The Thing (Xbox) review
"Throughout the game, Blake will recruit, lose, and reacquire soldiers of the three differing flavours that all need to be managed. And manage them you must; in an obviously hostile environment, newly discovered troops will not always happily trust you right off the bat. "
Captain Blake, it seems, gets all the fun jobs. Airlifted to the all-year-round winter wonderland in Antarctica where the film of the same name took place, Blake and his small crew of soldiers are unceremoniously dumped without so much as a pair of mittens and a flask of hot cocoa between them. The now razed Outpost #31 was home to some rather strange happenings that culminated in a complete communications breakdown. The first wave of marines inconveniently vanished without a trace, and Blake's orders are not only to investigate and evaluate, but to now find the primary platoon. In one piece, if he can.
The first thing to note is the small gathering of support that Blake has at his disposal; a team of militants that attempts to make a new twist in the survival horror genre where The Thing attempts to carve a niche for itself. Guided around by the third-person camera view, players now not only have their protagonist to worry about, but any allies that might tag along. Let's take a look at a scene that typifies this new dynamic:
Blake and his full squad of three soilders enter a large room. Rotting wooden crates and rusting steel barrels litter the area liberally, casting innumerable shadows under the faltering fluorescent lighting. In order to exit the room, you need to fix a short-circuiting fuse box that is sparking angrily in the corner. Upon examination, you discover that Blake's rudimentary knowledge isn't enough to repair it, so you designate the job to the engineer. He audibly grumbles about the chore, but accepts the order and busily gets to work on the troublesome box, his progress indicated by a rapidly-filling yellow bar that appears above his head.
Suddenly your marine yells a panicked warning and opens fire as a swarm of small arachnid beasts scuttle towards your position, emerging from behind the ominous looking crates. The marine manages to competently mow down a good number of hostiles, but takes damage doing so. However, the threat is minimal and extinguished quickly once you join the fray. The break in the action gives your medic a chance to heal your injured marine while your technician finishes with his task. With power restored to the circuit box, huge shutter-like gates slide open squeakily to reveal the outside world: a snow-laden landscape laid to siege by continuous blizzards. All seems well.
It's then that your formerly docile technician spews forth a puddle of gore, mutates messily into a bloody abomination with multiple teeth-lined mouths sprouting from improbable pieces of anatomy, and decapitates your marine.
This is too much for your medic to bear. He drops into a foetal position, cradles his head in his hands and weeps. A small puddle of urine visibly stains the floor beneath his cowering form. Suddenly left alone and vulnerable against a walking Lovecraftian nightmare, you depress the trigger on your fully automatic assault rifle, and tear the cursed monster to shreds. You can't kill it this way, just injure it. Only fire, the game teaches you, can exorcise these demons. Luckily, you own a flame-thrower; annoyingly, your marine was using it.
Still keeping your former-ally-turned-hostile at bay with a torrent of lead, you make your way towards the dismembered marine and retrieve the flame-thrower from his unresisting grasp. Ignoring the sounds of your medic noisily vomiting up whatever his breakfast was that morning, you unleash a blistering tongue of fire. The monster shrieks in agony as it flaps its numerous limbs in a futile effort to extinguish the flames that engulf it. Finally, the creature falls into a blistered and twisted pile of melted flesh and blackened bone.
Turning back to your visibly useless medic, you inject his cowering form with a shot of adrenaline to try and steady his nerves. He responds by pulling himself shakily to his feet, looking at you strangely as he does so. Despite just seeing you slay one the of things that run rampant in this frosty wasteland, he suspects you. For all he knows, you could have been infected during the fray, and are just waiting for him to drop his guard. That's not your biggest concern though. No, you're more worried about the possibility of his infection, which in turn would turn him to into a salivating monstrosity thirsting for your blood.
The two of you leave the shelter of the room to brave the inhospitable sub-zero conditions outside that you can only survive in for so long. The suspicious glances thrown your way stealthy returned when you have the chance.
The ultimate in paranoia -- who can you trust when you can't even rely on those closest to you?
Just think how awesome it would have been if The Thing could have pulled this off.
Throughout the game, Blake will recruit, lose, and reacquire soldiers of the three differing flavours that all need to be managed. And manage them you must; in an obviously hostile environment, newly discovered troops will not always happily trust you right off the bat. Sadly, this is too easily fixed; an unwilling solider can be coerced into doing as you command by pointing your gun at his head in a deadly insistence that he carries out your bidding. It may seem distasteful to some, so perhaps those few will be glad to hear that the odds are this unfriendly option will probably never be used. To raise the trust meter of anyone you find is ridiculously easy; all you need do is arm them. The bigger the weapon, the more trust you gain.
Armourments are very easy to come by in The Thing.
Your troops will also panic when they have taken too much of a mental bombardment from the hideous creatures that inhabit the darkened corners of the once-thriving outpost, or seen one too many dismembered corpses. They can vomit in disgust, wet themselves in fear, or even press their own guns to their temple, and paint the walls with their brains.
