Review: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

I was looking forward to playing this very much, because I love exploration-driven mystery games with a compelling story. Throw in great graphics, great music, a compelling setting, and a consistent ambient vibe, and this seems to have “me” written all over it. But after my brief four hours with the game, the game was complete, and I was left bitter. Here’s exactly why…

First reason: Upon first steps into the game, the graphics appear absolutely stunning. I expected the game to look good, but never expected this. At one point, I dared to think this game could possibly have the best visuals I’ve ever seen! But fast-forward about an hour into the experience, I started to notice things that led me to believe what I do now: the majority of the game’s graphics are just icing where they should have been cake

The sunset is pretty and fills the environment with a beautiful lighting, but after a while I wondered why the sun isn’t going down. It’s been two hours, and the sun is still where it’s been this whole time. Is my character trapped in some some sort of dimension where time doesn’t pass? Is that part of the story? No,  it’s just that the sun has to stay there, because the lighting isn’t live… meaning it isn’t actually causing the nice shadows and coloration effects. All the lighting in the environment is essentially painted onto the textures, and in some cases built into the models. The realistic shadow from the lamp post looks so good because it’s not a real shadow. It’s just a dark spot drawn onto the ground in the shape of a lamp post, and this way it would never ever be able to react if the lighting direction changed. That’s why I’d be really curious to see this same environment with a night sky replacing the sunset. It’d look pretty darn weird with all the textures and models “reacting” to lighting that isn’t there.

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Also, you’ll notice the textures in the game are pretty damn great (if you have texture settings on high)! But I realized eventually these textures are there to try and make up for a lack of modeling. The stairs in the old house for instance… Those are some awesome looking stairs. But if you keep your gaze fixed on them while moving your view around, you’ll see it’s just a very detailed (almost photographic) texture placed onto a rather primitive stair model. I don’t know about most players, but to me, there’s just nothing like a highly detailed model… (Allison Road for example)

These developers may have found ways to cut corners and deliver an awesome visual presentation. But it’s only a temporary fix to give us a visual that traditional, real graphics aren’t yet capable of yet. It’s not a sustainable practice, and to me, at the end of the day, feels cheap.

Second reason: I didn’t give a crap about this story. The narrator’s dialogue was nonsensical and pointless, as were the practices of the community he infiltrates. I couldn’t have cared less about Ethan Carter.

Third reason: As much potential as the game had to a compelling puzzle game, I’m not thrilled with the way that part was handled. The investigation moments – where the player tries to piece together the timeline of an event using objects – were interesting, but hardly more challenging than simply going through the motions. The accompanying puzzles (what few there were) were either insanely abstract, or plain unenjoyable, or both. Some had cool concepts, but ultimately did not make me thrilled to complete them. The most puzzling thing I experienced in my play-through was not seeing the path to take! I completely missed the entry to the “cave” and was wandering around the place for forty minutes before I eventually looked up gameplay footage. I am usually very good at inspecting my environment… something must have been up…

So The Vanishing of Ethan Carter ended up being a disappointment overall that I was able to squeeze some enjoyment out of here and there. I was beside myself during the first twenty minutes of gameplay… It’s got an incredible presentation. But frustration with the gameplay and story took most of that feeling out of me after a few hours.

 

My rating for 2014’s The Vanishing of Ethan Carter for PC is…

★★½

 

…the scary moment was freaking scary.

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