Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of The Earth
In an old barn in a windswept field on the outskirts of darkest Sutton Coldfield, something sinister is lurking. It is a thing of unspeakable terror, the result of man’s perverted need to turn technology to his own foul purpose. As yet inchoate but with the potential to leave every mind it touches hideously scarred and twisted, it calls itself... Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth.
Scared yet? Well, if not, we’re pretty confident you will be when this first-person mind-wrench gets hold of you come summer. In fact, those of a delicate humour may want to give it a wide berth, as it could just be the most disturbing and frightening game ever made. "It’s not about shocks and thrills (although there are a few of these) but about a gradually building atmosphere of despair and hopelessness. People should play this game and not be able to sleep afterwards thinking about all they’ve seen and heard."
So says Simon Woodroffe, head of design and co-founder of Headfirst Productions, and anyone who knows anything about its choice of source material will know that the potential is all there. For the uninitiated, Call Of Cthulhu is a pen-and-paper RPG based loosely on the work of early 20th-century writer HP Lovecraft. And while this may inspire more than a few shrugs of disinterest, we know you love it deep down. We know because just about every game marked by macabre horror - from Doom to Undying to Alone In The Dark - has been influenced at some level by the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, a vague and disputed term covering the world of cosmic fear created by Lovecraft and his followers. As Simon explains: "The storyline is really depressing. It’s been designed to read like a real Lovecraft tale about mankind’s struggle against creatures far more ancient and alien than he can truly comprehend."
A game designed to leave you quivering somewhere between deep depression and wide-eyed, terrified insomnia? Possibly not for those who found Lord Of The Rings a bit on the scary side then. But however disturbing it turns out to be, CoC: DCotE is also one of the most innovative games in development, with a raft of brave gameplay features designed to heighten the tension and level of player engagement. It’s still built around familiar action/adventure/ RPG devices such as shooting, puzzle solving, exploration and interactin g with NPCs, but with enough twists to demand a new generic pigeonhole. For starters, the game goes against the trend of the genre by opting for a first-person viewpoint, but without feeling obliged to stray too far into FPS territory (a mistake made by Undying). Certainly not a revolution, but a wise move nonetheless, as, let’s face it, third-person games such as Resident Evil and Alone In The Dark have never even come close to the brown-pantsing potential of games such as AvP2.
However, the chaps at Headfirst decided early in development that going first-person was a half-measure, and that to achieve true immersion any standard conception of interface had to go too (see boxout). "It’s so important to get the player deeply engrossed in the game environment without a HUD to distract them," insists Simon. "We thought the idea of an interface-free game would be quite cool, but it introduced problems into the gameplay. Don’t expect a normal interface though."
Thinking Man’s Horror
This move towards realistic gameplay mechanics extends to other aspects of the game as well, and ends up determining the nature of many of the game’s puzzles. For example, instead of a visible health rating or damage meter, you’ll actually have to check your own pulse to determine your state of health, and when injured, examine your virtual body for damage. There are 11 different injuries that you can sustain, each with corresponding effects on performance and each requiring a specific treatment. "If you take a bullet in the arm which stays embedded you can yank it out with forceps, but this will cause severe bleeding unless you’ve used a tourniquet first. Once the object is removed you can stitch the arm and remove the tourniquet. Forgetting to do that will cause other problems." So much for picking up floating medkits and going about your business then.
The other most intriguing element of the game is a dynamic sanity system cribbed from the original paper RPG. It’s basically a sliding scale governing your slow descent into stark raving lunacy, with your sanity dropping with every upsetting incident in the game. "The player has a sanity score held inside the engine that they have no concept of other than through the effects which come into play when it starts to fall," explains Simon. "It will fall when you first see a Deep One close up and realise the horrors of what you are facing. Or when you find the mangled corpse of a friend in a cesspit..."
Clearly there’s loads of potential for messing with player’s mind with this sanity business. You won’t always know straight 3way when your character has gone nuts, and the initial signs will be subtle. Flashes of movement at the edge of your vision, voices whispering imperceptibly in your ears. Friends appearing as enemies, or worse still, vice versa... "We're going all-out to mess people up here," admits Simon. "I think our ultimate goal would be news stories about people playing the game and losing the plot."
Gorgeous, Grim And Gory
Forget insomnia then, we’re talking actual psychosis now. At this stage a city overrun by zombies is starting to look positively cheerful. Luckily, any depressive aspects of the game are likely to be countered by a degree of sheer aesthetic pleasure, as the game is looking rather stunning in a grim sort of way. The atmosphere and lighting is superb, Simon boasting that Headfirst has been accused of faking their screenshots on a number of occasions.
The multiplayer side of things hasn’t been neglected either, with a team-versus-team mode to be built somehow around the sanity management concept. In fact, there’s every chance that this will be the best horror game ever. Either that or we’ve cracked already.
Download Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of The Earth
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- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
When Howard Philips Lovecraft wrote the majority of his books in the 1920s and '30s no one took much notice. When he died in 1937, aged 47, his writings were considered 'cult' material and his stature began to grow. Now he is generally recognised as the major American horror-story writer of the 20th century. It is from Lovecraft's chilling tales that we were given the Necronomicon and Shub-Niggurath, and several other staples of modern horror. His ideas have been adapted into films and TV shows, and are now set to be fashioned into a computer game.
Headfirst Productions, the UK-based development team currently working on Simon The Sorcerer 3D. have obtained a licence from board game manufacturer Chaosium to make a game based on its Call Of Cthulhu (pronounced Cuh-thoo-loo) table-top RPG.
"Our game won't be too closely linked to the RPG though," explains Cthulhu designer Andrew Brazier. "Those pen-and-paper games never translate very well - you usually end up with loads of stats and numbers." One thing Headfirst is planning to take from the table-top original, though, is the 'sanity* raring - a device that monitors your wellbeing and erodes as you come across scary or hideous situations. So over time you'll begin to hear voices inside your head if you don't take care of yourself, just like in real life.
Having already licensed NDL's Netlmmersive 3D engine to create Simon The Sorcerer 3D, Headfirst decided to use it to make Call Of Cthulhu as well. Andrew says: "Netlmmersive is a very flexible third-party engine. Using that instead of developing our own gives us more time to concentrate on the game rather than constantly fighting to keep our engine competitive. They do all that for us. Having said that, we're also incorporating our own code, like the advanced physics engine, which isn't in Simon The Sorcerer 3D."
Regardless of the engine politics, early peeks seem favourable and Cthulhu appears suitably dark. But how scary will this game be? Will it measure up to the hair-prickling suspense of something like System Shock 2?
"We're thinking of including a free, clean pair of skids with each copy," boasts Andrew. "We will really be concentrating hard to make it as scary as possible by using dramatic graphics and locations, as well as tailoring the music and sound effects to suit the action." Apparently Andrew and his team spent a lot of time watching horror films in the build-up to Cthulhu's green light (no doubt including Stuart Gordon's Lovecraft-based From Beyond, which is worth checking out if you've never seen it), and even consulted a psychologist to ensure they capture the madness inherent in much of Lovecraft's writing. As for the gameplay, co-operative, story-based multiplay, straight-forward deathmatch, and six huge single-player stories will provide the backbone of the game, to keep the scares flowing.
At this stage in time Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth is still a way off. Headfirst estimates an autumn 200I release for the game when it's eventually picked up by a publisher.