Please note: this review is a trifle late, due to a combination of Steam updates and time distortion. It’s been hectic, trying to repair the timestream and update my copy of Stronghold 3 at the same time. Anyway.
There is seeing, there is believing, and there is doing. Oftentimes when you just see something, you cannot believe it; but when you do, you can’t believe it entirely because you’re not doing it. A lot of times, juggling those three elements can be difficult, because if you’re a creator, you don’t know what combination to put them in. You can see something but not be wanted to believe it; you can believe something but not be able to see it. It is very hard to communicate the ability to do something when you are in the confines of a film. That’s where video games play their part. You can see, you can believe, you can do; in any combination.
It’s Halloween. The night is encroaching on the day as the skies grow darker and darker, and colder and colder. You may find yourself, for any reason at all, walking the streets of whatever city you live in. Any city becomes desolate and forlorn around this time of year. As the hour grows late and the moon is your only illumination, and the wind laughs, it’s easy to have one’s mind play tricks on you. Don’t look too deep into the lonely shadows, or you may find they’re not as lonely as you might have hoped; there’s a goblin, or a ghoul, waiting, watching you like a spider that has caught you in its web. There are madmen, and zombies, and ghosts…it is Halloween…
What better time for a professional weirdo like Adam Mudman Bezecny to spin a fine tale…or a review, in this instance?
Well, if you haven’t guessed, this is a video game review, my first ever attempted. I had to choose carefully—there are tons of horror games out there, but a lot of them I either didn’t like, or I haven’t played. There’s one game that has always stuck with me, though: They Hunger. It’s not a game, really, in its own right—it’s a mod for the first Half-Life, one of my other favorite games. Actually, my top five favorite games of all time are probably, in no particular order, Half-Life, They Hunger, Myst, Riven: The Sequel to Myst, and The Neverhood. All of these I started playing at an early age and they left a big impact on me. I can’t quite describe the individual moments that shaped how I work today, but They Hunger gave me a fascination for what I call “the eerie”. So far I’ve actually penned a novel, How Eerie It Is, which combines my love for over-the-top writing and storytelling—shaped additionally by both the novel Dracula and the Disney film The Legend of Sleepy Hollow—with this sense of “eerie” that I’ve discovered. I’ll make it short, but basically what I view as “eerie” is separate completely from horrifying and terrifying. (Horrifying is more gross horror, terrifying is more blind horror.) Eerie is the creepy sensation you get if you let yourself slip into old horror clichés; it defines my concept of the Psychic Laboratory that I’ve alluded to in previous reviews. Full moons; wolves howling; whispering winds; clanking chains; low moans and disembodied voices; those all appear to me because they’re so eerie. And this all ties to the sense of They Hunger, which is the greatest eerie video game I’ve yet played.
The plot is pretty basic, and it wouldn’t work if it was anything but that. The online manual says that you’re a writer who goes to the town of Rockwell looking for inspiration. Like Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, you never say a word, so all the stuff about being a writer is just backstory put online. You hear a radio broadcast that says that there’s some weird weather overhead, and sure enough it starts raining, and your car is struck by lightning. You fall into the river and have to make your way into town on foot, at first armed only with a rechargeable flashlight. You swim through a canal until you come out in an abandoned church. Things aren’t as they seem; graves have been dug, but the coffins are empty; you hear unearthly howls in the distance; and finally, when rounding a tunnel, you find a severed head. The beginning of the game is probably the spookiest part. Aside from the radio broadcast, and the knowledge that a game called “They Hunger” is probably about zombies, you don’t know what to expect. You finally near the main church building, where you hear another report talking about how the anomalies in the weather are increasing. Note right away that day never breaks in this game, even during what are supposed to be daylight hours.
After hearing the report, you hear a man scream “Get it off me!” and a door opens, revealing a fresh corpse. You take his umbrella, which serves as your crowbar analogue. At that point the dead start rising from their graves, and you’ve got to get to town to find help. Along a route through the woods and the swamps, you hear a dying man tell you to get to the radio station to call the authorities. To get to town you have to go through the hellish “Devil’s Rift”, an active volcano teaming with zombies. In one memorable part, a zombie roars in anguish as the tide of lava retracts, revealing that the screaming zombie is slowly burning to death. You eventually steal a train and ride into town, only to find out that the radio station has been abandoned, and that the cops are already zombified and won’t help you. You cut through the undead police force to reach the police station, where Sheriff Rockwood, the big bad of the game, captures you. That ends the first chapter. The second one opens with a literal bang; a friendly cop blows open your cell with a rocket launcher so you can escape. He helps you get to the sewers, which in turn lead you to a security complex for the Rockwell Insane Asylum, which is connected to the mansion of the director of the asylum, Doctor Franklin. Alfred, Doctor Franklin’s assistant, explains that something got into the water that started reanimating the dead—which is weird, given that they already told you it was the “atmospheric phenomenon”. Maybe it’s just a combination of the two, I don’t know. Anyway, you go down to Franklin’s lab, where you find a bunch of horrors—people impaled on spikes, attempts to resurrect corpses, and, in one of the more famous parts of the game, the severed heads of the game’s developers (!) in an electrified vat begging for help.
