Underhell review

When you see a mod with ambitions to rival those of retail games and action movies, do you roll your eyes? I've been burnt far far too many times now to ever get hopes up for a mod (Dark Truths, a Half-life mod which promised the world, was probably the bitterest of mod cancellations for me. Nightwatch's eventual closure afterwards didn't sting nearly as much) The list of mods that seemed to have an insane feature list that not even AAA devs bother with is still somewhat big (and that's more of a damning indictment of the state of AAA FPS development) but every now and then a mod pulls through and actually sees release. And sometimes, they not only live up to but completely exceed expectations in every way imaginable. Underhell has that incredibly rare accolade.

I remember glancing over the Prologue and initially being a bit skeptical. There's a lot of Source mods with promises of great stories and gameplay and then fall flat, or alternatively they last for about 10 minutes before ending before they even really could begin. I downloaded it expecting a very short romp, maybe with an odd cool thing or two. Instead I was treated to an hour long action-packed story which actually managed to achieve the goal of feeling like a film without that being degrading. In my mind many developers mistakenly think that being like a film means being treated to cutscene after cutscene of 'character development' or worse still action sequences that would be much cooler if the player was actually allowed to take part. Underhell has it's share of cutscenes and character exposition, but it wisely leaves the actual action scenes and plot development to the player. The use of music and the development of plot gives the mod an incredibly cinematic feel but it reaches the lofty goal where you actually FEEL like you're actively in the set taking part rather than just sitting back and watching. It's one of the only games I've ever really felt has achieved that goal. It matches the plot beats of a classic cinematic film near perfectly, and the denouement of both the prologue and Chapter 1 is incredibly satisfying (managing to both make you want more but not feeling unfilled or short changed) A lot of games and mods have atrocious endings, so to see Underhell get it right in both the prologue AND chapter 1 says a lot of highly positive things about the author.

There are a few downsides however - sometimes characters do talk a bit too much about things that aren't too important (a conversation about generators dragged on for a bit longer than needed) which can hold things up. There was also a MGS-style bizarre conversation about the US Government which came out of left-field and left me scratching my head a bit. The storyline of future episodes is apparently completely planned out however, so I have some faith that it'll all make sense over the span of the game when it's released. There are some real interesting plot twists and developments, and it'll be interesting to see how they develop - a lot of Underhell's story draw is in mystery, but I'm hoping it'll turn out to be better than Lost ended up being (essentially plot ideas pulled out of a hat and then dropped unceremoniously when nobody bites)

Let's rewind a bit and set the scene. You're Jake Hawkfield, a SWAT officer and widower whose beloved wife recently passed away. So far so cliche, but of course as is the nature of these things the story is somewhat more complex under the surface. Underhell is separated into several different gameplay styles. The house is a hub location where you explore and look for clues (ostensibly pages from your late wife's diary) certain events transpire (randomly I might add) that make it clear there's some severe paranormal activity going on. For the most part Underhell doesn't rely on jump scares, although there are a few. The dreams are a slightly more surreal section somewhat similar to the flashbacks in FEAR or the trip out sequences in Afraid of Monsters. These reveal glimpse sights of Jake's past. Finally the chapters themselves (so far consisting of the Prologue and Chapter 1) are the meat of the package, and cover a wide array of combat and gameplay scenarios. The Prologue mostly consists of action, taking you through a variety of city locations before ending on a cliff hanger. Episode 1 is set entirely in a colossal facility located in the desert, and is where you spend the most time. There's a colourful cast of characters, and thankfully Mxthe resists the urge to kill them off within the first ten minutes of the game. Whilst there's always a limit to how invested in a character you can get with a silent protagonist who can't respond, they are still interesting people to work alongside and due to the game's length you do naturally start to feel involved in the various guards and their stories.

