They mostly get released half finished. Mostly
It’s a brave games developer who walks the path of releasing another Alien game after so many missteps and broken parts of the franchise. Much like the DVD Alien anthology that fans refer to as a trilogy in order to ignore the mistake that was Alien 3 the gaming franchise has had a pained existence over the last decade. After some promising beginnings on PC with the original Alien vs Predator (Which to this day I’ve been unable to complete and still holds fear whenever you play as the marine) the series reached its nadir last year with the release of Colonial Marines which carried so much promise before the Trailergate saga and in fighting between publisher and developer. Throw in a few lawsuits and claims of rushed development deadlines and you are left with an IP that few developers would likely want to touch with a pulse rifle never mind millions of pounds worth of investment.
Into this broken franchise walk Creative Assembly (Of age of empires fame). Not the first developer you’d expect to save a gaming series having come from real time strategy brilliance. But sometimes a change of direction is needed. And in the case of AI it seems like some new blood may just have saved the franchise.
Having become used to first person shooters/adventurers over the years and very rarely having any real sense of fear in these games, AI has come as a bit of a shock to the system. You will not feel like you do in typical FPS/Adventure games where you go from being a weedy base character up to the end of the game where you are an all conquering hero who’s enemies cower in fear at the very sight of you or situations where grenades bounce off you and simply hiding behind a car for 5 seconds until the screen loses its redness will solve all your problems.
Ten hours into this game you’ll still find yourself hiding in lockers praying that the Alien hasn’t picked up any background noise on your Kinect sensor (A rather genius touch by Creative Assembly). Gone is the feeling of being the generic muscle heavy destroyer of gaming to be replaced by a young women who wants to find out what happened to her mother. Whereas in other First Person games the environment has ‘sweet’ spots where you can either hide to heal up or pick off enemies without fear of reprisal, in AI the environment is very much your enemy.
Your foe in the game isn’t a long list of baying mobs hell bent on wiping you out. Its one person, or in this case an apex predator known simply as the Alien. And what an enemy it is. 9 foot tall with a snaking long tail that will insta kill you if you get too close and that learns and adapts to your behaviour as the game progresses. You’ll make the mistake of assuming that you are herding the alien into the positions you want it to be in for you to succeed, but I can assure you, you’ll only make this mistake a few times before you find that the trick is on you and that actually you are doing exactly what the alien wants you to do in order for it to get you right in the position it wants you to be in. Pretty impressive for ‘a dumb animal’ (RIP Hudson). Eventually you’ll accept that you are in the Aliens toybox and you are there on its terms. Push the Alien too far and they will smack you down…hard. The AI of the creature is incredible. According to CA the creature is able to learn how you enter scenarios and avoid making mistakes in future encounters that led to you being able to escape. In fact so good is the AI that there is a rumour you can go the entire game without seeing it if you are a master stealth expert. I’m not sure how accurate that description was but all I can say is that it never felt like I had the same encounters twice with my 9ft tall frenemy during the game. You will encounter NPC’s throughout the game but these very much serve as the side dish to the main course that is the Alien.
The story whilst never likely to worry the likes of Hollywood is a decent enough mechanism to play out the scenarios you’ll find yourself in. And because its such a key focus of the game and not wanting to spoil it for anyone yet to play I’ll simply mention that you play as Ripley’s daughter (Amanda), you are ‘summoned’ to a distress signal at which point all hell breaks loose and you find yourself facing up against an Alien.
The game environments are particularly impressive with a hybrid feel of future tech mixed in with the architecture from the original movie set on the Nostromo. Computers have green graphics and a real 1970’s feel about them yet still appearing to be more advanced then the tech we currently have. It’s a mixture of pleasure and horror (And I use that word accurately) to see that debris is movable around the environment. Good as it shows a level of interaction missing from recent games, horror because noise is your enemy just as much as the Alien in this game. Make too much and you’ll find yourself face to face (or more likely back to back) with your Nemesis, swiftly followed by a tail through the stomach and a game over screen.
