Monday, October 13, 2014

REVIEW - Alien: Isolation.

Alien: Isolation is a first-person, pure survival horror game from The Creative Assembly, the developer responsible for the (quite successful, one should note) Total War series of strategy games.  Alien: Isolation, then, is a bit like if the folks who make FIFA suddenly turned around and decided to make a driving game.  What's weirder still is that Alien: Isolation is really, really good.

As a fan of good horror games - sci-fi horror in particular - as a fan of the Alien universe, as a fan of stealth, Alien: Isolation is a gift of a game.  It's a kind of horror game - a kind of experience - you've never had before, and it builds itself on a foundation of pure love for its source material.

It's more than just the inclusion of the drinking bird.  It's more than those Ikea-esque plastic containers half-full of Muslix-lookin' space chow - more than a sci-fi world you feel like you could reach out and touch.  The Creative Assembly understands the Alien universe with greater clarity than any Alien film that followed Ridley Scott's seminal 1979 work.  They get it.  They broke it down and got to the why of every choice made.

They get that the titular creature is only part of the tapestry of terror that blankets the entire affair.  It's the centerpiece, but not the only flavour of fear.

There's the creeping fear that the authorities we give power over ourselves to - that the people we trust - will abuse it, to our deaths, in the same way The Corporation was willing to sacrifice the Nostromo's crew, if it meant a thicker profit margin in fifty years.

ASH: Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities rescinded.
PARKER: The damn company. What about our lives, you son of a bitch?
ASH: I repeat, all other priorities are rescinded.
-Alien (1979)-

There's the fear of technology - of the prone-to-break systems on which we wager our lives, all flickering lights, and hissing steam and thrashing metal (see: Dead Space).

The Creative Assembly have woven their entire - generous - twenty-plus hour single-player campaign with so many beautiful touches that key directly in to not just the look of the original film, but the feel of it.  They understand the why of all the little choices that were made, in fleshing out that world - and so, are able to spin on it and iterate from it and remain entirely true to the spirit and purpose of the source material.

They appreciate that the folks who sign up for years-long interstellar jaunts aren't spiffy-clean Star Trek heroes.  They're space truckers - all they want is their pay cheque, and some earthly pleasures on the side.

An interstellar safe-sex advertisement in a tram car.
There are a ton of cool 70s-style ads in the game.

It's so well-researched and exhaustively thought out that the world you (slowly, carefully) creep through in Alien Isolation feels immediately authentic, believable and - here's the kicker - immersive.

Every computer is a great, chunky thing that you can hear whirring and clicking as you scroll through its rudimentary menus.  When lights switch on, they do so with a heavy thunk, reminding you that something, somewhere, just snapped into place.  Power is turned on with big, heavy handles and giant wrenches.

It all feels so grounded and physical - but that's only half the immersion equation.  The other half is that it looks (and sounds) incredible.

The music riffs directly on the film's score, from the eerie horns in calm moments to violin stings when an enemy gets uncomfortably close to spotting you.  The world itself is alive with noise as its sci-fi machinations whirr and humm around you - the alarms are the same alarm sounds - and the visuals are, for the most part, spectacular.  The lighting engine is wonderful.

Remember when you first stepped into DOOM 3?  The way the light danced, the way it cut through blinds and threw shadows in just such a way?  Alien: Isolation reminds me of that feeling.

It becomes deeply absorbing, and once the game's wrapped its reality around you, you find yourself taking it very seriously when a seven-foot killing machine from beyond the stars drops out of an air vent in front of you and goes hisss!

Wait.  Let's back up.

You are Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, science fiction and action's first lady of badass and the hero of the Alien film franchise,

Kezia Burrows' performance as Amanda starts off shakey, but becomes great after about a forty minutes into the game.
The difference in quality is kinda' weird. 
After your mother went missing following the (mysterious, to you) events of the first film, you grew up, moved on and got yourself an education.  We meet you with a welding helmet down, finishing off a job in a workshop.  You're an engineer, you see, and are adept at fixing... well, anything (again, shades of Dead Space).

