Developer: Digital Spray Studios/Mandel Art Plains
Release Date: October 16, 2007
The Soviet Union left the world with a modern collection of myth and history embracing the shredded fabric of the Iron Curtain. THQ's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl gave players a tour of irradiated Pripyat decorated with the bones of the Soviet state and wrapped up in a story straight out from the sci-fi rumors of Red super science. The 1C Company hopes to add to the fiction growing around the remnants of the Worker's Paradise with You Are Empty, an FPS that is part Half-Life, part art project — and comes with a splitting headache.
You Are Empty's story is stylishly told through black-and-white video vignettes that show life behind the Iron Curtain in a series of simulated, scattered flashbacks. They consist of a mix of animation and live actors who appear to be colored in by pencil and ink, spliced between grainy film footage that might have been borrowed from the History Channel. The speechless faces move through scenes filled with eerie sound effects and music; the snippets of events leave clues to build the bigger picture. Without saying a word, they deliver an interesting twist to history that becomes clear at the very end. It's great stuff, but not everyone may appreciate the admittedly vague method used to deliver the story.
The gameplay borrows a bit of inspiration from Half-Life and System Shock, only instead of accidentally opening the door to an alternate dimension on the first day of your job or waking up from cryosleep in space, you are an officer in the Red Army who wakes up in a hospital after getting hit by a truck on the way home from work. Waking up to strange noises, you see someone pushed out of a window below. You leave your room to see hospital equipment stacked like barricades in the hallways. A human thing wrapped in a straitjacket with a bloody stick attached to it comes flying through a door. Realizing that the Soviet health care system couldn't be that bad, you find a trusty crowbar, err, wrench, and begin the fight to find out the truth as you travel through what is left of a socialist paradise.
Much of You Are Empty pairs the cinematics with an inspired art direction that brings you a slice of the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. Soviet propaganda is proudly plastered everywhere, debris-filled cobblestone streets wind their way between rusting factories, Lenin's statue towers over you and photographic textures cover every inch of scenery. Much of this, coupled with extensive 3D detailing, looks good until you get close and notice the lack of any real effects, such as bump mapping, to give it that extra edge. The lighting doesn't help some areas and objects from looking overexposed, and shadows are almost an afterthought, but there's still enough there to give you the feeling of being somewhere in Soviet Russia.
The solid physics do a better effects job and add even more detail to the scenes by launching bodies back with shotgun blasts Hollywood-style, sending bodies careening over guardrails or nudging them underfoot when you try and walk over them. If you're expecting bodies to pile up, think again, as the game quietly cleans up after itself when your back is turned. Unfortunately, that's pretty much where the good stuff ends because my eyes started to hurt.
The game engine apparently didn't like my setup. The menu, the HUD and the movies were fine, but for whatever reason, the actual environment seemed to shake as if it were vibrating. It was especially worse when I strafed, but not bad enough that I couldn't hit my target. It was especially worse when I was riding in a moving vehicle, whether it was a car or an elevator, as the vehicle itself would appear to jitter violently, making you wonder if it was going to actually shake itself apart. If I looked around while standing still, it was fine until I started moving again. Activating the vertical sync seemed to help a bit, but this was never a problem in anything else, from Counter-Strike to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to the demo for Crysis, even when I began turning down all of the detail. There's some kind of sound patch out there, but it's apparently in Russian, and I couldn't use it to see if that might have helped, so I pretty much had to put up with this until the end.
The gameplay is your typical FPS shooter, and anyone who's picked one up in the last five years will be instantly familiar with the basic controls. There's not much of a difference between this one and the rest of its peers, other than the setting and the artistic attention paid to the environment. Even the level design, as detailed as many of the interiors can appear, consists of linear exercises in traveling from point A to point B with no explanation as to why you need to get there. Most of the time, you'll be crawling through tunnels, along rooftops or in between buildings with the feeling that they'll eventually lead you somewhere known only to the character you're controlling.
You Are Empty tries to be scary, a trick that only works for the first hour or so when you realize every monster will make some kind of sound before coming around that next corner — if they don't get stuck on the scenery first. The ambient effects are quite good ... until you use your weapons. Not only do most of them feel like you're shooting a plastic popgun, but they also have balancing issues. You can snipe with your Mauser pistol, so there was hardly any use for the rifle that was available later in the game because the pistol held more bullets and had the range. What was the point?
Damage in the game is also confusing. In one instance, I dropped down a chute to a train car and watched as nearly half my health was taken out. Dropping down what may appear to be 10 feet can feel like taking a grenade to the legs, and absorbing bullets will cause less damage than being attacked by giant rats.
Most of the enemies are freakishly creative, with metal rotors attached to their backs or replacing legs and arms like some kind of Soviet cyborg. They're not very frightening and will usually charge headlong at you if they have a melee weapon, or they'll just stand in one spot and try to shoot you. Occasionally, an enemy will actually move back and forth to avoid your shots, but that's rare. Headshots will sometimes kill your foes quickly so as to conserve your ammo, although there are plenty of healing bottles scattered everywhere. Thanks to the physics, enemies look good as they keel over, but if their bodies try to clip through a wall, your speakers will be filled with a constant tumbling noise as they slowly ease their way through. It's also difficult to figure out if the game is trying to be as serious as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Bioshock when Brigitte Nielsen-sized nurses come at you like Bruce Lee.
This clashing style is also heard through the music. There are creepy tracks, and then there are tracks that sound as if they've come from the Siberian Orchestra. Isn't this the 1950s? Couldn't the devs have found something else to fit in with the action? I did like the one piece that mixed modern rock and Soviet choir music, but that didn't get enough play, which forced me to settle for the discotheque that turned a Stalinist paradise into a rave.
Then there's the localization. I wouldn't have had a problem if the devs had used subtitles and kept the original Russian, which is what I assume the NPCs had originally spoken. Even S.T.A.L.K.E.R., with many of its NPCs speaking in Russian without subtitles, gave players a taste of the Motherland that many enjoyed, despite not knowing what was being said. Here, even with the characters flailing wildly with plenty of emotion, the lines sound as if the actors were simply phoning in their work. I haven't heard voice acting this bad since Resident Evil on the PS1, which at least had the cheese factor going for its dialogue. At one point, an NPC shot himself in the head ... while the actor was still talking.
Despite all of these issues, I managed to shoot my way to the end, even when a bug prevented a key from spawning, which forced me to replay a level just to have it appear. The campaign is actually pretty lengthy for an FPS, clocking in at around 10 hours of playtime. There's no multiplayer, though, as this is strictly a single-player experience.
You Are Empty throws you into the 1950s behind the Iron Curtain and into the industrial nightmare of the Soviet Union. However, the stylish storytelling and the possibilities posed by the setting can't hide the embarrassing localization, the unexciting fetch-the-key gameplay that most every other FPS has moved beyond, and issues with the graphics that might have you reaching for the nearest bottle of pain relievers and asking what happened to quality testing. There are occasional flashes of inspiration that come through the mess, but not enough to save this title from the gulag of the bargain bin.
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