Saturday, 5 April 2014

EGX Rezzed 2014: So I played Alien: Isolation.

The bitch is back. I am Charley, the lone survivor of a single playthrough of Aliens: Colonial Marines. It was one of the biggest disappointments in my 20 years of gaming that left me horrified, bitterly disillusioned and now a raging alcoholic. Now, a year later, I've been coerced by Sega and Creative Assembly to go against my better judgement to return back to the series and play yet another Alien game. Maybe this time? I awaken from cryosleep after a long journey southbound on the M6, past all the needless 50mph speed restrictions, and now find myself in orbit above the Birmingham NEC - preparing to drop on EGX Rezzed 2014 where the 'alien video game' menace is believed to have resurfaced on an unsuspecting crowd of hopeful gamers. 

These are my hands-on impressions of the PC demo of Alien Isolation from Rezzed 2014. 

A weird thought occurred to me whilst I was queuing to play the demo of Alien Isolation at this year's Rezzed. A weird thought that was linked back to my introduction to the series.

The whole waiting area of Sega's Alien Isolation booth, reminded me of my local Quazar in Stoke On Trent. Back in the nineties, Quazar was the location of many a birthday party, where you would get high on lemonade before running around shooting your friends in the dark. The entire establishment just so happened to have an alien theme as well. You walked in to be greeted by a shaved headed Sigourney Weaver, staring out from an Alien3 poster. All around the cafeteria area was grim Giger-esque concept art, and flanking the entrance to the arena, were two gangly knock off xenomorphs encased in glass. Dried glue was used to depict the slime frothing from their reptilian jaws. By comparison the Alien Isolation booth, had the same black walls illuminated by green lights, dry ice filtering from out of the corner to create a faux sci-fi atmosphere. It even had the same smell! It made me nostalgic for some mid 90s serious fun with a laser gun.

Quazar was my first introduction to the alien franchise of course. A fondness that has stayed with me through to the present day. At these Quazar parties, there was always the one kid who had seen the Alien movies. Gradually, through word of mouth you learned more about the alien's unique lifestyle how humans were impregnated by face huggers, where the victim was forced to swallow the alien embryo which would then gestate in their chest only to burst out of the ribcage in an explosion of blood and cartilage a few days later. Before I had even grasped the fundamentals of sexual reproduction and where regular human babies came from, I understood completely where aliens came from. A form of oral rape from a betesticled face spider culminating in a fatal case of grisly body horror. It occurred to me there in the Alien Isolation booth that this may have had a negative effect on my emotional development...

But I feel fine don't I?

Before I could dwell on these kind of musings, it was my turn to take my place in front of a monitor to play the demo. Donning a pair of expensive headphones and picking up a trusty Xbox360 controller, it was time to play yet another Aliens game published by Sega...

Oh shit, I'm about to play another Aliens game published by Sega. What am I thinking?

I don't want to harp on about Aliens: Colonial Marines, I quite eloquently (if I do say so myself) expressed all my feelings towards that game and what it meant to me as a fan of the troublesome series with Creative Assembly's new game in the pipeline. It is probably the most read piece on my blog, I'm very proud of it, you should read it sometime. In fact go ahead and read it right now! Here is the link! Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. I'll wait. Here's the link!

Welcome back.

So as a franchise, and I hate using that word franchise (a term fit for boardrooms yet increasingly banded around by consumers, used to describe the continuation of a story with financial legs), Aliens has been in the doldrums for the last ten years or so. A rectal cavity search would be more tasteful and entertaining to watch than the AVP movies, and despite the grand visions and big questions of Prometheus, the film was full of narrative inconsistencies and the kind of shoddy 'mystery with no resolution' writing style of Lost. Then came Colonial Marines, a game released under false pretences, hyped upon lies yet promptly selling gangbusters. No thanks to people like me, who had pre-ordered the game expecting Left 4 Dead with pulse rifles. In some ways, I came out of Colonial Marines like somebody who survived a horrific car accident or a romantic relationship that went sour. I'll never be the same person again. Video games hey?

It would be hard to accept any good from this franchise (euh...) again. But surely it can't be so difficult can it? You make enough games and movies, and eventually somebody is going to get it right. Surely?

