Harm city

Three men familiar with the city's crime and grime take on a virtual Baltimore via a new video game.


A portal, unfortunately, has opened between the streets of Charm City and deepest hell, and fiends of all descriptions are capering through. On the loose among us are conjoined twins wreathed in fire, obese green goblins that devour stray cats and jumbo cockroaches known as Wretches. Hello, hellhounds, and ... welcome?

The Suffering: Ties That Bind, the first big-budget video game set in Baltimore, has arrived in stores. The horror epic follows a white-tank-top-clad anti-hero who escapes an island prison on the Chesapeake Bay and sails into the city in search of the spot where his wife and children were murdered (possibly by him). Once he lands, he battles monsters that embody drug abuse (a hunchback with syringes for eyes), hunger (the cat-gobbling green guy) and other urban ills that the game's creators claim abound in Baltimore.

So far, Ties That Bind - rated M for mature - has received favorable reviews from gamers.

"A flamboyant and unholy mix of action and horror," wrote Douglass C. Perry for IGN.com, a leading video game site.

"It's all the evil we could have hoped for," raved Steve "Uncle Creepy" Barton on Horrorchan nel.com.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

What we really want to know is whether the game captures the city's essence, especially because a design team from Surreal Software traveled here from Seattle, where the company is based, to search out horror along the industrial waterfront and in neighborhoods like Druid Hill Park. So we asked several people familiar with Baltimore's seamier side to give Ties That Bind a whirl and tell us what they recognized.

No one made it much further than the first level, but, using a borrowed Xbox, they all spent hours in a nightmare world of bare light bulbs, toppled rowhouses, burning trash cans and - oh, yes - at least one "Believe" bumper sticker, big as life (actually, on a widescreen TV, it's even bigger).

Player: Ed Norris

Age: 45

Background: Baltimore's former police commissioner, who was recently incarcerated for using departmental funds to pamper his mistresses, among other things. He's now a radio talk show host on WHFS-FM.

Xbox skill level: Fair

The game begins in a Maryland prison yard, where men play chess and heft barbells.

"Wow, this brings back memories," Norris says. "That's all you do in prison, work out."

He served most of his six months in Mississippi but says that, from the inside, prisons look a lot alike.

Perhaps not this one, though. The video game control in Norris' hand is suddenly shaking; men shout and swear; the jail is in flames. There has been an earthquake. Once he figures out how to make his character run, Norris picks a rifle off a dead guy and charges past chain link fences into the prison, through a filthy labyrinth of halls. Dead bodies, some apparently eviscerated, are everywhere, sprawled against backsplashes of blood.

At first, Norris is not impressed.

"I saw worse than this in Baltimore," he says.

But after an hour passes, he starts to get a little creeped out. Unseen monsters chatter in corners; skinheads menace from all sides. Creatures with swords for legs clatter by.

Somewhere in the gloom, a phone rings. Norris picks it up.

"Your life is already nothing," a voice hisses.

"Jesus Christ," Norris says. While not much about the digital jail says Baltimore, the game does remind Norris a little of himself. He steers his character into the prison break room and is promptly attacked by muscular inmates, who bludgeon and knife him again and again.

But he fights back through a rain of blood and slaughters them all.

"See, this guy is like me," Norris says. "No matter how many times you stab me, I keep coming back."

Player: Officer Scott Ripley

Age: 37

History: A union representative for the city's Fraternal Order of Police. Until three months ago, Ripley was a midnight patrolman in Southeast Baltimore, which is likely the neighborhood where the game's hero comes ashore.

Xbox skill level: Fair

Once the character skips prison and commandeers a Coast Guard vessel, he heads into Baltimore Harbor, where the ghost of his murdered wife paces on the surface of the gray, calm water.

As she warns of the terrible danger of returning to Baltimore, Ripley looks uncomfortable. At this point in the game, he has already seen innocents tortured and beheaded, and the carnage is beyond his ken: Most of his video experience comes from playing with his 5- and 7-year-old daughters, who prefer Nintendo Barbie and another game that involves the rigorous petting of a golden retriever.

But as the cutter plunges through the fog toward a rickety dock, Ripley finds himself on familiar turf.

"This looks like Canton!" he exclaims. "If you go down to the end of Clinton Street, there's all those big ships down there."

His character docks and is borne by a bevy of masked men into an abandoned warehouse, the likes of which Ripley frequently toured in 18 years of nights spent walking the Fells Point and Canton beat.

"Those places could be really creepy," he says.

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