First look: The Thing

Universal Interactive has unveiled The Thing for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox.

At its Gamers' Day yesterday, Universal Interactive unveiled The Thing for the Sony PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox. The media was treated to a trailer for the game and a question and answer session with the game's developers, Computer Artworks. The Thing's story line serves as sequel to John Carpenter's feature-length motion picture of the same name and begins shortly after the movie ends. You play as Blake, a captain of a reconnaissance team who is sent to investigate a loss of communication with a scientific team stationed in a military base in the Antarctic. When Blake and his crew arrive, they discover the fallen, frozen scientists and attempt to unravel the mystery.

Outwardly, The Thing may seem like a typical survival-horror game. But its gameplay goes far beyond the traditional boundaries of the genre. The biggest change is that Blake has command over 3-5 non-playable characters (NPCs). The NPCs come in three forms: engineers who open doors, hack computers, and save the game; soldiers who are adept at fighting; and medics who will heal Blake and the other NPCs. When certain NPCs are killed the game is effectively over, because it's impossible to open new doors unless there is at least one engineer remaining alive.

Blake may instruct the NPCs to investigate specific areas, attack enemies, or stand guard. But controlling the NPCs requires more than navigating a menu system. Each one has a fear/trust meter that regulates how they react to Blake's actions and commands. Because The Thing can infest a human without any telltale signs, paranoia runs rampant in the scientific outpost. If Blake spends too much time away from the group they will become suspicious that he has been infested and will refuse to follow his command. Trust may be regained, however, by allowing Blake to become vulnerable. One example the developers divulged was handing an NPC a gun. Fear also plays heavily into The Thing's gameplay. NPCs are designed with specific characteristics that factor into how they react in pressure situations. Some NPCs are more easily spooked than others and once their fear meter peaks they will perform poorly in combat. Similarly, NPCs that are easily scared will begin to lose trust in Blake if he unexpectedly turns out the lights or performs some other erratic action. If any of the NPCs refuse to obey your commands, coercion tactics such as placing a gun to an NPC's head are in order. According to Computer Artworks, the fear/trust meter will ensure that playing through the game is different each time because there is never a single correct way to accomplish an objective.

There are four different variations of The Thing that you will come into contact throughout the game. Infected NPCs are the most common enemies, but they also present the biggest challenge because Blake is never aware of which NPCs have become hosts. This makes it scary to turn your back on teammates for fear of attack. Infested NPCs eventually turn into walkers; the strongest enemies in the game save for the bosses. Therefore, it's important to pick out the infected NPCs before they have a chance to transform. Scuttlers are the most common form of enemy included in The Thing. They're basically the head of a host that has sprouted legs. They will attack in groups and it's not uncommon to come under siege by more than a dozen Scuttlers at once. Ruptures are the bosses of the game and they will include body parts from your infested comrades and any other creature they come into contact with. Because their form is ever-changing, no two ruptures look alike and they're formidable enough to take on up to five of your NPCs at once.

The clips of The Thing that the press was shown looked to be running on a PlayStation 2 development kit, but neither the developers nor Universal Interactive are willing to commit to which version was shown at this time. Regardless of the platform, The Thing is a gory game that will most certainly receive a mature rating when it's released next year. The game has a variety of camera angles to be played from including a behind-the-back camera that is used for the majority of gameplay. You may also go into a free look mode and examine Blake's surroundings more closely. Dynamic camera angles are used during cinemas or when no interactivity is possible. The screenshots attached to this story have not been confirmed by Universal Interactive to be from any specific platform, but they look remarkably better than the video clips shown so it's safe to assume that they're either from the Xbox or PC versions of the game.

The Thing's control scheme was the least discussed aspect of the game, but Computer Artworks did offer up a few clues. You will be able to run and shoot at the same time and targeting will primarily be accomplished with an auto-lock function. Once locked onto an enemy, you may cycle through other targets with the press of a button. Shooting is the first-person free look mode is also possible and you may move while in this perspective as well. The interface that will be used to control NPCs has yet to be ironed out, but the preliminary specs require that you look at them and then give orders with a pop-up menu. NPCs may be controlled singly or in groups.

While no hands-on time was given to journalists with The Thing, the brief trailer and the enthusiasm of its developers was more than enough to show that this is a game to keep an eye on. The Thing is currently scheduled for release on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox in spring 2002 and will be co-published by Universal Interactive and Konami. We'll have more information as it becomes available.

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