Sunday, January 18, 2015

\\ A Creature Fear: Alien: Isolation Review //

This article contains spoilers of plot points and gameplay scenarios from the game, “Alien: Isolation” by The Creative Assembly, published by Sega Corporation. Played on PlayStation 4.

The first Alien movie was the best one. It established an aesthetic, a tone. It was well-acted, well-directed. H.R. Giger’s creature designs were (are) impeccably effective. Its sequel, Aliens, is perhaps still-unmatched in terms of boldness and quality by any other film sequel since, with its heightened sense of tension followed by explosive release. Yet, Alien 3 was a complete crapshoot; it was director David Fincher’s first film, and also marred by chronicled production troubles which lead to a film that’s neither too frightening nor too exciting, simply not enough anything. At least Alien: Resurrection managed to salvage a few good laughs out of me with its complete disregard for any sort of tension and embracement of camp. Prometheus didn’t really happen, right?

Alien: Isolation is the latest from developer Creative Assembly, a team most widely known for their Total War line of strategy games. I’ve not played any of those, but it’s interesting and exciting that the team embraced the slower, more prodding pacing which they’re usually known for and applied it to a first-person adventure-style game, especially when, historically, that camera angle’s common application has been for highfalutin action romps.

Here we see the first true Alien game (note the singular “Alien”). It’s true, indeed, that the iconic xenomorph design has appeared in some troublesomely awful interactive products in the past; even if the idea was sound, one never got the sense that these works were approached with much respect or integrity for the franchise in their execution. Just last year saw the release of Gearbox Software’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, a widely panned first-person shooter based off Aliens, but lacking the quality in craftsmanship that James Cameron’s sequel was approached with. There have been several others, including Metroid-likes, strategy games, shoot-em-ups, and more first-person shooters, yet all were analogues of past games like Doom, Super Metroid, Contra, and even Starcraft.

By Ridley Scott.
By Ridley Scott. Image credits: Amazon
The pitch for Isolation was simple: why not design a game around the core idea of the original film? After all, the original Alien has long been seen as one of the greatest horror films of all time, inspiring countless books, novels, and games to follow a similar hunter-hunted plot structure. It’s one of those things that’s just so obvious in hindsight, but I can see was probably a hard idea to get off the ground in the modern triple-A development space.

In Alien: Isolation, the player assumes the role of Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, who was alluded to in a deleted scene from Aliens. Christopher Samuels, a synthetic android, informs Amanda that a flight recorder of the Nostromo vessel, the same ship which housed Ellen Ripley’s excursions throughout the course of the first film, has been found by a ship known as the Anesidora and brought to Sevastopol Station. Samuels allows Amanda a position onboard the recovery ship Torrens with the rest of his crew. Upon reaching Sevastopol, Amanda, Samuels, and Weyland-Yutani executive Nina Taylor are separated when attempting to spacewalk from their own vessel to the station. Ripley enters Sevastopol, and the game begins proper.

The player is first given agency over Amanda Ripley while onboard the Torrens. The game makes a hell of a first impression; every room, bed, wall, computer screen, and cryogenic sleep chamber seems hand-crafted, meticulously placed in order to develop a sense of immersion. It’s as if the Torrens serves as a resounding, “Hell yeah!” from the Creative Assembly, in celebration of what appears to be the first truly authentic interactive Alien experience.

That’s kind of the thing about Alien: Isolation. If there’s one aspect about the game that never seems to falter throughout the entirety of Isolation’s lengthy duration, it’s the uncompromising dedication to Ridley Scott’s original film in terms of tone and aesthetic. I simply cannot stress enough the attention to detail found here. One feels as if actually being hunted by an unknown force in the year 2137 whilst peering down at their motion tracker, which makes a real sound that other beings can hear, blurs your view of the rest of the game’s viewport as your focus is diverted (and the player can redirect Ripley’s focus by holding down the left trigger while the tracker is out, which is a really nice effect). In Alien: Isolation, the motion tracker is a greater tool than any conventional weapon, just as it would be for Ellen in the original movie.

