Preview by Tim Eller
For all those that have already experienced the hellish darkness of The Suffering on PS2 or Xbox, I’ll have to say that your experience will not change much with this port to the PC. Aside from some noticeable changes in visuals, I’d imagine that the overall experience will be similar... but I’m too scared to try out the console versions, so don’t take it from me. I’ll be relating what I know here, in the late beta build of this surprisingly satisfying hit from Surreal, Encore and Midway.
Let’s start from the beginning. By anyone’s standards, I think Surreal knew that even a solid story couldn’t make up for gaping holes created by drawn-out cutscenes in an action-horror game. The opening scene shows our main anti-hero, Torque, being escorted via boat to a prison island fashioned after the indomitable Alcatraz, called Abbott Prison. Once there, the inmates in the holding area with Torque talk openly and derisively about Torque and his despicable crimes, namely the alleged murder of his wife and two children. After a short round of explicit name-calling, they proceed to beat the hell out of Torque. Oddly enough, this is exactly what they do, as Torque morphs into a grotesque abomination with a hunched back and a bladed arm, which works well as an equalizer.
This is all within the first five minutes. The interesting thing about The Suffering is that from one minute to the next, the compulsion to move forward and see what’s around the corner is undeniable. That is the product of a combination of game elements that are crafted with an even balance and mindful progression. Everything from the visual mood of the prison cell where Torque first takes residence, to the ambient clicks of the hidden demons crawling around, to some of the psychological dimensions create not only Torque’s drive to escape, but also Torque himself. At certain points, blurry vignettes of a snarling grimace or the hazy flash of a grim murder scene will pop up on the screen. Meeting certain NPCs will incite devil/angel voices in your head, trying to sway your actions with regard to the NPC (kill him/help him). This is the sort of thing madness is made of.
Not that Torque cares. There’s a moment where a prison guard is impaled right in front of Torque, and in response to witnessing this horror, he... raises his hand to block the splash of blood erupting from the guard’s chest. As a character, Torque seems to know he’s a part of the insanity around him. The demonic change that he experiences in the opening scene is a gameplay characteristic that runs through the rest of the game. As Torque experiences the nightmares of the prison and indeed his own past, there is a small sanity meter right next to his health bar that will fill up. Once the sanity meter tops out, the player can hit a single key, which changes Torque into his monster form and can make quick work of the enemies in his vicinity. The transformation only lasts so long as the sanity bar isn’t empty, which is really much longer than should be necessary; in demon form, little time is needed to clear the area of the attacking hordes. Tying Torque to the twisted circumstances in the prison in this manner helps to propel him to discover what exactly is going on. As a player, feeling this estranged confidence is a testament to Surreal’s ability to bring the player into the game, in much the same way that Silicon Knights did with Eternal Darkness.
I’m not sure what the console versions actually look like, but I’m quite sure they’d be doing some suffering of their own, standing next to this beauty. The PC version is filled with dark corners and great lighting effects that, while not perfect, are tweaked enough that the point is made without losing the function of sight. Torque carries a Silent Hill-esque flashlight on his white tank top, and though it doesn’t always hit the back edges of a deep room, there’s that peripheral dread that creeps in on you when you can only see a spot five feet in front of you, in the ruddy glow of an inadequate flashlight.
The camera may be one of the most impressive things about the visual capacities of The Suffering. For the most part, the angles you get on any room in any given situation are at least adequate, if not functionally perfect. Torque’s body never gets in the way, and the space he’s in is well-represented. There were a few times I backed into a corner and had some trouble seeing through the back of Torque’s head, but the camera made quick reorientations if I changed my position.
Character models aren’t too bad either, although that may be due to my fetish for graphics settings cranked up to their highest marks. To my delight, my system didn’t even blink, even in the face of heavy gunfire or numerous enemies.
In combat, the keyboard and mouse actually work very smooth, allowing for deft accuracy and controlled agility of Torque’s attacks. I did find that some of the key placements were a bit cumbersome and unintuitive, but this is a really small gripe, as the key functions are adjustable. There 10 different weapon options, all of them effective in varied situations, which is a nice change from some games in which the weaker weapons sit on the sideline. For instance, there’s a hulking creature with organic gun chambers on its back that shoots bullets. One would normally keep their distance from this guy, plugging away with a gun for a while, but it turns out it’s highly susceptible to melee wounds; bring out the rusty shank. I found myself cycling through every weapon I had just to see how everything reacted to it.
To add to the colorful storyline, which promises to develop into something deep-seeded in something really, really bad, the enemies are mutated products of different forms of execution. The Mainliner is a creature that has a back covered in impaling needles, denoting lethal injection. Decapitated monsters with arms and legs of steel blades whisp around and slash with blinding speed. That sort of namesake detail is one more reason that The Suffering isn’t just another action game.
Now, here’s the best part about this horror game: no unreal puzzles. While there are a few bulge-eyed closet gnomes out there that enjoy a number game or a sequential painting puzzle in the middle of their gritty prison freak-out, The Suffering sticks to the basics, allowing players to simply take in the environment and worry about the practical side of getting to point B. Locked gate? Find the guard desk to unlock it. Fire obstacle? Find some water and put it out. It seems Surreal has discovered that the key to keeping things moving is not to overburden the situation with mystique. Even the level designs emanate a logical prudence, placing guard desks, shower stalls, and execution rooms in places where it just seems right.
It’s hard to believe that this is not a complete build. I’m tempted to say that, with the polish and solid gameplay here, all Surreal has to do is unlock or add the additional stages and they’d be ready to go gold. What’s more surprising to me is that I expected little from this game, which harnessed itself to a couple of the most saturated genres out there – horror and action – and managed to come off as unique, insightful, and downright scary. We’ll be seeing this well-rounded game for the PC hit the shelves within the next month, so for all of us in waiting, we won’t have to suffer long.