Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Instinct (PC, 2007, Russia): Another Mediocre Russian Gem, No Apologies
July 23, 2011, 1:34 am
Filed under: Instinct (PC, 2007, Russia)

I’m already an unapologetic sycophant when it comes to “You Are Empty” (PC, 2007, Russia). So you already know where this post is going. Digital Spray (who birthed that oddity) also had their hand in developing “Instinct” (PC, 2007, Russia). Strap in.

Before I started writing this post, I trundled over to Gamespot to glance at the user reviews for this unassuming kinda-zombie shooter. Although I wasn’t surprised by what I found, ouch anyway. There are a lot of people who really, really, really despise this game. In fact, one 13-year-old hater says poor little old Digital Spray (and co-developers Wild Hare) should burn in hell.

In the next meandering 2,500 words, I’ll explain in detail why that 13 year old is wrong (as well as the other 223 Gamespot readers who have vented their hatred for “Instinct”—OK, not all of them are haters). And since my reviews are balanced (if not fair, eh?), this will also include some well-deserved finger-wagging at the developers for their missteps and a little bit of justified gushing for what they got right.

In “Instinct” you play three characters who comprise a team of special operatives—two dudes, Eighth and White, and one chick, Arrow (alternating between them, all in first-person perspective). The three are infiltrating a North Korean military testing facility to (kidnap? rescue?) a scientist. (Their actual relationship to said scientist is never adequately explained, or it slipped right past me.) As a military trio, it is kind of an interesting dynamic (though I don’t want to give any kind of impression that characters are at all even slightly fleshed out). Arrow and White are a couple, which at least gives the otherwise humdrum narrative a little color (well, it provides a miniscule human-wrinkle to the story, though not much). Anyway, at this North Korean facility, a new protovirus “capable of decaying the mind but strengthening the body as a new type of warfare” has gotten loose and infected the base personnel. To make matters worse, the helicopter delivering the squad encounters some enemy fire from the Koreans and crashes, killing the pilot. So, the three spread out in different directions (without a clear plan of escape) to complete their mission anyway. The timeline of the game seems to flow back and forth—so you may play a section of Eighth’s narrative, but then slide backwards in time a bit to play some of that same timeline from Arrow’s perspective, and so forth. In addition, the game begins “in media res,” and then later on shifts backwards to show you what occurred before that point. Eventually you also become infected with the protovirus (since you are, after all, crawling around inside the ventilation shafts at ground zero), there is some dirty double-dealing within the squad itself, some shadowy government figures get involved at some point, and there’s a last-minute “let’s attempt to escape the complex while jets are dropping bombs on it and reducing it to rubble” ending (which ain’t half bad).

Having shared the plot-like-substance, let me now say that when playing, I could not in any sense, shape, or form tell you that this is actually what was happening. As it is presented within the game, the narrative is a complete fuzzy cloud of…whatever. The structure of the plot, for me, was impenetrable, most likely because the story is not told in a linear fashion (which I don’t necessarily mind). Oddly, the game moves forward confidently as though it is making complete sense in a linear fashion anyway, as though it is transparently straightforward and comprehensible, which is kind of funny. (Indeed, the game somehow feels very confidently made, if that tracks. More on that in a minute.)

What follows is a kind of mid-paced corridor crawler with a standard set of weapons (though the shotgun is woefully and disappointingly underpowered), strategy-less AI pseudo-zombies and military personnel (they’re not reanimated dead folks, but they’ve become infected with the virus, basically turning them into drooling, lumbering killing machines), and the requisite button-pushing, access card gathering, door opening, red barrel exploding stuff you’ve done a billion times before if you are an FPS freak. It’s the kind of game that wouldn’t exist if “Half Life” was never born, plain and simple. But sometimes familiar is OK. As I just said, the game moves along at a steady clip—it’s not a whirlwind, but it doesn’t stall, not even for a moment. It runs smoothly, and the action, while completely repetitive and old-school, strolls along…confidently. That word, confident, keeps coming to mind. The game knows what it is, has no aspirations of greatness, and knows what to do to keep up minimal interest. It just goofily strides along with its head held high…whatever that means. In fact, this confidence is displayed in the way the game willfully telegraphs its own ending; each chapter fades in with ominous words on screen declaring “11 hours and 36 minutes before the explosion” or “4 hours and 17 minutes before the explosion.” That, if you were wondering, means everything is going to turn out just fine in the end. Also one of the trio (that you play) actually dies in combat about two-thirds of the way through (in a cutscene), which at least provides a mini-twist. Other nasty things befall the rest of the squad too, but I’ll keep it hush-hush. Like I said, it’s not much, but it’s far from the travesty many reviews claim.

