Thursday, March 3, 2016

Alien: Isolation review

    If I had to say what is the single greatest horror movie of all time was, I'd probably say Alien. If I had to say what my favorite movie of all time would be, it would be Jurassic Park followed by Star Wars, but Alien is certainly up there. However, Alien is a movie which has had only one good follow up. It had some decent comics by Dark Horse but they were altered to accommodate Alien 3 and just about everything else has been mediocre or outright terrible. So, it's with the greatest amount of seriousness I say these next words: Alien: Isolation is part of my Alien canon along with the original film and Aliens.

    Alien: Isolation is good enough that I consider it to be more than fanfic and a testament to the fandom of a writer whose first submission to a science-fiction writer's club in 6th grade was Aliens fanfic. It's well-designed, well-written, scary, and delightful all at once. It's also FRIGGING HARD. I believe a large number of players will be unable to finish the game even on Novice mode. Despite this, I've got to say this is going to be one of my most universally positive reviews. It would be even more so if I couldn't help but think this is where the franchise could have gone but they decided to kill poor Newt and Hicks instead (24-year-fandom rage continues to burn hot!).

I love Amanda's realistic character design which invokes Sigourney Weaver but doesn't copy her.
    The premise is Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, has been pining for her lost mother for fifteen years since the cataclysmic events of the original movie. According to its sequel, Amanda eventually grows old and dies at age 66. In this reality, though, she is investigating what happened to her mother and working on the fringes of society.

    A representative of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, Samuels, contacts her and invites her to accompany him to Sevastopol Station where they've apparently recovered the Nostromo's flight recorder. They arrive to find the station in a state of catastrophic disrepair, the populace having degenerated into lawless feuding bands, and the titular alien picking off its population one by one. A spacewalk mishap results in Amanda getting propelled onto the damaged station and presumed dead, stranding her on the decaying superstructure.

The set-pieces are gorgeous and directly taken from the film.
    I knew I would love this game when, roughly fifteen minutes onto Sevastopol Station, Amanda decides to screw the flight recorder and just get the hell out. Yeah, Amanda would love to know what happened to her mother but when you come across the equivalent of a bus terminal and find there's thirty bodybags on the ground with no law enforcement or emergency services present, it's time to get out. Much like the Lara Croft from the revised Tombraider world, Amanda Ripley is a highly intelligent but overwhelmed protagonist who struggles with an impossible situation. She's a bit too willing to shoulder the grunt work but that's because almost everyone else is dead. Not because they were stupid but because the situation is that dangerous.

    Part of what made Alien so great was the crew, for all the fact they were just a bunch of space truckers, reacted to events in an intelligent and well-reasoned manner. This is a quality which is carried over into the game as everyone deals with the Xenomorph (never called that in the game) in an understandable, if not always wise, manner. Much of the backstory to the station deals with mistakes anyone would have made without a knowledge of the creature's backstory. Much of the game which follows has Amanda struggling to survive on a space station full of hostile humans, hostile robots, and an even more hostile perfect life-form. The game is primarily stealth-based with the possibility of never killing any humans a viable one (which gets you an achievement).

Tracking the Alien with the motion sensor is the primary mechanic.
    The Xenomorph is invincible to your feeble weapons and you are forced to use a motion-sensor, hiding places, as well as noise-makers to stay one step ahead of the creature. You will get killed a huge number of times and the tension in-between these moments is impressive. It's probably one of the best horror games of all times and that's not hyperbole.

    The centerpiece of the game is the monster, of course, as it is an incredibly well-made antagonist. The creature actively hunts the protagonist in each level. Its drawn by loud noises, combat, along with fast movement. You know, the things most gamers are dependent on during their missions. The creature has a few scripted appearances but most of its appearances are entirely managed by its freakishly intelligent A.I. Teaching players to unlearn fighting and embrace the terrifying helplessness of someone who doesn't have the ability to fight back is a near unique experience in gaming.

