One thing about having a kid is that you don’t sleep very much. But for me, that means that I’ve had some time to play some video games in between cuddling my daughter, feeding her, and generally trying to let her Mom get some sleep in the wee hours of the morning. For some reason I’ve been on a FPS tangent recently (actually, I know the reason: I bought a 360)–I’ve played through Halo, Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Portal (all kinds of awesome, by the way), and I’ve put a little bit of time into a couple of horror games: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and Condemned.
Call of Cthulhu is a game that I really want to like because the narrative is so well told. We’ve got a by-the-books Lovecraftian tale here, and it’s executed within the game systems quite well. Flashbacks, insanity effects, and generally hot level design make the game play (which involves a lot of exploration, puzzle solving, and sneaking) pretty fun. That is, unfortunately, until they introduce the firearms. Once the guns show up, the game mechanics seem to fall apart. The story is still very well told, but the game play takes an immediate and dramatic nosedive. There are a couple of issues that together cause Call of Cthulhu to be way less fun than it should be. First of all, the shooting mechanics are terrible. There’s no aiming reticle, and the angle of the protagonists arm on the screen makes it really difficult to judge exactly where the gun is pointing. Furthermore, weapons that should have a significant target area (like the shotgun) sometimes miss at point blank range. The switching of weapons and reloading is also incredibly arduous–on the 360 pad, switching weapons while moving isn’t really possible because the D-Pad is used to select weapons, requiring you to take your thumb off the analog stick. Maybe it was easier under the original Xbox controller. None of this is helped by the fact that the enemies seem to be able to withstand much, much more damage than your character.
But even worse than the aiming mechanics is the damage system used in the Call of Cthulhu. The idea is that you can get hurt in different ways and need to bandage yourself up rather than just magically healing. Applying bandages and splints takes times, and leaves you vulnerable in the world. If you don’t bandage wounds, you can become further hurt by loss of blood. The problem with this system is that different types of wounds require different types of health items, and I perpetually seem to be out of the one that I need. And since you can just die by walking around with an unbandaged wound, it’s important to patch all of your wounds up all the time. Even then, an enemy with a shotgun can kill you in one hit, or his friend with the pistol can shoot you in the foot and laugh as you limp five feet away before dying of blood loss. I understand that the developers wanted to use resource management as a way to make healing more realistic and to make the player more vulnerable, but this implementation just makes playing the game unfun. It strikes me as similar to Illbleed–too many resources that interact in ways that are not totally clear.
I’m still trying to like Cthulhu, because like I said, everything else about the game is pretty phenomenal. It’s just that first person mechanics are really well defined at this point, and the shooting mechanics in Dark Corners of the Earth feel like a regression to 1996. I shall complete this game for the story alone, but I’m disappointed that the weak shooting mechanics replaced the much more interesting sneaking and puzzle solving aspects that dominated the first part of the game.
Condemed, on the other hand, appears to be freaking fantastic! I need to qualify that statement: I’ve only played the first hour or so of Condemned. But goddamn, what an awesome introduction. I’m really impressed with the art style, especially the use of lighting in the levels; the developers were able to get away with bright spaces without detracting from the feelings of claustrophobia and oppression that the dank environments are intended to invoke. The pressure upon the player is immediate and constant from the first moment of the game. I really hope it stays this good throughout its entire length.