Franklin and Rockwell reveal that they’ve created an army of hulking Frankenstein-monster-style zombies that they want to use to help their undead armies conquer the world of the living. You kill them pretty easy and try to escape the lab; there’s an explosion, and you get this surreal dream-vision where two of the hulks beat you up, while Franklin goes on about “the secrets of life and death”. You wake up and go back to the surface, where, after a long series of events, you start the insane asylum on fire. To escape, you try to blow up an oil tank to destroy a wall, but you get caught in the explosion, which knocks you out and seemingly kills Doctor Franklin. Then you have an even weirder dream sequence as an opening to the third chapter: Doctor Franklin, as a ghost in a cemetery, tells you that he can’t be killed, and lightning strikes, causing more undead to rise. Then, suddenly, you’re in an underground cave, where these large alien beasts run around and snarl, as people scream at you. The beasts are actually Panthereyes, which were enemies cut from Half-Life—what they signify, I don’t know. Maybe the aliens from Half-Life are related to the zombies?
Anyway, you wake up in a hospital which is apparently the last stronghold in town against the zombies. Of course, it gets raided and a bunch of other survivors are massacred. You escape into the woods and eventually come across a ranch, where not only have the humans been infected, but the chickens and bulls as well. The zombie bulls prove to be some of the toughest enemies in the game, but you can tear them apart with a flamethrower in short time. Finally at the center of the woods you find a giant Stonehenge-like structure—what it is exactly, we never find out. You only stop there briefly before returning to the charred ruins of the asylum, where you’re captured, and then brought back to Stonehenge. Here, Sheriff Rockwell gives a huge speech to the zombies to rally them against the living—just then, the army comes in and starts attacking anything that moves. You have to make your way back to the asylum again, this time fighting soldiers who think you’re a zombie. You get an incredibly difficult fight with a helicopter as a result; before the soldiers can realize you’re human, they start becoming undead themselves and attack you anyway. Once you make it back to the asylum, you find that one of the Sheriff’s deputy, Jerry Hoobs, has survived, and he helps you escape in a helicopter. I won’t spoil the ending because I’ve already spoiled enough, but it does involve a catchy song.
They Hunger is one of the most player intensive games I have played. It draws you in with mysterious intrigue, and fantastic eeriness; it runs elegantly, without hang-ups, and keeps driving you forward against your will. Not that’s a bad thing. The angel’s in the foreground but the devil’s in the details. Combine flawless combat and adventuring with splendid plot, character development, and eye candy, and you’ve got a mix that can’t fail. Let’s focus on some of the smaller background details: there are dozens of sounds, some spooky, some supplementary, some unexplainable. For example, if you submerge in one of the swamp areas, you can actually find a wooden boat, sunk to the bottom, with a skeleton next to it. It took me years to find that. Similarly, Half-Life’s scientists have been retextured into civilians and priests. The priests are actually holding Bibles, based of the book models already found in Half-Life. There are also security guards and cops which are reskinned from the “Barneys” of Half-Life. These new models use some of the same lines from Half-Life, obviously adapted, so that we don’t get people calling us “Gordon” and talking about chaos theory. The friendly cops have deeper voices than the normal Barneys, and the civilian-scientists sometimes shout, “What are you?” in a new voice. Probably two of my favorite things in this game come from the third chapter. You find a small cemetery in the woods after you escape the hospital, and there are skeletons around it—but in a nearby cave, we have tiny skeletons with some really hilarious high-pitched voices. I realize they’re probably supposed to be kids, but a helium-high adult screaming, “Flesh creature!” and “Ugh…cold” just makes me laugh every time. And right after that, you dive into a lake, but there’s a sea monster in it! You get no explanation for this, aside from the possibility that it was an abomination created by Doctor Franklin. Actually, it’s a giant-size Bullsquid, from Half-Life, but that makes explaining it even harder. You fight headcrabs, which are stated to be artificial creations, and you also fight retextured grey bullsquid in the sewers, which are stray pets mutated by the zombie infection, but at least those get proper explanations. Oh, and here’s something really interesting—when you get to a train station and hear Deputy Hoobs for the first time, you see the tape recorder on a desk that has a game of solitaire going. The cards, the recorder, and a picture on the desk make the desk a duplicate for that of the title card from The Rockford Files! I guess with names like “Rockwell” and “Rockwood” they needed to get “Rockford” in there somewhere.
