Have you played Extermination? Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Probably not. Extermination released two decades ago exclusively on the PlayStation 2 and critics didn’t receive it particularly well. The majority deemed it a fairly average survival horror experience. It didn’t sell well either, and understandably, Sony hasn’t bothered with a re-release.
At the time, reviewers compared it to John Carpenter’s The Thing, a movie I knew nothing about. Ironically, it’s now my favourite movie of all time, one that’s added to my growing perspective on this game.
But even before that, Extermination captured my attention with a brilliant atmosphere and sound design. Despite its surface-level mediocrity, I love Extermination. So much that I could easily look past the poor voice acting and the predictable narrative, which strives for nothing more than your typical gung ho survival horror premise.
The U.S. Marine Corp sends a recon squad to investigate a distress signal received from a remote research facility in Antarctica. The isolated sub-zero setting alone draws parallels with The Thing. During a briefing en route to the base, Extermination introduces the leading cast spearheaded by the main protagonist, Dennis Riley.
Forming but a part of team Red Light along with his partner Roger, they jest, reminisce on past events and the game does a relatively good job of portraying their camaraderie. This companionship persists throughout the early portion of the game as Roger assists Dennis over the radio and unlocks inaccessible areas.
Dennis has a personal stake in the mission; Cindy, his ex-girlfriend, works at the facility as a researcher. In fact, all of the main characters share a common past and a common loss. They often bring up the death of Andrew, a common friend whose untimely demise served as a catalyst for disrupting the relationship between Dennis and Cindy.
Initial discourse is cut short and the mission goes haywire. Their plane crash lands and the squad must regroup in a nearby facility. From the first cutscene with Dennis landing amidst the snow, Extermination wears its inspirations on the sleeve. Must I say it again? Good, because I will — snow. A cold breeze engulfs Dennis while he looks for a way to get to Roger. The surrounding environment quickly establishes a vibe of mystery.
Extermination vs. The Thing
“Icy Cliffs”, a song that plays outdoors, bears a close resemblance to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror masterpiece. It’s an ambient tune that creates an unsettling sensation of dread and isolation, and for good reason. They soon discover that most of the personnel got infected by an unknown strain of virus. A virus which, as they find out later, is spread by a form of extraterrestrial origin. This virus spreads through water and mutates anyone who comes into contact with it.
While the overall narrative falls somewhat apart due to poor writing and voice acting, the introduction serves as a fairly intriguing premise in the best traditions of survival horror. Moreover, the evident companionship between Dennis and Roger does put slightly more impact on losing the latter to the virus.
Indeed, Roger becomes infected early on and turns into a hideous mutant that you must face as a boss later on. And if not careful, you might succumb to the virus as well. In addition to a regular health bar, Extermination features an infection rate which accumulates whenever Dennis takes damage. If he becomes infected, you must seek out an ICU and use a serum to neutralize any remnants of the virus in his body. Fail to do that and Dennis mutates. Game over.
Scenes of Explicit Violence and Grotesque Imagery
What might he turn into? The Thing heavily inspired Extermination’s mutated creatures as well. Malformed human mutants still maintain their humanoid shape, but their flesh has bubbled up. Their face, or rather what remains of it, is misaligned closer to the shoulder. At higher mutation stages, they grow bigger and stronger, and develop new appendages. Roger grows significantly and his assault rifle, along with other stray weapons, has fused with his arms.
Much like in The Thing, these creatures often assimilate any organic and inorganic matter nearby. Those of the more animalistic kind have developed based on lab creatures. One of them, the Watchdog, appears similar to the mutated wolf in The Thing, with sharp teeth and a swollen tongue hanging from its gaping maw. Meanwhile, the Predator resembles a giant mutated rat with a sharp bony tail and a crystallized body which allows it to turn invisible.
How do you combat these creatures? No doubt with an arsenal of powerful weapons? Not quite. Unless you count the knife, Dennis uses a single weapon throughout the whole game: an assault rifle. Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? But multiple equippable attachments turn it into an exciting tool. Extermination allows you to install a shotgun or grenade launcher below the main barrel to obliterate more resilient foes.
Custom scopes and grips make combat more manageable in particular scenarios. It also allows you to switch between firing modes: a single fire shot, a 3-round burst or full auto. Most enemies take a hefty amount of bullets to down and, as expected, ammunition is a scarce resource. Even with rookie-friendly ammo recharge stations, Extermination manages to challenge you getting from one save point to another.
Classic Survival Horror
Other than that, Exterminations plays like a classic third-person survival horror game, albeit with greater freedom of movement. Dennis can jump, climb over objects or shimmy along rails to reach different areas. To get a better idea, imagine if a Resident Evil game took place almost entirely within an end-game lab environment.
Extermination is by no means a perfect specimen of survival horror. It suffers from some downright abysmal voice acting, especially in the EU version. The poor writing, with its cheesy dialogue and the predictable plot doesn’t help either. Its narrative is much weaker than most of its notable contemporaries: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Parasite Eve.
On the flip side, the game fares almost equally as well when it comes to the setting, atmosphere and sound design. It harnesses the best atmospheric elements of John Carpenter’s The Thing and successfully incorporates them. Arctic winds blow in your ears; a blizzard diminishes your field of view.
Music often makes it seem like someone’s watching you. Roger’s battle theme evokes all the right emotions. It feels like you’re not fending off yet another mutant, but killing a dear friend. Especially when Roger musters his remaining bits of humanity to exclaim Dennis’ name. For all its flaws, Extermination not only succeeds at being a good video game interpretation of The Thing, but also a worthy representative of the competitive survival horror genre.