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I've been a computer gamer for a long time, and I am not easily frightened even in real life. But there are some games that are quite effective in creating a tense atmosphere, and when I turn the lights down and the surround sound up, these are the titles that get my adrenaline pumping. These are not complete reviews by any means, but are more a commentary on the game with important pros and cons. 


Ultima Underworld 1 & 2 - These were the first actual 3-D first person roleplaying games which predated DOOM by a year or so and you could actually look around, jump, and crouch. The first System Shock (described below) used the same engine (which had a somewhat distorted fisheye bubble effect) and development group. (Looking Glass Technologies)  Very well done for it's time and I wish Origin would get a clue and develop more stuff like this, but instead they went on with the Ultima series (including the online version) which all use a boring and unrealistic three-quarter third person view. (which I can't stand - 1st person rocks - so far only the Jedi Knight series makes 3rd person a viable way to play) 


Doom - The original game in certain areas and the Aliens TC conversion was quite scary for it's time, but that was over 10 years ago.


Doom 3 - We certainly waited long enough for the next installment of one of the most famous 1st person shooters in history. The graphics certainly reflect the leap forward in technology over the past 10 years; I have a reasonably quick machine and I still couldn't play it on the highest detail setting. Also noticeable was how much the id Software team borrowed from Half Life (opening levels & cinematics) as well as System Shock for adding in game haunting sequences, email messages, video logs and so forth. I basically enjoyed the game, though I have to agree with a lot of viewers that the gameplay does get a little repetitious after a while.

The sound was good, but I was a little surprised that there wasn't more interactive and destroyable scenery. Also, I personally think weapon damage was too diluted to be realistic or fun, even on the easiest settings. I recommend you go out and get one of the famous mods on the net for enhanced stopping power as well as the famous duct tape mod.


Terminator Future Shock & Skynet - These games showed great promise with the then revolutionary X-Engine, but unfortunately Bethesda Softworks has a habit of getting everything lined up and then shooting themselves in the foot. They completely $hit the bed with the Skynet multiplayer mode by using a really klunky IPX protocol (for Novell) and Kali 95 interface instead of TCP/IP like the rest of the universe.

This was made more frustrating by the fact there were some really cool features in the game, like being able to climb into a jeep equipped with a laser cannon and speeding through the post-apocalyptic ruins while combating the scary robotic baddies of the wasteland. Some of the conceptual ideas for the enemies were really good (like the Flencer) but had poor AI (no patrol mode and due to a lighting engine peculiarity you could usually spot them before they saw you) and there was no customizing available for maps and level design. All of the missions took place at night and were usually outdoors. (which Xngine excelled at) Indoor layout was drab and boring for the most part. If only it had taken off then fans would have made hacks and patches for it. 


Dark Forces - The first Star Wars first person shooter was amazing for it's time, and while it may seem strange that it would show up on the Scary Stuff page, but I can tell you some of the level design and nature of your opponents (the robotic Dark Troopers were very formidable) justifies its inclusion. There is one mission in particular on Nar Shadda that I played over and over again because it was such a cool, grimy urban setting. 

While the first game was actually a 2-D engine (they used tricks to make it look 3-D) the subsequent ones used a true 3-D engine. However, for some reason, I prefer the atmospherics of the first one much better. Dark Forces 2 was not nearly as interesting for the most part, though the Jedi Knight statues that come to life are pretty cool. 


Realms of the Haunting - Very good graphics for it's time and some nice level design. There is one part where you are exploring the catacombs and these horned skeletons suddenly appear and charge you. Very scary looking and unlike many game monsters who just amble in your direction, these things are SPRINTING at you. On higher difficulty settings it would take multiple shotgun blasts to put one down. Quite chilling. 


System Shock  - The first one was pretty good for it's time, especially the CD-ROM enhanced edition, but the graphics had a warped bubble look; a holdover from the graphics engine used in the original Ultima Underworld series. (another classic in it's own right as the first truly 3-D roleplaying game)


System Shock 2 - One of the most truly awesome 3-D sci-fi roleplaying games ever made. You explore a ship whose crew has been murdered and mutated while you try to scavenge equipment and evade the intelligence which has taken over. What makes this noteworthy is the superior sound effects and AI of the creatures on board. They actually hunt for you, and it's not unusual to hear something opening a door down the corridor along with footsteps and groaning. In another brilliant move, the designers actually have the ghosts of the murdered crew appear to give clues. I also learned to hate the spiders. Very damn scary game.


