Thoughts – Alien Isolation

alien_alien

It’s one of the more unlikely success stories of last year: Total War developers Creative Assembly, whose every previous attempt to branch out from the series that made their name has crashed and burned spectacularly1, make an Alien game that couldn’t be further away from Total War if they tried, in a genre they have no prior experience with, and with a very ambitious design brief that flouts most of the established rules of conventional first-person shooters. I think I could be forgiven for being somewhat skeptical of their ability to deliver on that brief prior to release, and yet a scant three months later Alien Isolation has ended up placing highly on nearly every single “Best Of 2014”  list I’ve seen so far2; the sheer weight of critical acclaim resulted in it moving up to the top of my play list so that I could see what all the damn fuss was about.

I do enjoy putting the boot into the Creative Assembly on this blog, but on this one I’ll give them credit where it’s due: they might have been an odd fit for the Alien licence, but they’ve come through and produced a game that, while not exactly great, is at least pretty good for most of its length and which delivers on its survival-horror conceit in spades. Alien Isolation has you playing as Amanda Ripley, the engineer daughter of the movie series’ protagonist, who travels to Sevastopol station — a gargantuan installation orbiting a gas giant that’s in the middle of being decommissioned by its corporate owners — after hearing the news that the flight recorder from her missing mother’s ship has been located. Because this is both an Alien game and a survival horror game set in space, the station turns out to be a decrepit, poorly-lit industrial nightmare populated by homicidal androids, suspicious human survivors with itchy trigger fingers, and of course the titular Alien. Ripley’s goal changes several times throughout the course of the story, but you always know where it’s eventually going to end up: once trapped on Sevastopol, she has to escape by any means necessary.

alien_ripley

Note that the “by any means necessary” isn’t just a rhetorical flourish. Although she does possess a curious familiarity with the few firearms she comes across, Ripley isn’t a soldier. She’s an engineer, and uses her problem-solving skills to craft all sorts of devious devices with which to distract and disable her foes. Not kill, though, since while the human enemies are as vulnerable as you’d expect to bullets, fire and explosions, androids are annoyingly resilient (hitting an android with a molotov cocktail merely ensures that you’ll take additional burn damage as it throttles you with flaming hands) and the Alien is flat-out unkillable. Ripley herself is also unusually frail for a first-person protagonist; the damage I took from firearms varied weirdly throughout the campaign, but I got into at least one firefight where my human opponent one-shot me from three-quarters health. Android attacks reduce your health bar by half if you’re unlucky enough to be caught by one. Direct combat is unwise both because of Ripley’s vulnerability, and because there’s always the possibility that the sound of combat will summon the unstoppable Alien to slaughter everyone involved. If it sees you it’ll sprint directly towards you, and if it catches you you’re dead.

Because shooting baddies is usually such a bad idea, subterfuge and evasion are instead the core themes of Alien Isolation’s gameplay. Enemies can only hurt you if they can see you, and they can’t see you if you’ve just lured them to another corridor with a flare or a noisemaker. Sevastopol is riddled with the FPS staple of man-sized vents for Ripley to crawl through, as well as desks to huddle under and lockers to hide inside. You’re constantly scavenging crafting components from the station to build a variety of IEDs such as smoke bombs, flashbangs and EMP grenades that can temporarily stun android opponents. By contrast ammo is relatively scarce, and I don’t think I picked up more than twenty shotgun shells in the entire game. The intent is that you’re supposed to hide in the shadows and avoid conflict where possible while achieving your goals. Alien Isolation is almost entirely designed around promoting this image of the game in the player’s head; it plays by different rules to the rest of its genre, and breaking them is supposed to result in a quick and bloody death.

alien_gameboy

That’s the sales brochure, anyway. Like the psychotic synthetics the Sevastopol’s corporate owners keep trying to flog to unwitting buyers, the reality is somewhat different. It’s true that you can’t run and gun in Alien Isolation — if nothing else, you really don’t have enough bullets to take out everything you encounter. However, the nature of Sevastopol’s environment is somewhat more flexible than Alien’s designers would like you to think. An astounding amount of effort is expended in an attempt to create an ever-present atmosphere of tension and dread that’ll keep the player on their toes, but Alien relies rather more heavily on scripted events and musical cues to do this than I had been lead to believe. When a game is trying this hard to convince me of something I immediately start trying to pull back the curtain to see what’s really going on, and once I did this the Alien Isolation “experience” came dangerously close to unraveling entirely.