There are at least two items in “Instinct” that deserve a bit of special attention and discussion. First, perhaps one of the smartest moves the developers Digital Spray/Wild Hare made (and I would bet my next paycheck that it was a case of necessity being the mother of invention) is that they left the original, perfectly serviceable Russian voice acting in place, and they did not attempt to localize it using half-assed English voice actors, who, frankly, always suck. (If a 13-year-old know-it-all can tell the devs to burn in hell, then I’m allowed a little hyperbole too, damnit.) So, the com chatter we get amongst the three main characters here sounds and feels authentic, natural, smooth. Indeed, this was the developer’s intention; the game’s manual claims that “Instinct is a game created in Russia by a premiere game developer. Voices throughout the game are in the original Russian in an effort to showcase Russian culture and to maintain the true feel of the game.” It may be nothing but a well-worded excuse (and the “premiere game developer” line sounds a bit self-aggrandizing… come on this is Digital Spray after all), but I’m buying their justification. To me, their reasoning has integrity, plain and simple. In order for English speakers to understand the dialogue, a “journal” page is available that can be called up with the press of a button (a semi-transparent page that overlays the main action screen, so it does not completely remove you from the game), and you can read the dialogue as it is being spoken. Simple, clean-cut, beautiful. Of course, the “professional” review on Gamespot complains that the publisher should’ve spent the extra money to localize the voice acting and that having to activate the journal page to read the dialogue was a hassle. I am diametrically opposed to this opinion. People are idiots sometimes. (That includes me, though not often.) Moving on.

The next special item has to do with the aforementioned pseudo-cel-shaded graphics of the game. Interestingly, the game can be played with traditional “realistic graphics” (I’ve included some shots here), but in the graphics setting there is a box labeled “Comics Style,” which produces the mutated-“Borderlands”-like images in most of these pictures. (Of course, when the game was released in 2007, that convenient reference wouldn’t have been possible, and indeed you might consider it inaccurate.) It is, of course, not nearly as skillfully or artfully done as that Gearbox title, but it is also, once again, an eastern European game that predates “Borderlands”—and the current videogame love affair with cel-shading—by at least 4 years. What other game was around that looked like this in 2007? Or better yet, what game was around in 2007 that allowed you the option to make your game look like this if you wished it to? For that matter, when was the last time you played a game where you were given a choice about how you wanted your game to look? I’m sure there are some, but this sort of playful, forward-thinking approach still impresses me. The Gamespot review calls this interesting but ultimately irritating. I’m not going to use the “opinions = assholes = stinking” quotable again, but it sure would be appropriate.

And to further pat Digital Spray/Wild Hare on the back, the “Comics Style” presentation isn’t just tacked on weirdness. No, there’s an actual stylistic reason why they included it. You see, all the cutscenes in the game are indeed in the form of a graphic novel of sorts—they are presented in comic book form. So my guess is that the “Comics Style” graphics option was included to provide a more complete, seamless kind of “theme,” I’d guess you’d say. Now don’t get me wrong—the comic book-like cutscenes in “Instinct” are leagues below some other games that have done the same thing since (“Infamous” on the PS3 comes to mind, whose comic art style is striking), but again remember where and when this game came from. I’m still impressed. And, I had fun turning the effect off and on all throughout the game (which you can do on-the-fly without having to reboot the game) to see what different environments looked like. Totally engrossing. I’m such a child.

But one note about this graphics option: While most of the game’s environments are small to midsized hallways and rooms, some limited areas can be a little more expansive. (Later in the game there is a train/warehouse and a vivarium [a terrarium] that are larger than most of the other environments.) While the “comics” style option works fine in the smaller areas, when the maps (and draw distance) increase in size, things get increasingly difficult to make out when using this highly stylized perspective. The cartoony lines converge and diverge confusingly, making it nearly impossible to discern enemies at a distance. I also noticed that the “bloom” effect on the high-dynamic-range lighting (when using the “comics” option) tends to brighten things up perhaps too much, since part of the effect is to draw white lines around most items. So, turning the brightness and contrast down in game or on your TV/monitor might be useful. Since you can pop in and out of this effect quickly, it’s easy to experiment with what looks cool to you. Or you can just ignore it all and play it on the more realistic graphics setting.

