September 06, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Thing, based on John Carpenter’s 1982 film, is being billed as the antidote to the current glut of brawn-before-brains action games. Instead of focusing on derivative run-and-gun gameplay, the game takes a much-hyped cerebral twist: To win, you must earn the trust of computer-controlled sidekicks, who — much like the characters in the movie — are unsure of whether or not you are infected by the titular monster. If your in-game teammates begin to fear the worst, they may stop following your orders — or they might even kill you.

Taking place on Outpost 31, the film’s fictional Antarctic research base, the game actually functions as a sequel with new characters and weapons. However, the basic premise remains unchanged: If you want to stay alive, you’ll have to torch the extraterrestrial beasties with a trusty flamethrower.

If nothing else, the game’s faithfulness to the film is remarkable. Fans of the movie will be amazed at the attention to detail. The gameplay, reminiscent of last year’s Max Payne, includes high-stakes action scenarios that could easily double for scenes from a real Thing follow-up flick.

But there’s something missing as you play. Even though the core game is well executed, the essential aspects of camaraderie and teamwork never quite come together. That’s largely because you don’t feel emotionally invested in The Thing’s characters: Since there’s no way to really converse with your team, you often feel like you’re fighting alone. Worst of all, team members change from mission to mission; rarely do they stick around for more than a few minutes. As a result, you end up treating these cardboard-cutout comrades like strangers in an elevator. You know they’ll soon be gone, so there’s no point worrying about what they think of you.

Eventually, the psychological meta-game boils down to mere Pavlovian conditioning: Give your teammate a weapon to gain trust, or fire at them to lose it. This contrived implementation of a great concept is disappointing, but at least the surrounding game delivers some taut cinematic moments that would make Carpenter proud.

STRATEGY When incinerating monsters with your flamethrower, make sure you have a fire extinguisher on hand to keep the flames at bay.

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