Undying is really the first game of its kind that I've played. I've never really been into horror novels, horror movies or horror games in my life. Sure, as a boy I was scared of things that went bump in the night like any other kid. Frankly, I don't think I stopped using a night light until I was out of the single-digit ages. But after I got past that part of childhood, there has been very little that has scared me in my life.
And what's certainly true is that almost any movie, book, etc. does not frighten me or spook me in the least. In fact, to date there have been only two exceptions. The first, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, genuinely scared me because it brought me face to face with the very real possibility of biologically engineered super-weapons. The second, Undying, has almost made me leap out of my seat on more than one occasion. And that's a good thing!
The visuals in Undying are almost uniformly wonderful. The game was developed using the Unreal Tournament (UT) engine, so the developers had a solid base from which to work, and it shows quite clearly throughout. At the time it was released, it was simply spectacular. Even today, more than two years later, it still holds up quite well.
Environments and textures are nicely detailed, the particle and blood effects are stunning, all of the models move very fluidly with animation so good it's positively disturbing in some cases, some of the effects simply have to be seen to be believed, and so forth. In virtually every aspect, Undying is as good a game visually as almost any other game made to date.
The cut scenes are worthy of particular mention, I think, insofar as many of them are positively cinematic. The opening cut scene that introduces us to the history between Jeremiah Covenant and Patrick Galloway makes wonderful use of the engine's lighting features to bring alive the image of troops marchine, silhouetted against a blood-red sky. That scene sets a standard against which the others may be favorably compared. Undying succeeds in its use of dramatic cut scenes to advance the story to a degree few games achieve.
The one rather glaring ugliness amidst all the beautiful eye-candy is with some of the texturing on certain models. For example, the grainy textures on Patrick and Jeremiah, particularly in some of the early cut scenes, make me cringe after seeing such wonderful texturing on other characters and especially the monsters. I can't help but wonder what the developers were thinking. Patrick is the protagonist, after all, and is featured prominently in many cut scenes. As such, I can't help but think they might have used greater detail for him. Still, this is a pretty minor ugliness in the grand scheme of things, and it can be overlooked, for the most part, once the game gets rolling.
To their credit, however, those same models demonstrate things I've not seen in other games. Patrick Galloway, for example, blinks his eyes and demonstrates some different facial expressions, some of them quite amusing. Perhaps the relatively low texture detail is the result of this feature? I don't know. All I know is that the textures on the models look grainy in some cut scenes. Enough said.
The audio is just plain creepy. Doors creak in an appropriately spooky fashion before they slam shut with frightening finality. Because of this, just getting from one room to another can set the player on edge. The wind blows through the curtains in a positively unsettling fashion. Moans, whispers and all sorts of unidentifiably creepy sounds permeate the Covenant residence and other locales in the game. In short, all of the ambient sounds and general sound effects are absolutely fabulous.
Worthy of special mention are the weapon sounds. Even the pistol has a very solid "bark". I think my overall favorite might be the Tibetan war cannon insofar as the noise it makes when powering up is simply wonderful. The low-throated chanting of the Tibetan monks seems to have been worked in with delightful care. Similarly, the shotgun, Molotov cocktails and everything else just sound great. The Celtic scythe ranks pretty high up on my list too. They're all good!
Because of its quality, the audio plays a very special role in setting the atmosphere for the game. I still remember how on-edge I was simply because of the sound effects when creeping through the sewer tunnels to get to the monastery during the early part of the game. The dripping of water seemed truly to surround me. And because it was so dark, I literally bolted up in my seat the first time I stepped onto one of the many mounds and realized they were piles of human bones! That was just spooky.
The interface for Undying is a bit odd in some respects. For example, some keys cannot be remapped—try setting the quick load feature to F9 to see what I mean—and the circular selection menus for weapons and spells seem to elude me. Maybe there's some simple way to make use of them, but when I try to select weapons/spells that way, I alternate between being stuck on the current selection and racing pointlessly around the circle at warp eight. Perhaps I just don't "get it", and there is some simple trick, but I haven't found it. I ended up using the previous/next weapon/spell keys instead.
Aside from that minor quibble, however, the interface otherwise works quite well. I particularly like the ability to fire weapons and cast spells simultaneously while having the current inventory item close at hand as well. In this regard, Undying is one of the most flexible first-person shooter (FPS) games made to date. At least, I can't think of many others that allow the use of up to three different items all at once with simple keyboard commands.
Further, the game menus are very nicely implemented. The background soundtrack alone adds a great deal to the overall feel of the game. The bells and choral voices are unnerving and thus, in an amusing sense, give the player incentive to get back into the game. The load/save feature could be better explained or more obvious (i.e., quick-saved games are listed with regular games with the addition of a 'Q' to their name), but this too is a minor quibble. Everything works. I would prefer a few more options for the video and audio, but I do understand the allure of simplicity.
