Tuesday, October 30, 2012

You Can't Escape From Nightmare House 2

Nightmare House 2 is one of the coolest horror games I've ever played. What's even more remarkable is that it's a free source mod for Half-Life 2. A first-person shooter with a light emphasis on action and a heavy emphasis on horror, the game begins with you gaining consciousness next to a wrecked vehicle in front of an abandoned house. Which also happens to be haunted. After escaping the house, the rest of the game takes place in the Never Lose Hope Hospital, where you regain consciousness in a padded cell only to find that something else has gone terribly wrong. 

For comparison, Nightmare House 2 feels a lot like the original F.E.A.R. with hints of Condemned: Criminal Origins (both by Monolith), both in terms of quality and content, if you were to take those games and condense them down to about 2-3 hours. NH2 features some very good attempts at horror as well as some decently enjoyable puzzles and action, all tied together with an interesting story. There are a few hiccups in its design, which I'll discuss in the full article, but it's a great game that's definitely worth playing.

In terms of horror, NH2 has a nice mixture of atmospheric "creepy" scares and sudden startle scares. As you know, the first rule of horror is to create an immersive atmosphere; NH2 does a fine job of presenting plausible spaces that pull you into the experience, courtesy of the layered audio effects, the lighting, and of course the graphics. Once the atmosphere is established, any game can get you to jump with loud, sudden sound effects and something popping onto the screen. NH2 does this on occasion, but a lot of its scares are more subtle.

Some of the more obvious jump-scare moments of Nightmare House 2

Most of the time, the scares are about creating a weird, unsettling environment with supernatural things happening. You walk into a morgue and bodybags start spilling out from the lockers. You're crawling through an air vent and reach a dead end; when you turn around to retrace your steps, you're faced with another dead end. You're walking down a hallway and the tiles start falling off. Little things that aren't necessarily scary, but they mess with your brain a little bit. A lot of the scares are completely randomized, so you never know what to expect. They make you cautious about your surroundings so that when a ghostly image dashes by at the end of the hallway or when a monster actually pops out at you, it'll actually be startling.

Unlike other recent free indie horror games I've played, NH2 has a survival element going on, which helps support the horror and amplify the tension you feel as you explore. You have a health bar to worry about and you can take damage from various encounters. Your weapons consume ammunition, and so you have to worry about running out of ammo. When low on health or ammo, you have to search the environment for more. Your flashlight also has limited battery life, so you have to let it recharge periodically. These mechanics make you feel a little more vulnerable because there are more consequences for your actions, and while you'll likely survive most encounters, you can be detrimentally harmed.

The game is very linear (like any modern FPS); you basically just walk through rooms and hallways futilely clicking on locked doors, searching for the one that'll actually open, but it throws in some environmental puzzles every now and then to mix things up. When you reach a dead end, you sometimes have to stop and look around with your problem-solving cap on to figure out what you need to do to proceed. In one situation you have to swap the fuses from two electrical boxes; in another you have to knock the cap off a gas canister, then drop it into the cage of a power generator. While not terribly sophisticated (and certainly not the emphasis of the game), the puzzles are enjoyable enough and they feel quite natural.

Shooting some "creepers"

As an FPS, you get guns and you fight enemies, but the combat is really there to supplement the horror and the atmosphere -- it's not the main priority of the game. By now the Source engine is beginning to feel a little stale, so shooting guns isn't as satisfying as some other more modern shooters, and you don't even need guns in a majority of combat situations since the hatchet is more than sufficient against basic zombies, but the action itself is competent. Some sequences later on, however, are pretty thrilling and engaging, like when you're frantically racing through dark, narrow alleys with a SWAT team fending off creepy, gangly monsters.

I'm usually annoyed whenever these kinds of horror games force a squad of NPCs on you (at least, I found it annoying in F.E.A.R. 2 and in Condemned 2), but I thought the SWAT team worked rather well in NH2. For a few sequences you're joined by four SWAT members, and you go through the hospital together fighting enemies and what not. They work pretty well with you, they offer some well-written and well-acted dialogue, and they ultimately contribute to the game's atmosphere instead of just being there to die. I mean, they are basically just there to die, and at least one death was totally predictable, but I actually enjoyed having those guys around.

My thoughts exactly, bro.

Tying all of this together is the story, which is actually much deeper than it would initially seem. When you start playing, you might wonder what the purpose of the prologue sequence in the abandoned house was and why you're suddenly locked up in a psych ward, but as you play the details are progressively revealed. You meet a few characters (some more friendly than others) and learn the backstory of the abandoned house and what happened at the hospital. There are even a couple of good, unexpected twists in the plot development which really made me appreciate the more unique aspects of this game's story. The horror elements are good enough to sell the game on their own, but the story is what really elevates it into the territory of excellence.

But the game isn't perfect. When I first started playing, there were a number of things that really irritated me and made it difficult to continue. Number one on the list of obnoxious design decisions is the excessively exaggerated headbob. It's like your character is nodding his head "yes" every time you walk around; it's completely unnatural and it was a little uncomfortable. Next is the excessive use of strobe lights and flickering light sources to create the atmosphere, but it generally just hurt my eyes more than it enhanced the tension of a situation.

Creepy dead girl dangling from the ceiling? Seems safe enough.

I was especially annoyed early on when the game rejected the double-tap. There was a suspicious dead corpse on the ground, right in my path, so I slowly and carefully approached and then spent 10 seconds bashing it with the hatchet to make sure it was dead. It made no reaction, so I continued on, only for the thing to spring to life the moment I passed it. Things like that are kind of cheap scare tactics, when you specifically anticipate the scare but there's nothing you can do but trigger it anyway. In fact, some of the scares are a little too scripted, like how often you'll come to a locked door and knowingly wait for the scare to happen before the door will magically unlock.

Taken as a whole, however, Nightmare House 2 is a very enjoyable game. The scares are generally good, and it's nice that a lot of them are subtle and more cerebral; there are some good jump scares involved, but most of the time the game's about creeping you out and just making you uncomfortable, and that's much harder to pull off than simple startle scares. It's a quality mod, available for free, with a short-but-not-too-short, long-enough-to-be-satisfying 2.5 hour playtime. It's a solid recommendation for Halloween, but it's enjoyable regardless of the season.

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