Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Alien: Isolation - Early Thoughts

Alien: Isolation - PS3 Digital Version

Early Thoughts

For those of you who know me personally, you know my birthday was just a couple of weeks ago. Last Saturday, to honor this occasion, my girlfriend bought me the digital version of Alien: Isolation on the PS3, since I have yet to upgrade to the PS4. Having bought Aliens: Colonial Marines for full price the week it came out, and not to mention AVP years before that, among nearly a dozen other Alien-themed games from when I was younger, I knew that the list of quality Alien games was much shorter than the list of terrible ones.

The only franchise that comes to mind with a greater disparity is Star Wars, and that is simply because there are so many more Star Wars games to begin with.

Anyways, here is a breakdown of my early experiences with the game. Keep in mind I'm only about two and a half hours into the game, and I will refrain from any major spoilers, focusing instead on the game-play and strong tones rather than plot. Just know that, from what I've seen of the plot so far, it seems to hold up well enough, with much more credibility than Colonial Marines's fan-fiction-like story.

The game starts off with the right vibe; the Twentieth Century Fox logo is presented as if from a VHS tape that has seen MUCH use. The main menu is simple and straightforward, much like the original title card of the 1979 film. There's a short opening cutscene showing company-man Samuels presenting the main character, Amanda Ripley, with the set-up; the flight recorder for the Nostromo has been found and is being held at the Sevastopol Orbital Station. Amanda joins the small crew of the Torrens, a ship that is the same model of the Nostromo (and, if I had to guess, will likely be the climax of the game), and they all head to Sevastopol to recover the black box and give Amanda some closure on the disappearance of her mother.

Well, of course everything ends up going to shit, and this is where I'll leave the plot.

Controls are fluid and intuitive. Motion is smooth and slow, but not overly so. The game's pacing is such that the slower paced character is actually a welcome, as opposed to the fast-moving characters of other FPS games like Borderlands or Portal. I found that I didn't have to sit and think about which buttons did what when I came back to playing the game, as they all felt natural. L2 will always focus/aim, R2 will always be a hostile, outward action, such as swinging a melee weapon or throwing a flare. Circle is your menu, X is your engage or activate button to interact with various aspects of the environment, and so forth.

I've posted it on Twitter and Facebook, but to reiterate here, you are going to play the first 90+ minutes without ever seeing the alien, barring one brief instance in which it rushes at a closing door (blink and you'll miss it! I did, and only knew it was there because my girlfriend gasped audibly). Your foes are other people, other humans, for the majority of the game's start, some of which will seek you out and kill you on sight, others will only fire upon you if you enter certain areas. Moral of the human-side of the story: everyone's trying to survive aboard the Sevastopol, and they've obviously split into a few smaller groups. Your only safe bet is to sneak around everyone unless you get a clear indication that they aren't hostile.

And then the alien arrives in your first moment of 'stealth or die', and the game truly comes into its own. It is not Survival Horror. You have a gun, but that gun may as well be a super-soaker with all that it does to the xenomorph. In fact, the sound of the weapon is arguably more of a downside than it's power is an upside, and I didn't use the weapon until much later in the game. When you encounter the alien for the first time, your game becomes one of sneaking from corner to crate to dark hallway, and if you're spotted, you need to break line of sight NOW or you will be killed. No question. And when you finally get past that section, you don't see the alien for at least another 60 minutes. I still haven't found it again.

And I am damn happy about that.

It's a very simple idea to grasp, but it was one that didn't seem plausible for a video game until Amnesia: The Dark Descent came out. A game in which almost all power is stripped away from the player, and your enemy is clearly dominant over you. Your options are to hide and wait it out, and then sneak around it when you can. In a world of action games, from shooters to action-RPGs to even action-horror, it's not wonder why Aliens never felt right in the video game world.

Alien was about the atmosphere, the sounds, the darkness, and the horror. This game captures all of that. It is, far and away, the most tense video game I have ever played, and it is exactly what it needs to be. Granted, I'm assuming I still have a lot of game left to play, but I am both looking forward to it and dreading it.

But the developers didn't want to give you a 15-hour sneak-or-die fest, as that would wear thin soon enough. Instead they know how to break up the tension into different flavors of fear. Attacking humans from stealth, avoiding androids and hiding from the alien all have their own feel, and all get your adrenaline up in different ways. Not only that, but there is a scavenging and crafting element to the game similar to that seen in Last of Us, but more in-depth and also more necessary to survival.

All in all, this game is exactly what we, as Alien fans, have needed. It is, in my opinion, a damn-near perfect game built around Ridley Scott's scifi-horror masterpiece, and I would even go so far as to say that it will likely trump The Evil Within as a truly terrifying game. Yet that remains to be seen.

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