Giger would be pleased with the way the environments have been crafted throughout and the commitment to getting the Alien looking spot on. Gone are the weak Alien puppets from previous games that required 3 or 4 pistol shots to go down, and the frankly ridiculous dog Alien. Instead these are replaced with the original Alien movie Alien. Huge in size and with the thorax of tank armour you’ll appreciate the craftsmanship that’s gone into making the Alien look as terrifying as the original drawings that led to the first movie, right before your skull is impaled by the Aliens jaw. Get this close and its curtains for you in 99.9% of situations. But its worth it maybe once just to appreciate the effort that’s gone in to the design.
The real USP of the game is the motion detector. As part a history of the movies and games as green pipes are to Mario. The detector brings an added element of fear to the game. Is it just the environment that’s making it ping or is it the Alien? Should you investigate the direction its coming from (The answer is normally no) or should you avoid it? You’ll face these conundrums repeatedly throughout the game and in many cases are left with little choice if you want to progress. The game rackets up the tension by only providing a short band of view that the motion detector can pick up, everything else is shown as being behind you, which can and does result in you constantly checking all of your surroundings and normally walking into some trash and making far too much noise. It’s a brilliant prop to hang much of the tension off as you fumble in corridors and rooms, spinning round on the spot to check what direction the Alien may be coming from.
Sound in the game is another area CA have exceeded expectations. As the tension mounts the sound increases along with it until you find yourself with a massive crescendo of noise, heavy breathing and shouting (From you) as the Alien either appears or you find its just a swinging piece of debris that caused all the panic. In survival horror style games the music and sounds are used to create the tension, but after a while you know what to expect. In Dead Space for example you knew that as soon as the music changed pace that you were going to end up being attacked (Normally from behind) until eventually the fear disappeared and you simply turned round in the corridor you were in to attack whatever was turning up, meaning the music lost much of its tension creating value. Here you’ll find a combination of brilliant sound engineering mixed with your own ability to create monsters out of nothing (Or is it nothing?) and your mind will start to play tricks on you. Is it a pipe at the end of the corridor or is it the Alien sneaking about? Having come from the likes of the Dead Space series and its repeated ‘spawn behind you’ enemy attacks its disconcerting to approach this game in the same way and find that there isn’t anything behind you much of the time, and then when you least expect it you’ll find yourself being stalked by the Alien. The ability of CA to mix this up and use sound in such a strong way is to be congratulated.
Exploring the game world rewards you with progression and materials to craft items. Exploration has to be balanced with the level of noise you’ll make. From simply hacking a computer to the serious task of burning through airlock doors (Which makes a serious racket). These all have to be weighed against the benefits and downsides of summoning the Alien. Do you really want to see what’s on that computer or would you rather just get through the section without having to run away like a child? It’s a brilliant balancing act of risk and reward and there will be times where you simply walk on by a console or items in order to avoid disturbing the Alien. Completionists will be hard pushed to get through the game without at least 5 or 6 deaths caused by making too much noise when searching for collectibles.
When the Alien does arrive the best piece of advice I can give is to run and hide. Stick around and you’ll undoubtedly die and with save points a rare item throughout the game the chances of losing significant progress are high. But again this is an area that feels well suited to the game. Why have instant saves when you can create more tension by having a sense of actually losing something if you die. As a result the game is harder for it but feels more rewarding when you do get through a section and find yourself with the reward of a save at the end.
Some nice little touches have also been added by CA. As I mentioned before the Kinect sensor does pick up background noise in your living room which is both a brilliantly smart little extra and also a pant wettingly bad idea. There will be occasions where you are cowing in a locker with the Alien right outside searching for you when the other half decides to ask if you want a cuppa. The net result will be you having a digestive and two sugars and the Alien having your spleen. Its been a year since the launch of the much panned Xbox & Kinect console bundle (So panned that it’s now available without it) and apart from using voice commands to get to screens quicker on the terrible Xbox UI this is the first game I’ve seen really use the Kinect to some of its stated abilities. Again CA deserve many plaudits for offering this extra bit of functionality when it could have simply ignored it.
The other smart move is to allow the Kinect sensor to pick up your head movements in order to peak around corners. It’s a strange thing to get used to but having now tried it it’s the only way to be sure… Again I have to ask why other FPS haven’t attempted this yet as it’s a pretty basic piece of what the Kinect (And I’m assuming the Sony camera) can do.
