John Carpenter's The Thing is a milestone in sci-fi cinema so it's surprising that it took 20 years until we saw a videogame based on it. Released in 2002, Computer Artworks underrated gem proved that it was worth the wait. So much so that John Carpenter himself officially endorsed it as the canonical sequel.
Despite being founded in 1993, Computer Artworks only had one other game under their belt when they began developing The Thing. That game was Evolva released in 2000 (you can buy it at GOG), another underrated third-person shooter. Before that, they were very well respected in the computer arts circuit (who'd have thunk), providing artistic collaborations with fashion designer Daniel Poole and musicians Robert Miles and The Shamen. They also worked on the movie Hackers. This was the mid-90s, so acid house - and the design iconography surrounding it - was a thing but they stood out from their competition. Unlike other graphic design companies at the time (like The Designers Republic who made the iconic art for the WipEout series), Computer Artworks developed their own tool - Organic Art. It allowed the user to generate "3D computer models or organic life forms, using genetic algorithm based techniques to mutate base forms into artistic creations" [source].
Using computers will let you see logs and perhaps door codes (left).
U.S. Outpost 31 has a generous number of tape recorders that act as your save points (right).
You'd think that having experience with such a tool, the body-morphing aliens featured in The Thing videogame would be a horrific mass of undulating organic matter. Sadly, all of the enemies are pre-designed and rendered in rather blocky, harsh polygons with some stiff animations. Some are direct copies of what we saw in the film, while others are original creations. Some take obvious inspiration from other franchises. The thing known as the Scuttler looks like it jumped right out of Half-Life while the Humanoids may have hitched the last train South from Silent Hill. While that game's sequel is a visually superior survival horror featuring smoother enemy designs, the sheer number of things The Thing displays on screen at times during the more frenetic sequences is probably the reason for the low poly count.
Elsewhere the graphics are fine enough, though the constant grey of the Antarctic setting may tire some people. What really excells, though, is the atmosphere. You'll no doubt shiver while running in the snow through a heavy storm at night, hopeful that a faint light may appear in the distance to guide your way. There are even a few locations taken directly from the movie, often filled with Easter Eggs and references to keep a movie nerd like me happy. You can even find and play MacReady's lost recording if you look hard enough.
You can assign actions or give weapons in the Squad Menu (left)
while you can use and assign items to the right mouse button in the Item Menu (right).
But what of the gameplay? The Thing mixes elements of survival horror with an over-the-shoulder shooter and squad-based strategy. Finding keys and opening doors are the primary puzzles and it's robustly implemented, even if it won't ever strain the old noggin. What will take up most of your attention is your squad, featuring a revolving door or medics, soldiers and engineers. As U.S. Special Forces Captain Blake, you'll command up to four teammates. Their AI is solid enough when it comes to combat, only occasionally running in your line of fire, but you'll still have to manage almost every other action for them. The medics will automatically heal others in need, though won't necessarily help themselves. The engineers are useful for fixing broken door panels and other electrical hotspots, but won't do so unless ordered. Soldiers are your basic offensive grunt with no other unique abilities, but the others are also competent shooters with a weapon in their hand. You'll still have to provide them with guns and ammo though.
Beyond this, you also have to think of their mental health. Each has a fear gauge that increases in times of stress like when you come across a pile of dead bodies or during a particularly stressful gun fight. If their emotional state gets too dark, they will react irrationally, falling to the floor clutching their knees in a foetal position. Perhaps they'll shoot randomly, spraying gunfire without much thought for safety. At worst, they might even shoot themselves. You can combat this by giving them shots of adrenaline for an instant boost in courage or giving them time to recuperate in a safer environment.
But that's not all you have to worry about. What if they become infected with The Thing? All characters seem to be aware that anyone can be the alien to the point where they may even suspect you. You can earn their trust if you hand over a weapon or ammo so they can defend themselves or prove that your own genetics are unaffected by using a blood test kit on yourself. You can also use these kits on others, but I wouldn't recommend it. Not only will it lower their trust in you, but it's no guarantee that the result is accurate. For the most part, who is a thing and when and how they show that they are is entirely scripted. One guy might test negative only to mutate a few steps later and attack you. Apparently, it wasn't initially conceived that way. Originally, the thing infections were to be randomly assigned for each playthrough, much like the replicants in Blade Runner, but they couldn't figure out the technicalities in the timeframe they had. It doesn't necessarily take away from the experience but you can tell a certain level of depth in the mechanic is missing.
Mouse control gives you the precise aim of modern shooters (left)
while the original auto-aim option sacrifices control for enemy health info (right).
Most of the game is devoted to the action, which you wouldn't necessarily expect once you've finished the opening chapter that's devoid of any combat. This is another aspect that's dated a little, at least until a later patch updated the controls. The default mode utilises an auto-aim feature with the mouse only changing the horizontal X-axis. A coloured square reticle will highlight the enemy you have focussed on and it will gradually turn red the closer it is to death. This is useful for the larger things which can regenerate unless burned, so you know when you can change weapons to the flamethrower to finish it off. Basic ammo is much more numerous than flamethrower fuel so it's a tactic worth adhering to.
The more modern alternative added via a patch is your standard mouse-controlled aim and shoot. You can now look in all directions with a circular reticle in the centre of the screen. While this may arguably control better, it also loses the useful indicator to the enemies' health. You can still switch between the two on the fly from the pause menu. Both methods still feature the first person viewpoint by holding 'shift'. This can give you a better view of your surroundings as well as a more precise aim if needed.
Most puzzles are about opening a locked door.
Here you find the number using a CCTV camera.
Your inventory system is also a bit clunky if you're not used to it. The right mouse button is assigned to 'use equipped item'. You can assign it in the inventory screen and this is the only way to use an item such as keys in the game world. While I do think it's functional and even useful at times, for example, you don't have to break immersion as often as something like Resident Evil, it's nevertheless a little inconsistent in how it operates. If you want to give a fellow squad member a gun, you can do this using the inventory. If you can to give them a medi-kit or blood test, you first have to equip it then click the right mouse button when standing next to them.
Thankfully, most of your interactions with the squad members are automated using the action key, negating the use of a menu in such instances. Any major status effects like low on health or ammo will display as an icon over the character's head. Go up to them and press 'E' and you'll automatically restock their ammo or heal them. The engineer will also have a 'fix' icon if he has noticed a broken component nearby, thus saving you from ordering him about via the menu screen. None of this is as cumbersome as it could have been, though it's not exactly the most polished implementation. It's a system with its own logic that is perhaps a little too confusing at first but once you know its ins and outs, there's very little to dislike about it.
The Thing could've easily been just another throwaway shooter with a beloved franchise slapped on top. Instead, we got an excellent if flawed gem of a game. I would love to see it modernised and refined, to live up to the game's original promise or even that of the sadly cancelled sequel (Computer Artworks closed shop in 2003). Until then, The Thing is a must play for fans of the movie or horror games in general.
To download the game, follow the link below. This is a custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber will run natively on modern systems. If the installer doesn't add the required keys to the registry, run Regedit.reg or consult the ChamberNotes.txt for more information. Manual and Guide included. Tested on Windows 10.
File Size: 230 Mb. Install Size: 361 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
The Thing (the game) is © Universal Interactive
The Thing (the movie) is © Universal Studios
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me