Mxthe's level design is fairly sharp, and weighs in more heavily towards the realism side of the map spectrum. For the most part, the majority of map design go towards creating a realistic layout rather than one purely built for playing through. This can be catastrophic if the gameplay doesn't support such play, but Underhell's gameplay (and excellent music) help pace out things in such a way that realistic level design works to the game's strength. Combat is fast and vicious, but after it's over you'll want time to explore and search for supplies to restock between fights. Being a action/horror game a lot of the time you'll be moving through darkness - but there is ample items use to light up your way. The darkness is oppressive and ubiquitous throughout the mod, but it never feels tiresome and there's nearly always a way to navigate your way through the maps. One criticism I have is that whilst realistic level design is great for a slower-paced shooter, it's not as memorable as more abstract finely tuned areas that the half-life games themselves feature. It also leads to the problem of having too many corridors everywhere - this isn't such a problem however when the maps offer plenty of rooms to check out. You can also argue of course that it avoids the sometimes obnoxious arbitrary blocking off of pathways that many games employ - Underhell's basic plot is linear but once you arrive in a section of the facility you'll be there for a while and you're free to go about the place with relative impunity in what place to go and check out first (That's one of the biggest strengths of realistic level design conversely - they're far easier to create nonlinear gameplay in because of course buildings are designed to be efficient and not funnel people into one long path like games do)

The core combat in Underhell is a mix of Counter-strike and FEAR (although with no slow-mo except in a few scripted sequences) Guns have beefed up firing sounds and sound incredibly powerful. They're a fairly standard set of guns with the always lovable SPAS-12 and MP5 making appearances, alongside GLOCKs and SOCOMs and a G36 assault rifle as well. The game could do with a better explanation of differences between guns since at times the only obvious difference seems to be in magazine capacity. Enemies die very quickly and thankfully there's no real bullet sponges apart from a certain enemy set which is at least excused by what they are. Infected enemies which make up a significant portion of what you fight in Episode 1 go down easily, with a single headshot or a couple of bashes to the head with a melee weapon. The real danger is of course in getting swarmed - enemies do respawn but I have no problem with that mechanic in a survival game if it means they go down easily at least. There's a fantastic musical sting which precludes a swarm of infected, and without fail every single time I heard it there's a chill that runs down my spine. Underhell's main chapter isn't scary so much as it is incredibly tense. You can fight what may attack you with relative confidence, but it's the numbers that will lead to your downfall. Dotted throughout the base are convenient man-sized lockers which you can always duck into if the heat becomes too much. The soldier enemies are fun to fight and again take a page from FEAR's book by being vocal and communicating with each other - there's a few non-forced stealth sections which are difficult to fight through but still achievable. The only real flaw is that enemies can't navigate ducts or tight obstacles very well, which can trivialize some encounters. I imagine that's a big problem to fix - but I respect allowing the players to still do this rather than adding blocking walls that artificially limit what the player can do.

It's somewhat patronizing to say "this is great for a mod!" at least to me, but there's no real other way to put it sometimes - when a mod like Underhell comes out and does so much with what meager resources are available to modders at times, it's both a fantastic victory for mod players but also a sign that many retail shooters simply don't aim for very much at all. The massive amount of voice acting (Which is for the most part fairly solid however some voices simply don't fit the character models and stick out like a sore thumb - but it is uniform and gives the mod a great atmosphere) and the soundtrack composed by Tom Stoffel (there's a huge amount of original music for each part of the game) really help elevate Underhell above and beyond most other offerings in the Source community. It's not afraid to take risks with gameplay, and it trusts the player to think and navigate their way through an environment that doesn't hold the player's hand. It's a better game than most shooters on the market - hopefully this is just the beginning and we'll see the next chapter in a few years time (Underhell was also greenlit on Steam which means a more polished version is coming - I have some performance problems in the 2007 version of Source which this uses) To wrap it up - there are a few kinks in Underhell but the good parts vastly elevate these problems and make them trivial. It's a mod that aims high and delivers the goods and then some, and to top it all off offers a lot of re-playability as well. Play it as soon as you can.

Underhell's moddb profile