Thursday, October 19, 2017

Alien: Isolation Carries The Burden

So I came down with a fairly bad cold last week, and to ameliorate it I took copious amounts of alka-seltzer and Nyquil, and played a game that has been in my library for a couple years now but I've never really touched. Before I get into this, this review will have pretty massive spoilers for the game, but it's been out since this month three years ago, so if you haven't played it yet, go play it before you read this. If you want my final verdict, it's consistent with the lore from the films, and it's a fun game. Definitely worth what you'd pay for it in a Steam sale, although I'm not entirely certain I'd pay $40 for it up front. Good, not that good, for reasons I'll get into. But, if you want to avoid the spoilers and still get a verdict out of me, if you're into horror/stealth games, or just really like the Alien franchise, give this one a buy. I had fun with it. 

Now that we've done the disclaimer and given a basic verdict, let's get into what this game does right, and what it does wrong. Firstly, fuck what those idiots on Reddit say, this game is 100% consistent with the lore from the first two Alien movies. I've seen both multiple times, and practically have them memorized. I know I give Ridley Scott a lot of (deserved) shit whenever he tries to bring something he didn't create to film, because he's bad at it, but when he does an original film it is an incredible sight to behold. Alien is no exception, and James Cameron followed it up with a stellar sequel that's as good as the original, although they're in two different subgenres. The game does not deviate from the lore one whit, and, as a matter of fact, feels more like an Alien experience than any other game I've played in the franchise, with the possible exception of Alien vs Predator (2010). 

The problem with AvP2010 is that it told three different stories, and as such each gameplay experience was truncated into easily repeatable environments and gameplay, which you can imagine gets repetitive fairly quickly. The only campaign that felt like an Alien/Aliens game was the human campaign, and that's the experience Isolation most closely mirrors, while fleshing it out. You're not some roided-out space marine walking in with a pulse rifle or smart gun, and you're not meant to be. Those weapons didn't come around until later in the series anyway (Isolation takes place between 1 and 2). Maybe a plot synopsis would help.

You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, come out to the far reaches of the galaxy to chase the Nostromo and find out what happened to her mother. She signs on as an engineer on a trip to pick up a flight recorder from the Nostromo, and they fly to the space station Sevastopol. Upon arrival they find that shit has completely hit the fan, people are rioting and killing each other, the synthetics have gone psychotic, and there's a dangerous monster roaming the station. People start dropping left and right due to one reason or another, and Ripley has to escape before any one of a million things kills her. 

So in AvP2010 you were a space marine with all the trimmings. Big guns, big muscles, big team (till you start getting picked off, at least), etc. The human campaign plays like a shortened action horror game. There's not a whole lot of avoidance going on. When you're getting run up on, you're getting run up on, and running isn't going to save you, because they'll just follow you through the door to the next room. Competent, but it should've been its own separate game, in my opinion. Anyway.

Isolation is much more of a survival horror game than the human campaign of AvP2010. And to be honest it's a fairly decent one. The stealth elements really hammer home exactly how alone you are in Sevastopol. Not many people are coming to help you, and much the same as in the movies, those who do tend to end up as dinner or incubators.

So there are two elements you're dealing with, here. Stealth, and survival horror. This game is an admirable mix of both, and they lend to each other to strengthen the whole. You are unable to kill the Alien, but you can scare it off with the flamethrower. You are able to kill the hostile humans and synthetics on the station, but you have a severely limited ammo supply. I should mention that while you are able to craft medkits, the materials you need to do so are scattered throughout the station, and the locations are randomized so far as I'm able to determine. You also use those materials for the crafting system in this game to make other weapons and distractions, which is completely ancillary and should've been cut, in my opinion.  But I'll get to that later.

Because you cannot kill the Alien, you have to hide from it and distract it. It has heightened senses, so it can see you from about 25 meters away in complete darkness, it can hear a gnat fart in a symphony, and its dual-AI system ensures it always knows where you are in general. It doesn't know precisely where you are, but it knows the area, and will stick around until you leave, so hiding only works until it hops back into a vent. You can craft noisemakers to distract it, but basically all this boils down to SNEAK EVERYWHERE. Totally serious, there were very, very few portions of this game I was not crouching and sneaking. It's just the smart way to play, given that every time I thought the Alien wasn't around, I'd stand up, and it would dive out of a vent and put its tongue-mouth through my head. Just sneak. Trust me.

