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Adam infrequently reviews games weeks after they are released because he has a job and can’t complete them fast enough. Potential spoilers included.
Last month I finally moved on to a next-gen console, as two games I had been looking forward to all year finally came out. Alien Isolation was the first of these games, and one that has proved fairly divisive with regards to various review sites and their opinions on the game. I finished it a couple of weeks ago, taking a bit longer than I usually would with a game and then struggling to find time to write up what I thought about it due to currently having a huge workload (I miss the days of having a job that I could leave at work). Anyway, here are my somewhat belated thoughts on the game.
Alien Isolation takes in the year 2137, fifteen years after the events of Ridley Scott’s Sci-Fi horror classic Alien. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the film’s main character Ellen Ripley, as she searches for answers to what happened to her mother and the crew of the Nostromo all those years ago. This search takes her, as part of a team from Weyland-Yutani, to the space station Sevastapol, where a recent salvage ship has brought aboard a flight recorder from her mother’s craft. By the time Amanda arrives however, things have gone awry. The station is in chaos, with a relentless and murderous lifeform on the loose, leaving the remaining populace scared and violent and the station’s AI ordering it’s creepy synthetics to enact strict quarantine rules that largely revolve around choking people to death or dashing their brains out against a wall.
Amanda must find the flight recorder, reunite with the rest of her boarding party and try and reconnect with the Torrens, the ship they arrived on, all while trying to avoid the xenomorph, the ‘Working Joes’ and the looters. This takes you through the whole of Sevastapol, and in standard video game style you are beset by as many set backs as possible. Every time you find an ally they are liable to be murdered horribly, every time you try to use a machine it is broken or on low power, and every time you trust Weyland-Yutani and their high level employees… well, if you’ve see the films then you probably know where their priorities lie and it isn’t with the preservation of human life.
Your first encounter with the iconic xenomorph is a tense experience, and it marks the start of a lot of heart-in-throat sequences as you try and creep around without it hearing or spotting you, with absolutely nothing you can do to actually kill the damn thing. If it gets you, that is it. Game over man. There are no autosaves or checkpoints either, so saving regularly is very much necessary (you can be killed while saving) and if you find that you have made a lot of progress and haven’t saved in a while, an encounter with the alien becomes that much more stressful. And ‘stressful’ is really what this game is, especially at the start, because you creep around hiding in vents or cabinets, slowly making progress (I noted at one point that I had made it through four rooms in two hours) and then you make a mistake and pay for it. As everyone else seems to have noticed, you die. You die a lot.
Supplies are very limited, and whatever tools you do have are merely distractions. Even the limited firepower you do get either doesn’t faze the xenomorph (revolver), stops him very briefly until you have to reload (shotgun) or makes him scuttle away temporarily (flamethrower). Making any noise when encountering other enemies just brings him roaring back, so guns are redundant for a large portion of the game. The motion detector actually manages to up the stress element in a big way, not only because the proximity beeps come out of the speaker in the controller, but the noise actually attracts the very monster you are trying to detect. It is a useful tool for figuring out how far away he is, but later in the game I all but abandoned it in favour of suicide runs clutching the flamethrower. Suicide ‘runs’ is misleading, as I spent almost the entire game crouched. Suicide sneaking? Suicide waddling? Suicide something.
A lot of the criticism levelled at this game centres around the difficulty and repetitiveness (also that the campaign is too long, which I completely disagree with). The first point I think depends on how casual a gamer you are, because I imagine the difficulty and punishingly unpredictable AI would turn many away. I’m fairly stubborn, I can probably count the number of games I have started and haven’t completed on one hand, and they were probably all due to boredom rather than failure to complete them. I’m not saying I’m particularly great at games, I’m saying I don’t have a lot going on and will happily plug hours into doggedly retrying boss fights. The issue with the xenomorph is that the AI is (usually) very clever and acts differently each time, so you can’t really use trial and error to get round him if you fail. I can see why this would frustrate people, especially as there are times where it seems like you’ve done nothing wrong, but I personally quite liked the challenge. The first few levels are pure suspense, but maintaining that level of stress for too long isn’t the most enjoyable experience. This is when the repetitiveness does start to close in, but when you get the flamethrower you can afford to be a little less careful and gameplay starts to speed up.