A beautiful exterior hides a haunting core.
A beautiful exterior hides a haunting core. Image credits: Alien: Isolation Wiki

I got excited every time I approached one of the game’s frequent computer terminals, not particularly for the contents inside, but for the loading screen adorned with a logo reading ”Sevastolink” (“LM-Link” while onboard the Anisodora) which blinks and flickers in that very 70’s way. The rigid font, VHS-style static distortion, gorgeous ambient lighting, beeps and boops; some folks at The Creative Assembly clearly caught a severe case of analog fetishism, as it permeates throughout the entire station. Interfacing with these elements of the game’s aesthetic are always a welcome reprieve from the rest of the game’s rather stressful progression. As long as the game is, it’s inevitable that some assets would get reused, but it never really bothered me much, since this inherently builds a sense of cohesion to the Sevastopol’s general look and feel.

The nice thing about Isolation’s aesthetics, is that they are not merely visual splendor; the world design here is functional too. There’s the obvious stuff, like hiding behind things, under desks, in lockers to avoid detection. Ripley is less visible when in the dark; leaving your flashlight on can attract attention. Every noise she makes can be heard by other entities aboard the Sevastopol, whether it be from walking or sprinting as opposed to crouch-walking, when she fires off a shot from her revolver, when she smacks a wall with her maintenance jack. You’d better hope that the alien isn’t around, because it can hear everything due to its heightened senses.

But Isolation doesn’t stop there. Every time Ridley has to press a button, pull a switch, toss a lever, read a computer terminal, or so forth, she is still vulnerable. As is the way popularized by games like Demon’s Souls, the game almost never pauses for anything. The alien can still catch you while you are performing these in-game tasks, and if he catches you, it’s game over, and you’ll be brought back to one of the game’s several save stations.

It’s just a shame, then, that the game doesn’t completely hold to this philosophy of constant vulnerability, as Demon’s Souls and its sequels did before it. The game has a traditional pause menu to quit out, adjust sound and brightness, and load a different save which completely freezes the game in its tracks; everything in the game world stops happening, as one might expect. It also has a screen which lets you look at your map, listen to past audio logs, and view identity tags; this too serves as a traditional pause screen. Most important here is our map, which is integral to navigating Sevastopol’s winding and claustrophobic corridors. It also circles our current destination. However, the motion tracker has a little white line which surrounds the perimeter of the screen and shows us our destination, but we’re encouraged not to use that as feedback since the map screen pauses the game and shows us where to go, and is thus a much safer alternative. As well, using the motion tracker emits a loud beep which can attract attention, further establishing the conventional paused map screen as the smarter option of the two. Having not one, but two different pause screens breaks tension. I know my preferred approach here might be seen as too unconventional and frustrating, but the rest of the game never shies away from ubiquity in its seamlessness. Thus, this seems like quite the oversight, especially when one takes into consideration how often they’ll be using the map screen, and how often they’ll still be using the motion tracker to spot unseen enemies. A combination of the two might have been more elegant, like putting the map screen onto the motion tracker, while still maintaining the sense of tension.

Another source of wasted potential resides in the electrical junctions, which can be used to change which machinery will receive electricity. You’re only given a few power units to use, so ideally one would have to choose wisely which sources will receive power. Most junctions are relegated only to a few nearby rooms, but some (too few) have a much greater reach. The main problem with these is that the solution to the scenarios the junctions exist in is usually extremely obvious, lacking any nuance. You’ll often need to use them to unlock doors which block your way through the essential path, which becomes the obvious choice. You might use them to disable cameras, which you never want activated, as being spotted by one will certainly alert the alien. Once in a while you can use a junction to purify the air, but this is very rare, and the player eventually receives a gas mask anyway, making such functionality null and void. The junctions aren’t explicitly binary in nature, but that feel so in execution; there’s always a more than ideal solution for these. One can imagine scenarios in which you would need to mix and match combinations of outlets which will receive power, like having cameras which could spot the alien (they currently can’t for some reason) and sound the alarm, giving the player valuable feedback as to where the alien is without needing to use the potentially fatally loud motion tracker, but then maybe that will restrict the player from being able to go into an optional room for loot, or maybe you’ll have to turn off the lighting, or have to walk through poisonous air. The foundations of such game design ideas *exist* in Alien: Isolation, but they’re really not utilized in any clever or interesting ways to create emergent levels of play, and it’s a damn shame.

