Halloween approaches, I recently watched John Carpenter’s version, the remake has just hit theatres, and this game was sitting in my pile. Sounds like a perfect formula for a review.
The story of The Thing has been around in multiple versions throughout the years, working as an allegory for communism in the 50’s film, and for the just-appearing AIDS (blood tests and all) in Carpenter’s 80’s remake. In any version, the premise is the same – danger lurks hidden among you, and it looks and talks exactly like anyone else. How do you know who to trust? Carpenter’s film runs with this idea through equal parts of excruciating tension and shocking gore, and this film forms the basis of this early-2000 game.
In the film, rough-and-ready Kurt Russell and a team of Antarctic scientists (featuring such eclectic star power as Keith David and Wilford Brimley) find a destroyed Norwegian camp that had uncovered something extraterrestrial frozen in the ice. This “Thing” has the ability to absorb and copy any organism perfectly – it’s just got a really shitty sense of timing – and proceeds to quietly overtake the isolated crew. The game is a direct sequel to the film, and picks up as a military team lands at the camp weeks later to try and re-establish contact.
The film was almost entirely about the tension of isolation and mistrust – no one knew who was the Thing and who wasn’t. The game, admirably, tries its best to emulate this. At its core, it’s a third-person, squad-based shooter. You play as Captain Blake, leader of one of a few teams dropped in the area. As things quickly go pear-shaped, you’ll collect scattered and disorganized members of other squads into your own four-man team. A limit of three squaddies at a time should give an indication that you’ll be swapping members around like gym socks, and indeed, nasty fates will befall your charges on a regular basis. Luckily, there’s always more!
Your soldier pals come in three flavors – engineer, medic, and soldier. The only one you’ll absolutely need is an engineer, as they act as keys to unlock new areas. The other two types are “nice to haves;” automatically healing anyone who takes damage, or offering additional firepower, respectively. You control your team through a simplified radial interface, likely a holdover from its console origins. You can only command them to “follow” or “stay,” but they’re reasonably sharp and autonomous (navigating, shooting things that need shooting, etc) without requiring micromanagement. You also have control over their weapons and ammo, which we’ll get to in a minute.
Your enemy is The Thing. In the film, the creature had no defined form – once discovered, it popped out appendages and claws as needed for the situation. In the game, the organism has been split off into what I can best call “Thinglets.” These range from little running dog-like creatures to headcrabs (literally, a human head with legs like a crab). They’ll pop out of vents and such to attack, or charge in a few situations where you have to defend an area against the swarm. They give you and your squad something to shoot, but make no sense in the lifecycle defined by the film. Hang on to that idea, because it’s not the only area some alterations needed to be made to fit a video game.
The big addition to the squad mechanic is a trust and fear system that goes beyond simple morale. Trust is displayed as a bar on your command menu, and roughly defines whether your comrades think you’re infected or not. Giving them guns and ammo, not giving suicidal orders, and taking a blood test all help their trust go up. If they don’t trust you, they won’t follow you – not helpful when you need an engineer to rewire a panel. Extremely low trust means they’ll turn ass and flee from you. It’s also allegedly possible to get someone’s trust so low that they start shooting you, but I never got to this point. I imagine friendly fire will speed that along.
Fear is similar, but triggered by the environment. The Thing has left some gooey messes behind, and these corpses weigh heavily on your men. There’s no bar for this, but you can see their portrait on the status window visibly shake as panic sets in. Being unarmed or left alone amplifies the effect. Usually this just results in an almost comedic level of barfing upon entering the newest abattoir, but every so often an unchecked lad will go off and ace himself. I left one seemingly-together solder alone temporarily so I could get a keycard. When I returned, he had eaten the barrel of his own gun. You… you could have just said something, you know.
