Last year's Midway horror game, The Suffering, took the genre in a slightly different direction by focusing more on straight-up action, sticking closer to the third-person shooter blueprint rather than adhering to any sort of standard survival horror tactics. The follow-up, Ties That Bind, makes few changes to the formula, stretches a thin story to somewhere near the breaking point, and delivers a bloody, curse-filled action game that might still please fans of the first game, though it's more likely that you'll feel like you played the same game last year.
The story takes a quick detour, flashing back to five years ago, right around the time when Torque was first incarcerated. Serving as a brief setup for the story and a bit of a tutorial, it's over fast, and you're flashed back to immediately after the conclusion of the first game. You're in a boat, speeding away from the monster-filled Carnate Island and heading right towards Baltimore. To safety? Hardly. Baltimore has been overrun by the same sorts of evil malefactors that you just finished blasting away in the prison. And you're given a few plot-related questions to chew on. Who makes up the Foundation, and why do they want to capture you so badly? Who is Blackmoore, and why does he seem responsible for every little bad thing that's ever happened to you and your family? You'll spend the next 15 or 20 hours attempting to figure that out, but the plot barely ever comes into play. Torque will occasionally have flashbacks that fill you in on some of his past, but for the most part, the game's a little too convoluted for its own good.
At least the action's still just as straightforward as it was last time around, right? Unfortunately, the combat, which was one of the strengths of last year's game, isn't as satisfying in the sequel. You can carry two weapons at any given time, and you'll encounter a variety of pistols, shotguns, automatic weapons, blunt objects, and rocket or grenade launchers as you go. But, generally speaking, most of the weapons really lack punch. The game's lowly Colt pistol feels especially weak, but most of the automatic weapons are lame, too. You'll empty an entire magazine into an enemy, and it'll still come at you. Most of the game's corridors and other areas are too tight to make a rocket launcher or grenade launcher very useful, leaving only the shotgun, which is really only useful up close, and the M-60, which doesn't turn up all that often and comes with a pretty limited supply of ammo.
All of this seems to tie into the game wanting you to use your creature form more frequently. You have an onscreen sanity meter, and when it's full, you can press a button and turn into a large beast with a few attacks that tend to really tear through most normal enemies. The game also throws in a few variants of its existing creatures that can only be taken out when you're transformed. Some walls also show up here and there, demanding the full-on Kool-Aid Man treatment. So the creature form is more useful, but it isn't terribly exciting. For starters, you still get gunned down pretty quickly in this form. So using the form when you go up against the crazy spider guys with guns for arms isn't the automatic win that it can be when you go up against other, melee-based bad guys. Additionally, you can only remain in your transformed state for maybe 10 seconds or so. Killing enemies refills your meter a bit, letting you remain a beast for a few extra seconds, but you still have to change back manually; if you let the meter drain all the way, you'll lose a chunk off of your life meter when you turn back into a human.
The creature's attacks are damaging, but not terribly exciting. Over time, the moral decisions you make throughout the game have an impact on your creature form, giving you additional attacks and changing its look a bit. Being good is tougher than being bad, but really only because the game's artificial intelligence is so awful. In one case, you have to lead a junkie around for awhile, and while you're doing so, you get attacked. Rather than run off and cower in a corner as a good junkie should, he decides to stand right next to your enemies. The creature form's attacks take nice, wide swipes, making it nearly impossible to do your job without also smoking the junkie. This sort of thing happens fairly regularly. Considering how quickly the monsters can chew through your health if you hesitate, waiting around for a safe time to attack isn't always an option on the game's default or harder difficulty settings.
With the game's weak weapons and unfulfilling creature attacks, the gameplay quickly boils down to you running from room to room, killing anything that pops up along the way. While you'll see lots of doors as you move about, there's really only one correct path to take to proceed--most of those doors are locked. The game also likes to lock you in rooms and send multiple waves of enemies at you for a few minutes, unlocking a door when you succeed. These portions of the game can occasionally get frustrating, because Torque tends to die pretty easily. You can recover health by picking up pill bottles along the way, though unlike the last game, you can't carry pills with you for later use. While some of the game's sequences can get tougher than others, the game lets you save anywhere. So stomping through each battle and immediately saving your progress quickly becomes the order of the day.
Controlwise, the game plays like your standard third-person shooter. With a gamepad, that means that one stick moves you around and the other looks. On the PC, the mouse and keyboard setup works just fine, and even manages to give you slightly finer control over your aim in some cases, making taking out enemies on the PC a little easier. Graphically, the PC version edges out the other two versions by a little bit, but the Xbox version isn't far behind at all, especially if you're running the game on an HDTV.
The visuals in The Suffering are effective at conveying the game's bloody, gory theme. As in last year's game, Torque and his weapons get absolutely splattered with blood during the game's heavier fights. It wears off over time, but it's definitely a cool-looking effect. The game's monster design is largely recycled from last year's game, which is disappointing. The way the monsters in the last game were based on various methods of execution was interesting, but retrofitting them to fit Baltimore street crime seems cheap. For example, the crawling creep that represented lethal injection last time around is still in the game--only now he represents heroin addiction. Blasting the monsters apart with a shotgun causes many of them to chunk apart, making for ludicrous gibs. Finally, some of the scenery you'll catch as you move around is pretty detailed. In one room, you stumble in on a suicide, moments after it's happened. So you'll get to see a corpse, shotgun in hand, large chunk of head missing, blood still squirting out of the hole. It's kind of gross, but, obviously, fits with the theme just fine.
The game's sound is where most of the game's attempts to be creepy come from. You'll almost constantly be catching bits of conversation from people who lived long ago, often turning into a full-on hallucination-style cutscene. The dialogue is reasonably believable, but Blackmoore, who is constantly talking about "being a player" and "the game" just sort of doesn't fit with the game's darker theme. The creeper, a manifestation that pops up from time to time and tells you how much he hates women and loves to kill them, is far more effective. Just like last year's game, the script is teeming with curse words, including a couple that you've probably never heard in games before. Given the whole "city overrun by hellish creatures" motif, mixed with a return to a prison setting for part of the game, the script's foul mouth also works.
The Suffering: Ties That Bind has its moments, but most of these moments are the same sorts of moments that you saw in last year's game. If you're a fan of the previous game and you're looking for more of the same, Ties That Bind fits the bill, but more expansion on the themes of the first game would have made for a much more interesting final product.