It’s an interesting concept, and an excellent setting in which to explore it. But what’s it like to play? Well, entering a level for the first time and looking around is a bit like waking up in the morning with a heavy head and seeing the epic mess left after last night’s fun times. Except with added ludicrous, Sam Raimi-like amounts of blood on the floors, walls and ceilings. There’s also general rubbish and litter, assorted body parts (including quite small, fiddly bits of entrails), and furniture, items and decorations that have been smashed or knocked askew. Sometimes there are broken or empty sentry gun turrets that need replicating, replacing and re-arming (making them come online again — a dangerous part of the puzzle), as well as every gamer’s godsend – first aid kits, which also need re-filling. Then, there are the barrels and crates. Each of the five levels I’ve played so far has had special zones painted on the floor, one for barrels and one for crates. Your success in each level is measured by various statistics that represent your thoroughness in cleaning and tidying, and ideally you’ll replace all these scattered containers in their proper zones to help get the best rating.
So, there’s stuff to clean, stuff to repair, stuff to refill or replace, stuff to pile up in its proper place, and stuff to just shovel up and throw away. Dead stuff is part of that latter category, and its bloody messy (janitor humour again). Deceased people, plants, monsters, robots and Weird Things all leak some kind of nasty fluids, and every time you move something, trip over or drop it, more of these delightful fluids plop out. On top of that, walking through puddles of it creates footprints. And despite your best efforts, there will always be (more) blood.
While your objectives are clear, how you choose to go about achieving them is where the fun begins. You need a cleaning strategy, and after one or two levels, you’ll have one worked out which you’ll probably only rarely deviate from. In this respect, Viscera Cleanup Detail finally falls into the main trap in making a game about essentially repetitive, boring tasks (hello, Excalibur Publishing!), by becoming repetitive and boring. Let me qualify that, though. As I said, I’ve played 5 maps, which Steam tells me has taken 25 hours. At that point, I was finally ready to say ‘Enough’ and stop for a while. However, that point was coincidentally the point at which I had to stop anyway, because I had stupid amounts of work to do and my deadlines were getting closer and closer. Even so, part of the ineffable magic of VCD is that even as you approach the end of a level and your mind is nagging you to hurry up and be done with it, another part of you is saying, ‘Yeah, finish it man, then we can do another one!’. It took spending a few days away from the game to allow me to escape this moreish grasp on my feeble monkey brain.
As I mentioned somewhere a thousand pages ago, VCD feels solid and reliable, and the controls are no exception. Like all good games, they free you up to concentrate on what you’re doing rather than how you’re doing it. Your mouse wheel scrolls through several different things, including your hands, your mop, a broom, two different sensor gadgets that detect organic mess and material damage (these are your best friends at the end of a level), and a huge welding laser. The broom and the welding laser need to be found in the level first, and although the broom is cool, there’s not much need for it really. The laser, on the other hand, is essential, as with it you can repair shorn turret mountings, soften-out the numerous bullet holes, and even use it to turn large pieces of junk into smaller, more manageable pieces of junk. Most often though, you’ll be using your mop to clean up the goo and your hands to pick things up and move them around. Once picked up, objects are stable and easily rotatable for better positioning. Again, the physics come into play here when you eventually get greedy or impatient and create a precarious mountain of crapola that you then slowly and carefully schlep to the burner, pausing a moment to tip it forwards juuust enough to get the peak of the mountain in under the top edge of the door juuust as it all starts sliding off, then rushing forward and slam dunking the whole fuggin’ lot into the flames. Boy, is that ever satisfying.
Like the industrial rubbish bins, whose boxy yellow forms you will come to love as much as any crowbar or gun, buckets of clean water are dispensed from vending machines. The buckets have a sort of hexagonal shape, so although they can be stacked (more than three-high at your own risk!), dropping one in out of line will cause it to get stuck, and pulling it back out again can cause it to spill everywhere. This is okay when it’s clean, because you’ve only wasted some time. But if you bugger it up with a dirty bucket, that’s a whole new mess to deal with, you dummy. Each time you dab at the yuk on the floors and walls, your mop gets visibly dirtier, and eventually you’ll just be redistributing the mess rather than absorbing it. You’ll quickly learn how much jam you can mop before needing to swish it around in the water, and subsequently how many times you can do that before the whole bucket of water is too dirty and needs to be incinerated. (Try leaving a dirty bucket on the floor, then tripping over it and making another mess because you couldn’t see where you were going with a bin full of tentacles and scuba divers’ arms blocking your view). Again, the sound effects as the buckets clatter about and the mop swishes in the water and splats into the muck on the floor, are all totally superb. After playing a few levels, I reckon you could watch a video of this game with your eyes closed and be able to tell what’s going on just from the sound effects. Then there’s the welding laser, which is practically a game in itself, with larger or smaller areas of damage requiring shorter or longer welds. This is a matter of very careful timing, which if you get wrong – and you may well do at first – can cause the laser to overheat and start a small fire. This means a load of soot and scorch marks to clean up, and that really buggers up your mop.
