Thing, The Download (2002 Arcade action Game)

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Taking place after the events in John Carpenter's 1982 film, The Thing is a survival horror game set in an abandoned base somewhere in the Antarctic. As part of the team sent to investigate what happened, players are pitted against a powerful monster that can morph into the people it preys upon. The game offers elements of action, puzzle solving, and exploration as players learn more about the creature that's hunting them down.

Various characters can be interacted with as the game progresses, and their reaction may depend on how well players respond to their tension. Weapons such as flamethrowers and machine guns can be used on enemies, or players can build their own weapons from parts found throughout the base. Encountered puzzles can be solved using more than one method, setting this game apart from others in the genre.

The game is based on John Carpenter movie, as you can see by the logo blazing bluely onto a black screen. Fans of the movie might recognize characters, settings, occasional riffs from the soundtrack, and even an inside joke or two ("Hey, Swedes!"). In fact, the game just launches right into the story assuming you already know the premise: an alien life form has been discovered under the Antarctic ice, capable of assuming the form and demeanor of other living creatures. Now it's trying to reach civilization to infiltrate humanity. As a commando sent to investigate the events that transpire during the movie, you're literally dropped into its aftermath with almost no exposition.

The most innovative element of the game can be traced back to the short story. Since it's almost impossible to tell a human being from an alien, you can never be sure of whom you can trust. The game models this by having your squadmates potentially refusing to obey your orders or even attacking you if they get suspicious enough. The Thing models this dynamic by tracking what your teammates see, how well you fight for them, and what equipment you give them. Conversely, they might erupt into tentacle-sprouting, goo-vomiting, headless monsters when you turn your back on them.

In theory, this is a great idea. In theory. In practice, because the game is so combat- and puzzle-oriented, with only canned personal interaction at certain moments, this feels like a gimmick no more complicated than the key hunts you'll have to perform. As long as you arm them and don't shoot them in the head during combat, your squadmates will follow you and fight with you.

There are scripted moments when teammates turn into monsters, but many of these run counter to rules established in the movie. For instance, in the movie, the point of morphing into human form was so the alien could get another human alone and try to morph him, not so it could suddenly turn into a monster and go on a superhuman killing rampage. Also, there are points in the game when monsters are attacking other monsters while they're disguised as humans. The movie seemed to imply some sort of hive mind whereby that wouldn't happen.

The game's "fear" system is a bit more interesting. Your teammates can freak out when they see monsters and dead bodies. If they get really nervous, they might start firing wildly. The game manual hints that there are ways to coerce your men at gunpoint or shock them into submission with a stun gun, but this is almost never necessary. More damning is that the game doesn't even try to establish any sort of attachment between you and your the teammates, who come and go like ammo clips. Whether he turns into a monster or just goes missing because the level has to end without him, a squadmate's passing is marked with no more fanfare than the death of a redshirt in Star Trek. Pierce is interchangeable with Powell who's interchangeable with Dixon who's interchangeable with Lavelle who's interchangeable with Blake. Oh, wait, I think Blake is your character.

The Thing should be applauded for at least trying something new and ambitious like this. At its best, it resembles the moments in Half-Life when you had a security guard tagging along, exultantly firing away at hordes of squealing monsters. The squadmate AI is good and there are some thrilling last-stand-type gun battles against waves of monsters, but then the game starts to lose sight of its source material.

About three hours into The Thing, the plot and tone meander off and assimilate elements of other games, such as Half-Life's "government-cover-up-with-commandoes" twist and Resident Evil's "evil-science-experiments-with-DNA" schlock (in fact, the ending is remarkably similar to Resident Evil's ending). Then there are the frustrating boss battles, some inane key hunts, and a few long stretches between save points (yes, save points, as The Thing was simultaneously developed for consoles) that you'll have to play over because you fell off a ledge or weren't watching your health level. And, of course, what game would be complete without knocking you out at the halfway point, taking your stuff away, and forcing you to carefully pick your way through a level to get it back? From this point on, The Thing loses its distinct charm and pretty much morphs into just another survival-horror game.

Granted, as just another survival-horror game, it's not bad. The game engine is certainly impressive, beautifully capturing the movie's Antarctic aesthetic. This doesn't give the level designers a lot of room to play -- apparently if you've seen one ice station, you've seen 'em all -- but they've done a good job of creating a sense of cramped bases designed to keep out malevolent weather. There are some really good lighting tricks, decent fire effects, and a surprisingly successful attempt to re-create the wet shiny pulpy morphing flesh of the movie's monsters. In addition to over-the-top gore, the game features subtle tricks like the camera's field of view pulsing back and forth to create a barely perceptible disorienting effect.

As an action game, The Thing isn't very satisfying. The actual combat is pretty hands-off, with an auto-aiming system that works well with the third-person view. The mouse only controls movement on a horizontal plane. This limitation feels weird on a PC but helps keep the player model from blocking your view. Also, you can hold down a key to jump into a first-person view, nicely simulating coming to a stop to peer down the sight of your gun for more accurate fire. To switch weapons, you have to bring up an inventory screen that pauses the game, which really breaks up the flow of the action. This wouldn't be so bad if the game mechanics didn't require you to switch weapons during combat to kill certain creatures.

At least The Thing starts out strong. It's the sort of game you don't have to feel bad about not finishing. Of course, you're paying for a full game, so if dollar value is your main criteria, you might be better off renting John Carpenter's movie, reading the original short story, and then having a laugh at the walking carrot in the 1951 version.


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