If I can say one thing about You Are Empty, it’s that the game has taught me not to judge on first impressions. I’ve played my way through the preview build of the game, and it’s really one of those experiences that must be explored in its entirety to get the whole effect. Digital Spray’s latest FPS is a very classy surprise, dressed in the clothing of a typical shooter.
It starts out like any other post apocalyptic shooter and at first reminded me a lot of Half Life 2. I quickly got past the initial feeling of “rip off” once the game’s setting came home to me. The developers got one thing very right with this game—location, location, location. Digital Spray is based in Russia, and the influence of their country and their hometown familiarity with the locale drips from every corner of this game. You Are Empty takes place in 1950’s USSR, where communism is being spread by way of an experiment to transform the Soviet population into supermen. Your nameless character is hit by a car and spends several months in a coma, awaking after the experiment has gone wrong to find society in shambles. The story is told primarily by cutscenes, which are actually a joy to watch. They look like some kind of animated European art film, drawn in a rough jittery style and interspersed with archival footage of the Soviet Union. The pacing was good and the cutscenes were used sparingly; they made the plot just mysterious enough to keep me interested.
The setup might be the typical “kill the zombies” premise, but the tired old formula is executed with such artistic flair that it feels fresh again. Every environment in this game has an attention to detail that is simply astonishing. Desolate streets, abandoned farms and an empty opera house have such realism worked into them; they evoke a sense of loneliness I haven’t felt in a game in years. Half Life 2’s Eastern European environments always felt forced and fake to me, but You Are Empty comes off as strangely believable. What really amazed me is that no shading is used to create the environment; it’s all flat-textured polygons, but still manages to look great. You Are Empty is a shining example of how artistic talent still matters more than sheer graphical muscle. The only comparison I can make is to Resident Evil 4’s village, but that game had a stronger influence on creeping dread, whereas You Are Empty is all about isolation.
You aren’t completely alone, or else it wouldn’t be much of a shooter, as there are numerous enemies to gun it out with. The baddy gallery is where the atmosphere is a little hit and miss. Some of the enemies are genuinely creepy—rambling, straight-jacketed lunatics, their mouths pried open with braces, their calves stripped of flesh and the bone supported by a metal framework. Others, like the large breasted nurse zombies and goofy hat wearing hunters are more funny than scary. All in all the enemies are pretty dumb in terms of AI, but they are accurate enough shots and do enough damage to pose a serious threat, even on the easiest difficulty.
A shooter lives and dies on its selection of firearms, and You Are Empty has a nice set of guns. Most are pretty standard—a pistol, a shotgun—but they all have that grungy, cold war Russia look and feel that makes them fun to use. There are some novelties too, like Molotov cocktails and a strange electricity launcher. They all have crisp, satisfying sound effects which makes them fun to fire and experiment with.
Speaking of sound work, You Are Empty has an overall pleasing aural component. Environmental sounds add to the desolation—creaking doors, cold winds, the occasional radio playing an old song make the environment even emptier and bleaker. I have a feeling that the developers dubbed in their own enemy sound effects, at least for the preview copy, because most of the growls and shouts are more funny than scary. Hopefully the final version will have scarier, more appropriate sounding bad guys. The musical score is very impressive, mixing strong, driving percussion and fast paced modern melodies with the occasional bit of Russian period music, almost like a march from a propaganda film. The music always shows up at the best time, when there’s plenty of action, and ebbs off as the loneliness returns.
There wasn’t a multiplayer in the preview build, and I’m not sure how well one would work with the main character’s slow walking speed and the overall focus on isolation. Hopefully Digital Spray will tweak the single player mechanics if they decide to put in a death match, but I’d buy the game as is just for the very artful solo experience. You Are Empty is at its heart a pretty average FPS, but its masterful art direction and sense of atmosphere make it stand out from the pack. Give You Are Empty a serious look when it hits the states later this month.
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