“The Abyss” is the one film from James Cameron’s past everybody forgets about until someone else brings it up, and to be honest I like it fine that way. It’s one of my favorites, but at the same time I can’t say I watch it more than once every few years, mainly because the special edition is three hours long. The story still holds up today, and the visual effects are awesome for a 1989 production. That said, you’d assume a video game tie-in for a film like this would have shown up the same year, or maybe 1990 at the latest. But no, if you wanted to know what happened after the credits rolled you were in for a decade-long wait. Sound Source Interactive released The Abyss: Incident At Europa on the PC in October of 1998. And it’s definitely, uh, a game.
According to the storyline, in the six years following Deepcore’s encounter with the NTIs (non-terrestrial intelligences), humans and non-humans have been working side by side on the ocean floor. All this changes when an alien virus brought back from one of Jupiter’s moons ravages the underwater research facility, prompting a distress call from the NTIs. They request the assistance of ‘The Finders’: Bud Brigman, the original foreman of the Deepcore operation, and his wife Lindsey, the designer of the platform. The military springs into action, and soon enough the couple are en-route to Deepcore with a redshirt escort who is promptly incapacitated before the introductory cinema ends. That leaves Bud and Lindsey, thousands of miles below the ocean’s surface, on a seemingly-abandoned research station. Emphasis on seemingly.
The end result feels like a Doom clone that was jury-rigged halfway through development into an adventure game, which makes sense because that’s exactly what happened according to the game’s own developers. Word has it management wanted their game playable on the widest variety of systems possible, and thus pressed the developers to get the minimum system requirements far below the standards for the day. That meant no 3D effects, no 3D cards, and no DirectX routines either: all audio and graphical effects run in software-only mode.
To be fair, at one time this was a viable strategy for marketing a PC game. But The Abyss: Incident At Europa released one year after iD Software delivered Quake II, a title which ensured every self-respecting gamer on the planet was running something better than a 486DX with a 66MHz processor. But that’s what you get when upper-echelon types fail to understand changing tides.
The game’s not as terrible as many people make it out to be, but it’s far from being any sort of idolized ideal in the gaming community. Graphically it looks like a Doom II mod, with repetitive textures, flat sprites, and unimaginative enemy design. Instead of your typical FPS arsenal, Bud and Lindsey have only a stungun with which to defend themselves, which means it’s impossible to clear a level of enemies and you’ll want to avoid backtracking as much as possible. Later in the game you get an upgraded version of this weapon which takes fewer shots to down an attacker and increases the amount of time they remain incapacitated, but that’s it. If you’re looking for run-and-gun action, Incident At Europa will leave you dead in the water. The good news is enemies are relatively easy to avoid as they do their zombie shamble, and have no long-range attacks, so once you get the hang of the keyboard-only controls (WTF, Sound Source?) you’ll have few problems dodging your way around most of the mutated inhabitants of Deepcore.
I really like the audio from this game. You pick Bud or Lindsey as your character when you start a new game, and whoever you don’t pick stays behind to serve as your radio liaison for the mission. They talk to one another as the plot develops, and I like this because it feels so different from your basic first-person shooter with a typical silent protagonist. They sound nothing at all like Ed Harris or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, but let’s not kid ourselves: this game didn’t have the budget to get the real actors to voice their characters.
What leaves much to be desired however is the puzzle interface. You can carry around any number of objects, but interacting with the scenery is an exercise in frustration. You pick up items by running into them or walking over them, but you have to find exactly the right spot from which to do so. You’ll find yourself crouching down, standing up, strafing along tables and double- and triple-checking everything that looks interesting just to make sure you’re not missing anything. Pixel hunts in adventure games are annoying, but pixel hunts in first-person shooter environments where you cannot kill your adversaries are deadly. Safe early and save often, because hitting a dead end in this game usually means backtracking and that means taking a bunch of extra damage, wasting ammo, or both looking for the locker you failed to open, or the keycard you thought you swiped from the table but were too far away to actually grab.
I really can’t get over how odd it is that it took almost ten years for this game to show up. Most licensed games are all about striking while the iron is hot, but Incident At Europa‘s 1998 release is akin to someone just getting around to releasing a game based on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King today, and even that’s a terrible analogy because LoTR has far better brand recognition than Cameron’s film ever did.
The Abyss: Incident At Europa is best left as a curiosity of gaming history. It’s a shining example of what not to do when trying to create a tie-in property for a film, but for the die-hard fan or FPS completionist it’s worth picking up as long as you’re not spending more than a few dollars. It’s clear the game was aiming for a certain feel (it feels to me more like System Shock than Doom), and it does enough right in terms of ambiance that it’s not a total failure, but the keyboard-only controls, low-as-the-’08-stock-market system requirements, and well-past-its-prime release date make it suitable for determined gamers only. Everyone else, leave this one down in the trenches, save yourself some headaches, and watch the movie instead.