. 328: What About Marlene? - March 17, 2023