The zombies themselves have good diversity, and provide eye-candy as well. We have typical zombies, which are just guys in suits, and some creepy female zombies who spout things like, “Come to mommy”. Later on, we get some redneck zombies (no relation to the film, mind you) at the ranch, and in town there are some more zombies wearing what seems to be “casual wear”. At the hospital and insane asylum there are zombies in scrubs, and even a zombie wearing a hazmat suit. Probably the coolest are the veteran zombies, wearing what looks like officer garb from Vietnam. I’ve heard that this game is supposed to be set in the ‘70s, but some of the weapons and technology don’t add up to that timeframe. In the end, it doesn’t really matter when it’s set, because plot really isn’t that big of a deal in the game. There’s one zombie who shows up in the sewers that I can’t explain. His head is torn in half vertically, exposing his brain, and he has a third arm holding a gun coming out of his chest! He can’t shoot the gun, but it’s still really weird. There’s also a zombie with a crowbar shoved through his face. Maybe this is what finally happened to Gordon Freeman?
Of course, the minor details intended to make the game creepy, do in fact make the game creepy. Even at the beginning, we hear strange howls, which are both original and taken from Xen. The distant howls of the zombies are actually reused in Left 4 Dead, another game by Valve. In groups, the zombies never stop chattering, and this chaotic, maddening noise can get to you after awhile. In the hospital, you hear babies cry, but when you get to the maternity ward…you find baby beds full of blood, with zombies nearby. Also in the hospital, nearby phones ring and you can actually answer them. But there’s never anyone on the other end. Once you go into the woods around the hospital, you can actually still occasionally hear babies crying, implying that there are children lost in the woods. You can never find them. Right near the end, you find humans locked in jail cells; one is wounded. As he dies, he screams at you and begs you to prevent him from becoming “one of those things”—it’s genuinely unsettling. There’s also a movie theatre, where you’re greeted by posters of Frankenstein, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and Children of the Damned. Let’s face it, the Children of the Damned poster is fucking creepy. The last detail of the grotesque is when you find a conveyor belt leading into an incinerator. You have to watch as the last surviving humans, including Alfred, the lab assistant who helped you earlier, are incinerated. Being Half-Life, they exploded into meat and blood, which is really unrealistic, but it’s still unnerving.
The coolest thing, in my opinion, about They Hunger, is the slow build. It starts out mild, and then quickly becomes a true zombie apocalypse game, with the stakes being Earth itself, and all things living on it. The Sheriff gives a speech in the game that states the basic goal of the zombie hordes: find everything living, and murder it, so it can join them and turn the world into a living graveyard. Given that not even animals are safe, it’s clear that the plague affects everything dead—so the goals of the zombies are not unrealistic. At first, the zombies start out as dumb brutes, hungry for flesh—gripped by the “hunger” of the title. But as time goes on, they begin to shout things like, “Death to humans”, showing that they’re getting organized. They gain the power to hold weapons; they don’t just hit with their hands, they’re shooting you. They take over the U.S. Army and starting blowing things up and burning things down. Creepiness is replaced with adrenalin; it’s almost like a horror movie turning into an action movie, like a rotten caterpillar turning into a butterfly made of bullets.* It works perfectly. There’s a reason that I love this game so much.
I present it thus to you.
Just some quick notes on everything. There was supposed to be a sequel, or prequel, called They Hunger: Lost Souls, using the Source engine from Half-Life 2. However, due to the critical illness of one of the developers at Black Widow Games, that game has been canceled. We can still enjoy U.S.S. Darkstar, another Half-Life mod from Black Widow that is just as amazing. (Look for the Quake XXII reference.) Recently, They Hunger was ported to the Sega Dreamcast, but while that’s amazing achievement, and it looks as fantastic as the PC version, there are some potential game-breaking glitches which haven’t been fixed. The port’s been dropped from most downloads sites, probably by the guy who created it. Still, the thought of being able to play this game on a console is really awesome.
So, that’s my review for Halloween. I’ve noticed right away that I have a much more relaxed style in writing game reviews, and I actually find that I like it. So next Halloween—provided memory serves—I’ll be reviewing another one of my all-time favorite mods, Half-Life: Call of Cthulhu. It is every bit as awesome as it sounds.
In the meantime…Happy Halloween. It’s my favorite day of the year, and there’s nothing quite like it. I hope all of this just made yours just as good as mine is. Keep in touch, and may all your days be spooky.
You can download They Hunger here (for free, ’cause it’s a mod):
With a fix for the Steam version:
You will need Half-Life to run the game—and you will need the Steam version of Half-Life to run the Steam version of They Hunger.
* Not to be confused with a Bullet with Butterflies Wings.