Developer: Surreal Software
Release Date: February 23, 2004
The Suffering is a game about being crazy.
Torque has been on death row, sentenced to fry for the murder of his wife and child, for about five minutes when the lights go out, and the ground shakes. Around him, he can hear the panicked screams of his fellow inmates, before they're cut off, amidst the sounds of tearing meat.
Suddenly, his cell door falls apart, cut into three pieces by something inhuman, and impossibly fast. Wrenching a shiv out of the belly of a dead man, Torque, no fool, makes his escape, but soon finds that the circumstances that freed him weren't limited to death row.
Abbott Penitentiary is a damned place, condemned by the actions of its administration, both past and present. Monsters, the shades of those prisoners who've been executed here, now prowl the halls, killing anyone they see. The earthquake's cut off all the easy escape routes by caving in several ceilings, so all Torque can do is go deeper into the prison, right through the heart of what's wrong with this place.
Torque was crazy when he started this trip. Since he was a kid, he's been subject to blackouts, and hallucinations of bloodshed. From the moment he gets out of his cell, he starts hearing voices: the voice of his dead wife, urging him towards mercy, and a deeper, grumbling growl that wants him to kill, to be a monster fighting monsters.
Abbott is a bad, bad place to be crazy. Torque's insanity brings him into the heart of the prison, through rooms that aren't there, chasing phantoms that can't be there, and, when he's finally seen too much, transforming him. Torque's madness, given physical form, is a clawed monstrosity, stronger and faster than any of the monsters around him, and worse news: the monsters around him like to see it.
What we have here, then, is a game that truly deserves its Mature tag. Bodies hit the floor in The Suffering like a bass drum roll, except they're usually in like five, six pieces, so not quite so much like a bass drum roll and more like, I don't know, a lot of bass drum rolls; profanity is used frequently and zestfully, much like commas; you are encouraged and free to kill everyone you see, should you see the need.
I kinda think most've you will see the need.
The Suffering is also a surprisingly effective horror-action game. Most of the entries into the horror field have been adventure games, or that blend of adventure with a half-assed fighting engine that we call "survival horror." There've been exceptions, most of which were forgettable when they weren't unnervingly bad (witness, for example, the infamous Nightmare Creatures games).
The Suffering, on the other hand, is a full-blown third-person shooter, which can be turned into a first-person shooter with the touch of the White button. Torque can jump, shoot, fight with his trusty shiv, roll, and shove objects about with the best of them, in a surprisingly responsive and fluid engine.
Much like the Havok physics seen in Max Payne 2, if you can see it in The Suffering, odds are decent that you can interact with it. I'm playing a somewhat buggy and occasionally fitful preview copy, but I can still turn on sinks, flush toilets, kick buckets into the air, blow up oxygen or propane tanks, and open a door hard enough to knock a monster back.
The monsters in question are fast-moving and frightening, depending largely on concealment and surprise to render most of their attacks truly effective. In the five levels available in this build, I've seen some kind of spidery humanoid whose legs and arms end in sword blades; a blindfolded, hulking monstrosity with a battery of rifles protruding from a tumorlike mass on its back; and endlessly spawning monkeylike creatures who literally bristle with hypodermic needles, each of which glows a sickly green.
Individually, many of these aren't much of a threat, going down easily with a few revolver slugs in them, but they come out of nowhere, using ventilation systems and sheer supernatural disrespect for physics to their best advantage. The blade monsters can come from almost anywhere, at almost any time, and can move so fast that they're almost impossible to hit.
Torque's weapons include a shiv, dual revolvers, a Tommy gun, flashbang grenades, road flares, and sticks of TNT. His best offense, though, comes when his Insanity meter tops off; by pressing the Y button, you'll transform Torque into the nightmarish monster spoken of above. One swipe from his claws can turn just about anything into half its weight of jambalaya, but in his insane form, Torque can't heal.
Insanity is at the heart of the game, much like Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness on Gamecube. We're told at the beginning that Torque is in prison due to a case that was largely built on circumstantial evidence; the question of whether he's guilty, innocent, or some elaborate combination of the two is wholly in the hands of the player, and which of the voices in Torque's head you want to listen to. Recruit other prisoners and surviving guards, and Torque may turn out to have been innocent; kill them, and he's obviously a homicidal maniac. Midway's press release mentions a third ending, a "something else," which intrigues me.
The question of his innocence is one that's restated over the course of the game. Several of the ghosts in Abbott seem to feel a strange kinship with Torque, such as a jerkily animated zombie, the corpse of a man who died by electrocution; and a prisoner who, following his death in the gas chamber, now exists as a supernatural cloud of cyanide. Why they're awake now, and why they take such an interest in Torque, is a mystery.
The game tends to further confuse the issue. At seemingly random intervals, you'll be treated to sudden visions of Torque's past, or what might be his future. If his insanity meter's full, or there's just a lot going on, you'll see flashes of wounds and blood, just like Torque himself is supposed to. The effect is to present a game in which anything could turn on you at any time, including the character that you're theoretically controlling.
The Suffering is, in short, one of the more thematically interesting horror games to come down the pike in some time. It is, by turns, profane almost to the point of childishness and incredibly violent, but it combines a truly effective horror environment, rooted both in the psychology of the protagonist and the supernatural, with a fast-paced and challenging action game. The Suffering comes out at the end of February, and I believe I'll be reserving a copy.
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