Undying - I love this game because of the excellent graphics and vicarious experience of being a two-fisted paranormal investigator who fights the unknown with a combination of firearms, occult artifacts and spells. Level designs are amazing in their detail, and the creatures are quite frightening in the dark. Only complaint I have is some of the weapons are a little unorthodox and do not inflict the kind of damage I think they should. (the shotgun is surprisingly wimpy and takes a while to reload)


Aliens vs. Predator - While I don't like the way Fox Entertainment jumped all over the Doom & Quake Alien Patch/Conversions fans a few years ago, their latest offerings are worthy of mention. It is an advantage having access to all of the copyrighted material and they make good use of it. The game is plenty scary with flickering lights, creepy noises, atmospheric effects, and of course some nasty, fast as hell aliens that crawl on walls/ceilings. Could have used a little more eye candy, though, (dead bodies and interactive scenery) and interactive civilians to protect. And instead of always deathmatching, why not have a little cooperatve mode where you can hunt with your buddy?

But Fox does a lot of things right, and my favorite toy is the motion detector which I would love to have for a real life ghost hunt. The game has some interesting facets in that you can also play as an alien or predator, but these modes do not hold my interest nearly as well, and I have yet to try multiplayer. While I like the cool look of the flares, I think it is silly how many first person shooters do not have a flashlight included as part of the gear. (obviously not designed by ghost hunters) I also do not like the way Fox made things artificially difficult by limiting the number of save slots or times that you can save. Let the player decide that, Big Brother.  


Aliens vs. Predator 2 - This is an offering by an entirely different production company and to my delight, they fixed many of the complaints that I had about the original described above. The weapons offering is very impressive (10 in all plus a sniper rifle) and most of them are quite deadly with the flamethrower working unusually well - maybe too well. (drops most aliens in their tracks flaming and you can't catch yourself on fire) And above all, this is one of the most terrifying games ever made with the level designers using sound effects, lighting, music and plot to maximum effect. Very often, you will hear or see something in the distance very briefly - and then it will disappear just as suddenly. Aliens hammer on doors, burst through gratings and maraud in nightmare droves.

And of course, the only complaint with a game of this high a caliber is that it ends too soon. The only improvements I would suggest would be greater interactivity with the environment (such as being able to weld doors or commandeer computer interfaces and maps) and an improved multiplayer mode.


Return to Castle Wolfenstein - while not as graphically amazing as some of the above games, there are still some notable levels which create great atmosphere. Fun to play, but a little empty feeling in spots, this is worthwhile if you can find it in the bargain bin. The only downside is that it doesn't stack quite as well against other WWII shooters, and while it does have the nifty aspect of supernatural enemies, they have some annoying characteristics like not dying at all when you shoot the hell out of them.

Some of this is because many of the weapons inflict unrealistically low damage, with the pistols being next to useless and even the MP40 going ignored throughout much of the game. Coming from id Software, I was AMAZED at the exclusion of the trusty shotgun in any form, and really wanted to waste undead at close range with a 12 gauge blast. Sigh - have to wait for Doom 3. There were some inexplicable save game glitches, and Multiplayer was frustrating to set up. Seems like it needs to download a dozen patchs/maps before you can play a damn thing. On top of it all, Activision ignored my polite request for tech assistance.


Call of Cthulhu "Dark Corners of the Earth" - While the Alone in the Dark series (which I have never played) showed strong influence from the famous horror author H.P. Lovecraft, this is one of the few games that claims direct lineage. Indeed, one of the chase scenes in the game is directly lifted from the short story " ". The graphics are effective and appropriately brooding for the decayed town of Innsmouth, though the monotone color palette does get a little dreary at times. There are some surprisingly strong scenes with bodies and insects crawling about - you can almost smell the stench of decay. While a number of familiar first person shooter elements exist here, there are some marked differences worth noting.

One of which is that you don't get to shoot ANYTHING until well along in the game. This is surprising and a bit frustrating because you are a former police officer turned private investigator and the fact that you don't even have a good club or pistol to start with (and can't punch or kick apparently) is a bit hard to swallow. When you finally do get a weapon however, the gleeful enthusiasm with which you can start dispatching the enemies who have been making your life hell is quite satisfying. And that is one particular point that is worth making - the inhabitants of this town are mostly dirty, aberrant and very dislikable creatures. If you have a slight moral compulsion about killing humans in video games, I don't think that will be a problem here with the grimy, obnoxious and complete sons of bitches these freaks are.

Insanity is a core element of the Cthulhu canon, and has been implemented in a number of other roleplaying games mentioned here. While I have always disliked that aspect of Lovecraftian derived media (your character always either dies or goes insane) I have to admit that the game does a fair job of implementing that component. When viewing an awful or nightmarish scene, the video screen may begin to shake and blur, your breathing and heart rate increases and if the stress is too much, you may strangle or shoot yourself. This again encroaches on my ideals for recreational computing. The graphics in a game are designed to give information about the surroundings, add realism, mood and ultimately enjoyment. I have an inherent problem with any game dimension that punishes the player for looking. 

