Hands-onThe Thing

We take a look at recent build of Universal's upcoming squad-based action game.

Universal Interactive stopped by our offices today with a nearly complete version of The Thing, one of the games that received an honorable mention in our Best of E3 awards. Today was the first time since E3 that we've had a chance to see and play the game. One of the game's producers was on hand to answer questions and also revealed a lot of details on how this unique blend of survival horror and squad-based action actually plays.

If you're unfamiliar with the story of The Thing, the game is basically a sequel to John Carpenter's classic 1982 horror-movie remake of the same name. The game picks up at the Antarctic research facility where the most of the film took place just three months after the events in the movie transpired. You control the captain of a rescue team that's sent in to investigate why communication with the base has ceased. Accompanying you are three other party members: a medic, engineer, and soldier. You can give basic orders to the other members in your party so that they follow you, stay put, or perform a task. Engineers fix doors and electrical equipment, medics can heal everyone in the party except themselves, and soldiers shoot stuff. While you start off with these particular gentlemen, you'll encounter many other characters throughout the game who can and will become party members.

Like other survival horror games, The Thing's basic gameplay centers on action and puzzle solving, but it also includes a unique gameplay element based on trust and fear. Since the conditions of your mission--from the weather that's 40 below, to the fact that you're facing an alien adversary that can imitate any life-form--are extreme, you have to keep an eye on your team members' mental states in order to manage their performance in helping you achieve your goals. You can tell what their mental status is by listening to what they say, paying attention to how they act, and monitoring the fear-trust display in the game's menu system. Your fellow team members may become freaked out for several reasons, including seeing a horribly disfigured body or seeing you not fighting an alien foe as zealously as they think you should have.

Seeing these things will cause several reactions. For instance, if one of your team members is terribly frightened by something, he may begin to vomit uncontrollably or even lose control of his bladder in the heat of battle. If you don't make good decisions or fight well against an alien attacker, your team members may begin to disobey your orders and act independently--even going as far as destroying the base. To counteract their fear, you'll have to literally win back your team members by performing several different tasks depending on the severity of their mental state. For example, if one of your guys gets a little freaked out after seeing a grotesque corpse, you can give him a shot of adrenaline. Other team members who start to distrust your actions can be corrected by giving them weapons as a sign of trust. The action in the game comes in the form of third- and first-person shooting. You can run around in third-person while firing your weapons, and you can also change to a first-person targeting mode, but this firing mode limits your character's movement to just leaning. You can pick up weapons, ammo, items, and clues left throughout the locations in the game.

Actually playing the game feels just like playing a survival horror game with some squad-based management duties. In the early part of the build we played today, you move around the empty base looking for specific clues as to what happened while staying in constant radio communication with your commander, who gives you objectives. You have to tell members of the team to open doors, repair electrical conduits to restore the lights, and heal one another. We moved from one area of the base to the next, discovered that some weird stuff that fans of the film will recognize, and were ordered to plant some explosive charges. We stopped playing just before flying to another nearby base, where we were told we'd have our first encounter with the Thing. We did, however, use a level cheat that allowed us to see some interesting and really gory cutscenes that looked fantastic.

The game seems to control very well, and it seems to function perfectly as a shooter. The aspect of telling the non-player characters what to do and keeping their mental states in check is unique and well-suited to the game's theme. Visually, the game looks very good--the expressions on the characters' faces are very well done and seem to completely convey the emotional state of the characters. The voice work also seems very natural, as it's an almost constant element that really makes you feel as though you're going through the game with several other people.

It's easy to see that a lot of thought and work has gone into making The Thing. The game's unique blend of action, puzzle solving, and team management seems to work quite well. We'll have a full-blown preview of The Thing once we've gotten further into the game. Keep checking back for more details.

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