The Alien franchise has in the past been riddled with sexually-charged imagery (it’s easy to overlook the chestburster’s phallic origins after seeing it so often), evoking pregnancy, rape, and violence against women. One would like to think that it’s no coincidence that the protagonists of both Alien and Alien: Isolation are women, both of whom are related (though it’s possible that it’s one of those things that just sort of happened, often annoying confirmed when one listens to a few interviews on the subject). One of the most profoundly haunting moments I experienced in the game was during the alien’s first hunt for I, the prey, where I found myself standing in a locker, praying with bated breath that the alien wouldn’t see me. There are obvious parallels to be observed between hiding from the xenomorph and a woman trying to hide from a stalker or rapist. In a strange way, perhaps this moment helped me to empathize with those who are privy to destructive people, their lives plighted by constant, overwhelming fear. Still, as I’ll talk about in further detail later, since the game doesn’t have much resembling a meaningful plot, I can’t help but feel more could have been done in this area, touchy a subject as it may be. Even Aliens took a pretty neat approach to sexuality and gender with the heightened focus on mother-daughter familial relationships.

Alien: Isolation is separated into nineteen chapters. Indeed, Creative Assembly have decided to construct a very long narrative-driven game, a notion I personally welcome once in a while if executed well (see: The Last of Us). The game may take players upwards of twenty hours to complete. The obvious first question players will have is, well, how does the game manage to remain interesting throughout? The best way to describe it would be with a few examples.

The alien doesn’t really show up until the fifth chapter. Well, that’s not completely true, as it does appear a bit earlier in a scripted sequence, but the player is meant to only be frightened by the sight of it, not really killed (I assume though that if one does something quite rash here they will be attacked, but you would have to go out of your way to make this happen). The fifth chapter is where the game finally delivers on the promise of its original conceit. The player finds themselves navigating labyrinthine corridors with not much with which to defend themselves. These early battles of wits against the xenomorph are probably where the game shines brightest, as players will have to be patient and insightful to avoid death.

Yet, upon the Sevastopol, death appears certain. Players will die, and die again, and die, and die again. The game is hard in a way that few games are, for better or for worse. Early on, when spotted by the xenomorph, you will almost certainly be mauled to death. You see, you can’t kill the xenomorph, only pray that he decides not to look in your direction, hence the game’s emphasis on stealth.

Prepare to die.
Prepare to die. Image credits: Digital Spy

So what, then, becomes of the player upon their demise? Well, you are brought back to a save station, as mentioned before. But what if I’m in a new area since I last saved and haven’t found a station since? You are brought back to the last save station, as mentioned before. There are no concessions made for the player, aside from the very rare auto-save in certain areas of the game. This has become the point of much contention between reviewers and players alike. The game has often been deemed, “too hard,” or, “unfair.” It’s hard to say where I stand on the issue. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to having been frustrated to the point of contempt for the save system Creative Assembly crafted once in a while, but I don’t think it’s really as much of an issue as some players make it out to be. There are certain areas of the game where it seems as if save stations are extremely rare, when later one seems to find one every minute or so. I like that they are integrated in-game and take a few seconds to interface with, though they don’t seem to have much of a narrative function (a sign reading, “EMERGENCY” doesn’t tell me much). Overall, I didn’t really mind these in the deeply loathsome way that some players did. On the contrary, I think they are a daring and thus welcome game design decision. Perhaps the stations could have been adorned throughout the game more wisely, but the player eventually reaches a point in terms of progression where they’ll probably be dying less anyway, making this not as big a deal in the grand scheme of things.

Death is a much more opposing force when the xenomorph is around, which for a good stretch of the game, he is. Yet Creative Assembly opted not to include him for not only the first few chapters of the game, but a three chapter streak from chapters eleven to thirteen. But isn’t the game called ALIEN: Isolation? What could possibly fill an Alien game if not for the alien itself?

