The Thing is a horror-themed action adventure game and is based on John Carpenter's classic 1982 horror film of the same name. The game serves as a sequel, picking up three months after the events in the film. Yet even if they haven't seen the movie, after playing through this rather lengthy and involving game, survival horror fans will more than likely find that The Thing is one of the best such games for the Xbox. While the game has been recently released on the PS2 and PC, the Xbox version is the best of the three, combining sharp graphics similar to those found in the PC version with the superior console-style control found in the PlayStation 2 version.
The original film was about a team of scientists in Antarctica who came across an alien that could perfectly imitate other forms of life. Unfortunately for them, the alien was less than friendly and ultimately killed off most of the team by infecting, mimicking, and attacking its members. In the game, you control the captain of a rescue team that's sent in to investigate why communications with the Antarctic research facility, where most of the film took place, have ceased. Soon after arriving, you quickly find yourself in a very similar situation to the one faced by the science team in the movie. You soon discover the nature of the organism you're facing--that it has the ability to perfectly imitate the victim it claims--which soon leads to distrust and fear within your ranks, since any one of you could potentially be the Thing.
The game starts you off at the research facility with three other team members: a medic, an engineer, and a soldier. You learn that the base has been almost totally destroyed. Your commanding officer instructs you and your team to try to find out what happened, and from this point you eventually make your way through the base, finding a few clues that fans of the movie will recognize as Blair's partially constructed ship and R.J. MacReady's hidden recording. Most of this early section of the game serves as a tutorial--text messages will frequently pop up with information regarding the various gameplay elements as you encounter them for the first time. For example, when you first arrive at the base, the game lets you know that you can't stay out in the cold for extended durations. Moments later when you encounter a gruesome scene and your medic begins to panic, a text message appears giving you an overview of how you can help calm down your teammates. These tutorials can be turned off if you wish, but they are very informative and help you understand the basic mechanics of how the game works and how it works differently from other horror-themed games you may be familiar with.
After you've learned the workings of the game and have met the objectives at the research facility, you'll then make your way to a nearby Norwegian research facility where the first major action sequences transpire. Here's where we'll leave you hanging in suspense, since detailing any more of the game's storyline would spoil it. After all, perhaps the single greatest motivation to play all the way through The Thing ends up being the desire to reveal all of the game's intriguing story, which is very well done and told through in-game cinematic sequences.
The actual gameplay in The Thing mainly consists of three elements: standard survival horror puzzle-solving, third-person and first-person shooting, and basic team management. All three of these elements work together in that most of the puzzles in the game require you to effectively use the abilities of your team members while being proficient with weaponry yourself. While the first two elements are pretty typical of other games in the genre, the team management element is something that is fairly innovative, though it isn't an essential part of the gameplay. Each of the teammates you pick up falls into one of the three character classes mentioned above: soldier, medic, and engineer. The soldiers follow you around and provide additional firepower. The medics can heal you and your party members but lack the ability to heal themselves. Engineers are used to fix anything electrical, like doors and power sources. There is a bit of crossover of abilities in that engineers and medics can also use weapons. Plus, your character can do a bit of everything, including repairing some electrical panels for doors and lights, healing teammates as well as himself using health pickups, and of course, firing weapons.The team management commands are minimal and really only consist of telling an engineer to fix something and ordering your team to stay or follow.
The most intriguing aspect of team management is monitoring your party's trust and fear levels. Basically, you have to keep an eye on your team members' mental states in order to manage their performance. You can tell what their mental status is by listening to what they say, paying attention to how they act, and by looking at the fear/trust display in the game's menu system. Your fellow team members may get freaked out for several reasons, including everything from encountering a horribly disfigured body to noticing that you're not fighting an alien foe as fiercely as they think you should be. Seeing these things will cause several reactions. For instance, if one of your team members is terribly frightened by something, he or she may begin to vomit uncontrollably or even lose control of his or her bladder in the heat of battle. If you don't make good decisions or fight diligently against alien attacks, they may begin to disobey your orders and act independently--even going as far as destroying the base.