Some suit from The Company tells you that the flight recorder of your mother's ship, the Nostromo, has been found, and is awaiting retrieval at a deep-space station called Sevastopol. Sevastopol, you see, is not a Company asset - it's a free port - and it's been going down hill for quite some time.

After decades of slowing trade, the station's been decommissioned.  Everyone lost their jobs and their way of life, and the few that remain are only here to smoothly complete the dismantle of a soaring, three-towered free-floating cityscape before it's sold for scrap.

Then that flight recorder showed up.  And something else came with it.

By the time you arrive, all that remains of Sevastopol's former glory are three spires of increasingly-malfunctioning infrastructure and a slim population of desperate survivors, driven to near-madness by their situation.  There's no way off the station.  There's no way to call for help.  And something is out there.  It's in the vents.

The station's few human survivors don't trust you, and would sooner shoot than talk.  The AI core that controls Sevastopol's army of androids seems to be on the fritz and the creepy, calm-voiced, glowing-eyed Working Joes are just as likely to help you find that part you need as choke the life from you.  And then, of course, there's the creature.

Alien: Isolation is a stealth game, through and through, and I must admit, I'm not sure it would work, were it leveraging any other intellectual property.

Every foe in the game - the humans, the androids and the creature - employ standard stealth mechanics.  They can see you (but can't see you when your body is hidden and you press R1 to peek around a corner), they can hear the noise you make, and they'll try to kill you if they make line-of-sight on you - though the creature is much better at seeing and hearing you.

Humans are pretty decent shots with their guns, but are mighty squishy when the business end of your maintenance jack (see: large wrench) is judiciously applied.  Androids require a bit more planning and finesse - you can burn 'em to death, you can shock them into submission before you tear into them with the 'jack, or you can just blow them up - but any of those options make a bit of noise, and are likely to draw the creature's attention.

Step 1 : Android flambé.
Step 2 : Shotgun to the face - wait, did you hear something?

If the creature sees you, it will kill you.  And that... is a pretty unique concept - one enemy that you cannot hurt in any meaningful way, which will instantly kill you if it notices you and can get close enough, which follows you throughout the game.  It's been done in the past, but those games used such a foe in heavily-directed, pre-determined scenes (see: Pyramid Head).  In Isolation, the Alien is around all the time, and it's doing its best to find you.

That concept - the central idea the entire game is based on - wouldn't work without the Alien brand slapped on it, and would likely be plainly infuriating if we, the player, didn't buy in to the reality that this thing is basically unkillable and that yes, it would instantly eviscerate us if it had the chance.

I do buy in to that reality.  The game's world is so thickly, meticulously well-realized, it would be very hard not to.

Alien: Isolation, then, is not merely a survival-horror game set in the Alien universe - it's a survival-horror game whose core mechanics are directly informed by the pop-culturally-ingrained understanding that we, the player, have of the Alien creature - and what it's capable of.

While the humans are easy prey (if you wish) and the plodding androids are easily-avoidable (in calm, British monotone: "please come out of the vent," "I'm not going in there after you"), the alien and its seemingly-random behavior catapults Alien: Isolation from a run-of-the-mill horror game to something very unique and very special.

You'll never load up a save and be able to predict where the Alien will be, or what it will do.  The only thing you can count on it for is to come running when it hears the sounds of violence.  If a survivor starts shooting at you, the best thing to do is crouch behind cover and let him shoot - 'cause he's gonna' get his in about two seconds.

Sevastopol station is not a long walk down a linear hallway.  Its construction is like Rapture, if there were crawl spaces and vents that connected half the rooms.  The most challenging sequences in the game are those that take place (towards the end) in more-confined environments where there are fewer places to hide, fewer places to go - but for the most part, every area in the game is a veritable honeycomb of escape routs and hiding spots to slip in to.

Because the creature is so unpredictable, because the rooms are often so porous - there are always vents to slip in to and lockers to hide in - the gameplay never feels less than tense.  You can never anticipate what will happen when you load up your latest save, because the Alien will stubbornly refuse to replicate any of the five ways it just caught you - it'll do something new.