Unless you get to a point wherein the humans or synthetics are your main enemy (it happens in places). Then you're free to walk around if you fancy getting into fights you don't have to. The humans usually have ammunition on them, so if you can take them down quickly you might get a nice payoff. The androids, on the other hand, are not simple to take down, even when you get the bolt gun. So this is where strategy comes into play. In some areas it's more expeditious to just kill the damned androids, in some areas you don't have any weapons to kill them with except what you can craft and your big wrench (they call it a "maintenance jack", but fuck off, it's a big damned wrench), and in some areas you can just shuck-and-jive around them and make a break for it. You have to decide what to do in any given situation, and the game forces you to carefully consider your ammo stores and work out what would be best here, given that you don't know what's around the corner.

The timing with the sneaking is also very important, because nobody in this game follows a set path. In stealth games of yore like Thief, or Styx: Master of Shadows, the enemies would follow a set path that you would have to memorize. This path could be retardedly simple or ridiculously complex, but you could memorize it and work out a way around them. In Isolation, it really comes down to waiting for the AI to get bored with your ass, because the enemies (except the androids) follow randomized paths. After the first section in the medical wing of the station I rarely had a problem with the AI tracking me, because if you break line of sight and round a corner they've lost you, at least with the humans/synths. With the Alien it's all a matter of keeping an eye on where it is, waiting until it's not where you want to be, and then making a break for it while keeping an eye on any convenient places to hide along the way. But if it sees you, load your last save, because you're done for unless you have the flamethrower and the reflexes of a rabbit on crack.

So while it can get repetitive, they try to mix it up enough to be fun, and I think they succeed. The game is fun to play, and I enjoyed the hell out of trying to outwit the Alien's AI. Dodging humans and letting the Alien take them out was also fun. I wish it was more hostile to the synths, though, because when those two work together it's almost impossible to get out alive.

The atmosphere in this game is also amazing. Everything is designed with that 1970's aesthetic from the original Alien movie, and it all looks great. It's a lot of fun to just look around the station, and the view from the windows of the outside is nothing short of entrancing. You can tell that the people who made this game are huge fans of the franchise, and they took serious notes from Scott and Cameron's films to make sure that this game looked and felt like an Alien game. Slight spoiler side note: The mere look of the hive from a first-person perspective was terrifying, and my god did it feel good to escape from that deathtrap. They did a great job with the level design in this game. 

There are puzzles that you have to solve in-game (not the mini-games, I'll get to that), but none of them are particularly difficult. If you were able to figure out the original Resident Evil, you'll have no trouble with the puzzles in Isolation. Sometimes figuring out where the hell to go was more difficult than working out puzzles, which is saying something in the days of linear-as-fuck-game-design currently overtaking the market. I got lost in this game. Several times. Thank god for the map. 

Speaking of the map, this was another interesting feature. It's digital, but one-dimensional, so you get a floor layout, much like in the original Resident Evil, or the first few Silent Hill games. Being digital, it updates itself whenever you enter a new room/hallway, or whenever you manually download a floor plan from a console. From there, points of interest (save points, terminals, locked doors, etc) are marked or unmarked as they become relevant and irrelevant. It also shows you the general area of your current destination, which is helpful, but encourages laziness on the part of the player. Although I can't blame them, because some areas in this game are fairly large, and take quite a while to navigate through while sneaking, so knowing where I'm going saved me probably another five hours all told of wandering around and dying. It's a double-edged sword, but in this case I'd rather have it than not.

You also get the motion tracker they used in the movies, and by god is it cool wielding an exact replica of the motion tracker so you can hide in a closet and piss yourself as you see that green dot on the screen rushing towards you. You can get by without it, but it's a big help, and it's really nice to have along for the ride. It's also not quiet, so use sparingly. 

Another thing I had a good long think about but finally decided was a pro in the game's favor was the save system. This game saves in two ways: 1. There are save points which you can access with Ripley's ID keycard, and 2. It just kind of arbitrarily saves when you enter certain areas. This isn't perfect, and could've been improved by removing 2 entirely. I've been playing a lot of older games like Thief, Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, etc, and in those games they would save when you enter a new chapter/mission, or you had to save yourself, and if you didn't and died then oh well fuck you remember to save next time, asshole.

If this game had gone full retro a la Resident Evil or Silent Hill, wherein you have to manually save and can only manually save, and then are graded on your performance, then the save system would've been perfect. If they'd taken into account the amount of manual saves, time, number of deaths, shot accuracy, and given you a grade at the end, it would've felt a lot more like a classic survival horror game. As it stands it has a retro feel to induce the anxiety of thinking, "When was the last time I saved?" but in reality they failed to commit to the bit, and as such cheapened the whole experience for everybody. Also, the countdown timer from when you insert your keycard into the emergency station and when the "Would you like to save?" text box pops up on-screen is far too long, and there's no reason for it other than to make the player nervous when enemies are around. Get rid of that and commit to the retro bit, and you'll be golden. This is a weird mix of a save system that's retro feeling but modern playing, and while a cool idea it just doesn't work with both options in action.

