￼Published by: Bethesda Softworks/2K
Developed by: Headfirst Productions
Genre: FPS/Survival Horror
Platform: Xbox, PC
Rating: BBFC 15 (UK), ESRB M (US)
Original release date: 24 April 2006
SoS mission date: 26 April 2007
Where to get it: The game is still generally available for both Xbox and PC. You should be able to pick it up reasonably cheaply from most software shops. It is also backward-compatible with the Xbox 360, albeit with a few glitches. The PC version arguably gives the best experience.
Original Briefing by Beige (26/04/2007)
That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die.
Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn!
When you're talking origins of modern horror, you're talking H.P. Lovecraft. Anybody can write a book where ghosts rise from their graves and wander around the countryside or where vampires prey upon the necks of innocent maidens. Modern horror isn't about shit like that. It's about the terrors of hard science.... the great unmentionable truths of reality.... things mankind was much much happier not knowing.
Current thinking teaches us that the sun will someday grow to the size of a solar system, grow red, and completely melt down the earth into a meaningless pile of atomic gas. This isn't a 'ha ha' what-if scenario, this is fact and it's going to happen whether you like it or not. Thinking too hard or too deeply about that kind of truth will eventually force you into a corner and leave you there, holding your knees and quietly rocking back and forth as you contemplate the futility of it all. If you get this concept at a fundamental level... if the idea of a no-holds-barred staring match with Nietzsche's abyss is your idea of a Friday Night, then maybe... just maybe... you're Call of Cthulhu material.
So we're gonna play this awesome game. Let me be upfront here: Call of Cthulhu is not awesome because it's graphically pretty, or because it has an awesome quick-reloading minigame or anything like that. It's not even awesome because the gameplay is particularly awesome or inspired (though some of it is, unquestionably). What's awesome about CoC:DCOtE is that it's basically the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny -- only featuring the Lovecraft mythos instead of Chuck Norris. It's a huge free-for-all in which a great number of HP's popular and well-known 'greatest hits' - The Innsmouth Look, At the Mountains of Madness, and yes, even Call of Cthulhu - take center stage in a huge crazy mash-up, starring you.
Graphically, Call of Cthulhu looks like butt. Deal with it. The game is seriously old-skool in its sensibilities -- DO NOT STARE INTO THE ABYSS. The development time on this title is older than Azathoth itself -- it actually goes all the way back to the time of games like Thief and System Shock 2, both of whose genetic material will be visible in CoC's composition. It's not about the graphics. It's about paying proper service to good ol' batshit-insane HP and his world of gigantic squid-headed aliens, weird unknowable races from beyond space and time, and the ancient fishman DNA which crouches secretly inside our genes, waiting for the proper chance to leap out and strike. Don't expect to see avant-garde design philosophy... DO expect to see shoggoths. That's the kind of game we're talking about.
Lovecraft's world is a happy place where uncertainty and the futility of all human effort reigns supreme. A place where religion is a dead and meaningless conceit, practiced only by delusional nutbars who congregate in black cloaks under cover of night. In Lovecraft Land, unexplainable and indescribable shit falls out of the sky everyday for no reason at all, poisoning the land and sowing corruption. Into this world you step - the innocent - Jack. Jack (as all Lovecraft heroes must be) is "just some guy" who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also, like all Lovecraft heroes, Jack will get to experience the joy of sticking his nose into dark mysteries and gigantic forces best left undisturbed by mortal ken and reaping the delicious, sanity-straining harvest.
You actually go insane (or at least borderline insane) a lot in Call of Cthulhu which is actually one of the awesome things about it. Usually what this amounts to is a lot of blurring and babbling on Jack's part. Sadly, it's not quite up to the level of Eternal Darkness sanity effects (the game won't hold you down and claim to be deleting your saved games) but it's still cool. Ultimately it's kind of a shame that the developers can't actually do what they want - which is to make YOU the player go insane along with Jack. Rest assured they would if they could. It's the problem with any on-screen interpretation of Lovecraft - how do you visibly portray that which, by all rights, should drive you shrieking mad? You just kind of have to overlook that little detail.