Alien Isolation is being presented as the Aliens game we have always wanted to play. Or so says Al Hope the game's creative director in a developer session (which can be viewed here). Of course when we say Aliens, we really mean Alien, Ridley Scott's 1979 horror classic. The traditional formula of games featuring xenomorphs has been the first person shooter 'bug hunt' route, blasting legions of the beasts with the standard issue M41A Pulse Rifle. Since the movie's 1986 release, a lot of Cameron's Alienisms have become Haloisms, Aliens' impact on first person shooters cannot be understated. But it has been done to death. Returning to the original movie, Creative Assembly are taking the survival horror route, minimal weapons, alone in a big old industrial space ship, one 9ft alien creature that adapts and learns as it hunts you and the mentality that no one in space can hear you scream. To put it more plainly it is Alien by means of Amnesia. Not a bad idea, but neither was Aliens by means of Left 4 Dead...

Ah look at me, I've got to stop...  

Can you really make an Alien game or film without Ripley? Alien Isolation will be a sequel of sorts to Alien in which you play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen.
The demo was approximately 20-30 minutes long. Players were allowed to go at their own pace through a section which has already been teased online after the game's announcement in January.

The demo was preceded by a grainy VHS styled introductory video, in which you are briefed on your mission and the game's basic mechanics. The noise of your movement, your physical profile and the light from your torch, the successful management of which will make you less visible to the alien as it hunts you through the dark, meticulously designed 70s sci fi interiors. The narrator referred to the xenomorph as the creature which in itself was encouraging. Ever since the creature received the goofy pseudo-scientific moniker of xenomorph in Aliens, you could argue that the creature has lost some of its potency as an agent of horror. Nice one Gorman.


The demo begins. It is black, but gradually a light flickers on and one by one a series of lights activate with an clunky 70s flutter like a mechanical heartbeat. You are located in a corridor, there is a door at the end of the, you should open it. It is a strong understated opening. The voice via radio begins throwing directions at you and introducing your motion sensor, you hold LB to see the interface. Technology based on the Alien movie, but the UI is reminiscent of Aliens. It points in the direction you need to be going, whilst revealing the presence of the nasty.

Entering the next area, you find yourself in a deserted lobby. Window panels open up to fill the interior with light from a gigantic orange planet that looms below. The familiar two note flute melody from James Horner's iconic score plays as you explore this larger expanse, opening up suitcases collecting parts and scrap metal that will presumably be used for crafting objects to defend yourself with in the finished game.

At this point it has to be said, the game looks utterly fantastic in terms of graphics, with the lighting amidst the dark environments especially mesmerising. The sound is also of a supremely high quality, booming through the earphones, nearly every movement and action associated with the ship can be heard. Similarly, the feel of movement and your actions was very tactile, you feel every footstep, whether you walk, crouch or run you can feel the weight of each step. You look down and you see a pair of skinny legs in mustard coloured 70s space trousers. You feel that much connected with your character and the world she inhabits. Whilst survival horror has typically relied on a limitation of controls, its newest genus relies specifically on this connection. You are human and are frail as a result. It was because of this, I was progressing very cautiously and was crouch walking everywhere in typical video game stealth mode. Amanda Ripley would surely have the quadriceps of an Olympian goddess by the game's end. In fact she will probably be in a better position to break the alien's neck with her thighs. This is obviously going to be the ending. I'm calling it right now.

For the first half of the demo you are effectively exploring the space station's interior being taught the game's basic mechanics. All the while the tension mounts, the creature's presence is implied, with bloodstains and dead bodies lying around the place. Occasionally you'll see a shadow flutter in the distance. All very unnerving. God, I wish I had a shotgun... NO! I chastised myself, that isn't the point of the game. I have to be scared, the game wants me to be scared. It wants me to progress under this pressure. At the end of which I will be of a stronger character because of it. The interiors are familiar, you come across the living section and a very familiar dining table. This is all cluttered with the same kind of brick-a-brack crap Ridley Scott adorned the space trucker's interior of the first movie.

"The first thing I'm going to do when I get back, is to get some decent food."

