Call of Cthulhu Impressions

Beware of your sanity--a passing look at Headfirst's first-person horror game may leave a lasting impression.

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Headfirst's Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth already has a history but has recently found a sound home with publisher Bethesda Softworks. Yet nothing we'd ever heard about the game prepared us for the all-too-real horrors that we saw today. The game's setting is based on a classic short story by H.P. Lovecraft that involves terrifying creatures that live in the deep waters that the locals depend on for commercial fishing. You play as a character invented by Headfirst, Jack Walters, who is an ordinary police detective who gets involved in something unexpected when investigating a house inhabited by cultists.

The house itself is decorated with various occult trappings, and there are notes lying around that you can reach out--you actually see your hands when interacting with the world--and pick up to read. But after neutralizing a hostile cultist that oddly seems to be waiting just for you, you'll walk downstairs and find much stranger stuff, starting with a morgue--an odd sight for a residence. Inevitably, you'll make your way down to the lowest level of the basement, and when you turn the corner and see a man staked up and vivisected on the wall, there's no doubt you'll feel some revulsion--and Jack Walters' first-person vision will blur and sway to represent his own shocked reaction. Soon enough you discover some very odd technology and figure out a puzzle that involves the merciful death of the innocent victim, then opens a gate that allows a time-traveling alien to pass through and appear before you. That's when Walters really loses it.

This prologue mission is designed in part to introduce you to the minimalist graphical interface--there are absolutely no artificial HUD elements onscreen--but soon you'll learn that Walters spent several years in an insane asylum following his encounter with the Yithian alien. The game then segues to his return to the town of Innsmouth, and while Walters knowingly puts himself in the line of danger to deal with the horrors there, his sanity is never something to take for granted. Although there's no visible sanity meter, behind the scenes there's a system that submits you to the first-person symptoms of increasing insanity either when you undergo too much trauma or when scripted events kick in.

Many first-person games set out to push the limits of player immersion, but Headfirst really seems to be on to something. The visual and auditory effects of insanity--hallucinations of increasing severity, vertigo, and paranoia--might seem gimmicky if the environments and the creatures you encountered weren't so very unfriendly. The lack of interface elements keeps you in the fiction, and there are some creative elements that keep the game playable. Shooting the 1920s weapons is fairly intuitive even without conventional crosshairs. The iron sights on the Colt .45 line up as you hold it in the center of the screen, and holding a button will have you carefully aim down the sights, which has the side effect of slowing you down. We saw a mob of monsters slash into Walters as he tried to fight them off, and every time he took a hit, the screen dimmed and there were obvious signs of his declining health. The one interface screen is a basic one that lets you manage your inventory.

Call of Cthulhu is very promising, but it's a ways away, despite its years in development. The environments we saw were quite detailed, and Headfirst says that it's making revisions to the engine to keep pace with graphics expectations. The game will have something like 25 hours of gameplay. Now that development efforts are back on track, the game is expected to ship for the PC and Xbox in 2004.

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