Then comes the obligatory story section when you are rid of the alien (definitely not temporarily), where you get to play as a different character as he tells Ripley how they found the Nostromo beacon, about his team’s excursion down to a familiar looking planet and encounter with alien lifeforms which went pretty badly. It’s like Prometheus, but not terrible. You then have to turn your attention to the station in turmoil, the APOLLO AI and the legions of creepy Working Joe synthetics who are also trying to kill you and everyone else on the station. This serves as a very welcome break in the stealth and hiding aspect of the early game, coming in just before I actually started to find it repetitive. You get a decent few hours when you can actually use all your loud weapons, that earlier would just bring about your grisly doom within seconds.
At it’s core, Alien Isolation is basically a love letter to the first Alien film. The atmosphere is haunting and perfect, and the retro–futuristic environments completely nail the aesthetic of the film series. The feeling of helplessness, particularly in the first half of the game, sells the terrifying aspect of the creature you are facing, making him a credible threat rather than something you can just take apart with enough bullets. Amanda Ripley is an interesting and driven character, much like her mother despite the terror she finds herself in. Most of the supporting cast are decent in their own ways too, though a few fall a little flat as merely ‘next person to die’ fodder.
The story is strong if a little predictable, but that stems really from the medium of video games and the need for a certain length of experience. The number of times your best laid plans fall apart becomes a little comical, and the Alien is constantly with you and no one else. Maybe it wants a hug and you’ve just misinterpreted it’s actions. Regardless, it would probably seem out of place if his hunting pattern was so truly random that you didn’t see him all game. One of the only issues I actually had with the story in fact, was that knowing the eventual fate of Amanda (revealed at the start of Aliens), you know that she will ultimately survive this experience and so having any sort of cliffhanger ending doesn’t really mean a lot. Unless of course, you factor in the fact that historically Weyland-Yutani have been fast and loose with the truth. Then her whole potential future becomes completely open. So long as it doesn’t get to Issac Clarke levels of ‘wrong place, wrong time’, I’m on board for seeing where her story goes.
It may have been because this was the first time I played through an entire game on a next-gen console, rather than a few demos and snippets with friends, but I found the gameplay incredibly smooth while playing this. There were very few instances of the game glitching, aside from a couple of time when guns were either floating above or in corpses, and a few times where the alien acted like a T-Rex and couldn’t see me because I was perfectly still and yet metres from his face, but these were hardly game-breaking. Graphically I thought this looked great. There were some choppy framerate issues in the early cutscenes, but I think this was because the game was actually still installing when I started. Other than that, the surroundings were gorgeous. If this is early next-gen/cross-gen graphics, I can’t wait to see what we get in a couple of years. Though at that point we may be so far into the valley of the uncanny that even playing sports games and dating sims will be terrifying.
Creative Assembly and Sega have made a truly faithful Alien game. I really enjoyed it, and if you are a big fan of the Alien franchise then I really recommend you pick it up, with the caveat that it is fairly challenging and pretty scary and stressful for most of the game. I know there are some who find that when the horror is actually happening to a character you are controlling, rather than passively to a character on screen, it feels too real and much scarier. If survival horror is your sort of thing though, this is a great alternative to the standard zombie-fare that usually comes along with that genre. You’re never wanting for revolver ammo in the game, but you also never want to use it and barely need to. This was in fact probably the closest to true survival horror I have played in years, and that was exactly what I was hoping for.
Score – 8.5 Xenomorphs out of 10
Adam and Kii went to EGX in London on Friday. Here is Adam’s coverage.