In contrast, I remembered the beginning of Colonial Marines, in which you explored the Sullaco. In the first room you see a range of lockers each labelled with the names of the Aliens squad - Hicks, Hudson, Vasquez, Dietrich, Apone. This was exciting originally, a sign of legitimacy and tie to Aliens. The further I went through the level however, the more I kept noticing the same lockers cut and pasted throughout the level. Did the Marines just have multiple lockers stationed around the Sullaco? Why? What did Spunkmeyer stow away in this locker that he wouldn't stow away in the other one? Why would a Colonial Marine require so much locker space in different areas of the Sullaco? The kind of questions I shouldn't really be asking when faced with hordes of aliens. Even these kind of aliens which didn't really pose a threat to begin with, crawling towards you like dumb cattle to the trademark stacatto din of the pulse rifle. Alien Isolation felt the polar opposite in other words. This environment felt used and lived in. At least once upon a time.

Picking up a repair torch suddenly triggers all the lights to go out. Quite a big jump scare. I moved very quickly to hide in a locker expecting Mr xenomorph to be making an appearance.You couldn't hide in those stupid Colonial Marines lockers. These Alien Isolation one's however were good high quality Metal Gear Solid 2 lockers. God, I wish I had a shotgun... NO! I chastised myself, that isn't the point of the game. I have to be scared, the game wants me to be scared. It wants me to progress under this kind of pressure. Sometimes in life, you have to go through scary ordeals, but you will be a stronger character when you come out at the other end. I have to accept the fact that I will have a stronger constitution as a person upon completing this game.

So I must have remained hiding in this locker for a good 5 minutes before it gradually dawned on me that nothing was coming. Not yet. The power outage was a small scare preluding to the real confrontation. Stepping out of the locker, I turned on my torch the game tutorial prompting me that I could focus my beam to illuminate over greater distances. This could be perhaps the greatest torch known to video games ever. I was to take the welder to open the locked door at the other end of the corridor. Then, I assumed, the alien would enter.

Best torch since Doom 3. Hands down. Torches all over the world celebrate. 
After cutting off the door panel and opening the door, I moved into the next section, you get a brief glimpse of something big as it whooshes into an air duct. Well shit. I am reassured by my supervisor via radio to turn on the power to the console so that I may hack into it. It is the only way, he affirms. At this point I realise I'm standing in a puddle of milk that had drained from the torso of an unlucky android. Effectively, the next part introduced me to the area in which I would soon be evading the alien within. A large corridor that wrapped around a central control room. The space was very open, with entrances and shortcuts through to areas and convenient cover to hide behind.

After restoring the power, I had to interface with the central control through a hacking mini game via a suitably 70s sci-fi looking device. Things starting blaring because of my actions and eventually, the alien revealed itself, gracefully dispensing itself from a ventilation shaft. The creature is huge, jet black, with long spindly links and a shiny smooth dome for a head, just like in the original Alien.  

The second half of the demo had you facing the alien creature. Facing is perhaps the wrong word, since the objective is to keep as far away from the creature as possible whilst anticipating its movements as it stalks you, knowing that every sudden move or interaction could alert it. By clicking in the right stick you crouch. By holding B and a direction on the left thumbstick you can peek out of cover.

It's at once refreshing and immensely stressful that the alien is scary again.

On my first attempt the alien walked out of the door of the control room, whilst I proceeded to creep my way out of the door opposite. Spying a locker, I was comforted by my earlier initiative and climbed inside. I was aware that the creature was far away on the opposite side of the level map, but gradually he revealed himself, as I peered out of the slits.

The phallic shaped head came into view slowly like a submarine. Every move was slow and deliberate, yet curious in that Alien way. No jaunty blind Aliens T-rexing around this place.

I was prompted to hold LT to hold my breath as it came closer to the grill to inspect my hiding place. I did so immediately. How long can I hold my breath? Will it hear me gasping after I run out of breath? Then I was prompted to pull back on the left stick to stand further back from the locker door. This was not a good sign. It was too late, the creature was on my case, and it opened the door and found me.

Dead. I would not try the locker again.

The game had a fairly routine checkpoint system, taking me back to the start of the section. This time, I was to head directly to my objective. The door that I first came through. What could possibly go wrong? This time I used my motion sensor and placed some distance on my foe. As I crept within sight of my objective, I could see that the creature was advancing on my position.