With regard to its game mechanics, Undying both breaks some new ground and goes afoul of some basic truths of game design. What is most groundbreaking, in my estimation, is the seamless incorporation of the scrying spell into the game. Not only does it help furnish the player with all kinds of useful clues given through paintings and so forth, it provides a badly-needed aid to seeing in various darkened areas. It also renders visible some otherwise essentially unseen enemies (e.g., ghost priests). This alone really sets Undying apart from other games involving the use of magic insofar as it really adds to the atmosphere. The player really feels that he has special sight and can perceive the shadowy realm of occult things.
Further, Undying provides some of the most interesting combat to date in an FPS game. Many of the enemies are far harder to hit than in other such games. Whereas I generally have little trouble mowing down the bad guys, the howlers alone were killing me pretty consistently because I just couldn't put steel on target with the pistol. The first time I faced a skarrow, I died because I simply couldn't figure out what to do with it. They got much easier to kill eventually, of course, but the atmosphere of the game combined with the uniqueness of the system made combat quite a hair-raising experience.
The only negative comment that I have about the game mechanics, really, is that it's all too easy to miss important things. The first time I started the game, for example, I managed to miss the first three amplifiers completely. I'm normally a pretty thorough player, but because there are so many transitional places whereat walking through a doorway forces one into a new area from which one cannot return, it's easy to get screwed.
Too often doors simply slam shut behind one, and that's no fun for a player who has missed something. It also punishes exploration. Skarrows are bad enough with only the ectoplasm spell, for example, and they're far worse when it's completely unamplified. Providing the player with some more cues, or perhaps a more forgiving model for leaving one area and moving on to the next, would really help.
The story is pretty much what one should expect from a game upon which a well-known writer has collaborated. There is a rich depth of detail and back-story to the game, all of which tends to suck the player into the action. The cast of characters are sharply defined, each having his own motivations and ultimately his own sad fate in the overall story arc. True, the foreshadowing is so obvious at points that I imagine all but the very dullest player must get it, but I don't mind being spoon fed so compelling a tale.
The story is ultimately a gripping and harrowing account of one man's arrogance resulting in an awful destruction being brought upon his bloodline, thanks to his own carelessness and the actions of his children. Patrick Galloway has much to accomplish, and yet many questions are left unanswered. Suffice it to say that Undying hold its own against any game I've seen to date in terms of its story. I don't want to give away any surprises, but none of the interactions with the Covenant family disappoint. The story is so good, really, that I sure hope somebody makes a sequel; I want to know what happens next!
Here is where Undying really shines. The game features a large number of interesting and well-detailed foes. What's more, they break out of the typical ranged and melee categories. Some of the enemies use magical attacks, and some of the more powerful attacks require multiple enemies to produce. Others simply appear and disappear at will, making them quite frightening to face. Further, the undead in this game, unlike so many other games, are genuinely terrifying. There is a horrible tenacity to their purpose, and I just can't gain mana back fast enough for my own liking when facing them.
The bosses in the game are equally well done if not better. There were so many hints along the way that I wasn't at all surprised by the time I had to face Lizbeth, for example, but that didn't make it any less frightening or difficult. In fact, because I had read so much of the back story, I couldn't help but feel an emotional response, a sadness that such a beautiful young woman had come to such corruption.
I know it's only a video game, but Undying really has the ability to tug at the emotions for whatever reason. Better still, when it comes to boss encounters, each one involves some interesting and sensible method for taking down the bad guy. Again without spoiling any surprises, only when facing the final boss was it not at all clear what I should be doing. Nevertheless, each made for a unique and fun encounter. The bosses were as entertaining as they were spooky.
The weapons and spells are also very well done. Because only some weapons and spells are effective on various enemies, the overall mystery of the game is enhanced. There really is an otherworldly feeling to the terror of going up against a foe for the first time only to discover that seemingly nothing in your inventory can affect him. I can still remember running in abject terror until I finally remembered to switch to silver bullets with one particular enemy. The surprise is simply too good to spoil, so that's all I'll say, but my heart seemed like it was slamming into my ribs.
Further, in a more mundane sense, the weapons and spells are as interesting as they are varied. The pistol is pretty standard, of course, though the addition of silver bullets makes it a bit more versatile than in many other games. The powers of the gel'ziabar stone are also particularly welcome as it really makes spell-casting a more realistic means to defeating foes. The additional power-level gained when using it, as well as its knockback ability, are both very useful. I particularly enjoyed using it to knock howlers off high ledges and jemaas in the eternal autumn off the narrow cliffs. Watching them fall screaming to their doom was very satisfying.
I am also quite fond of the shotgun, the scythe and the Tibetan war cannon. The shotgun is just plain satisfying to use. The scythe... well, who wouldn't like something that whacks off howler heads so easily? And when it comes to the Tibetan war cannon, I just love the sounds it makes and the way it fires, though the occasional snarl it makes still has me jumping in my seat even after using it far too much.