The big wild card is, of course, that some of these soldiers are really The Thing incognito. Syringes can be picked up around the world to let you simulate the blood test from the film – the idea being that every part of The Thing is an individual, so even its blood will react to danger. In the game, stick a soldier with the syringe, watch it shatter, and he’ll “Thing Out” now that his cover is blown. Similar to the film, parts of his human disguise will deform or splatter away, and you’re presented with a new enemy you must dispatch. Little Thinglets can simply be shot, but human-sized Things must be damaged with bullets and then burned with a flamethrower. This is where having an extra soldier around comes in handy, as one of you sets ’em up, and the other knocks ’em down. Otherwise, you’ll have to quickly switch between the two weapons yourself.
All three of these systems are indeed in place within the game, and they do work as described. At its heart, the game is a linear series of locked corridors. You will need manage your engineers at the very least, since they’re required to unlock new areas. This gives the system some necessary weight, and you can’t just blow it off completely. However, that very necessity also means the effects of this system seem dialed way down so that you’re never forced into a frustrating or “unfair” situation. Engineers don’t seem as likely to pop off and waste themselves, and should you seriously fuck up (like shooting your only engineer), the game simply ends and forces a checkpoint. The trust/fear system is present, but the effects don’t exactly last.
As for who in your squad is The Thing – in short, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Again owing to the linear nature of the game, when the plot calls for you to move ahead alone, the other members of your team are going to pop no matter what. I was personally able to do a blood test on my teammate (clean) and then take a single step forward, triggering them to Thingify. The game’s not afraid to break its own rules to fit the script.
But even the blood tests themselves are bogus. If your medic really is a Thing – so what? He’ll still perform flawlessly as a medic. He won’t try to poison you, or knife you in the back, or lock you behind a door. He won’t slip a tentacle around your neck when you’re alone. You won’t even lose the gun and ammo you gave him when he turns (he’ll conveniently drop it all). There is literally no downside at all to having a hidden Thing in your squad. So, should you test him and get a positive result, the only thing that happens is that you’re now out one medic. I found it best to just stow those needles and deal with Thinged squadmates only when they choose to reveal themselves. They’re not exactly dangerous when they do.
The other major videogame concession is that this is a story that didn’t need a sequel at all. Fans of the film will know what I mean, and I won’t spoil it for others. Besides, the only two locations in the entire film are small, destroyed science camps. You visit both in the initial levels, so where do you go once those are taken care of? I’ll avoid serious game spoilers, but the answer involves underground pharmaceutical labs and government conspiracies. It’s a pretty stupid answer, and even an authentic cameo from John Carpenter himself (voicing a character) can’t really smooth over the pointlessness of this story.
It’s a bit of a shame, because graphically, they nailed the look. Fog, snow, and blue tones make Antarctica look as dark and foreboding as it did on the big screen. You’ll trudge between shacks with only the light poles to guide you. Flares are used heavily in the first few levels, casting a pink glow on the icy walls, and again, looking very reminiscent of the film. The Thing itself looks appropriately bloody and twisted, but low resolution textures don’t show the detail of extra heads or warped bone. It’s also disappointing that every example of the creature can be classified into a few repeating enemy types. Large, unique boss versions do mix this up, but mark the only parts that could be considered surprises in a sequel to a film that took great pride in those.
I feel like the devs went into this with the best intentions of creating a game true to the movie. At some point, they realized that wasn’t going to be possible and decided to make something fun out of what they had. For the most part, they succeeded. Holding a cabin under siege by swarms of Thinglets makes no sense according to the film, but rushing around, healing squadmates and sealing doors to contain the horde is still a lot of fun on its own merits. Likewise, the squad/Thing mechanic is pretty unambiguous once you get a sense of what’s going on under the hood, but it’s still a neat addition and true to the tone. Overall, it’s a decent use of the license, and a reasonably fun time if you’re interested, but a sequel in the loosest interpretations only.
Does a pretty good job with the spirit of the film. The scenery looks the part, and there’s a real sense of needing your squadmates while suspecting them the entire time.
No penalties to having a Thing in your squad, which takes the fear out of the mechanic. Story and generic Thing monsters to shoot are both naff gameplay contrivances.