DEVELOPER: Surreal Software

all around, folks, both for this column’s prolonged absence and for leaving you
without a dope beat to step to. Russ has been busy providing regular and great
movie content, and I’ve been busy failing in Hollywood worse than a fat girl with a harelip. Here’s hoping the Master Control
will be ripping through the crotch of your jeans much more frequently
in the coming months.

To make
up for lost time, today you’re getting a special…two reviews for the price of
one! First, I’d like to discuss the merits of Ultimate Spider-Man.

Ultimate Spider-Man

Ultimate Spider-Man.

And now, moving on
to games that aren’t two hours long…

The Suffering: Ties That Bind

original Suffering was one of last year’s best surprises, a gory romp that was
high on both cheese and atmosphere. Players assumed the role of Torque–the
character, not the greatest movie of the last five years–a man sentenced to
death row for murdering his entire family. Soon after arriving at the prison on
Carnate Island, however, all hell broke loose in
the most literal manner possible. Torque was forced to wade through the bowels
of the prison, battling Stan Winston-designed monsters while uncovering the
truth about what really happened to his family. While The Suffering was never a
particularly classy or deep game, it managed to elicit plenty of scares and
laughs with a combination of frightening, decrepit environments and the sort of
cornball dialogue that would make Treat Williams proud.

The game
proved a modest size hit for Midway, who wasted no time in rushing the sequel
onto the market. Whether that’s a good thing…well, keep reading.

The Pitch

again, you’ll guide Torque through a variety of nightmarish locations, battling
demonic monsters while attempting to discover the truth behind the murder of
his family. If the plot sounds a tad familiar, it’s because you did the exact same thing in the previous game.
The Electronic Arts philosophy of game design is in full effect here, folks.

A few new
wrinkles are added to the story this time around–including a sinister crime
boss (Michael Clarke Duncan, having fun flexing his bad guy chops again) and
waves of heavily-armed soldiers who may or may not be responsible for the chaos
taking place. Although sections of the game have you returning to prison,
Torque spends most of his time exploring the most depraved and frightening hellhole
known to man: the city of Baltimore.
It seems the demonic fuckery has extended past the borders of Carnate Island,
warping and ravaging the nearby metropolis. While you might assume that such a
varied setting would provide opportunities for diverse gameplay, you’d be
wrong. Expect to spend most of your time slogging through rundown warehouses
and empty city streets.

Oh, and
you’ll shoot stuff and listen to swear words. A lot.

The Play

things first: switch the camera from the default third-person perspective to
first-person. You’re playing a shooter here, not Tomb Raider, and the scares
and atmosphere aren’t nearly as effective when filtered through an
over-the-shoulder perspective.

For fans
of the original, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that
practically everything you liked has been retained for the sequel. The bad news
is that the majority of the gameplay is the rehashiest rehash you’ll rehash
this year, and the brand new material is almost uniformly terrible.

worked in The Suffering still works here, thankfully. Wandering through an
abandoned prison, your flashlight illuminating dim snatches of the
gore-streaked ground, hearing the rasping squeal of blade-wielding Slayers
stalking you from the shadows…it’s fun stuff. There’s nothing here to match the
impressionistic horror of Silent Hill or the overall polish of Resident Evil 4,
but The Suffering’s jump scares and melodramatic atmosphere makes a nice
companion piece to something like Doom 3. The game has a ton of diabolical
storytelling tricks up its sleeve, and the gunplay is randomly interrupted by
horrific visions and disturbing flashbacks that go a long way toward
establishing a sense of dread.

the game also makes the same mistake as its predecessor, this time to an even
greater degree. See, the first hour of the game is by far the strongest portion,
thanks in large part to the fact that Torque only has a lead pipe and a few
weak pistols to defend himself with. The feeling of helplessness is extremely
pervasive here, and when you hear an entire gang of Slayers clanking after you
in the darkness, it’s genuinely alarming. But as with the original, Ties That
blows its wad far too quickly, equipping Torque with a succession of
shotguns, machine guns, and even rocket launchers. It’s the same problem that
stymies so many horror games; once you’re running around with a grenade
launcher, it’s hard to muster up much fear.

is another problem. The game’s developers had a chance to really expand the
Suffering universe and guide you through a variety of warped locations–why not
an evil elementary school, or an evil retard farm?–which makes their decision
to base so much of the game in boring warehouses and *yet another* prison
somewhat unforgivable. Prepare to slog through more prison showers, exercise
yards, cafeterias and cell blocks. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the
monster menagerie remains almost unchanged, so not only are you replaying the
same levels, but you’re fighting the same enemies as well. Déjà vu in a Mario
or Madden game is one thing, but in order for horror games to be truly
successful, they need to keep players unbalanced and on the edge of their
seats. With its recycled locations, monsters and weapons, Ties That Bind never
manages this feat.

