'We have no weapons of any kind?'
We all walk into new situations comparing them to things we've seen and done before, it's probably true that most gamers will shoot first and try everything else later. We all know the script; you have the bad guys, weapons, power ups and so on. So what happens when you enter a game world where, sure enough there's a 'bad guy', but said bad guy cannot be killed... yeah.
This revelation takes many gamers well and truly out of their comfort zone and puts them in a place they don't like to be. Your intellect is trying to tell you 'hey Bob, don't worry mate, this isn't that type of game' but the gamer in you wants to reach for the pulse rifle and give the furniture an acid bath; you've been conditioned to be this way by a thousand games before it. I honestly believe this is one of the greatest hurdles Alien Isolation (AI) was up against and why I have such admirable respect for the developers for making a game that chose a different path. I remember when AI came out the reviews were fairly polarised, a few didn't like it at all while most others were smitten. Some might see this as a failing of the game but I don't, I see it as a game that caters for a more niche group of players.
Props to the props.
So as this game is seated well and truly in the Alien universe a solid challenge for the developer is to remind you of this by how the game looks and sounds. This for me is one area of the game that stands out from the word go; I've been on a thousand virtual space stations but this one is instantly recognisable as a ship from the Alien world. The large white ribbed padding on walls, the clunky retro (almost backward) tech that scatters the rooms and unmistakable sound effects. Computers don't just work here, they whirr, beep and you could often be forgiven for thinking you were in a showroom for ZX Spectrums stuck on a permanent load cycle.
One item which is synonymous with the Alien world (at least for the films that matter) is the motion tracker. While a simple idea the way it was used in the films to develop tension was bordering genius, it's inclusion in this game was obligatory but this didn't mean they would get it right; thankfully Creative Assembly nailed it. I nice little touch is being able to change the depth of field from the scanner to the distance allowing for some very tense and cinematic moments. What really adds to this is the fact that enemies can hear the famous pulsing sounds the motion tracker emits when picking up movement. Like Will Smith in I Am Legend when he enters a vampire lair to save his dog and he's letting light illuminate his environment for a fraction of a second. You find yourself in very similar predicament, only daring to look for a second as you crawl through vents and corridors.
You can't review this game without writing about the sound and music, it's exemplary. As a friend mentioned to me many situations transcend from ordinary to tense and thrilling; just because of how the music and sound expertly work to pluck your nerve endings. I believe the developers sought out the people who did the original score on Alien in order to capture the magic once again. There are small snippets that jump right out of the film, with that unmissable echo and spine tingling thud. The sound of the alien thumping closer and closer or the servo assisted thrum of shutters opening, they are all as good as it gets and the sound team deserve high praise for such a stellar job.
The single most important aspect of making this game was bringing the Alien to life and when there is just one it needed to be bang on. The most lethal life form in the galaxy, able to run faster than a cheetah, rip through steel bulkheads like a hot knife through butter and has more ways of killing you than the Amazon rainforest.. and you've got a monkey wrench; Gordon would be proud.
Actually to be fair you do pick up some handy pieces of kit, yes there is a hand gun but as far as the alien is concerned you might as well be firing popcorn. Being an engineer you can also cobble together various items such as smoke grenades, noise makers and medi-kits. You can also pick up flares, ammo for your pop gun and a handy stun rod. However no matter how much you throw at it, the best you can hope for is to stun with a flashbang or singe with a molotov.. then the alien will be right back on your trail even more pissed off. This is absolutely bang on in terms of gameplay and forces the player into a place where you have to use every bit of cover, every single advantage you can muster in order to survive.
To spite the Xenomorphs in Aliens being real props and suits they did make them look amazing, the CGI efforts of following Alien films (if we must talk about them) left a lot to be desired. It's not easy getting the look and feel of the Alien right, especially considering this is a game so the Alien needs to negotiate the station in a realistic way. I've been very impressed with how the Alien looks and moves in this game, often its tail will flop over the table you're hiding under and knock debris as it moves; but how does it act? Well as I've said, the game is pushing you far out you're comfort zone into a place where you cannot always predict your fate. There are not very many scripted events, for the most part the Alien is running on it's own AI, sometimes it will just decide to turn (which could spell death for you) or check the locker you're hiding in. This can lead to frustration for some players who are used to predicable AI but for those gamers who want a more realistic alien experience they know this is the price we must pay.
Obviously I don't want to get too much into objectives for the sake of spoilers but needless to say Ripply has two main goals, get off the station and survive the trip. The aforementioned tools and rudimentary weapons are mainly for use against the humans and androids you come across. Most humans are hostile, however the game does a fairly good job of painting them as scared workers who have had to resort to violence in a desperate situation. You can either attempt to sneak past or take them out, it just depends on your play style but make no mistake, most will shoot you if they see you. You can of course have some fun by luring the Alien into groups of humans, hiding and watching the ensuing carnage.. just don't get too close or you may end up as dessert.
You can hack your way through doors and such but you can also hack into the systems of any given area; this allows you to take power away from some systems or add it to others. So for example you can bottom out the air-conditioning filling an area with smoke (great for cover from the alien or getting with melee range of humans) or setting off alarms to lure enemies away. You can also use the ventilation shafts and air ducts to mover through areas in cover, here your motion tracker will not work properly and you may need to use the flashlight to find your way. This is a very atmospheric part of the game and adds to the sense of being trapped and your claustrophobic situation becomes every more visceral. The first time you see the Alien flying at you when inside an air duct you will jump back in your chair I guarantee it.