Isolation, then, becomes a game about learning the rules of its stealth - and your arsenal of toys.

Ripley's professional leanings permit her to traverse the entire station, repairing or destroying or hacking systems as she goes.  You'll pop open fuse boxes to switch off security systems, power up doors and turn off the air scrubbers - soon this area will be a haze of mist, the better to sneak through.
You'll find yourself taking stressful detours from your objective because there's an active computer terminal in a nearby room, and it may provide a bit of backstory.  You'll find blueprints, here and there, that enable you to MacGyver together an impressive assortment of improvised devices - molotov cocktails, pipe bombs, noise makers, healing syringes and EMP mines.

This not only means the world itself feels dynamic and vital as you push its buttons and manipulate it in your favor, but ensures that you're constantly scouring every room you enter for precious ammunition, batteries for your flashlight, story points, schematics and materials for crafting, all while listening intently for the sounds of the creature. The combination of its physically-open maps, interactivity, thick atmosphere, brilliant world design, general sense of despair and inviting exploration make the game feel a lot like BioShock, oddly enough - just with less shooting and more sneaking.

Stealth, in Alien: Isolation, is a far more potent option than any weapon at your disposal.  Because it's so effective, so intuitive, I found myself rarely in a position to actually need to use most of the toys Ripley had cobbled together.  I never threw a molotov cocktail, for example (for shame - the game's flame effects are beautiful), never used a flare, never used an EMP mine and I never once tossed the noise maker.

The only two items I felt naked without were the flame thrower and the iconic motion detector.

Too late, it sees you.

The motion detector becomes crucial when you're unable to get a visual bead on the beast - when you've shuttered yourself in a closet, or are crawling through some vents, or just cowering beneath a desk - but you soon get to know the tell tale sounds it makes, depending on its behavior.  The baritone thump of it leaping up into an air vent always means the coast is clear to move, and the sound of its inquisitive vocalizations signals a pressing need to slip into the nearest cover.

Again, all enemies in the game employ reasonable, universally-understood rules of stealth gameplay, and that can kind of end up... not killing the tension, but turning it a bit humorous.

For example, if you're crouched behind a waist-high box, and your foe is on the other side of that box, it can't see you.  Them's the rules.  As such, there were two or three moments in which the Alien could clearly tell I was around - could smell me, or something - while I crouched behind a supply crate, peeking over the box at it.

It would go left, and I would go right.  It would turn back, and I would match it.  We'd dance around this box for a minute or three before it got bored, decided I wasn't around and hopped back up into the air vents.  I was right there, man.  If Isolation were a movie, that scene would be played for laughs - I mean, it's still tense, but also a bit funny.  That, however, is the exception to Isolation's rule - a few moments out of a hundred curses hissed through gritted teeth as you peek around the edge of a door, hoping it won't come this way 'cause there's no desk to hide under in this room.

Back off!

There's also the flame thrower.

While the flame thrower can never kill the creature, it will get it to screw off for a minute or two (in exchange, I suspect, for it becoming a bit more aggressive in its searches).  When that happens - when the Alien charges you and you slap it in the face with napalm and it skitters away to fly into the nearest vent?  You feel bad ass.  You feel like Ellen Fucking Ripley.

This nameless woman is one of the only pleasant people you'll meet on the station.  "Nice to see a friendly face," she says.
I wish I'd spent more time listening to her.  Why does she stick with me?

And that's Alien: Isolation.  That is the entire experience of it - feeling like Ripley.  Feeling like you're inhabiting that world, that universe - and that you have an unstoppable ultra-predator drooling from both of its mouths at the thought of your tender human flesh the whole way.  It is the Alien game gamers have dreamed of, and Creative Assembly have given it to us.

Rare is the triple-A game that is so laser-focused on what it wants to be, and rarer still is the game that accomplishes it in such style - and Isolation is stunningly well-realized.  It's an excellent survival-horror-stealth-adventure, but more than that it's a first-person frayed nerve-dive into the universe, the style, the feeling of one of the defining science fiction horror tales of our time.

An instant classic.

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