But if
this game’s greatest sin was simply sticking with a winning formula, I probably
still would have given it a tentative nod. What really kills Ties That Bind are
the boneheaded attempts to broaden the franchise’s scope. Try as they might,
the developers couldn’t get me emotionally invested in Torque’s yapping wife
and annoying kids a second time, and the storytelling on display is often downright
clumsy–Torque watches his best friend get killed with all the emotion of
somebody buying not-particularly-cool stamps–which are both problems new to
the franchise. And while I applaud the game’s decision to limit the number of
weapons you can carry, the ammo distribution seemed unbalanced, and I spent far
too much time either clubbing enemies to death with an empty machine gun or
backtracking across entire levels for a box of shotgun shells.


game’s biggest stumble, however, comes with the introduction of the clandestine
soldiers that descend upon Baltimore
in an attempt to contain the situation. You’ll quickly find yourself pitted
against this army, and the problems here are two-fold. From a design
standpoint, forcing you to fight bad guys in black jumpsuits standing in front
of black walls in rooms filled with black shadows wasn’t the brightest idea,
and you’ll spend more than one firefight spinning in clumsy circles, searching
for muzzle flashes while your invisible enemies whittle away at your health
bar. And from a practical standpoint, the game asks you to do some pinpoint
shooting against these foes, and the controls just aren’t up to the task. The
handling is a little sluggish–which is fine when you’re dealing with charging
monsters in narrow hallways, but less acceptable when you’re taking headshots
from across a parking lot–and the physics are downright wonky, especially when
it comes to accurately throwing grenades or shooting between bars or through
windows. By introducing a military aspect to the horror, Ties That Bind would
clearly like to ride the Half-Life 2 bandwagon, but that’s a mighty big row to
hoe, and the gameplay simply falls apart during these firefights.

game’s difficulty is also surprisingly uneven. Later enemies can chip away half
of your health before you even know they’ve materialized behind you, and the
game delights in locking you in enclosed spaces and sending waves of monsters
after you. Couple this with the game’s tendency to auto-save your progress when
you only have a sliver of health remaining, and even seasoned gamers can expect
a frustrating experience.

The Presentation

review copy sent to CHUD was the PS2 version, and since I cut my teeth on the
Xbox version of the original game, it’s hard to judge the relative quality of
the graphics on display. The visuals certainly seemed more bland and the
framerate was much choppier than I remembered, but this might be attributed to
the inferior hardware.

In any
case, The Suffering remains a game that shines when it comes to creating a
tangible feeling of atmosphere and dread. The environments look great, and the
realistic lighting helps lend the proceedings a feeling of authenticity. As
with the original game, the human character models are fairly terrible-looking,
but this is counterbalanced by the fantastic monster design and character
animation. The monsters in particular are animated superbly, and the game is
almost worth playing just to watch these nasty critters in action. The voice
acting is also top-notch. Even when the script falls a little short, the actors
deliver their lines with gusto and a wry sense of humor. The minimal score and
the unnerving sound effects are similarly well-done.

on the ailing PS2 hardware, the graphics are merely serviceable, although
occasional bright spots can be found, such as the great fire effects or the
aforementioned lighting. The framerate becomes unstable when things get hectic,
and the audio cues have a tendency to get scrambled. It’s also worth mentioning
that my copy of the game was fairly buggy. Doors refused to open even after
every enemy was killed, saved games refused to load, and my character fell
through two different walls during the adventure. Come on, guys…I know you need
to get these major releases out before the holiday period, but this kind of
sloppy programming isn’t helping your bottom line.

The Replay

again, the developers wisely eschew any sort of multiplayer deathmatches. The
has a sluggish control scheme, purposefully murky graphics and an
unbalanced roster of weapons, all ingredients for a shitty multiplayer
experience. (Witness for the prosecution: Doom 3, a game that shares similar gameplay
characteristics and absolutely embarrassed itself when it came to multiplayer
earlier this year.) Not every shooter requires multiplayer modes, and Ties That
is just such a case.

One of
the game’s niftier features is its morality system. Throughout the game you’ll
be given the choice of either saving innocent civilians or butchering them in
savage fashion, and your choices dictate the story’s outcome. It’s a good
incentive to get fans to play through the story mode multiple times, even if
the life-and-death choices weren’t quite as fun as the ones in the original.

The Verdict

If the
above seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s only because I enjoyed the first Suffering
so much. It really was a minor masterpiece of splatter horror, lean and
economical in both gameplay and atmosphere, and I had high hopes that the winning
streak would continue. It’s disappointing that the sequel feels like a
patchwork made of stolen bits from the first game and other shooters, namely
Halo and Half-Life 2. The mechanics are in place, but the charm and sense of surprise
are in short supply.

Huge fans
of the original will find enough twitchy action and decent creep-outs to
justify a rental, if not an outright purchase, but newbies to the series are
advised to try the first Suffering instead. Here’s hoping Midway takes a bit
more time with the inevitable third installment to inject a bit of freshness
and fun back into the franchise.