If you see the monster, it's probably too late.
    I will state, upfront, this is not a game for those who don't enjoy slow and methodical gameplay with plenty of potential for death. The Xenomorph supposedly learns from your habits of dealing with it and while there's no better strategy than throwing a noise maker in the direction you're not going, there's sometimes just no good way of outwitting it.

    The fact you can't outrun the alien or even block its movement is perhaps a missed opportunity as if ever there was a game where locking the door behind you was a good strategy then this would be it. I died many-many-many times in this game with some sections consisting of me hiding in a locker for fifteen minutes as I suffered from paranoid delusions the Xenomorph was right outside. This worked well for me but isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea.

Sevastopol Station is an amazing setting.
    I also give credit to Dan Abnett (Eisenhorn, Gaunt's Ghosts) for creating an incredibly vivid setting in Sevastopol Station. Rather than rehash the usual conflict between Weyland-Yutani, the Alien, and the Survivors, it creates a lesser competitor for the Company in Seegson. Seegson is a producer of cheap knock-off alternatives to Weyland-Yutani products and is currently in the middle of going bankrupt. Even before the Alien's arrival, their space station was falling apart. I also loved the concept of the Working Joes, who are a nonsentient mannequin-like race of androids mindlessly carrying out their tasks with no regard to the Xenomorph's presence.

    I love the design for Sevastopol Station, which is deliberately designed to evoke the 1979 movie's original design aesthetic. The monitors sets are round rather than curved, tobacco machines are everywhere, computer displays are in green and black, while everything is bulky switches as well as dials. I also love the sheer pants-wetting terror all of the inhabitants are feeling at the paranoia-inducing presence of the Xenomorph. There could have been more characters you interact with at length but I liked the ones we did meet with.

The Working Joes are delightfully Uncanny Valley, even if they're just there so you have something to shoot.
      Part of what makes the game so good is it takes risks with its premise. At the risk of spoiling, the first hor of the game is completely absent of the Xenomorph or even danger. It relies solely on the creepy atmosphere, noises, and lighting effects to scare the hell out of its players. It works too. The world depicted is also delightfully bleak and uncompromising with the universe being innately hostile but humanity doing itself no favors with its selfish greedy attitudes.

    Survivors turn on each other when they should be banding together and even before things went to hell, corporate greed had made the station the equivalent of a ghost town. A scene mid-way through the game where a group of truckers come across, as far as they know, the first evidence of alien life in the universe says everything. What's their reaction? Start stealing bits and pieces of its ship to sell.

Sometimes hiding isn't enough.
     The amount of attention to detail as well as number of nods to the original movie is considerable. So much so there's actually a scene where you wake up in a ship which is functionally identical to the Nostromo from the original movie. I wouldn't mind a sequel in this game, even if this is perfectly appropriate as a "one and done" example of what can be done with fidelity to an existing license. I also like the writing and think Dan Abnett should be allowed to write some Alien novels. Maybe he can figure out a way to bring back Newt.  Hehe.

    There is, however, a serious flaw in the game which only occurs roughly 2/3rds of the way since. Basically, the game ends then goes on. The major plot of the game is resolved and you are then sent scurrying to another plotline which is resolved. Then it happens again and again. Then you reach another great ending moment, only for the game to continue.

They mostly come...whenever they damn well please.
    Really, this game, which took me about 15 hours to beat, could have been about 10 without losing anything.  The padding in places, including several times where you're just about to accomplish a goal before everything is reversed, really detracts from the experience. If a few more missions were added in the middle, the halfway point climax could have been the end of the game with the rest of the proper game being DLC.

    In conclusion, Alien: Isolation isn't one of all time favorite video games. I'm just not good enough at stealth to be able to enjoy it on the same level as Deus Ex or Dragon Age: Origins. However, I've got to say it's still an amazing artistic accomplishment. If Amanda Ripley had more character development, it would be up there, too. This is definitely a game for an acquired taste but if you have that taste then it is something you must buy.


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