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Written by: David Laprad
Published: November 19, 1999
Agent 1: The world is a dark place.
Agent 2: Who will protect the world from darkness?
Agent 1: We will.
For the moment, horror is the niche du jour in movies, with such offerings as The Sixth Sense scaring up impressive box office revenues and spawning a sub-genre of would be spine tinglers such as Stigmata and Stir of Echoes. Yet none of those later films quite breached the core of what creates a compelling cinematic experience as well as last summer’s tale of a young boy who confesses to Bruce Willis that he sees dead people. Strangely, the only PC entertainment title to tap into this vein is Nocturne, a post-modern brew of pulp horror legends that pushes the boundaries of what computer games can do. Much as The Sixth Sense both launched a renaissance in movie horror and redefined its frontiers, Nocturne brings a gripping experience to the interactive screen.
A great deal has been written about the game’s elegant technology, and the title does offer an impressive weave of rich graphics, atmospheric lighting and shadows, and hair-raising special effects. These are combined with some of the eeriest sounds I have ever heard to create an experience that transforms immersion. This title demands to be engaged late at night with all the lights out, not just because it is more frightening, but because this closes off all peripheral distractions to achieve maximum effect. It has been ages since a computer game has manifested itself in a heightened pulse and a frosty crop of chill bumps, but there are moments that will do just that. Yet there is more than cutting edge programming at the heart of this title; the designers have laid an intriguing fictional universe as the foundation for these events.
The narrative’s central device is a clandestine government organization that exists to eradicate supernatural threats, a sort of Her Majesty’s Secret Service for the H.P. Lovecraft set. The main character is the even more enigmatic Stranger, a government operative who sports a trench coat and a fedora as well as an extreme aversion for the living dead. One can all but imagine the tragedies that shaped this character into the trigger-happy detective of the paranormal we see on the screen, as the designers withhold crucial information about his past. The same is true for the organization around which the game is wrapped; characters appear and disappear with phantasmic brevity, and the dialogue hints at double-crossing strategies and global conspiracies–but there are more questions than answers. Also missing is an all-encompassing plot that motivates the action from beginning to end, so rather than forming a coherent narrative, these devices create an intriguing fictional substructure on which the adventure is built. Yet both the organization and the Stranger are developed well enough within the context of the game, which consists of four separate mission-based episodes as well as a climactic fifth act that becomes available when the others are complete.
The gameplay is an effective and almost transparent blend of action and adventure. The Stranger moves through a wonderfully ambient world born from the pulp fiction ethos of the 1940s, battling zombies, werewolves, vampires and other imaginative creatures. To accomplish his objectives, the Stranger must also comb the ominous maps for weapons, ammunition and health, carefully unleashing his armament on the corresponding monsters. For instance, silver bullets might slay a zombie, but are better reserved for werewolves. Some missions are little more than a frenzied hunt for the exit and all things that lie between, while others, such as one in which the Stranger must rescue the frightened citizens of a small Texas town overrun with flesh eaters, are based on definable objectives. Furthermore, although he sometimes gunslings alongside a computer-controlled companion, such as a half-human, half vampire named Svetlana, the Stranger prefers to operate alone–that much is clear from his gruff tone during the dialogue sequences.
The action is viewed from a fixed third-person camera that automatically shifts from angle to angle to provide a cinematic perspective. The designers are often clever in their use of this contraption, building tension with bizarre points of view and brief glimpses of animate terrors scampering through the shadows or across a ledge above the Stranger. It is as though film director Brian DePalma of Carrie fame decided to create interactive entertainment and dug his claws into this game’s lenspiece. At the same time, the developers manage to shoot themselves in the foot at times, obscuring traps and even the main character during moments of intense combat. As I will discuss, several features suffer from this dual nature, but end up being more effective than problematic. For instance, the static camera enables the designers to pull off impressive cinematic effects and render a world filled with real-time stunts never before achieved in games, such as genuine shadows and a cloth simulation to die to for. A moving camera would have required the world to be rendered in much less detail–detail critical to this title’s success.
The titles of the four main episodes are fetching and quite descriptive of the action contained therein: Dark Reign of the Vampire, Tomb of the Underground God, Windy City Massacre and The House on the Edge of Hell. There is no prescribed starting point; gamers can launch into any of these right from the start. Each episode begins with one Colonel Hapscomb introducing the Stranger to his mission; these sequences are rendered with game-engine cinematics, as are the non-interactive moments peppered throughout each map that advance the immediate story. From there, the Stranger is thrust into a melange of hell spawn infested environments around the world, including forests, castles, cemeteries, catacombs, 1933 Chicago and more–the global theater and time jumping are terrific devices that subconsciously give the game a broader scope. Populating these locales are rogues born of every horror convention ever conceived in old Hammer films and Cthulu fiction. Ghouls, gargoyles, imps, undead mobsters, zombies and various breeds of vampires give the proceedings the feel of an interactive Weird Tales comic. Fortunately, the artists did more than rip-off the vault of classic creatures; they came up with some terrifically twisted creations of their own as well.
The Stranger has a predictable but satisfying arsenal on hand to assist with his grandiose monster hunting, including pistol, assault, flame, grenade and melee weapons. Each classification features several implements, some of which are grounded in this world, such as the machine gun and flame-thrower, and others that have more supernatural origins. Furthermore, each weapon comes with several brands of ammunition that are effective against different breeds of enemies; the catch is to gather and use the right tools against the right monsters. A farmer’s axe might be effective chopping up zombies, but the Holy Relic is more effective against the ethereal vampire brides. The combat is quite visceral; limbs soar from the well-placed swath of a blade, undead corpses convulse under the impact of a shotgun blast, and streaming arcs of blood pool on the ground. The Stranger can even aim up and down to target specific parts, enabling him to demonstrate George Romero’s patented method for offing the undead–head shots. This phantasmagoric action gets extreme, with zombies hauling around their own lopped-off arms and using them as weapons, and creatures grabbing the Stranger and munching into him with gut-chomping glee. Good thing the interaction is fluid and functional: the Stranger can carry and throw items, search containers or shelves, activate levers and open doors, climb ladders, jump, use a lantern to illuminate the unlit corridors and rooms, draw and holster weapons, and even activate a first-person mode with night vision.
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