As novel and fun as it all is, this brings us to another small complaint (lest you accuse me of being a mysterious fourth Richert brother). With experience, VCD descends into a kind of time and numbers game. You learn how many times certain types and thicknesses of blood and goo will need to be mopped before the surface is clean again. Then, knowing how many times you’ll need to rinse the mop to achieve cleanliness, you can calculate how many buckets you’ll need to clean a particular mess. You’ll figure out roughly how much a bin can store, and from that how many bins would be useful in one area and how many trips from the bin dispenser to the messy area to the incinerator you’ll need to make. And knowing all this, standing there surveying the horror and running the numbers in your head, your heart does start to sink a little bit.
Happily, there are mitigating factors too. For one thing, VCD is not really a competitive game. Sure, you can try to beat fastest times for level completion, or do a level again for a better percentage score, but the actual playing of it doesn’t require the mouse death-grip of the veteran RTSer, or the rock-hard nerves of a hardcore FPSer. Instead, this is a game that encourages the playing of favourite music, the half-watching of TV, listening to podcasts or other pleasantly distracting activities. In other words, it’s quite a relaxing experience. A social one too, if you go with the split-screen co-op or online MP options. The other thing is that in the absence of actual enemies to fight in the game, you become your own worst enemy. At some point, impatience, clumsiness and over-reaching of your capabilities as a space janitor (even an ace one) will all get in the way of your perfectly-laid plans to clean up and clock-out. Sometimes the consequences are funny, although usually they’re just annoying. But again, you’ve only yourself to blame. If anything, Viscera Cleanup Detail is easy to learn and hard to master, mostly because you’ve got to master yourself. (That’s uh, space janitor philosophy).
More grumbly bits, though, as we sweep towards the end: There’s no tutorial, and no explanation of anything you’re supposed to do or how to do it. You just pick a level and spawn in and have to figure it out for yourself. Some people really like this, I personally don’t mind it too much, but VCD is a little bit more involved, and having to go straight to Google to figure what to even begin doing is, I think, a little bit bum. Then there’s the almost total lack of life on the levels, and this can become dispiriting, not to mention seeming like a missed opportunity for some more ambient fun. For example, it would have been nice to actually see some shadowy forms swimming about through the windows of the aquatic Paintenance Tunnels, or perhaps had one malfunctioning robot bumping his head sadly in a corner somewhere in the Revolutionary Robotics offices. The other thing I sometimes moan about quietly to no-one is that the gorgeous, detailed and evocative textures and lighting can sometimes actually make it hard to see dirt and damage. For example, rusty, scratched deck plating can hide damage that looks like part of ordinary rusty, scratched deck plating. The intricately-modelled girders and supporting structures in a cramped passageway can hide stains and smut in their shadows and creases. On the other hand, you could argue that that’s part of the challenge too.
At any rate, these are minor quibbles with an otherwise excellent game, and I haven’t even mentioned the bundled UDK level editor, Steam Workshop integration, the superb writing and humour prevalent throughout the game (the ‘Are you sure you want to quit?’ messages alone are worth the ticket price), your trusty ghetto-blaster, the personal trunk you can fill with souvenirs of a level or the cosy, detail-packed office that you retire to between levels that can be decorated with these souvenirs. And if you’re still not convinced about it all, you can download the 420mb free Alpha prototype from RuneStorm’s own site for a sort of sideways glance at the retail version’s charms.
The very first time I fired up Viscera Cleanup Detail I lasted about five minutes before giving up and leaving it again. I’d been hankering after the game for a while, and had finally got it at a really good price from Bundlestars, so it preyed on my mind somewhat that I should go back and give it a fair shake. Finally, as I mooched about at 2 am in my kitchen dealing with the aftermath of the inaugural Summer 2016 barbecue at my place, I wondered whether clearing up broken sentry guns, blood stains and eviscerated monsters was as easy as dealing with dirty paper plates, millions of beer cans and acres of greasy, burned tin foil. Well, I can tell you that it’s not. But it sure is a lot more fun!
The Devil’s in the Viscera Cleanup Details
- Visuals – 9
- Sound – 9
- Playability – 8
- Blood, Guts and Alien Sushi – 10
Dirty fun from start to finish
A superb use of the Unreal 3 engine to pose, then answer one of gaming’s great un-asked questions: Who tidies up after the FPS heroes have been through? Find out in a fun, cerebral exercise in obsession and compulsion that takes you on a tour of vignettes from all your favourite films and games. The value for money is high (and the expansions well worth their own price tags), and although replayability is probably not as good solo, each of the 17 levels takes a while to do, and you can do them all with a co-op friend or online. Most definitely worth your time and money.