This Friday Kii and I had the privilege of receiving press passes to the EGX show, taking place from the 25th-28th of September at Earls Court, London. EGX is a huge gaming expo in which developers bring along demos of their upcoming games. Aside from sprawling sections for the big developers and gaming systems, there were also dedicated areas for indie teams too, as well as developer talks, stalls selling games merchandise, gaming charities and competitions. This will be the first of a couple of articles covering the games we played, my thoughts on them and the convention itself.
The new Alien game from The Creative Assembly (published by Sega) is one of the games I have been looking forward to the most this year, as I feel I have been missing out on survival horror recently, and the trailers and footage so far for the game seem to be hinting at that gameplay style, as well as tonally being very much in line with Ridley Scott’s original film. We took the lift up to the 18+ area of the expo, and joined what looked like a reasonably long queue leading out of the large walled off black area surrounded with the game’s logo. Joining the back, we were furnished with a free prequel comic. While this is a great bit of promotion and generous, to me it set off alarm bells as if to say ‘you are going to be here a while, here’s some reading for you’.
However, these fears were totally unfounded as they let the whole queue in one chunk, showing us a trailer and filling us in on the details of the demo and our objective, and that we had 10 minutes, while the previous group finished up. We were then led in and allowed to choose PS4 or Xbox One. I have to say I wasn’t expecting how well equipped some of these demos would be, as at a guess it looked like they had at least 30 of each system running the game. We sat down in the dark, green tinted booth, provided with some beefy headphones for full immersion, and started up the demo.
The objective was simple – get from point A to point B without being horribly murdered by the xenomorph. As Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, you start in a small room with only your motion tracker to pinpoint where it is, and a nearby flamethrower for defence. On the first attempt I missed it, going straight through the door into the access corridor. Creeping by as the alien stomped past, I thought I was clear but he turned and my brain briefly failed and tried to apply the tactic for dealing with clickers in The Last of Us, standing totally still. The alien is not a clicker. Rushing forward, the xenomorph was on me in a split second, right up in my face. Killing me in an instant, it felt like the monster had me personally and the second mouth was about to go right into my face.
Loading up the second attempt, the gravity of the situation had sunk in. That was how easy it was for grizzly doom to occur. I had been a little spooked by the atmosphere before, but now my heart was in my throat. I looked to my right, and Kii had already quit after her first death, Survival horror is not her deal, and this game seemed to be delivering just that. I remembered the flamethrower this time, but did not remember the controls for using it so fared no better at all. The death sequence was longer this time, with the highly evolved killing machine pinning me down before murdering me horribly. Grim.
Third attempt, I took it slowly and snuck around every crate and wall, but he still saw me. This time I hit him with a short burst from the flamethrower, and he scuttled off into a vent. Picking up the pace a bit, I made it to the end of the section and through the next door. Following my objective marker, I got to what I naively thought must be the exit and the end of the demo. Victory!
LOW POWER. FIND GENERATOR TO RESTORE POWER TO DOOR.
As I turned, I saw him drop from another vent into the corridor my objective marker now pointed me down. I proceeded with my motion tracker out, still seeing him in the distance. Suddenly, I lost him. The blip got closer and closer and he seemed to appear out of nowhere. I aimed the flamethrower again, but it was empty. I didn’t even bother to run. Game over man.
The Alien Isolation demo was, for me at least, a perfect glimpse of a game. The tone and atmosphere were exactly what I wanted from an Alien game. I was almost too terrified to move for most of it, and the total lack of supplies and the feeling of being completely outmatched by your adversary made the game very much seem like true survival horror. This wasn’t you trying to figure out how to defeat a difficult boss fight. This was you trying to avoid a predator that was hunting you, and was very good at it. The self-contained nature of the demo gave nothing away about the story, the graphics were excellent and controls were fluid. The game is out in just over a week, and I am very much considering finally getting a PS4 to play it on. The release date of October 7th just so happens to be my payday, and I’m reasonably sure I can survive a month without food.