Other interesting things that Call of Cthulhu does differently: No health bar, nor a HUD of any kind. Get ready to start counting shots in your six-shot revolver or shotgun because there's no floating magical numbers telling you how many bullets you have left. Nothing beats drawing down on some lurching horror shambling out of the darkness towards you only to hear *bang!* *bang!* *click. click. clickclickclick...". Also expect to cringe regularly at the unusual localized damage system. When you leap off a balcony in the process of fleeing from your pursuers and you hear the splintering crack and yelp of your right tibia fracturing, you will know exactly what I'm talkin' bout. Keep lots of healing items close on hand -- especially splints. Broken legs means you limp... limp... away from the horrors.
One of the main reasons to play the game is the interesting puzzles and fantastic 'set-piece' scripted sequences. I won't ruin those for you now.
Lastly, a bit about the interface. CoC was quite obviously developed for PC play and then later ported to the Xbox at some undetermined point in time. This isn't to say that the Xbox version is BAD exactly -- it's not... but if you are expecting to play HALO with shoggoths, think again. I personally played it through on an Xbox, and I can truthfully say that lack of a quicksave-load feature on that platform is a bitch. You may have to frequently hike your ass around in the middle of a level searching for a suitable checkpoint to save your state. You will also grit your teeth in frustration regularly as your non-aiming-assisted, reticule-free firearms blast holes in the wall inches from your foe's head again and again while you twiddle the thumbsticks.
One more thing. When Call of Cthulhu shipped, it shipped with a known and potentially game-destroying bug which can occasionally strike at about 80% of the way through the game. On the PC, this is no problem -- you just download the patch. Not so on the Xbox - trust me, I speak from experience. I have started... but never FINISHED Cthulhu. This bug is the reason. Xbox players: When you get to a level which begins on a ship, SAVE YOUR GAME IN A DIFFERENT SLOT, preferably with multiple saves prior to that one as backup. There may come a point on that level where your game totally freezes up. If that happens, DO NOT ATTEMPT to load a game which also begins on that same level. All your save files from the ship stage will now be corrupt... trust me... and they will ALL freeze at that point. If this happens you must go back and load a game from a previous level and play through to the ship stage again. Do not do what I did (i.e. overwrite all your prior-level saves) before running into this glitch, or it will be the end of the line.
Personally, I feel that it was just a case of the Old Ones getting some kind of weird vengeance for all the times I've thwarted their minions. We're going back into the breach regardless. As always, all you need to get on board the Shame Train is a copy of the game and the desire to play along with the rest of us. Everyone's invited... so grab your torches, warm up your Necronomicon, and get ready to kick some Old One ass.
Or... you know... die bleating and insane in some godawful lightless hole. Either/or.
Squad Archivist Report
What we have here is an interesting take on the survival horror/FPS genre by Bethesda Softworks and Headfirst Productions. Cthulhu casts you in the role of Jack Walters and, unusually for a game of this type, sees you playing through the entire game (including cutscenes) from a first-person perspective. What this means for you, the player, is an almost unprecedented sense of immersion, even in cutscenes. Little things like the fact that you can see Jack’s hand reaching out to do things in these scenes as opposed to the “fourth wall-breaking” out-of-body experiences of other titles mean that you are always kept inside the action and dragged kicking and screaming into the abyss along with Jack.
First things first. Cthulhu is proper scary. We’re not talking the occasional “jump at loud noise” scary here - we’re talking genuine psychological horror, using many of the same techniques that Silent Hill has used so well in the past. Of course, Cthulhu is not without a few loud noises to make you soil yourself, too, but the main fear comes from that which is unknown, and Jack’s unnerving tendency to go all wobbly-visioned whenever anything vaguely horrific crosses his line of sight.
Actually, it’s these “insanity” effects which add a huge amount to Cthulhu’s atmosphere. See a huge monster? Jack’s heartbeat will suddenly start racing, his breathing will quicken and his vision will go blurry. In cases of extreme stress, he’ll get dizzy and the screen will start wobbling around like you’re drunk. Jack also gets vertigo, which means that already-tense first person “creep along tiny ceiling beams” segments are even more tense as Jack starts panicking any time you look down.
As a hero, let’s face it, Jack ain’t the most, well, “heroic” - though, as with any good drama, it’s the flaws in his character that make Cthulhu more interesting and more terrifying at the same time. You’re never under the impression that you’re invincible, and the lack of on-screen interface and interesting damage system adds to the tension. You’ll find in many cases that a tough fight will leave you crawling into the darkness with a broken leg, your vision slowly fading as you bleed to death, hoping and praying that you’ll have time to patch yourself up before something even more unpleasant comes lumbering out of the darkness.