They say you always know a Working Joe. Within the game’s universe, there exists a series of androids known as the “Working Joe”, which are basically the Sevastopol’s caretaker machines. They were designed to not look too much like humans, so as to not reach into the uncanny valley, but still be humanoid enough so as to perform tasks which humans can do. Of course, since they are robots, they can do everything a little better, like say, taking multiple bullets before going down, or requiring multiple whacks from your wrench to be destroyed, or smacking you across the head and dealing a ton of damage.

The Working Joe’s have begun to malfunction and attack humans (one knows if they are friendly or not based on the color of their eyes), as the game’s terminals love to remind you of over and over. The Joe’s, in a gameplay sense, serve as sort of a bridge between the infallible xenomorph and pushover humans who have survived until now on the Sevastopol with the alien onboard, having become overly defensive in the process. While a human may only take a couple shots from the revolver to deal with (though again, this isn’t advised when the xenomorph is nearby), a Working Joe will require a much more concerted effort from the player to take down. As said before, they can take a hell of a beating, and can dish one out too. An angry Joe will grab you and pin you against a wall, forcing the player into a quick-time event where they must mash a button to break free of his grasp. If one attempts to attack them with the maintenance jack from the front, the Working Joe won’t hesitate to grab your hand and slap you in the face. I liked having these guys around when the alien was around in larger areas, because these environments made for interesting scenarios in terms of progression; the thought process of trying to figure out the ideal path to your objective, while still being on edge and ready to adjust to a new path at the flip of a switch is invigorating, turning Alien: Isolation into almost something resembling a puzzle game.

He's only here to help.
He's only here to help. Image credits: Gamer Girl Tay

My main issue here is when that’s all there is. The combination of renegade humans, Working Joes, and the xenomorph makes for an interesting interplay between “factions”, but alone only the alien remains interesting due to its rather unpredictable AI. Working Joes are just tedious, and certain sections of the game have too many of them at once. Once one acquires the Bolt Gun they can be taken out with one shot to the head (though I wasn’t aware of this initially so I had to use two), but they still aren’t that interesting; they end up just being typical bullet sponge fodder, nothing more.

In a move that seems only to artificially extend without much of a payoff, the game ends up pulling from Aliens a bit when we reach the nest beneath a reactor. I bring this up now because while I talk of variety, it’s worth noting that the game also has facehuggers, a last attempt at variety before a few more chapters of general sameiness. These will grab you if they get too close and kill Ripley instantly (the animation for this seemed kinda shitty). While I’m not objecting to the idea of Creative Assembly potentially making a good Aliens game in the future, their inclusion here seems really forced, especially at a time when I was about ready for the game to be over. As well, the team neglected to include the idea of acid blood, which could have been interesting and would add some variety (this doesn’t happen when you shoot the xenomorph either).

But the greater overall problem facing Alien: Isolation is that there’s just too much of it. The team’s efforts to shake up the formula once in a while are too small and far between, and usually devolve into quick-time events and cutscenes. I lost count of how often I thought to myself, “Man, I am definitely ready to be done with all of this,” after pulling the hundredth switch, finding the fiftieth terminal, stunning the thirtieth Working Joe, etc. The cutscenes here are neat sometimes, but only when they’re in first-person, like when Ripley dons a spacesuit and shoots herself out of a module which has just been ejected off of the Sevastopol. I also really enjoyed a section of the game towards the end where we finally get to spacewalk. It’s slow and prodding, as you walk upon a scaffolding in the middle of space in an attempt to help a ship dock on the Sevastopol in order to save Ridley. It feels tense, because there are actually stakes at play, and also because you are in fucking space.

It might have been easier to get the player invested in doing repetitive tasks for the length of time that the player is asked to in order to complete the game if there were much of a cohesive plot to be found, but that’s really not the case for Alien: Isolation. The game immediately throws out the potential for an emotional tug at the heartstrings in the form of the Ellen Ripley plot. We get literally nothing more about Ripley aside from an email log once in a while where she is briefly mentioned, until one recording, which is probably where most of the budget for Sigourney Weaver went toward, in which Ellen Ripley reveals her fate following the events of the original film. While this is a nice scene, the writers pull the rug out from beneath the moment to focus on a different event in which there is like a reactor and it’s going to blow up and Marlowe knows your mother would not have wanted that to happen and then a lady blows up and fuck man I don’t know.