As far as I’m aware both of these added bits of functionality work on the PS4 camera so it shouldn’t be something that affects the decision of which console to get it on.
There has been much talk prior to the release of just how scary the game is. Scary for me is the sort of ‘Jesus Christ what the hell was that’ sort of fear you get when you hear a noise in your house at 2am when you know everyone is in bed and you are the lucky one that gets to investigate it. Scary for me isn’t things jumping out at you, at least not in a game where we have insta-saves and recharging health. Playing AI for the first 30 minutes is a perturbing experience. Where is the instant save feature? Where are the weapons? What was that noise? Did I just see something move at the end of the room and What the hell is that coming out of the air duct?
I’m pleased (I think) to say that AI manages to provides its scares through the more unconventional means using the sounds in the world and the genius that is the motion tracker to create a palatable sense of fear and tension that gradually increases until you are either confronted with the Alien or find its just litter or a swinging door. This does grate towards the backend of the game as the adrenalin starts pumping and you find yet another false scare but just as you get to the point of getting tired with this method it’s turned completely on its head with you being confronted when you least expect it. Again you’ll make the mistake of assuming it’s a false sound only once or twice before you start giving every noise the respect it deserves. A clever way of keeping you on your toes throughout the game and ensuring you will feel positively exhausted after each session on the game.
So is the game actually scary? It all depends on what scares you. If you are given the creeps by jumps and frights then undoubtedly Alien Isolation is a scare fest for you. If you are more perturbed by psychological type fear of what might be in the corner of a dark room and what might be making that scraping sound above you then again you will be rewarded with plenty of scares. But really? Can a game in 2014 scare 25+ old gamers? Absolutely. Playing this with the lights out and the Kinect sensor on to hear background noise is a fearful experience. You will jump, you’ll probably shout out (And then scold yourself for giving the Alien an indication of where you are) and you will (quite brilliantly) find yourself holding your breath as you hide in the shadows watching the Alien stalk you. The feeling of being prey to a massive unstoppable predator is a master class in creating shocks that very few (If any) games have managed to pull off. You’ll realise (quickly) that the very aim in this game isn’t necessarily the story or the battle. Its avoiding confrontation and surviving each encounter. Pulling this off feels euphoric once you get to the end of a section as the sense of getting one over on the beast that’s been preying on you for the last 30 minutes is overwhelming.
In summary then, AI has managed to bring back the sense of horror from the original Alien movie into a gaming setting fantastically well, if you have watched the original Alien movie and appreciated the brilliant pacing of a story that starts as humans hunting little Alien down, to being turned upside down into hunter becoming hunted then you will love AI. Its focus on survival rather than the approach of the later movie sequel Aliens (And many Alien games) to nuke them all from orbit and shoot any that are left standing is a genius touch.
Making you an underpowered human who’s sole task is to survive with basic weaponry (That’s completely ineffective against the Alien and just p*sses it off) forces you to treat your foe with respect. Something that’s been seriously lacking in this genre for years. AI will lull you into a false sense of security on occasion, you’ll ignore sounds and make too much noise and then you will die, but its aim in doing this is to remind you exactly why you can’t take things for granted as it swiftly punishes you for these mistakes. The sound, the graphics, aged ‘future history’ style environments and sheer enjoyment mixed with absolute terror as you stare at nudey pictures on the inside of a locker whilst a 9 foot tall demon searches for you outside is a class act. You will find yourself holding your breath at these points and sitting on the edge of your seat. In entertainment value alone this game scores higher than any previous next gen release. Add in the smart touches such as Kinect sound detection and head support and it starts to show how well developers can use the tools at their disposal to make a completely immersive game world that will drag you in and won’t let you out until its left you with high blood pressure and a likely heart attack. Creative assembly deserves much credit for rescuing a floundering franchise and giving it a game it really deserves.
Alien Isolation is epic in substance and brutal in its delivery. The first must buy of this generation and something likely to sit with you a long time after switching off the console. Treat it with respect and play with the lights off, it’s the only way to be sure.