Alien is less scripted than, say, Call of Duty. (Most things are, to be fair.) The Alien AI in particular is supposed to be dynamic; it won’t be around all the time, but when and where it appears is largely unpredictable and contributes greatly to Alien’s sense of tension since a lot of the time you’re trying to perform some complex task (i.e. a quicktime event) while hoping that the Alien doesn’t drop out of a vent next to you. The flexibility the various items give you in solving a particular problem is also a great boon to Alien, and the scarcity of some resources introduces more interesting decision-making than “Shoot robot in face” since you won’t have whatever you used to to do that for encounters further down the line. With respect to the behaviour of its enemies, however, that Alien Isolation is a game playing by a different set of rules unfortunately doesn’t obviate the fact that it is a game, and whatever rules it has are by necessity going to be rather gamey ones.

alien_flamethrower

Again, let’s take the Alien as an example. Alien Isolation does an extremely clever thing by not introducing it in a gameplay context until about two or three hours into the game (hell, you only ever catch a glimpse of it in the whole first hour of the game). It slowly ratchets up the tension — you know there’s this monster on the station with you, you’re constantly given evidence of its presence, and the simple absence of it is scary in the beginning because you don’t know how it’ll behave when you eventually do run into it. This feeling of trepidation persists even after it has finally reared its absurdly-shaped head for the first time – at least for a little while. It’s still an unknown, and watching it stalk around the room from your cramped hiding place inside a locker is appropriately terrifying.  It’s been built up in your head as such a threat that you project that threat on to it without logically thinking through its behaviour.

Sadly this lasts right up until the first time the Alien does something absurd — and because of its unpredictable AI it will do something absurd, like dropping down from a vent that was right next to me and then immediately scurrying back up the same vent shaft without even so much as a hello — at which point the illusion is broken and it becomes vulnerable to deconstruction, and what I figured after some testing was that the Alien was just a particularly tall and noisy version of your typical stealth game baddie. Like I said earlier, it can’t hurt you if it can’t see you, but it turns out that the Alien can’t see you unless you are directly in front of it. It has no peripheral vision at all. It is curiously short-sighted, not being able to see you if you’re crouched in half-light more than a few metres away. It can hear you if you walk, but if you crouch-walk you can happily follow just a few steps behind it as it prowls down a corridor — at least until it turns around. Its threat lies in the unpredictability of its appearance and its search pattern, and even these are neutered somewhat because the Alien is one of the noisiest monsters I’ve ever encountered in a game. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine how they could have made it less stealthy; its footsteps make a thumping noise that can be heard several rooms away, you can hear it banging away as it scurries through the vents overhead, and whenever it enters or exits a vent the resulting racket is akin to somebody throwing a cricket ball into a steel garbage can.

Presumably this has been done to cut down on frustrating bullshit deaths as the Alien seemingly pops up out of nowhere, but this is somewhat undone by yet another gamey thing the Alien does: in order to prevent it getting stuck at the other end of the level while you carry out your tasks unobstructed, it’s been tethered so that it will always appear close to your position. This is fair enough — god knows its pathetic enough that it could probably use the help — but this occasionally means that the Alien will outright teleport through walls as you run over an invisible line that snaps it to another portion of the level. I died more than once when I heard it come out of a vent behind me and walked forward through a door assuming it was safe only for it to magically already be in the room in front of me.

