19 October, 2014

Review - Alien: Isolation, The Sequel We All Wanted

Having spent about fifteen hours either, clenching most of my muscles in dread-fuelled tension, or cursing vehemently at my TV in frustration, I finally brought Alien: Isolation to a close. My advice for the next time you are tempted to venture into eerily monolithic space stations - leave the medpacks and guns, they wont help you for long, oh and find a way to mute your motion tracker Or maybe just dont go in at all?

Alien: Isolation

Despite the title, youre rarely truly alone in Alien: Isolation. You usually have one faithful companion following you doggedly in the shadows, snaking through vents and ducts to remain at your heels for the fifteen or so hours youll spend aboard the dilapidated Sevastopol Station. When Alien: Isolation is at its most effective, you are the prey, a rat in a maze of haunted corridors, struggling and cowering in your pursuit of survival. When it’s not hitting the mark, you find yourself hitting switches without really knowing why, and fighting against the game’s slightly broken mechanics and AI.

In Alien: Isolation,  there is no sense of empowerment, Amanda Ripley isnt the apex predator in this steel jungle, and neither was her mother, yet she managed to survive. And its true, this is an Alien game, not Aliens, you basically share Sevastopol with a single Alien, though there are other threats, none are so chilling as the Xenomorph. The Alien is so effective because it is not scripted, there are set piece moments of course, but for the most part the Alien can leap and kill you from just about any vent at seemingly any time. It’s exhilarating and at times petrifying, I kept crouched, with my eyes glued to the  motion tracker at all times.  To aid your survival youll build up quite an arsenal of weapons, though these are more often a hindrance, rather than any kind of viable defense and there is rarely enough ammunition to even consider using them. Noise will attract the Alien, and the guns are great at making noise, but not so much at killing. You also find blueprints scattered around the offices and dorms of Sevastopol, letting you craft a number of useful gadgets; noisemakers, medpacks, pipe bombs, to name a few. Just like the guns in your arsenal, you do not want to use them frivolously, especially not the louder ones. These items are constructed from materials found around Sevastopol – if you’re hiding under a desk for ten minutes might as well check the draws? Similarly, some of the weapons you acquire bear the same ‘home-brewed’ look, built from scavenged parts – there is no iconic pulse rifle lying around anywhere – and even you’re more conventional weapons simple lack the punch to achieve much of anything. At best you can ward off the Alien, but then it knows where you are and this will only spur it to hunt you faster, stealth is your only reliable defense on Sevastopol Station.

Upon launching Alien : Isolation, you are given the option to use the PlayStation 4 Camera, or Kinect for Xbox One, assuming of course you have either. Leaning can be enabled, using head tracking,  which just like in Battlefield 4, is largely a gimmick rather than something you might actually use. However, the second option is to use the cameras microphone; enemies will hear you in game if you're making real noise – and I was, more often then not cursing. Its difficult to tell how many of my grisly deaths could be attributed to this functionality, or simply other factors in game, regardless this mechanic is another threat, another way of you being hunted. It was effective too, I had to mute all my devices, close the windows and pause the game each time someone else made noise. I became increasingly paranoid of things in the outside world and the effect they may have in game, even though I suspected the camera couldnt pick up most things.

Well I'm pretty sure the Alien didn't do this.
The game really isn’t much fun to play – which is not necessarily a bad thing, a game modelled after Alien shouldn’t be ‘fun’, but it also probably shouldn’t make you want to break your controller in anger. I came very close, multiple times. Alien: Isolation’s gameplay and tension is effective for perhaps five to six hours, which is a serious problem when there’s another ten hours to go. It is easy to understand why such long game was made, people still decry games that don’t conform to the idea that number of hours equals value. As a result, this game has so much padding, that the majority of the game feels unnecessary.  There comes a point when you are without the threat of the Alien for some time, but you are still being hunted by rogue synthetics and humans, a good portion of which have to be killed. And of course, without the Alien to track this isn’t a huge problem. But now you have to engage in combat, which is a pretty miserable experiance; the shooting is slow and inaccurate, and naturally you have little to no ammunition. The maintenance jack (a wrench) was probably my most used armament; humans could be swiftly beaten to a bloody pulp, but the synthetics were still a pain, they simply block your attacks. They soak up damage and they're also the thing you fight the most, they are everywhere, and you encountered even harder models later in the game. The problem with the middle half of the game, is that so much of the tension that makes this game great is lost, while flawed gameplay comes to the fore, the player’s fear is pushed to aside to make room for frustration. Although the game does pick up in the closing chapter, it is not in a way that justifies the ten hour slog that precedes it, the gameplay simply does not hold up for that long.