The wound system is interesting - you don't merely have generic first aid kits, but components of these kits like bandages, splints, sutures, etc. which must be applied specifically to the injured area. This is a step towards realism because you have to have enough of what you need to apply it, and it takes time which means you are not automatically healed in the midst of combat. (any such operation will be interrupted if you are successfully attacked) In connection with this aspect and in an effort to create a more immersive experience, there is no HUD or any other status graphics to mar your view of this insane world.

A major point also worth noting is that you can only save at specific physical locations in the game - I consider this one of the major detractors and is part of a disturbing and highly annoying trend that I have been seeing with a number of first person shooters. Lately, a number of companies have gone towards an automatic save or savepoints within the game instead of the manual save by the player that has been STANDARD since the inception of this genre. While some argue that there are those that forget to save and this preserves progress seamlessly, I have a serious problem with taking away power and choice away from the player and purchaser of the game. There has been a number of comments that saving too many times (like several times in one combat)  takes away from the challenge and ruins the game. (this has also been an argument against cheat codes)  Well, it's my game to ruin, Big Brother and really none of your god damn business how I play.

My time for recreational gaming is limited; I often like to jump in for 20 minutes or so, then get out and do some work. Taking away a manual save means having to repeatedly play certain scenarios over and over again instead of being able to make incremental progress which is commensurate with the time invested. This disrespects my time and my decision to make the game as easy or hard as I like and I am often stunned by the otherwise intelligent people who actually defend this crap as being a legitimate feature. Limited save slots aren't much better either.

I believe the REAL reason why this has become such a strong movement is because that limiting save ability artificially increases the game play time (you can take a game that you might finish in 10 - 15 hours and make it take more like 30 - 40, for instance) which cuts down on the amount of work for creating levels. (which is mighty whitey of them if you ask me) The other reason is that I suspect save systems like this make it easier to port the game to a console format like Xbox. The gaming industry is now beginning to eclipse and merge with Hollywood as far as revenue is concerned and the same cost cutting measures are encroaching on the rights of the consumers who made them successful in the first place.

At any rate, the game has the feel of having been developed by two different teams with opposing philosophies. One group represents the no shoot, puzzle oriented, insanity loving, hard to save group (we will call them wusses) and the other group is geared more towards the traditional shoot the monster approach.



F.E.A.R  First Encounter Assault Recon - The premise is interesting enough; you are part of an elite special forces unit that is called in when all else fails - in this case, an allegedly paranormal rogue paramilitary group that is wreaking havoc. The graphics are good, with a physics engine that makes the firefights very realistic. Splinters fly, brass scatters to the ground, and obscuring dust is kicked up by sustained automatic fire. One of the strengths of this title is that there are in game foreshadowings where lights flicker, objects are jostled and apparitions appear then melt away in moments of near-cinematic brilliance. On the higher game settings, the opponents weapons do as much damage as yours does and your armor and health can literally be shredded inside of a second. Despite this, with careful tactics and the careful use of the slo-mo bullet time feature, I have been able to get pretty far in the game on the Extreme Difficulty setting.

However in a very disappointing turn of events, rarely are the opponents you actually fight really supernatural in ability. Despite the enhanced AI which makes effective use of real world military tactics with flanking, suppressive fire and grenade use, you are still for the most part just fighting human soldiers with shotguns and machine guns. This is not what the game promises and it would have been easy enough to deliver, but for some reason what you wind up with a Splinter Cell, Soldier of Fortune type lookalike with paranormal overtones, but not game play.

Interestingly, the some of the game level designs and subtle, creepy background music is strongly reminiscent of System Shock 2. (commented on above)





Half Life 2

She calls me Goliath and I wear the David mask
I guess the stones are coming to fast for her now
You know I'd like to believe this nervousness will pass
All the stones that are thrown are building up a wall

I have become cumbersome to this world
I have become cumbersome to my girl

I'd like to believe we could reconcile the past
Resurrect those bridges with an ancient glance
But my old stone face can't seem to bring her down
She remembers bridges, burns them to the ground

I have become cumbersome to this world - I have become cumbersome to my girl

Too heavy too light, too black or too white,
too wrong or too right, today or tonight
Too rich or too poor,
she's wanting me less and I'm wanting her more
The bitter taste is cumbersome
No yeah
No no no
No no no yeah

There is a balance between two worlds
One with an arrow and a cross
Regardless of the balance life has become Cumbersome


No yeah
No no no
No no no yeah
No no no no yeah

Your life has become cumbersome

Seven Mary Three - "Cumbersome"