OK, that was the gushing part, so let me bring it down a notch by highlighting some niggling items. Ultimately (except in one chapter that takes place in the mountains), this is an old-school, linear, corridor crawler (and even in the mountainside chapter, there’s a corridor made of mountains, so…). That’s just to say that if you plan on playing it, keep your expectations in check. Of course there are some gameplay shortcomings beyond the generally semi-incomprehensible narrative. The animations of the NPCs and enemies are stiff (though they outshine those found in “You Are Empty” by a loooooong shot). There is no run function (remind you of anything? That’s right! “You Are Empty” had no run function either. Though these characters move along at a slightly more brisk pace than the protagonist/cop in “You Are Empty,” there are moments when running would of course be the sensible thing to do. But you can’t, so deal with it, while getting shot in the back of course.) There is an alternate fire on the shotgun—which takes the form of a pretty decent gun butt, handy for close encounters or for smashing the glass out of first-aid kits hanging on the wall. But the shotgun is the only weapon that has the gun butt function. Why the hell is that? Can’t you gun butt stuff and people with an assault rifle or a pistol too? Apparently not. Also, when playing Arrow, the female operative, she does not have a gun butt move at all, even when holding the shotgun. Forgetful programmers perhaps, or some chauvinistic statement about the physical strength of women? Hmm. I’ll choose the former, since they included a tough, capable woman as a combat soldier in the first place. Oh, the jump is weak, the sniper reticle slides around a bit too much when focusing (though I think crouching may help to stabilize it a little, or I was hallucinating), and the sound design was merely functional, not outstanding (except for the use of dynamic music, a la “Half Life 2,” when larger encounters were about to occur). In general the selection of weapons is unexciting to use (the bow with exploding arrows is a noted exception). There’s a whole list of items I could include here, but I could also say these same things about a dozen other games.

But I liked this game—not in the same way I am beguiled by “You Are Empty.” Nothing in “Instinct” has the same half-realized grandeur and sense of eerie isolation, narratively or graphically. But it is a confident game that zips along, isn’t too demanding, and is over before you know it. Maybe in my case, the game came along just at the right moment when I needed something of this middling caliber and simplicity.

And on that note, here’s an odd little rambling postscript with a point buried so deeply and articulated so poorly I might not be able to find it myself: Like a lot of you, I usually have a few games going at once—something on the PC, something on a console or two, etc. At the point in time when I was playing “Instinct” and making notes about how I wanted to defend it (my daily modus operandi), I was also slowly making my way through “Heavy Rain” (PS3, 2010). (I exercise and lift weights regularly, but I have real serious chronic back pain, and to engage in daily aerobic exercise, I use a recumbent exercise bike, which provides back support, and even more important, allows me to sit on my ass and play games while I work up a sweat. Yeah, it still counts as exercise!) “Heavy Rain” is not a title I’d write about on this blog, because I sort of don’t see the reason. There are more qualified reviewers (dozens of them) who played the game upon its release and thoroughly discussed its merits and shortcomings—I’ve got nothing to add to that conversation. Anyway, one day I sat down on my bike with my water bottle, cranked up my PS3 and…POOF! My game save was gone, vanished, kerploofed. Total mystery. I had progressed about three-quarters of the way through the game, at least 10 hours of play. But rather than despairing or chucking the console out of the second-story window, I sort of shrugged my shoulders, said “Eh,” popped the game out of the console, and put it up on the shelf. I was completely uninterested in starting it over. I just wasn’t enthralled by it, I guess. So, instead I booted up “Instinct” and got my sweat on, totally engrossed, happy as a fool.  Why would I have such a lopsided response to a crappy, four-year-old, eastern European FPS over a beautiful, state-of-the-art PS3 game that is barely a year old? What is that all about? I fear it’s my truly bad taste shining through…I just hope it doesn’t bleed over into my sartorial choices…