There are a lot of things that happen in Alien: Isolation, but the game’s length combined with how these parts of the plot are subjugated to very similar tasks like hitting buttons on a keyboard, using your security access tuner (a fun little mini-game that I enjoyed doing from time to time) to unlock something, or similarly “gamey” Boolean on/off switches leads to a narrative which inevitably falls into the background. As mentioned before, the familial angle gets set aside for a majority of the game, and isn’t touched upon again after it’s brought back for a brief moment. It’s a shame, because this seemingly important life moment for Amanda Ripley could have been an emotional core pushing the game forward, especially when it chugs. In its place, we’re given more characters, but it’s really hard to care for most of them when people like Ricardo, Waits, and Axel are mostly positioned as the writer’s puppets with which to give the player information on where to go next. Once the writers realize they really don’t know what to do with these characters, they are inevitably killed off.

Sweet lore(d)!
Sweet lore(d)! Image credits: GamesRadar

There’s an especially troublesome scene where Amanda is sent to the previously mentioned area where she will eventually get shot out into the depths of space. Her mission is to try and trap the xenomorph inside this remote location aboard the Sevastopol. After accomplishing this task with the push of a button, we try to leave, but the exit door in front of us is locked by Waits, a character we’ve previously met who is immediately unlikeable, but is still on our side for now. You see, Waits has taken it upon himself to trap us in here with the xenomorph so as to keep it off the Sevastopol. Here, we’re finally given an interesting moment of turmoil between two characters, with some level of politics entering the fray. In any realistic context, one might imagine these characters would be bursting at the seams at the thought of the alien finding them. Perhaps the writers will show us what it means to truly survive, at any cost.

Ridley manages to make it back to the ship after being released through the airlock. After a brief exchange between Ripley and Waits about the repercussions of his rash decision to use her as bait, we find out that the androids have begun to attack all of the remaining survivors aboard the Sevastopol as per the ship’s APOLLO AI system. The androids kill Waits among others in the process, along with the potential for an interesting dialogue between the two new enemies.

The game instead decides to partition this brand of plot to tons and tons of lore, generally found spread amongst the game’s 151 archive logs (on 100 different computer terminals, so it is technically possible to miss some). There is so much fucking lore that it becomes beyond unmanageable. In these we’re introduced to several different characters, many of which are unseen. We’re told of different companies, like Seegson (previously Seeg and Son, two different companies who would later merge, adding to confusion) and Weyland-Yutani, who is the generically evil industrial defense conglomerate, for those unfamiliar with Alien lore. Players who try to read these logs at the terminals they are found at will likely find themselves just looking at the key points, and probably missing some of the smaller details, because, oh, by the way, you still have the alien to deal with at all times. I did particularly enjoy a moment where one encounters a facehugger onboard the Anisadora and then finds a terminal nearby recounting a space voyager’s description of the facehugger who would eventually become its next prey. There are also ID tags, which are often found near the dead bodies of the characters they represent, which is often a nice touch. One can also find Nostromo logs late in the game, adding even more exciting lore. It’s a shame that so much of the game’s narrative is subjugated to typical computer terminals. No, the game’s ridiculous wall graffiti made from human blood is not enough.

There’s a weird part at the end of the game where the player is about to leave Sevastopol after having snuck around two xenomorphs at the same time (a really difficult sequence that I only managed to finish because of luck, based on where the xenomorphs were positioned when I entered the room) in order to board with the Torrens ship, who are trying to save you. Ripley grabs a helmet to be sent off into space with, but some drools splatters upon its glass. An alien is above us, and it grabs young Ripley through the vents with it. Ripley wakes up attached to some alien gunk, just like some other dead humans we found in the nest below. Why, though, does the alien, at this particular moment, choose not to kill us? The answer is likely because the writers wanted to artificially extend the game’s length once again, while adding another “Gotcha!” moment. It’s things like this that shatter my suspension of disbelief, and only serve to annoy.