alien_magazine

So the most prominently advertised feature of the game is suffering from a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes: it works as long as you believe in it, but as soon as you start poking at it you discover that there’s really not a huge amount there. That’s not to say that it doesn’t bring something to the levels where it features (it would be hard for an eight foot tall invulnerable monster to not be intimidating in some way) however I quickly learned to figure out where the Alien would appear by the number of lockers the level designers had sprinkled around. If there were no lockers I was safe to make as much noise as I wanted, gunning down androids and humans with wild abandon. If there were lockers3 — and moreover, if I could hear the almost omnipresent banging in the vents when the Alien is around — then I’d move more slowly and take care not to be caught in the open. Once the game hands you the flamethrower, though, that’s it for the Alien as a serious threat even in the levels where you know it is present. A few quick blasts of flame will drive it back into the vents, so even if you get caught by it you’ve effectively got a reset button. What presence it has vanishes almost entirely at that point and it becomes no more than an annoyingly oversized bug you occasionally have to spray with your Alien-B-Gone.

Of course, Alien Isolation does try its hardest to prevent you from realising that its antagonist doesn’t really have any teeth. Human enemies are relatively rare, but I found the androids to be appropriately creepy and tough enough that I thought twice about tangling with them head on — for me, the scariest moment in the game didn’t involve the Alien, but was instead the first time an android caught me messing with one of the rewire points scattered around. It snuck up quietly, grabbed me out of the interface and threw me back against the wall. I unthinkingly responded by shooting it twice in the head with my revolver, but this only rocked it back on its heels slightly — and then it came right back at me and strangled me to death, since I was cornered with nowhere else to go. That was an effective enemy, and while single androids are less of a threat the more tooled-up you get, fighting one will invariably attract two or three more to investigate the commotion. The androids are used as a supplement to prevent you from getting too used to the Alien and they do the job well despite also being stock stealth game baddies; their behaviour being predictable and robotic is at least natural for them.

alien_gasgiant

The game also distracts you with all manner of scripted events and cutscenes, and these are more effective than they normally would be thanks to Alien Isolation’s outstanding sound and visual design. The visual design in particular is absolutely incredible; the look and feel of Sevastopol station has been patterned after the Nostromo from the first Alien movie with plenty of anachronistic 1970s era sci-fi tech, and it really does add a hell of a lot to the game if you’ve ever seen that film. Many of the weapons and devices Ripley uses are bodged-together tech lifted straight from the film, and even little details like the creepy iris-like vent covers have been brought across into the game to great effect. It helps that the general quality of the graphics is completely ridiculous; occasionally you get to go outside the station to do something in an EVA, and I’ll admit to spending whole minutes staring at the jaw-droppingly pretty gas giant that Sevastopol orbits.  The writing and plot isn’t stellar, but the characterisation of both Ripley and the people she talks to throughout the game is actually pretty good, to the point where you start to care about these voices on the other end of the radio link before they inevitably start to cark it. And finally I think the general structure of the game is very solid; it’s very good at interspersing levels that are relatively calm with levels where it makes you trudge through awful places you don’t want to be (but really you do because this is an Alien game and you wouldn’t be playing it otherwise). I think the people who say it could probably stand to be a bit shorter do have a point, but I’m not sure what you’d cut since you’d unbalance that structure.

On the whole there’s really quite a lot to like about Alien Isolation. It’s a shame that its stealthy facade crumbled so easily, since while it maintained it it really was looking like Game of the Year material. In terms of visuals it still is, I think; it’s certainly the best-looking game I didn’t play in 2014 and I’d happily have played it even if it didn’t have an Alien in it just so that I could go around Sevastopol looking at stuff. I also think that the CA’s handling of the development was a blessing in disguise; they’re not an FPS developer, and they made a game that’s decidedly not an FPS even if it did end up being rather more runny-shooty than they probably intended. However, while I do feel kind of like the asshole at the back of the cinema who can’t suspend their disbelief and who starts pointing out all the factual inaccuracies in the film, I could not take the Alien seriously as a threat and I had little patience for the predictable stealth mechanics and level design. That part of Alien Isolation is a little too artificial — a little too gamey — for me to really get on with.

