Sunday, 23 October 2016

October Nightmares II #23: Body Harvest (1998) - Giving Me the Munchies...

Back in the day video games didn’t really need a story. They just plonked the player into the world, with nothing but a five-minute orientation course, and set them on their way with a pat on the bum. Games were a lot simpler in pre-Sixth generation days, sure, but the freedom of not having to put together a cohesive narrative meant that developers could take more creative risks. First person shooter Rise of the Triad, for example, had the player utilise everything from psychic powers to the ability to transform into a dog to slaughter Nazi cultists. My point is that the subject of this review, Body Harvest, would not be made today. There’s no complex story, over-wrought cinematics, or complicated gameplay mechanics – just you, an armada of aliens, and a whole lot of fucking about.

Developed by DMA Design before they broke up with Nintendo, got a new haircut, and formed a rebound relationship with Rockstar, Body Harvest was the precursor to the 3D Grand Theft Auto games. Set in the dystopia of 2016 (oh, if only they knew), Body Harvest sees a human race dangerously depleted by a series of alien invasions throughout the 20th Century. As the sole remaining hope of humanity, super-solider Adam Drake uses the time machine he had laying around to go back and shag/save Sarah Conner. Oh wait, that was Terminator. The story really isn’t of consequence, delivered entirely through a text scroll and a single cinematic that resembles the scene of Judge Dredd getting tooled up in Dredd.

A cheesy b-movie vibe permeates throughout Body Harvest, like one of the direct-to-video Starship Trooper sequels or anything that airs on the Sci-Fi channel. Rowntrees’ Bursting Bugs have invaded the Earth in four distinct time periods, destroying and chomping on everything in sight. And as the collective human race can’t even be arsed to fight back, it falls to Adam to stop the damn dirty arthropods. What is it with humanity in alien invasion stories – like being roasted at a comedy club, all it can do is sit there and take the abuse. To aid Adam on his mission, the player is able to utilise a wide variety of vehicles scattered across the maps – from planes, tanks, fire engines, sports cars, and ice cream trucks.

Body Harvest claims to be an ‘open-world’ game, you see, and whilst this isn’t exactly a lie, it’s true in the same way that you can theoretically quit your job whenever you want. You can go wherever you want in the game’s sprawling maps, but you’ll soon be left sat around with nothing to do but eat cold beans. Not unlike if you actually quit your job. Progression through Body Harvest is entirely linear, however. The player has to hunt down the boss of each level before they can proceed to the next one, and to even reach the boss the player needs to perform a sequence of tasks such as collecting keys, raising bridges, clearing passages. It's like that Bob the Builder-The Nest crossover which existed entirely in the back of my maths' workbook.

The open-world aspect is mostly there just for the novelty of hijacking a school bus and running down alien bugs. There are ‘optional’ side missions in which you have to prevent settlements of humans being eaten by the invading bastards. I say optional, but these missions might as well be mandatory, as failing to stop a harvesting brings the aliens closer to unleashing the Supreme Mutant – something which automatically ends the game. Even if it could be squashed under the windscreen wipers like its brethren. And that's Body Harvest's greatest failing - it has to be as frustrating as possible. You're forced to protect these civilians, palette-swapped clones about half the size of Adam for some reason, even though they have the survival instincts of an emo Lemming. If you don't find the hidden artefacts the game doesn't even tell you about, you miss out on the final level set on the
asteroid base. You get to eat shit, and replay the game again - Ghouls 'N Ghosts style.

Despite an eerie soundtrack, which has an X-Files’ opening theme sort of feel, Body Harvest is not a particularly scary game. But it does deliver a pitch-perfect recreation of campy Golden Age science fiction. From the clich├ęd Area 51 level, to zombies, fifty-foot praying mantises, giant ants and living slimes, there’s a real pulpy approach to Body Harvest – which plays into the game’s low-res cartoony graphics. The enemies change appearance as the game goes through time periods, starting off as sort of comic book-esque oversized bugs in WW1-era Greece, and becoming bigger, meaner, and more robotic by the 1990's Siberian finale. It’s a nice way of organically raising the stakes, not only do the player’s weapons and vehicles improve through the decades, so too do the enemies. Adam even gets evil clone at one point, who dramatically stares him down during the ultimate showdown and states: “I was cloned from your blood…I AM YOUR BROTHER!” I shit you not. It’s like a fucking Van Damme film.