A great deal of the frustration I felt, can be directly attributed to the save system. There are basically no checkpoints, and you cannot save where you like, you are restricted to wall-mounted save units, and of course you can die as you interact with them. I believe this save mechanism is designed to heighten tension, which it does quite well. However, I can think of few greater deterrents for continuing to play a game than losing half an hour of progress because I wasn’t able to cancel out of a sluggish button pressing animation. Repeat this multiple times per level, having to repeat anywhere between five and thirty minutes of progress and you become completely disrupted, irritable, you forget about the part where you’re being stalked and start thinking about all the ways the game cheated you. The times where the enemies would seek your hiding hole in a pitch-black room, or appear the instant you start cutting a door panel, really start to add  up and I very quickly stopped wanting to play the game, let alone finish it. This isn’t like the Dark Souls games, where death as meaning and you have to learn how to overcome an obstacle, you just die and lose progress – and patience – because a lot of the time it doesn't feel like you could have done anything differently.

For the vast majority back two-thirds of the game I found myself wishing it would just end; the part where it was a superb spiritual successor to Alien had ended, leaving only the weakest parts of the game in its place. The narrative is pretty standard, but the story of the Alien movies wasn’t the determining factor either, the characters are quite standard too, except for Amanda Ripley. Ripley was made in the image of her mother; she’s capable, resourceful, a survivor, but she is not a cold-blooded killer, nor fearless. As a protagonist this makes her one of the best, her character remains consistent, she develops over the course of the game but her nature isn’t lost, she doesn’t morph into a desensitized killing machine.

Furthermore, Alien: Isolation captures the sights, sounds, and tone of the originally Alien movie perfectly. It goes beyond the mere architecture; the padded  plastic furniture, monochrome CRT monitors, and the small personal items scattered around dorms, are all consistent with the nineteen-eighties sci-fi style found in the movie. Though the game is not the most graphically powerful, lighting and special effects are clearly the focus, achieving the cinematic quality needed to light and texture the world of Alien. Effects such as; the CRT glow, whistling jets of steam, and roaring cones of flames, help sell the world as authentic, in a way that more detailed character models simply wouldn’t have. I did encounter a slew of graphical bugs however, small things like items floating a few feet above the ground, and larger problems like the walls not loading at all, leaving me staring at the black abyss for perhaps thirty seconds before they popped in. Furthermore, the cut scenes appear to running at a noticeably lower frame rate, I considered that this may be a stylistic choice, to match the look of the Alien movie, either way it is extremely jarring and appears broken rather than stylish.

As if the story mode wasn’t long enough, a score based challenge mode, called survivor mode is also available. These are small scenarios that will have some set objectives to accomplish as you try to escape as fast as possible, setting a score and competed with other friends on a leaderboard. It’s a nice value add, providing you enjoy the gameplay, or rather continue to enjoy the gameplay after completing the bloated campaign.

Alien: Isolation is a fantastic yet deeply flawed game; at it’s best it manages to capture the pure tension and horror of the original Alien film, in a way that the subsequent films never could. Unfortunately, this only holds up for a few hours, perhaps the first five. Though there are some great moments after that point, they are overshadowed by the grueling gameplay which does everything it can to make your deaths feel unfair and your time wasted. Amanda Ripley is a fantastic and unique protagonist, a worthy successor to the movies’ Ellen Ripley, brought to life in a world that fits perfectly with the series’ art. It’s too bad then that most of the time spent there is a grind against the mechanics of the game, because when it works, it's great. 

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