——————————————————

  1. Does anyone remember Spartan: Total Warrior? Viking: Battle for Asgard? Or *shudder* Stormrise? If you don’t, rest assured you really weren’t missing anything.
  2. Even if you discount PC Gamer giving it their Game Of The Year award, since PC Gamer is pathologically incapable of giving AAA PC-centric developers a bad review.
  3. While useful as a general Alien barometer actually using the lockers to hide in is something of a mistake, since you’re immobile, backed into a corner and can’t see a goddamn thing while you’re in there. The Alien’s vision is so terrible that playing line-of-sight games with it is far more effective, and since it apparently begins to look in lockers if you hide in them a lot (although I never saw it do this) it may ultimately end up being rather hazardous to your health.
Tagged , ,

9 thoughts on “Thoughts – Alien Isolation

  1. About the invincible threat: Silent Hill 2 did it right.

    There’s Pyramid Head. You see him first just standing behind bars without any intro cutscene. Then you see him in violent cutscene. Then he attacks you at some point and goes away not because he’s injured but because he’s bored with you or something. By this point he’s scary, but the next time you see him he again appears in normal gameplay without any cutscene. And then again. By this point you are scared of scripted encounter with him and you’re already stressed.

    But then you just meet him in some corridor. He’s still invulnerable but this time it’s not a bossfight, he doesn’t do anything meaningfull, he just there. At this point I thought that he just spawns wherever he wants. I was scared to enter new rooms after this point. Later I’ve learned it was just a predefined drop, but it created a very good illusion.

    I’m not sure why they’ve added randomization to Alien appearance. It’s not the game you’d want to replay, isn’t it? So that it looked spontaneous and random? Best random events are those that only look random.

    • Darren says:

      The randomization is so that you are forced to improvise. I’m not totally sure what he meant by “the game is more scripted than I was lead to believe.” There are definitely a few points where something WILL happen, but these are few and far between. There are definitely levels where enemies always start at the same points, but this is true of virtually every stealth game ever, and I found that different approaches yielded different results.

      • >The randomization is so that you are forced to improvise.

        And still as the author says you are always safe if there aren’t any cabinets around. So alien appears in a area crafted for stealth but not in a way specifically crafted for it. I guess it helps against savescum though.

        • Darren says:

          But there are virtually no areas in the game that don’t have cabinets! There were places I thought I was safe only to peer around a corner and find the alien. And as he also points out, the lockers are of questionable value in many places. It can be hard to tell where the alien is and you’re incredibly vulnerable during the brief period when you emerge, plus the alien will grow suspicious of them if you rely on them too much.

      • Hentzau says:

        A good example of the scripting is when and where the alien chooses to hide in vents and wait for you to walk underneath. Yes, it will sometimes do this randomly, but there were at least two points in the game where the player had a mission objective to get from point A to point B and it was scripted to start trailing drool out of the vent at around about the time the player was likely to be passing underneath it.

        Bear in mind that when I say it’s scripted I’m not talking about the vanity animations where it suddenly appears after a long absence and the player needs to be shown that it’s now a threat again. Those are necessary and I have no complaints. There are some levels, however, where the alien’s behaviour is clearly running off of a narrow set of scripting – when the player gets to point X the alien teleports to point Y, ready to do something scary like leaping over a barricade unexpectedly. It relies quite heavily — although not entirely — on the standard set of level triggers that most other horror games do, and I’ve always found these to wobble alarmingly if you prod at them more than a little.

    • Hentzau says:

      The randomisation works, there should just be more of it. Not knowing where the alien is going to appear is actually pretty effective! Being able to evade it fairly easily once it does… isn’t.

      That being said, there’s little effective difference between an dynamic Alien AI and an Alien AI that simply *appears* to be dynamic. If you can convince the player that the Alien shouldn’t be fucked with, and that it does genuinely learn and adapt based on your actions, even if what’s actually going on is some elaborate hard scripting designed to produce the illusion that it’s a vicious, learning predator, then the end result is the same. I wouldn’t care if the Alien was 100% scripted as long as it was scripted well enough that I never figured that out – or at least, didn’t figure it out until late in the game. That’s not the case here.

