Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Infernal (PC, 2007, Poland): But Whatever Happened to “They?”
November 8, 2012, 3:41 am
Filed under: Infernal (PC, 2007, Poland)

There’s a game whose setting is a near-future London that has been besieged by lumbering, multi-armed robots. You’re a shady character with a special vision that allows you to see the real horror though. Because of your ability, you know robots aren’t the real threat—the semi-transparent aliens, (completely invisible to most folks) sitting inside and controlling the robots from within…that’s the real danger. Being a stellar first-person shooter with immersive environments and snappy art design, you pick up your futuristic, upgradeable rifle-rocket-launcher-laser-gun and kick ass all over London’s cobbled streets, while being guided—or fooled—by a mysterious, spirit-like child’s voice which may be coming from the past, the future, or an alternate dimension? The name of this game is simply “They.”

The problem is that “They” doesn’t actually exist, and I’ll probably never be able to play it. It is, by all accounts, vaporware. Sure, many titles have survived this awful label to see the actual light of day. Case in point: I just finished playing “Black Mesa,” the fan-made, free-to-play, in-development-for-a-decade  total recreation of the original “Half-Life” but using the updated Source engine (a sheer delight and an undeniable success, though not without some hiccups). But I fear that, other than a short (and too-dark) trailer which I’ve watched a few dozen times on Youtube over the past few years, “They” won’t rise from the ashes. Hope I’m wrong, I really do. The trailer for the game, which was announced originally in 2007-ish, is here:

To be fair, technically, since 2010 the game has been labeled as “on hold” and not “cancelled.” Yeah, whatever. Anyway, the story of the quick birth and (premature?) death of “They” is not particularly noteworthy, but it is connected to “Infernal” (PC, 2007) which I am discussing here. The link? Metropolis Software, at one time the third largest developer in Poland, is the papa of both titles. Metropolis, originally founded in 1992, was best known for several point-and-click games, as well as strategy and action games. Noteworthy among these was the “Gorky” series of games which stretched from about 1999 to 2005 (iterations that evolved from an isometric semi-strategy game into a full-blown third-person shooter). This gradual move into TPS territory eventually resulted in “Infernal” being released in 2007, and work on first-person “They” commenced. Then, in 2008 (after “Infernal” pretty much bombed its way off the market, at least in the west), fellow Polish developer and publisher CD Projekt Red, famous for the “Witcher” series of games, bought Metropolis, suspended work on “They,” and put the staff (and some Metropolis proprietary tech, which appears to be the real reason for the merger) to work on “Witcher 2.” Eventually, after further paring down and a formal closing of Metropolis, some members left and started a new company, 11 Bit Studios. And right now 11 Bit Studios makes…drum roll, please…games for phones (pretty much, and some XBLA titles). Isn’t that what every newly-formed, once-large developer is doing these days? Gotta go where the micro-money is, I guess.

This convoluted history just tells me that labeling “They” as vaporware is not far-fetched. Who even owns the assets at this point? Will it ever be revived? No breath holding here. But Metropolis did leave us with their legacy of “Infernal.” Maybe it’s the closest thing I’ll get to playing “They.” Jeez, I’m pathetic.

In “Infernal” you play as Ryan Lennox, a wisecracking, gruff-voiced, stubble-faced ex-angel (yeah, like from Heaven) who is spending time here on earth unemployed as a newly-minted mortal. (He especially dislikes being here because he says it’s too cold; he’s a big believer in mittens.) Anyway, in this universe, the forces of Heaven and Hell are real, sort of like “Spy vs. Spy.” On the good side, we’ve got the organization called “Etherlight,” Ryan’s old employers who fired him because they said his practices as an “agent of light” (although extremely effective) were too unorthodox. On the bad side, we’ve got “The Abyss,” all fire and brimstone and devilish minions. What these organizations do is not entirely clear, other than the fact that agents from each side work all day to keep their counterparts in check—and everything remains in balance, yin and yang. All of this occurs as humans just go about their mundane lives.

Within the first few minutes of the game, Ryan is almost gunned down in a bar by a well-organized militia of 30 dudes with rifles; he successfully escapes. He is then approached by red-skinned and horny-headed Lucius Black, the honcho of The Abyss (in a cemetery, of course), who offers him a job with the dark side. Thinking The Abyss was responsible for the near-hit on him in the bar, Ryan at first says no. But then Black reveals to him that his old boss, Etherlight, was actually responsible for the attack and that they want him out of the picture. Apparently, simply firing him was not enough. Why? Lucius Black tells Ryan that Etherlight has developed a technology that will basically rob all human life of its own will, turning everyone into much better human beings for their own good. Doesn’t sound so bad, but Black says this will upset the natural balance of things—and of course humans would be reduced to puppets. Etherlight’s plan is to activate this global-wide technology during an alignment of the planets that happens every century (or whatever); the point is during this planetary alignment, God’s line-of-sight to earth is blocked (yup, that’s what they say) allowing Etherlight to do the nasty without Him knowing any different. And it is stressed that God would not want humans reduced to puppets even if they were to be controlled by the forces of light. Apparently, God really digs free will after all.