The Evil Within
Next we checked out another one of my most anticipated games, The Evil Within from Tango Gameworks, Bethesda and original Resident Evil architect Shinji Mikami. The promise of more survival horror, the pedigree behind its creation and the footage seen so far has also placed this on my list of ‘if it’s good, finally go next-gen for it’ games. We queued for a bit longer this time, maybe 20 minutes. Bethesda had provided cardboard versions of a safe to put on your head, with a flap for the door, based on one of the monsters in the trailers (most people used these boxes to carry around the rest of their merch). We were again given the choice of PS4 or Xbox One, with a decent number of systems on hand, and sat down in front of the game. Kii was very clear with the attendants that she wasn’t playing. Fool her once horror games? Shame on you. Fool her twice? Shame on her.
First was a short series of clips from throughout the game, all out of context so no spoilers. I couldn’t hear any of the dialogue through my headphones, which were quite quiet and fuzzy. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional so as to not give away any story, or if the headphones were just broken. Probably the latter. Anyway, after a tantalising clip show, the protagonist Sebastian Castellanos (an excellent name) was dropped outside a large ominous looking mansion (Mikami loves his mansions). After testing out my revolver on some crows (which dropped shotgun shells for some reason. Maybe they were shiny, but survival horror games should probably have fewer ammo pick ups and drops than that), I arrived at a grand courtyard area with a fountain. Being very used to similar third person games, I fastidiously looked around the courtyard for ammo and collectibles despite having a limited time to play and collecting items being meaningless for me playing a demo.
Entering the mansion, there was a brief glimpse of what looked like a patient on a gurney being rushed through a huge metal door by some doctors, slamming shut behind them. After a bit more exploring, I encountered my first enemy, being some form of zombie/wight/maniac. When you kill an enemy, as well as looting ammo or other pick ups, you can also drop a match and set the corpse on fire. I’m not sure what function this plays, maybe they can reanimate if you leave them? Presumably this is something that will be clearer after more time with the game. Needless to say I did it to every enemy just in case (even killing one with fire after knocking it down with a shotgun blast), to the point where I seemed to run out of matches. Admittedly, I probably didn’t need to set the dead crows on fire. Lesson learnt.
When the second enemy appeared, the screen started to distort in a combination of a hallucination and static, and a hooded man appeared and stalked towards me. I ran, tail between my legs, and he disappeared. Next, I found a room containing a severed head with the brain exposed, surrounded by tools and probes attached for study. A mini game started, playing a recording to give hints at where to insert the probe. Getting it wrong damaged your own health somehow, and one of the attendants tried to explain the section to me from behind despite the fact that I was wearing noise cancelling headphones. Moving on, I went up the stairs in the atrium and ended up in a large library. A few of the enemies looked particularly grotesque, some being wrapped in barbed wire of with part of their face hanging off. Heading up a ladder, the hooded man appeared again, This time I tried shooting, with no effect, and then decided to see what would happen if he reached me. Maybe it really was a hallucination and he would just disappear? I was wrong. Before disappearing he knocked me down and nearly killed me. I then got the hell out of there, and started to continue into the mansion, but our time with the game had ran out.
The Evil Within demo wasn’t quite as close to classic survival horror as I would have liked (thought this may be unrepresentative of the rest of the game, and I still have high hopes), but it certainly captured the atmosphere of the original Resident Evil and that is definitely a positive. There was a really freaky resonance that felt familiar and new at the same time, with effective if standard gameplay mechanics. The trailers and some of the character design indicates there may be some over-reliance on gore over genuine scares, but that remains to be seen in the context of the game. Regardless, my excitement for The Evil Within has not dulled at all after playing the demo, if anything it has gone up and I’ll be looking forward to the October 14th release.
Come back tomorrow for some more ramblings about some games I played at EGX!