My only gripe against some of the weapons, I suppose, is that they're found too late in the game to get much use. The speargun is found early enough that it's fun to use, but the Phoenix eggs, for example, are found too late to see much combat in my estimation. Speaking of the speargun, I really like the way it can be charged with lightning; nailing one of the jemaas in the head and watching the ensuing fireworks is well worth the effort.
At any rate, with as good as the weapons are, the spells are just as helpful. I was lucky enough to read the journal entry for the invoke spell so that I figured it might be of help with the undead. Boy was I glad to have it. Otherwise, those skeletons would surely have been the end of me. Ectoplasm is perhaps the lamest of the spells—I really wish its effect got more impressive as it is amplified—but even that makes a pretty good weapon in tight spots. I just love the skull storm, flight, lightning and shield spells. Heck, I've flown around simply for the sheer joy of it! All in all the arsenal is as interesting as it is formidable. Toward the end of the game, I was spending virtually all of my time switching between shield and skull storm, for example, as they get much of the job done.
The environments are also quite varied and interesting. The mansion, the cemetery, the catacombs, the mausoleum, the wide-open spaces in the lovely, lush outdoors and so forth all look good and play well. Of course, it's kind of blatantly obvious when running around in the fields precisely where the designers intend one to go. For all his prowess, Patrick Galloway seems utterly incapable of climbing even a marginally steep slope (grin).
In such places, the linear nature of the game becomes somewhat painfully apparent, but it's only mildly annoying. And frankly, the utterly bizarre and otherworldly areas (e.g., Oneiros) easily make up for it. I could go on at great length about the inventory items, the various NPCs and so many other features of the game, but I trust my point has been made. Undying really delivers where it counts, packing tons of goodies into a thoroughly enjoyable game.
What's more, and bears special mention apart from all that I've said thus far, is that all of the content in Undying comes together in a very special way to produce atmosphere unlike anything I've experienced from any other video game to date. There's a certain spooky synergy to the combination of all of the various elements so that the game as a whole is still more than the sum of its already wonderful parts.
When I played the demo, I just knew that Undying was a game I couldn't pass up. It reached out and grabbed me by my dry throat and didn't let go. I was immediately horrified by the entire experience, and that was such a new feeling, such a rush, that I simply had to buy the game. As someone pretty familiar with FPS games, Undying is a welcome and refreshing break from tradition simply because of the way it touches and horrifies the soul.
The only major flaw worth mentioning, I think, is that I find the game unstable. Granted, I'm running it under an operating system for which it was never designed (viz., Windows XP) at a ridiculously high resolution (viz., 1280 x 960 x 32 bpp) with all the graphical goodies cranked up and plenty of hardware and software on my machine. But still, it crashes out to the desktop on a pretty frequent basis due to general protection faults (GPFs) in the UT engine rendering system(s). I probably experience a handful of such crashes for every three hours of play overall. They're annoying, but fortunately the game hasn't lost any data or anything like that because of them. I wish it were more stable, but it's playable as it is.
I suppose there is one additional minor flaw as well, and that's the battle with the final boss. To be more specific, it's dull. Dealing with each of the other bosses was quite exciting, as the player had to apply some intelligence to figure out how to defeat them. The battle with the final boss, however, is far less interesting. It seems as if the developers decided that it would be fun for the player to have to repeat a simple set of steps for some random and seemingly arbitrary number of times to achieve victory. Frankly, I didn't even have to move; I stood completely still and whooped the final boss without once breaking a sweat. That's a far cry from the adrenaline-soaked encounters provided by the other bosses.
Obviously, this is a limiting factor for the game as there is no multi-player support. In truth, I'm not all that bothered by it. Well, I'm not excessively bothered by it anyway. The primary focus of Undying is in the crafting of a great single-player experience, and it lives up to that goal. Still, it would be mighty neat to see how multi-player battles might take place given all the great weapons and spells.
I'm actually rather surprised that the developers didn't provide such a mode, given that the UT engine should have made it a simple undertaking to provide great multi-player deathmatch, capture the skull or whatever other sorts of gameplay they wanted to offer. Perhaps I should look for a third-party mod to provide multi-player features, as it would be well worth it. To be clear, the game is still easily worth buying without a multi-player aspect; I just find myself wishing for it at times.
I think Undying is one of the best FPS games I've ever played. Not only does it succeed on the grounds a typical FPS game succeeds (i.e., great monsters, weapons, story, etc.), it also brings incredible atmosphere. This is a game that renders the need to change your shorts a very real possibility. It's just darned spooky in spots, and it's very refreshing to have an FPS game touch the emotions in such a way.
Plenty of other FPS games bring out the adrenaline rush of combat, the elation of discovery and so forth; Undying brings out the skin-crawling reaction so appropriate to the horrors of the purely evil. These days one can find Undying as cheaply as $11.99, and at that price, it's a no-brainer purchase. Stop reading and go buy the game! Well, unless you have a heart condition...
Reviewed by Phileosophos