This can be avoided by moving panicky troops away from gore-filled areas until they calm down. If this isn't possible, jack them up with a syringe full of adrenaline. That'll perk them right up. Problem solved.
It's not like you'll have time to get attached to whomever you pickup on your travels either; the poor buggers have the life expectancy of a chronically depressed lemming. Oh sure, they'll more often than not hold their own against the waves of monstrosities that plague your every move. They possess a healthy AI, which allows them to lay down a wall of bullets strong enough to discourage even the most twisted incarnation that'll cross your path. They'll even kneel behind cover to protect themselves and shift their positions to gain a better angle in any ensuing fire-fight. You'll not lose too many allies to openly hostile actions. Rather, your forces will more commonly drop in one of two ways: either you'll reach a checkpoint that your comrades can't pass (be it by plot, or unexplained game dynamic that sees you starting a fresh checkpoint frustratingly alone), or because they'll succumb to the infection, and morph into the very force they've been fighting alongside you.
The fact that you have often wandering beside you someone (or thing) that could at any point stop being a helpful ally and try to chew on your intestines should make the game. The fact that you should always be warily suspicious of anyone that lends a hand should create an uneasy environment that stays with you throughout your mission, and should work as a cunning subplot, constantly creating an underlying tension. The fact that you don't trust them and they don't trust should have been the factor that helped The Thing poke its grizzled, malformed head up above the throngs of the survival-horror genre.
The fact is, it doesn't. And it's so depressingly underwhelming that it falls flat on its multi-mouthed face.
Firstly, when the time comes for a former comrades to turn on you, the event is scripted. For the most part, replaying a level will result in the same person sprouting disjointed ribs jutting out from shredded flesh and a new angry disposition that includes the need to disembowel you, all in the same location as last time around. There's nothing random about the enemy forces subterfuge here, and it's guarded in a heartbreakingly cheap way. Throughout the game, you'll find blood-test syringes that will help you identify whether a fellow marine is truly on your side. Unless it's plot critical, these will always, always come up negative and confirm the guy beside you is human -- even should you stroll into the next room only for him to mutate messily and to try and shred you into bite-sized chunks.
It doesn't help that the game will hold your hand throughout when it comes to new troop acquirement. Need a techie to fix that broken fusebox that is keeping some doors closed? You can bet your life that one will be nearby. Medics and marines are less obtainable, but are still anything but rare. It really isn't too big a deal when you lose personnel to such transformations, because you know that should you need one, another will be just around the corner.
If that wasn't enough, the unfortunate victim will undergo a huge IQ drop. Whereas the well-presented marines will cleverly utilise the surroundings to their advantage, and not waste their visibly oxidising breath on worthless manoeuvres, the twisted abominations will rush at you blindly, flailing their multi-segmented limbs in an attempt to do you harm. A lot of the time they'll miss, or take their anger out on a wall or a conveniently intruding obstacle. For the most part, you're safe to just plough bullets into the things from a distance until they are weak enough to be finished off with a well-placed spray of flame.
Even here, problems arise.
Flame-throwers I think we can all agree are awesome. Unless, it seems, they appear in The Thing. Watch as the veritable stream of flame is depressingly neutered into a disappointing trickle! Marvel as you have to get in crazy close to whatever you want to set alight! Gasp in awe as the napalm alights your foe, and it retreats in terror of its biggest weakness!
Stare in disbelief as the flames, which once consumed the terror, subdue, and the enraged subject stops retreating and starts to view you with a more aggressive attitude. That's right, folks; what we have here is flame-retardant enemies!
To reiterate: you can only kill them with fire. They are fireproof.
Sure, they'll alight for a while, but the only way to get a clean kill is to follow the flaming mound of flesh and keep the napalm death flowing. Rest assured that if you or one of your marines gets set aflame, you'll burn with much more vigour than your 'fire vulnerable' counterparts. A lot of your time will be spent chasing the bigger Things about the place with a ludicrously short-range flame-thrower, trying desperately to finish the bloody swine off. It'd be humorous if it wasn't so damn annoying.
Add all this to a number of smaller flaws, such as the pixel clipping which has found a home in most multi-platform games, and your opposing mutants vexing talent of managing to poke bits of anatomy though doors and solid walls. What's left is a generic survival-horror title with a gimmick that doesn't quite translate.
That would make the fairest description. Fans of the genre will find it a serviceable stopgap in between better titles, but it's far from the heavyweight contender it should have been. That's not to say you can't gleam enjoyment from The Thing; manipulating a team to take on the unusual suspects of hostile hellspawns is a great diversion, and the paranoia-fuelled plot that carries the game is undeniably interesting. But you can't help walk away from the game with one resounding thought left ringing in your head.
What if The Thing could have delivered on what it promised?
We'll never know.
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