FIRST THERE WAS THE first person shooter. Then, Thief: The Dark Project gave us the first person sneaker. With Clive Barker's Undying, Dreamworks Interactive and Electronic Arts have invented the first person spooker.
Dreamworks is loosely associated with Steven Spielberg and Hollywood. Clive Barker, for those who don't know, is England's answer to Stephen King and the man behind a number of horror movies, including Hellraiser. The lineage of Undying immediately obvious. Within seconds of loading the game up you will feel like you are in a movie - think Bram Stoker's Dracula, only without Keanu Reeves.
The story overview goes like this. It is 1923, and you are Patrick Galloway, an Irish veteran of the Great War. Having fled Ireland post-war in murky circumstances, you return to answer the plea for help from your old friend and commanding officer, Jeremiah Covenant. It seems he is struck down by a family curse, and he wants you to investigate and end it. The problem is, even though he is dying, he is afraid the curse may not end with his death … after all, it seems his siblings, who succumbed to madness and eventual death, are having trouble staying in their graves.
So begins a story that develops through conversations with servants and other characters, and clues found in the form of diaries and items, over the course of the game. It's reminiscent of classic gothic horror - HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe. While the story probably wouldn't win an Oscar (hey - it's a horror, what do you expect?), Undying is entirely worthy of the inevitable Half-Life comparisons. This game is a real FPS genre-buster.
It is scary. Not quite change-your-trousers scary, but it's close. With the lights off and the sound up for maximum effect, there were several occasions where I physically jumped, and others where I just managed to utter an unprintable expletive as my heart rate dropped back down to a point where I could breath again. It's certainly a whole lot scarier than your average horror movie.
The various settings are on the Irish coast, a vast mansion, a ruined monastery, crypts and graveyards. All windswept, and mostly storm-lashed, of course.
The graphics that bring the environments to life are outstanding. The character models and animations are on a par with the fantastic recent FPS, No One Lives Forever, with exceptional detail and remarkably realistic and expressive faces.
While NOLF was powered by the Lithtech engine, Undying is based on the Unreal Tournament engine. Consequently the textures in Undying are just staggering, with richer detail than those in NOLF. No disrespect to the spy-shooter. But the texture artists on Undying have done a brilliant job of making the environments hauntingly real, using all the opportunities of the settings to create intricate panelling, domed ceilings and so on.
As well as the architectural detail, there are flickering fires, dozens of detailed paintings, and ornate mirrors that cast genuine reflections. I could go on - flickering, yellow light from open flame, deep impenetrable shadows, curtains and cobwebs billowing in the wind, but you really need to see it to experience it. The only graphical glitch I encountered was occasional seam-tearing between the textures in some of the outdoor environments, where flashes of bright light would be apparent as your perspective shifted around. I don't think this is a serious issue, and the game is remarkably free of the clipping problems (like falling through the floor or looking through walls) that used to plague FPS games.
The game renders in either Direct3D, or the 3dfx proprietary API, Glide. It's unusual to see a new game supporting the Glide API, particularly at a time when 3dfx has well and truly lost its crown as king of the 3D chipsets. This is clearly a throwback to the fact that the original Unreal engine was developed for Glide - D3D and OpenGL were added post-release.
If you have a video card that supports Glide, this should probably be your preferred mode. I was able to run at 1024x768 with maximum graphics details and experienced no frame-rate problems at all, except at one point where I was fighting a number of creatures in a room full of fog (nothing eats system resources like fog). In D3D, the framerates seemed to choke a little more in scenes with heavy rain as well.
Some of the in-engine cut-scenes allow you to retain camera control, including the brilliant scenes that show your demise. This means you can watch as a howler rips off your head and eats it, leaving your headless body (spurting blood from the stump of your neck) to slump to the floor like a rag doll.
This will happen often. The game, on 'medium' difficulty, is hard - but not ridiculously so. Monsters often attack in packs and the waves frequently seem relentless. It's hard enough to kill two of them, four will most likely kill you, six or eight and you're toast. Before too long you realise that this is not your average shooter, where you can clear an area, search it, and move on. Your best strategy in many instances is just to run like hell and hope to get to the next area before the howlers turn you into sashimi.
Howlers - fast, leaping demon-type creatures with large, curling horns and blade-like claws - are just one of a good variety of monsters, including skeletons and sword-wielding tribesmen, that you will encounter. They are all pretty lethal.
If the graphics are outstanding, the sound is beyond belief. The game is from the 'what-the-hell-was-that!' school of tension. It's mostly deathly quiet, so you can hear every creaking door or floorboard, the wind whistling through the ruined monastery, or the crackling of torches.
Apart from the spookily dramatic Carmina Burana-style operatics of the options screens, the score is triggered only at particularly dramatic moments. It's brooding and orchestral, atmospheric, and never intrusive.
The sound effects are naturally critical to the atmosphere. But it takes you a moment to realise that they are not just ambience - they are also critical to gameplay. If you hear a howl, it is because there is a howler around. If you hear a scream, it is because someone is being killed. As you walk forward through the shadows and flickering lights towards the sound of the scream, and you hear the sounds of snuffling and scratching getting louder, you really do just want to turn around and get the hell out before you disturb the pack of creatures that are feasting on the bloody, still-warm corpse of the maid.