Chances are if you’ve been on the interwebs any time in the last couple of days you’ll have heard something about the complete failure of Aliens: Colonial Marines. With simplistic AI, graphical errors, a plot more ludicrous than the stuff found in Transformers film tie-ins, and riddled with bugs; it’s easily the biggest AAA failure thus far this year.
Along with crushing disappointment, its release brought with it memories of a title with a very similar history and direction. A survival horror FPS title adapted from a famous weird fiction universe which balanced combat with investigative work. One which, despite six years of development delays and revisions, proved to be a monument on how to make a great title: a game called Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.
Set in the early 1920s, the game follows the story of private investigator Jack Walters. Called to the town of Innsmouth to look into a missing persons case, Jack is drawn into conflict with the mysterious Cult of Dagon and creatures of the town. Fighting, running, and hiding in order to survive, he begins to see there is more to the world than humans understand. And that there are dark secrets hidden within his family’s own bloodline.
Respecting its source material and understanding the stories it’s based upon, CoC makes the point of avoiding being an outright FPS. Much of the time it has more in common with Amnesia: The Dark Descent than it does Half-Life, with no actual enemies appearing in the game until well over an hour in. Actual combat, with you being able to fight back in any way, is only included long after that. Much of the time is spent building-up its less human enemies, allowing you to see the aftermath of their murders and presence long before they are even introduced. Even then they are often only seen fleetingly at first, stalking your movements but not directly approaching you.
Even when it allows you to fight your way through, often you’re left searching for a way around—either trying to avoid fights due to limited supplies or with the more pressing factor of your sanity. Much like the aforementioned Amnesia and much beloved Eternal Darkness, CoC makes the point of including the classic Lovecraftian insanity of “things which should not be” as a game mechanic. While the lesser minions of the gods like Deep Ones, Fish Men, and a few of the more “normal” beings cause your mind few problems, more otherworldly creatures cause no end of pain. Flying beasts of half-shadow, star-spawn of the titular tentacle faced terror, and shoggoths all scrape away at the edges of your mind as you look at them. Many more are equally as impervious to bullets as they are horrifying, so you need to sneak or think your way past them.
Running and gunning is also hardly the way to go. Despite being able to take far more damage than a human should, Jack still hurts like one. Rather than treating medical kits like healing potions, the game forces you to take the MGS: Snake Eater route of individually healing wounds. Not only that, but every time you do stop to heal, Jack takes several seconds bandaging himself up, preventing the usual invincibility-via-potion spam common in more than a few titles.
Exploration of levels is something CoC rewards players on. Many places, such as the opening town of Innsmouth, have you running through large networks of alleyways and sparsely populated streets searching for answers. Often, you will stumble across items needed for 100% completion as you find your way forward. This offers a greater degree of replay value in the title than many story-driven games would usually offer, as you search for all the hidden items needed to understand all of Jack’s past.
Unfortunately, the good comes with the bad and this game does have more than a few flaws. While it has a promising start and progresses well for the most part, it eventually suffers from escalation. While it’s understandable a human could find ways to take down minor creatures or even moderately powerful threats like shoggoths by being smart, many later ones you take down should have easily killed Jack or driven him mad. (Spoiler Alert) This reaches its peak late on when you end up forcing Dagon to retreat via conventional weapons and manage to kill Mother Hydra, two creatures the Deep Ones worship alongside Cthulhu, and gods in their own right. By the end, all that is keeping Jack from being renamed Old Man Henderson is he does not successfully kill Hastur in a blaze of glory. After such a strong start it feel like the game becomes progressively weaker as it goes along, in terms of horror. (Spoiler Alert Over)
Many functions are also surprisingly clunky at times due to the first person perspective, and the items menu is surprisingly uninspired. It’s not bad so much as it is extremely basic; likely due to its original release on the Xbox to make it easier to use via controller. This would explain the lack of some quick selection options and the surprisingly slap-dash implementation of the few elements which have been included to make life easier for PC users. Some other interface problems also extend from the game’s efforts to maintain certain degrees of realism and immersion. An obvious example from the start is a lack of a HUD of any form for much of the game to try and enforce the idea you are looking through Jack’s eyes. While none are crippling to the game, they can prove to be points of frustration and things you never quite get used to while playing,
Above all though, the real point which can cause many problems originate from it being bugged up the arse, coupled with a high difficulty. The latter might be an odd point to state, but between the heavy damage, supply starved levels, and often complex puzzles, the frequency in which players die can be off-putting. Then again, what else would you expect from a Lovecraftian video game. The bugs are a more simple matter. The PC port especially was noted for a vast number of technical problems and more than a few graphical errors which will bring you a whole new life experience in frustration. One of the most infamous is the no reef bug, which prevents you continuing beyond a certain combat heavy section of the game, and occasionally enemies clipping through walls when they leap to one side. Even ignoring that the decision to slow down each character’s movement in the final level results in it being practically un-winnable even when carefully planned out. Thankfully, a few of these were rectified in the Steam version.
Also, you will come to thoroughly hate Jack’s dull, unsurprised voice narrating everything. No really, he’s almost as bad as Samus at times. His constant droning of the bloody obvious can undermine any growing tension or terror you might have in many situations.
Still, for all these problems the game did come out relatively well. For a game that is eight years old, the graphics have held up remarkably well, the writing is always strong, and while it veers into “Jack the god slayer” more than once, it’s a great display of everything good in H.P. Lovecraft’s works. Available on Steam for $9.99 it’s definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of any survival horror titles willing to stomach a few flaws to play a great title.