Overall, this game is really good, but we're about to get into some shit that I just didn't enjoy at all. 


FUCK THIS THING. This thing got me killed so many god damned times over the course of this game, I lost count. The idea is that there are some areas that are sealed off behind secure doors, or some terminals are sealed except to certain personnel, and you can use this "Security Access Turner" to get into them. This is meant to vary up the gameplay and give you little mini-games to complete so that you don't get bored just sneaking around opening doors and hiding. This is all well and good in theory, but in practice, it becomes an abominable fucking headache every time it's pulled out of its little satan pouch. That image you see on the screen isn't the only mini-game they make you play. There's also one with sliders and you have to time your button presses, among others, and you never know which one you'll get. Most of the time it's the one pictured, but occasionally they'll throw you a curve ball to trip you up. Bastards. 

Next up, this game has an absolutely egregious amount of quick-time events. Absolutely egregious. Emphasis. More emphasis

Look, game devs, I totally get that you want to keep your audience engaged at every step of the way with the gameplay, but we went for fucking years not getting sucked out of gameplay because we didn't have to press a fucking button combo every two minutes. Right up til Resident Evil 4 was released, matter of fact. Yes, quick-time events are all RE4's fault. Yes, it's a great game despite that, and they were novel at the time. Yes, it was a bad decision for them to include them and yes, it's still a bad decision to put them in your game today. I shouldn't have to press four different buttons and pull the joysticks in wild directions just to pull a lever or prime a generator. It's cheap, it doesn't add anything to gameplay, and you need to stop doing it. Just have the character pull the lever, start the generator, or open the god damned door. It's not that difficult to just let the game glaze over really unimportant shit like that. They did for years and nobody complained about it, then quick-time events came along and EVERYBODY started complaining about it. Take some time to sound the fanbase on this one. Fuck off with the qte's.

You think I went on for too long about that? The time you spent reading that is nothing compared to the amount of time you'll spend in qte's in Isolation. I know it feels like I'm banging this particular drum a little too hard, but literally every door you open is a qte. All the generators are qte's. Cutting through plates with the plasma torch is a qte. Every time. And, icing, every switch you throw is a qte. They just can't let Ripley throw a fucking switch on her own, for fuck's sake. Which confuses the shit out of me, because when you use a console to update your map you don't have to go through a fucking calisthenics course of button presses. They could've done the exact same thing with all the previously mentioned qte's, but for some reason they really wanted you to press those particular buttons at those particular times. Fuck off with this qte bullshit, and let us get back to what gameplay was before 2005, thank you.

Another problem I had with this game is how it handles it's theme. Namely, that of isolation, terror, and being stalked by an unkillable, unrelenting, inhuman enemy. This is going to get into pretty heavy spoiler territory, so you know. The first half of this game is perfect. Honestly, they could've stopped the story after you jettison the Alien in the science lab and that would've been a very satisfactory ending. The Alien is falling into a gas giant, never to be seen again, and Ripley is on her way back to Sevastopol to have hard words with the man who betrayed her to save the station. Up to that point, it had been a stealth/survival horror game that felt exactly like the first movie did. Dark, cold, far from help, hunted, alone, wondering how in the fuck you're going to get out of this mess.

And then the second half of the game happens. The synths start to go psychotic, killing everybody on board, and eventually you find out that the Alien built a hive below the reactor. So you go down there, and that's where this turns from Alien, into Aliens, with a generous side helping of stealth-horror featuring your not-so-friendly neighborhood androids. You start getting more ammo in this bit. It's not enough to turn Amanda into Rambo, but the feeling of sheer helplessness from the first half of the game is gone. And while that doesn't exactly ruin this game, it comes damned close, given how the first half and back quarter of this game act. 

So you purge the generator and wreck the hive, and this scene was pretty cool. Very reminiscent of the scenes in Aliens when Ellen Ripley went into the Hive after Newt. They perfectly captured the look and feel of the interior of an Alien hive, and by god was it creepy going through there and watching my supply of flamethrower fuel slowly dwindle. This section was fun to play, however as I said it throws the feel of the game off.

The Aliens break and run out into the rest of the station, and from that point the AI gets a serious uptick in its aggression. Apparently there were always multiple Aliens running around, and that would explain the seeming ability to teleport this creature has in the first half. However in the last quarter of the game, if you don't sneak literally everywhere you go, you are going to die. The aggro on this bot goes through the roof, and it will spend minutes stalking around the room that you're in, and when it gets bored and hops in a vent you had better move fast, because it's coming back soon. 