After assisting the Torrens with detaching from the Sevastopol through a controlled explosion (which seems a bit reckless, to me), another reference to the original Alien film, Amanda gets sent flying into the Torrens. Eerily, Captain Verlaine, who has been our sole means of contact with the Torrens, is nowhere to be found. I am talking about this final scene of the game for two reasons. The first is actually a pretty genuinely good “horror” moment, where Amanda pushes a button looking for Verlaine and encounters a xenomorph staring her in the face. Unfortunately, this great final breath of life from the game is suffocated, when Ridley is sent backing into the airlock corridor, resulting in a lame quick-time event in which the player releases the airlock and sends them both back out into space, another ham-fisted reference to the original film. I used to be less irritated at quick-time events, but it’s of late that I realize their true devastation: the quick-time event erases potential for interesting play, and only invokes envy in the player. They see their avatar do something cool as a result of quickly hitting the A button, and wish that that’s something they themselves could do in standard levels of play. It’s quite literally a, “create disappointment for the sake of emulating cinema” mechanic.

This is made all the worse by the game’s complete non-ending. We don’t even get a cool cutscene where the alien is sent packing into the depths of space, or into the nearby gas giant’s gravity well. Instead we see Ripley in the third-person, luckily still wearing her spacesuit from when she left the Sevastopol. A bright light from a ship spots her, and the game cuts to black. That is it.

As the credits rolled on Alien: Isolation, I felt strange. I often found myself wishing the game were over, yet something pulled me back in immediately. I downloaded the Crew Expendable DLC which my Nostromo Edition came packaged with, where one gets to play as Ellen Ripley in the original film (there is another Ellen mission, called Last Survivor, but I have not played it as it is locked away to those who got the Ripley Edition of the game). I even tried the only included Survivor Mode mission (Sega’s main source of priced downloadable content for the game, though it seems to be pretty good), which was probably some of my most enjoyed time spent with the game, however short it was. Survivor Mode is basically what would have happened if Alien: Isolation were more like Kojima Production’s P.T. (an outstanding free teaser for Konami’s Silent Hills on PS4 which I highly recommend); they’re short missions which distill the game down to its core gameplay elements, where the player is given a few optional objectives and a core objective to be completed within a certain time allotment. I wish more of these missions had been included for me to try, or just more sections of the core game that resembled these.

I mention Survivor mode because what I think I’m trying to communicate here is that when Alien: Isolation was great, it was fucking great, and I wanted more of that. The game could be tense, terrifying, smart, beautiful, and invigorating when put aside next to some of the other big games released in the past year alone. Its aesthetic and sound design were immaculate, resulting in Isolation matching and even surpassing the audiovisual tour de force that was Ridley Scott’s original. It also showed that perhaps sticking to one design core and populating your game with ideas built around that core is probably the best way to go (not to generalize here, but in a narrative-based game one needs consistency to prosper). Instead, what was offered was a really great core amongst some other planted roots that don’t function well in the context of the rest of the work.

I don’t often ask for sequels these days. The idea of the “sequel” is kind of gross and disrespectful to great works; they simply take the previously established formula and try to dump out more of it to “consumers”, often in the process diluting what was beautiful about the work in the first place. But here I stand asking for a sequel. Alien: Isolation is a flawed yet kind of beautiful first attempt to rekindle the spirit of the first film whilst making it (for the most part) interactive. I would love to see The Creative Assembly have a second go at the franchise, this time around sealing the past game’s wounds and populating the sequel with interesting new ideas to establish an even more haunting experience in the future.

Looking out, wondering, what if?
Looking out, wondering, what if? Image credits: The Linc

Alien: Isolation made me think about the xenomorph a lot. It made me watch the third and fourth Alien films which I previously had no interest in. It made me wonder about sexual violence, respectfully putting me in the shoes of the victim. It led me to watching YouTube videos of shitty old games with the xenomorph slapped in for extra profit. Yes, I cursed at its various shortcomings, the lack of plot, the Working Joe hives, perhaps its length. But I found the sense of wonder and terror which the game instilled in me throughout to be far more valuable than some of the other schlock I’ve tried to stomach in the past few months alone (I’m looking at you, Destiny, Watch_Dogs, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Infamous: First Light…). It engulfed and enraged me. I don’t know how to end this better than to say: try this game. You may not like it, and that’s okay. But it’s likely that it will surprise you. It will remind you through death that you are alive.

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