To counteract this fear and loss of trust, 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 because he saw a grotesque corpse, you can give him a shot of adrenaline to calm him down. In addition, team members whom you first come across usually won't trust you, while the ones you have with you may lose trust in you if you do things like accidentally shoot them during a battle. You can win the trust of these characters by simply giving them weapons or ammo. All of the characters you come across in the game are unique individuals with very distinct personalities. Some characters curse extensively, and some have foreign accents and begin shouting in their native language during intense situations. These distinctive traits really give the characters lives of their own, which works well with the game's concept of trust and fear, since you'll actually end up caring about some of the individuals in your party. When you test teammates to see if they're infected by the Thing, and the syringe filled with contaminated blood explodes, you'll get a little misty-eyed when you have to torch them.
The game's action often takes center stage. You can run around from a third-person perspective while firing your weapons, and you can also switch to a first-person targeting view, but this firing mode limits your character's movement to just leaning. Most of the action sequences put you up against what the game refers to as Thing Beasts, which are about the size of a dog and extremely fast. These small creatures attack in groups and can be killed by gunfire or grenades. Larger manifestations of the Thing have to be dealt with by a two-stage attack. The first is a barrage of gunfire to deplete its health, followed by a good measure of fire from a blowtorch, flamethrower, or incendiary grenades. You have a variety of weapons and items that you can pick up as you progress through the game, including sniper rifles, night-vision goggles, pistols, and machine guns. The weapons, ammo, and items you pick up are in fairly logical locations and fit into the game's storyline. The puzzles are equally well constructed and for the most part fit with the game's environment. For instance, in one scene you find yourself weaponless in an environment surrounded by enemies. Near your location is a broken door, a trapped engineer, and a soldier who is out of ammo. The first thing you have to do is go find some ammo, bring it to the soldier so he trusts you, then take him to the enemy-filled area and rescue the engineer so he can fix the door for you. While the solution sounds simple, things are more spread out and less obvious at first, and the solutions are easier said than done, but even if you mess up and die, there are location-based save points all over so you never have to retread too much ground.
Visually, The Thing is a terrific-looking Xbox game. The character models are detailed and feature expressive faces that help reflect their state of mind. The animations for firing weapons, moving, and interacting with the environment are all very well done. The environments themselves range from desolate snowy terrain at night to underground caverns to densely packed bases. All of them are very detailed and look weatherworn, which totally fits with what was seen in the original film. The alien creatures you'll encounter are suitably grotesque, as are the transformations of seemingly normal people into the creatures. The textures and lighting in the Xbox version are fantastic; everything just looks so much more detailed than in the PS2 version. Unlike in the PS2 release, the flashlight is actually a light source in the Xbox version, which makes it extra creepy since a lot of the areas you have to explore are really dark, forcing you to use your flashlight to see. The Xbox version also has an extremely stable frame rate that never really slows down, even when tons of enemies appear on the screen at once. More variety in the ordinary manifestations of the Thing that you face would have been welcome, but the few that are shown look good. One problem is that the game's camera angle sometimes gets stuck behind walls, but this isn't a huge deal.
As far as the sound goes, The Thing's musical accompaniment features the same creepy music from the original film, which really helps set the mood. The voice-over work is extensive and very believable, though the dialogue at times seems to be unnecessarily filled with expletives, seemingly just for the sake of including them. All of the sound effects for the creatures seem like they came right from the movie and fit very well.
In the end, The Thing's unique blend of action, puzzle-solving, and team management works very well. The mix of gameplay elements really helps to keep the game interesting the whole way through, since at just about every turn the game asks you to do something that you haven't done before. Most of the puzzles are logically constructed, though a few require repetitive actions, like taking out a seemingly endless horde of creatures. Those can be a drag, but the bland sequences are few and far between. The game even offers confrontations with boss creatures that force you to think and fire at the same time. Even more of these would have been great, since the few that are in the game are extremely exciting. Along the way, the team management aspect of The Thing adds an interesting yet almost unnecessary twist, since you can almost completely ignore it and still manage to get through the game. While that might be the case, when you look at everything the game offers in terms of its gameplay, presentation, and story, it's hard not to appreciate The Thing whether you're a fan of the film it's based on or just a fan of the survival horror genre in general. The Thing is a great game that could have been done better in some ways, but not by much.