  2. Darren says:

    Interesting review; every opinion on this game tends to be fairly different. I’ve seen the “alien isn’t very good” complaint before, but my boyfriend and I played the game together–it took probably two months or so–and never thought so. In particular I don’t think it’s nearly as loud as you think it is when it’s walking around, or at the very least that the rest of the sound design keeps me from tracking it very well when it’s not in the same room.

    As for visibility, I don’t think we encountered any moments where it was entirely implausible that it would miss us. My understanding is that the alien AI adapts to how you play, growing suspicious of lockers, resistant to the flamethrower, and eventually even crawling around in vents (these were our choice of safe haven, and we never encountered the alien in them until the very end of the game).

    I do have several complaints that I’m surprised to not see. The hacking minigames aren’t nearly intuitive enough for something that needs to be done while murderous creatures are stalking around, and the game seems to introduce new ones all the way to the end. Crafting materials are plentiful, but the recipes are very easy to miss. I didn’t even know that there were smoke bombs until I looked around online. I might have spent more time poking around the station to find recipes, but the game is shockingly difficult, even on Easy (Medium started to get frustrating and we didn’t want to become numbed to the game’s atmosphere). I’m not sure what could be done about the difficulty as, like you said, the game can’t really function without severe consequences for improper behavior, but if nothing else Ripley needed to be slightly tougher so her health bar didn’t seem to be mostly decorative.

    I do think the game’s length could’ve been trimmed up a bit, though. In particular, the lengthy, android-centric section between the science lab and the reactor is more tedious than anything else. I imagine the developers weren’t sure they’d ever get the chance to make a sequel–horror stealth titles are pretty niche–so they wanted to throw in everything they could.

    But regardless, I really liked the game and, if not for Dragon Age: Inquisition, it would safely have nabbed my GOTY spot.

    • Hentzau says:

      The alien was loud enough that I gave up using the motion tracker to track it about halfway through the game – it might be because I have a very good set of headphones, but I always knew roughly where it was from the sound alone. I guess a lot of my complaint stems from the fact I always envisaged the alien as this preternatural killer that would be able to simply sense my presence through means other than sight and sound (it’s got no eyes, after all, so the idea of it being able to “see” in the conventional sense is a bit weird). It needed to play by different rules to the human and android enemies to maintain its otherness. Instead it came across as an overgrown version of them – and that’s just not that threatening.

      Re: your other complaints. They’re certainly valid – I got very frustrated over two minigames in particular that were presented with almost no explanation and which I had to google to figure out how to do them. The variety was nice but thanks to the visual design (which was excellent in all other respects but overengineered here) the goal wasn’t always clear. The review was 2800 words already, though, and they weren’t persistent enough as annoyances to really spoil my experience.

      Also, I started the game on Hard, and was dismayed to discover that all this meant was that the Alien spent two levels practically humping my leg; the tether is very short on Hard, and it’s almost always prowling around. I dropped it down to Normal after that, and this made the Alien far more enjoyable to deal with as an enemy (at least until I sussed it out) – it’s around a lot, but not so much that you feel like you can’t move anywhere without it catching you. I did think it was a little too generous with the items on Normal, though. Ultimately that’s what the difficulty setting is for, though; it’s not a challenge (unless you want it to be), it’s a way to appropriately tune the game to the player so that it’s actually fun.

      • Darren says:

        It says something about me that I’d read a much longer review than what you typically post but would almost certainly stop coming here if you started posting videos. :)

        I want to replay Isolation at some point, but I’m worried that the experience will be disappointing. Like I said, I played it with my boyfriend, swapping the controller back and forth (and with my PC hooked up to my large TV and surround speakers for maximum quality). That helped avoid frustration and added the horror of watching someone else do things that I would *never* do on my own (and vice versa).

        We played on Easy, and the Alien seemed to escalate in a very sensible fashion. It would disappear for decent stretches of time, so we’d have time to poke around before it dropped down somewhere. It stayed out of vents almost the entire game (as far as we could tell) so we had a safe way of traversing most environments that was a little less restrictive than the lockers. It also wandered in a wide area, so we had to constantly keep an eye out on distant areas for movement. It worked very well, and was still tougher than the average modern game.

Leave a Reply