So we’ve established that the atmosphere is something pretty special - and to be honest, it’s a combination of this atmosphere and the interesting story that will keep you playing through the game. Drawing inspiration from a number of Lovecraft’s stories, the gameplay of Cthulhu sees you hopping between one style of gameplay and another, from the early (weaponless) part of the game that largely revolves around sneaking past and avoiding enemies, to the more “shooter-heavy” later sections.
Cthulhu is at its best when it is throwing you into exciting set-pieces. There is one particular section early in the game, during a level called “Attack of the Fishmen” (which deserves kudos by itself) where the player has to frantically escape from the hotel room he has been sleeping in as aforementioned “fishmen” start battering down the door. Cue a frantic dash from room to room, bolting doors and pushing furniture in front of them in a panicked attempt to escape. Naturally, for maximum dramatic impact, you are unarmed at this point - and as a result, you find yourself in the middle of one of the most tense chase sequences of any game, ever. Jack’s heart is thumping, his vision goes blurry as he starts to panic and you’re right there inside his head, panicking along with him. Fantastic stuff indeed.
Where Cthulhu does fall down a bit is where it becomes more of a “shooter” and less of a “survival horror”. The lack of onscreen interface, while adding a huge amount of realism to the game, means that it can sometimes be quite difficult to aim at enemies. Obviously, this is something of a problem at times when you are getting swarmed by a million and one enemies at once, as tends to happen on a couple of the levels at least.
Headfirst, obviously spotting this problem, saw fit to include an “aim” button which goes some way to alleviating this difficulty, but at the more frantic times, it can feel like you’re being beaten to a pulp through no fault of your own. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and at times, the whole “aiming” mechanism works well if you look at the game as a survival horror rather than a first-person shooter... but at the times when the game becomes more fast-paced and “shooter-centric”, it is more of a hindrance than a help.
Some of us in the Squad also questioned some of the narrative decision towards the end of the game. A big part of the fear in Lovecraftian stories is the unknown - not knowing what horrible monster may or may not be around the next corner. Ironically, some of this fear is taken away when you come face-to-face with the mysterious creatures that you’ve only heard mentioned in previous levels. The endgame “bosses” of Dagon and Hydra, in particular, while fulfilling the unwritten rules of gaming in providing some sort of final conflict, just aren’t scary. Dagon is... well, a big fish, and the fact you’re armed with a large missile launcher at the time you face him does nothing to give you that “helpless before a sea god” feeling. And Hydra, the game’s final boss, simply sits in a bubble waiting for you to electrocute her. Admittedly, there’s a bit of a puzzle involved in defeating her, but as far as an epic final conflict goes, it’s a bit of a letdown, especially when compared to the rest of the game’s brilliant use of atmosphere.
By far our biggest discussion in the Squad, however, was the game’s save system. Rather than allowing you to save anywhere, Cthulhu only lets you save at designated spots marked with an “Elder Sign”. These also double as havens of calm where Jack can regain his sanity.
What you think of this save system will depend on how you choose to look at Call of Cthulhu. If you look at it as a survival horror title, it makes sense. Survival horror don’t allow you to save anywhere except designated “safe areas” as it is an artificial way of bumping up the “tension level”. In the case of titles such as Resident Evil, you are even limited on the number of saves you are allowed to make - prompting the player to question whether they should press on and hope they don’t run into anything with big teeth or whether they should backtrack for a few minutes in order to save.
However, look at Cthulhu as a first-person shooter and this save system becomes altogether different. Bowley cited the example of Half-Life 2, a game which allows you to quicksave anywhere and still incorporates a narrative with considerable dramatic tension. Sure, quicksave systems are open to abuse with the old “step, save, jump, save, step, save” trick - but in doing that, of course, there’s always the possibility you’ll save yourself into an unwinnable situation.
For some members of the Squad, this save system was a game-breaker. For others, it was a minor annoyance which could be tolerated. For yet others, it was an understandable part of the game design.
In summary, Cthulhu turned out to be a great example of the horror genre with a number of glaring flaws - the game-breaking bug on the Xbox version which Beige describes in his briefing being one, the save system being another and the seemingly unwinnable finale which only Angry Jedi managed to complete without the assistance of a run-speed increasing patch being another.
It’s certainly worth a playthrough to see the brilliantly-crafted atmosphere and the well-done insanity effects, though. Whether or not you stick with it to the bitter end (and bitter the end is - this is Lovecraft, after all) will depend on how tolerant of its flaws you are!