The problem with this isn't that it ramps up the difficulty of the first half of the game with the same mechanics, it's that it undermines the pretense of essentially playing the first Alien movie that the game was sold on. This was why I'd bought it. 

While I love Aliens, Alien has always struck me as the better movie because it's a pure science fiction horror flick. It's a predecessor to the 80's slasher genre, and the special effects, monster design, background design, and acting in the movie are all top notch. There's not a wasted moment, and it never gets old. If you offer me the chance to play a video game conveying the feel of Alien, or conveying Aliens, I'd pick the former in a heartbeat. There are already a million conveying the latter, and I've played plenty of them. Most action horror games tend to do what Aliens did, just with a different universe. So really this is a personal nitpick, but given that you don't find multiple aliens outside of the Hive segment, this felt less like a chilling revelation that this problem was so much worse than we'd thought and more like I'd been lied to about what I was laying my money down for. 

Also, that crafting system I mentioned earlier. You find a ton of items in this game that you can use to craft weapons, distractions, and medkits to help you along. The only two I found remotely useful or necessary were the EMP mines and the medkits. In my opinion, the game would've actually proceeded smoother and been more fun had this system been cut and we'd just found medkits, noisemakers, EMP mines, molotovs, etc lying around the station. While the crafting system offers an explanation for why Ripley has all of these items (she is an engineer, after all), most of them were mildly helpful bordering on useless, and the game doesn't pause while you're crafting. Meaning you can get run up on while trying to fashion a medkit. This whole system just felt stupid and tacked on, and honestly they could've put the items you make in the game by themselves and explained that people had been making improvised explosives and tools to protect themselves.

There's even a scene in the game where this happens. You run through a synth display room, they come to life and start chasing you, so you dip out the door and find a room full of shotgun shells and molotov cocktails, as well as a bunch of dead bodies. The logical extrapolation here is that these people made these molotovs, and that could easily have been extrapolated to the entire station to explain the noisemakers and EMP grenades lying around. You find blueprints for these things, so somebody on station knew how to make them, and others could've worked it out. The crafting system was a burden rather than a positive addition, and nothing would've been lost by axing it entirely. 

Finally (read a pun into that if you want), we have the ending.

I'm going to be perfectly frank with you, people, the ending fucking blows. It sucks ass. We go through all that, go to hell and back, and all we get is a three minute spacewalk that ends with a series of qte's and a cutscene with a bunch of Aliens getting ripped off the station exterior. Then it looks like Ripley escaped, she runs into an Alien on the escape ship, and spaces it and herself. Final cutscene, Ripley is floating in her spacesuit, lights show on her face, cut to black, roll credits.

What the fuck.

While completely internally consistent with the lore (whether you subscribe to Theatrical Release Universe wherein Amanda died before Ellen returned or Deleted Scenes Universe wherein Ellen met Amanda right before she died and Amanda blamed Ellen for being gone for so long), this ending is no sort of payoff for the absolute hell this game puts the player through. I wouldn't know about easy mode, because I didn't play it, but normal mode was fairly punishing, and I'd hope it only gets worse from there. It felt cheap, it felt rushed, and it did not feel rewarding. I actually didn't think the game ended there, and went and looked up let's plays of the ending, and forum posts about it, to see if my halfhearted hope had been right and you could unlock the actual ending by being good at the game.

No such luck. What you see is what you get. Is it internally consistent? Yes. Is it consistent with the wider lore set up by the relevant films? Oh, most definitely. They took serious notes. Is it a satisfying conclusion to god only knows how many hours of sneaking through Hell In Space being hunted by the scariest movie monster of the 70's, fighting off psychotic synthetics and crazed humans? No, I really don't think so.

However, disappointing as the ending is, and frustrating as some of the gameplay elements are, the game itself is very solid, and a lot of fun to play. I don't do that numbered score bullshit, I list pros and cons as I see them and then tell you whether I think it was worth my money. This one was. I definitely got my money's worth out of it, and with the Survival Mode and harder difficulties, I stand to get far more enjoyment than the entry fee. It's available on Steam, and I suppose it got released for consoles but if you want to know if it's available for your specific console you'll have to do independent research, or just finally join the master race like most sensible people did after the XBox One/PS3 debacle. 

But if you're into stealth games, horror games, good old-fashioned survival horror games, or just like the Alien franchise in general, you could find a worse place to put your money. This company obviously cares about franchise integrity with regards to the in-universe lore, and given how much fun this one was I hope they get the opportunity to do more with this franchise in the future. Just, please, fewer qte's next time.

For me.

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