Another thing that struck me is the way you move, there's a lovely sense of weight and subtle momentum to how you walk. When crouching you will effortlessly go lower to get under tables and the peek mechanic works as it should. I guess I would have liked a bit more in the way of freedom to jump, but if I'm really honest you don't need it in this game when the name of the day is stealth and quiet. I'll save you some time here, if you get a common sound bug that sounds like Rippley is walking through rocks, it's the sound of the flamethrower stuck. Just equip it and then select something else.
Bishop got outsourced
Okay I'm going to confess, thirty minutes into AI and I screamed like a little girl, why? Because some dirty bastard android that I didn't see ripped me from a nice cosy locker and started throttling the life out of me. With no real weapons I attempted beat it around the mush with my wrench but to no avail. I did get free and run through the complex desperately searching for somewhere to hide and eventually I did, adrenaline pumping through my veins I sat not breathing for what seemed an age. A short while later another scream, this time from one playing dead on the floor, incidentally my wife heard me and came running thinking I'd been attacked for real. This is good, this is excellent in fact: a game that makes you jump out of your skin and your hair stand on end. Yes the tension when the Alien is stalking you is palpable, but so far the shocks have come from the androids. The design choices have made the face of androids look almost Michael Mires esk, like the face is a mask and a monster awaits inside to bite your head off.
It's also the way androids move and the speed they walk that is very important. When one spots you they move with purpose, with power and the precision of a robot: yet there's no mistaking the malice in their glowing red eyes as they lift you up and begin pushing your skull in. After being throttled a few dozen times I eventually found a stun baton and this enabled me to shock them affording me a few seconds grace, with which I set to practicing my tennis swing on it's face. As white android fluid erupted from its almost surprised expression and the deadly android crumpled to the floor: 'have that you bastard!' I triumphantly cheered... only to be eviscerated from behind by the alien which had heard my wrench knocking bishops distant cousin into next week.
Chip off the old block
So for those who have not seen the Alien films please miss this section and for the love of god go and watch them right now. Aliens for me is one of the all time greats and thanks for Cameron's vision it still looks great. It's was an incredibly sad moment when Ripply finds that she's been in cryosleep for fifty seven years and her daughter had lived her life while she slept. It's always been a missing part to the story and so Creative Assembly decided to use this as a very interesting plot device.
In essence we already know Amanda Ripply will die an old lady so it's implied she will survive this encounter with the Alien, but you still have to get her there. As you would imagine Amanda wants to know the truth about her mums disappearance, with the company remaining predictably silence she is set on getting the truth herself. The flight recorder from the Nostromo (the ship her mother was a crew member on) has been taken to a backwater facility called the Sevastopol Station. Shortly after you arrive at the station things go awry (no shock here) and Ripply finds herself fighting to survive. Like her mother, Amanda doesn't want to be a hero, she isn't a trained marine or kitted out with an arsenal of weapons: she is just trying to stay alive. Indeed Ellen Ripply was just an ordinary gal doing her job when circumstances dealt her a bit of a curve ball. Like Gordon Freeman or any other unlikely hero it's the fact they aren't trying to be great that makes you cheer for them when they are.
Is it PC?
Well this is my first review that I can sit back and take it easy on this section, as for what I've seen the PC version of this game is bob on. I'm not usually a big fan of games that don't let you save you're progress and checkpoint saving is a mechanism you usually see in console games. However in AI this mechanism really works to enhance the tension; knowing there's an killer between you and you're next save point certainly gives you the motivation to take your time and become thin air when it's just feet away. From looking at videos the PC version is the best looking version with all the options you would want. While some of the faces up close look a little plastic the game overall looks gorgeous, with plenty of good light sourcing, steam and pyrotechnics to dazzle.
There are some problems with the game for sure, the map is awful and only shows the location of an objective in two dimensions so it could be on any level. Also the way you can't actually select a level to look at or see which you are viewing now is poor. I guess you could get into character and simply say it's the way tech works here, but it still drives me mad. I would have liked the animation of getting into vents to be a little faster, many times I've been fast enough but the game is too busy playing through it's 'crawl into vent' animation and oh look, I have a new bellybutton courtesy of the aliens tail.
Some fans have also said they wished the alien did more than walk and run; like the way they clamber down walls and ceilings in Aliens. I can see this from both sides, yes it would have been cool to see a slightly more spry alien but in contrast I don't think it would have offered much improvement as the core gameplay is evasion and in that mode we wouldn't see the alien doing it's usual wall surfing.
As part of this review I read and watched all other main stream reviews for Isolation and in a funny kind of way it revealed to me something I had been thinking while playing; that this game is just not for everyone. IGN and Gamespot both gave AI very low scores and Ryan Mccaffrey in particular gave a fairly damning view of the games second half. In contrast the other game review sites gave AI very good scores indeed, it's just a shame that many gamers may have been put off by what I considered to be unfair reviews from the big sites. I just think the level of difficulty and unpredictability this game is built on will really jar with some mainstream gamers. Many reviewers do defend controversial reviews with the adage that it's just an opinion and that's true; but it's also true that the review score will no doubt affect sales and how much money the developers make from their game. So in my humble opinion if you're going to review games at that level get it right. Regardless opinions are the name of the game and gamers decide who they listen to and who they don't.
Alien Isolation is the best Alien game I've ever played largely because it does what it sets out to do. Giger's alien is brought to life in a way which many developers have been too afraid to try; instead going for the more conventional 'shoot the alien with the pulse rifle' effort. So even if Creative Assembly had fallen flat on their face I would have given them respect for trying, it's a relief then that they nailed it in all the places they needed to. The ending of the game has received criticism for being weak but again, for me this game was all about the journey, the massive amount of scenes that actually link to the films and one section in particular about midway that if you're an Alien fan this alone is worth the ticket for admission.