Of course, after learning all of this, Ryan Lennox agrees to become an Abyss agent, and he is granted all sorts of devilish powers by Lucius Black (even though, at heart, he’s still a good guy, of course). These include being able to suck the souls out of downed enemies to refill his own lifebar, levitating large objects, being able to temporarily teleport himself, as well as being able to infuse his gunshots with dark energy to deal extra damage. From there, he follows his new boss’s orders: Stop Etherlight from implementing its plans (and to possibly steal the technology if possible and hand it over to Lucius Black). Though he’s not entirely sure he can trust Black’s intentions, Ryan forges ahead anyway. During various intel-gathering missions, this ex-angel mixes it up at an old temple in the snowy German countryside, explores a sprawling industrial center, fights gun-toting brethren across the massive deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, gets filthy in an eastern European railcar warehouse, and busts some angel heads (which are pretty much just armored dudes with guns—and some with jetpacks, get it?) at a mountaintop satellite center. Most of the environments have an interesting mix of old and new, traditional and sci-fi, so to speak. The temple is a great example where the stereotypical medieval monastery is infused with the steel and glass of high-tech labs and offices. After all, we’re not talking about yesterday’s monks here; these are contemporary, technology-driven forces of light, folks.

Before hitting the specifics of this game (which is generally badmouthed by reviewers who I disagree with at least in part), allow me a moment to clarify one important point that I found ZERO internet information about. In my perennial craze to buy every single PC shooter I can find listed on Amazon, I somehow ended up with two copies of “Infernal” without knowing it—one for PC and one for the Xbox 360, redubbed “Infernal: Hell’s Vengeance.” Are these the same game…or not…or what? In substance, they are identical, but in quality not so much. Considering the PC game was published in 2007, the reason the game was ported to the console two years later in 2009 (and retitled) is a bit of a mystery. From my research, this sort of thing really doesn’t happen very often. (If you know of other PC games ported to the console several years after the initial release, please enlighten me.) Maybe the story is as simple as the original publisher, Playlogic, was simply looking to re-cash in on the title somehow after it garnered such a middling reception the first time around. Metropolis, which at that point was near-defunct, may have also benefitted from the console port, but who knows.

Anyway, after having resigned myself to the fact of spending twice the money than necessary (which amounted to about $10 in total, ouch), the cool thing is that I could literally, in real time, compare the quality of the two games (graphically speaking) to decide which version to play. (Yes, I’m an unapologetic graphics whore.) Frankly, I didn’t expect there to be much difference between the two versions, mostly because of several reviews on the internet that said as much: “I played this junk back in 2007 on PC in its original form, and as far as I can tell, there is no difference in the 2009 Xbox version. The game is still as crappy as it always was, visually and mechanically.”

Well, having actually put the two versions side-by-side on the same screen, I can say this is patently false. Running in HD at a whopping 2560X1440 resolution, the 2007 PC version of this game blows the 2009 console port away without breaking a sweat. The console version (which seems to be running at the equivalent of about 1280×1026) is pixelated, badly aliased, has serious screen-tearing, and the colors seem too heavily contrasted. The PC version is, quite honestly, pretty astounding to look at, considering the age of the game. Textures in the original PC game are smooth and soft, colors are muted and vibrant when needed, the draw distance is very nice, effects are subtle—just overall I’ve played many cruddy games made after 2007 that looked much, much worse. (“MorphX,” anyone?) Hardcore PC gamers out there are saying “Duh, of course the PC version is best,” but I’ve found that PC games don’t always automatically look better than (or even equal to) their console counterparts. I imagine much of that has to do with which direction the port was in (from PC to console or vice versa); either way, I think this quality issue changes from title to title. But in this case, if you plan on spending time with “Infernal,” do so on the PC with all the graphics settings maxed out (not too difficult a task on a contemporary system). You’ll be pleasantly surprised how beautiful and visually immersive the game really is. And it runs smooth as glass. Good graphics don’t make a good game, but in this case, the graphics are Infernal’s best asset.

And it bears repeating: The graphics here really are striking (in high rez) for a 2007 game. In fact, every endorsement on the box claims “The graphics are to die for!” (while saying nothing about the gameplay), and this is a reasonable assessment. The cutscenes, which are just right in number without interrupting gameplay too often, help the story to move along at a brisk-enough pace and are competently directed. In-game animations are extremely well done too. In essence, I’d say this 5-year game (here in 2012) has aged remarkably well so far. The gameplay works too, most of the time; aiming is a bit loose but you get used to it, the AI has enough moves to keep things interesting, and the guns (pistol, rifle, shotgun, some un-noteworthy experimental weapons, and grenades that take an eternity to throw) feel powerful enough for a TPS. You can use your fists when you run out of bullets (which is never, frankly).

Using Ryan’s special demonic-powers-on-loan is fun (with some caveats, see below), and sucking the souls out of dead enemies to regain health is strangely satisfying. In this move (which you do hundreds of times over the course of the game), Ryan raises his glowing red hand over a corpse, which levitates in response, as souls [and bullets!] are magically transferred to you, and then the body slumps back to the floor. Fighting through some of the larger environments is quite memorable (the icy deck of the aircraft carrier comes to mind with the Aurora Borealis glowing in the background), if repetitive. There is even a nascent kind of cover system, but we’re not talking “Gears of War” here by a long stretch. Ryan can duck behind a corner and can even lean out to shoot, but in doing so he completely exposes his whole body to gunfire, and the animation when he returns to cover is a bit laggy…so inevitably, if you use this maneuver (which is not required, really) you can expect to take damage. It’s all sort of silly and unnecessary.

While the setup is pure fantasy, the narrative itself really doesn’t pull any punches or offer any surprising twists—it’s honestly a bit predictable, all the way down to the two major events in the story where you are captured and lose all your weapons and powers. You are then forced to fight your way through a map or two in order to eventually regain your gear. This is a videogame trope we’ve seen too often, but it works here well enough to force you to alter your tactics for a time. There are a handful of boss fights, none of which are terribly taxing and can be overcome with some creative quicksaving and a few retries. Oh, and miracle of miracles, the voice acting is passable, not stellar, but not awful. Whew, about time.

Of course, for a game whose Metacritic score sits at a flaccid 61 for the PC version, and an cringe-worthy 35 for the Xbox version, the list of shortcomings isn’t…well, short. First there’s Ryan’s completely broken duck-and-roll maneuver.  Many reviews of this title round the ‘nets gripe about this, and I’ll gladly chime in.  The main issue is that this ill-timed, poorly mapped defensive somersault only serves to roll you right into the path of oncoming bullets. Either that, or Ryan will cannonball right off a death-cliff. Flying through the air with the greatest of ease? More like game over. The problem is not the move itself of course, but the touchiness of the mechanic. By barely double-tapping any movement key (WASD by default), Jack will duck and roll forward, backward, or to the side (and as a bonus he becomes invisible to enemies while doing so, woah). Great defensive move…if it worked.  But do you know how easy it is to accidentally bump one of those keys twice? Yeah, you got it; you end up somersaulting everywhere all the time. Not cool. To take this bad mechanic and make it worse, try playing the game using an Xbox 360 controller for PC—I’d say about 50 percent of the time when just pushing the thumbstick in a certain direction, an unintended duck-and-roll is initiated—Jack just gleefully rolls out from behind perfect cover and into the path of an oncoming train or a troop of five guys with rifles. It happened like clockwork and was a constant irritation, almost to the point of me quitting the game outright. I know, what a blasphemer I am.

There are some glaring inconsistencies in the game too. For example, Ryan can’t seem to take a fall of more than about 10 feet, or he croaks. I can’t figure it out, but you learn how far you can fall pretty quickly and avoid most cliffs altogether. Then, there are some doors that open, and others that don’t, but there are no visual clues to tell you which door is which. Then, there are some puzzles that require specific maneuvers, or for Ryan to destroy something by shooting it, yet you are given no clues as to how to proceed. So these moments become colossal trial-and-error-frustration-fests. Small details like these fade into the background pretty quickly and don’t wreck the game thankfully.

Next on the list of irritations: Ryan’s got a cool set of binocular-goggles (let’s dub them binocu-goggles, cool) that give him an ability to see pretty far into the distance. When choosing them from the inventory, the game switches into first-person perspective so you can scout out the situation ahead. A similar mechanic comes in the form of Ryan’s special ability “hell-o-vision” (or whatever it is called), which also switches into first-person perspective and turns the screen a dull gray and black. This change in screen color allows you to see hidden traps (likes glowing mines or electrified panels on the floor) as well as reveal hidden caches of yummy lifebar juice or mana (the stuff that gives you your special powers) lurking in corners. Great, right? Yeah, except one massive oversight: Switching into either of these first-person modes completely robs you of the ability to shoot. Your gun just sort of…disappears from your hands. Uh…ok. Of course, it is without fail that right at one of these defenseless moments, some baddies decide to appear around a corner and pop you in the head. Fail.

Another cool hellish device is a glove that allows Jack to zap out a blue ray, pick up heavy objects, float an “image” of those objects to a new location, and then teleport those objects from point A to point B in an instant. (Frankly, all you are doing is lifting and moving an object in the environment to your advantage.) This comes in handy in several ways, but is typically used as a small puzzle-solving device when needing to unblock a passageway (or to move an out-of-reach enemy body nearby to devour his soul). The problem is that controlling the objects when floating them to a new location is a major chore—these objects rarely go where they are supposed to, they get hung up on other geometry nearby, or seeing the ultimate destination for these objects becomes a vague guessing game. The result? I only used it when absolutely necessary (and in some boss fights where using the device is required, much griping was heard throughout the house).

On the whole, if you are interested in a story-driven, third-person shooter with both sci-fi and fantasy elements (and you don’t mind the overblown, simplified characters who usually populate these kinds of games), this title is worth some of your time…especially since you can get it so cheap at this point and most players will be able to max out graphical settings with ease. It’s easy on the eyes and plays well enough…as long as you prepare yourself for that eternally damned somersault.