Turning around I could see it checking around the scenery, so I crouched and looked to put cover between us. It stood there for a little bit as if uninterested. At this point the door was very close by and I decided to sprint to the door. By this stage, I could hear the creature react behind me.

You reach the door but it shuts suddenly. You bang a fist against the pane, and there is an explosion, the entire structure in which you are confined is suddenly jettisoned, like an escape pod. Is the alien still behind me through this scripted sequence? A brief stint in zero-G brings us crashing to the ground to the sounds of more sirens.  

And then... the demo froze on me.

A bit of a buzz kill to say the least. Much of the tension evaporating, which admittedly was a bit of a relief.

Looking round I viewed the proper ending of the demo. You are forced to traipse back through the area to yet another door, an airlock. For this one you have to open it first. Then you have to wait for it to open as yet more alarms ring alerting the creature to come running. Gradually the door opens, but the alien remains stationed there with his back turned. Most players saw the opportunity and ran for the exit. Entering the door way seemed to activate another scripted scene, in which the door is closed just before the alien lunges.

You are safe for now, but then you turn round to see the airlock open and you are jetted off into cold space... Then the demo ends.

I'm sure Ripley Mk.II will be okay... She died in her old age, without ever really knowing what happened to her mother. Oh.

First impressions of Alien Isolation were good, but I have been wrong about an Aliens demo before... Putting that game out of mind, because lets face it Charlie, we have to move on. Alien Isolation, is an experience perfectly authentic to the original movie. It is not a game I was expecting to come from a publisher like Sega, a triple A game that seeks to disempower the player through a lack of firearms and juxtaposition against the perfect killing machine. It is encouraging that the bigger studios are taking on the bigger IPs with a degree of originality and new ideas. For Alien Isolation, I guess we have the influence of the indie gaming scene to thank, especially Frictional Games (who incidentally are working on their own Alien styled sci-fi horror game SOMA). However, in its own right, Alien Isolation feels like a meticulously crafted game, whatever research Creative Assembly put into their Total War games, it feels as if they have done the same with all the design material from the Alien production.

In summation:

What was good:
  • Excellent graphics with the best lighting of dark space corridors since Doom 3 and Dead Space.
  • Amazing sound, investing in a pair of decent quality headphones might be a good idea for this game, as this is where most of the horror comes from. 
  • The game makes the most out of the first person perspective without the need of a firearm bolted at your hip. Instead you are given precise control of your movement and equipment. And it all feels very tactile and immediate. The opposite end of Resident Evil style tank controls. You feel exceptionally human with all the frailties that entail with the mortal condition.
  • Authentic to the 1979 Ridley Scott aesthetic: cushioned walls, computer monitors, old chunky hardware that feels extremely fallible. Just how on earth did these people get into space in the first place?  
  • The feeling of atmosphere, tension and claustrophobia is intense and exactly like Alien. Stiflingly so.   
  • The Alien is scary again.  
  • This game is going to be very stressful to play through. Remember the atmosphere surrounding Ripley at the end of Alien, it is that, but now it's interactive. This game will not be for the faint of heart.
  • We are yet to see how the deeper mechanics will play out, crafting will feature and it has been stated that weapons will feature as well. Though it looks unlikely that the game will turn into a shooter at any point. Maybe you'll get a flamethrower to shoo the creature back or scare it away for example. I look forward to seeing exactly how the player and the creature will push and pull against one another, this could lead to some great emergent play and gameplay anecdotes between friends.
  • After dying so many times and watching as the alien finishes you off. I wondered whether this will become old very fast? With the alien becoming less terrifying and more just irritating. I can't imagine that this game is going to be very long.  
  • I hope this isn't just going to be an interactive version of the Alien movie. These are some good free forming mechanics but I hope Creative Assembly are able to do something new rather than just present us with the air duct bit, or the confrontation with a malfunctioning android, before escaping the ship before it self destructs before the final confrontation in which you blast the alien out of an airlock with a harpoon.
  • It did crash on me. Maybe this game is just too scary for your computer...  
Overall, I am excited and maybe a little nervous to play Alien Isolation when it is released later this year. The demo left me scared but in a good way, we're a weird bunch we horror fans aren't we?

Although, before we get too hyped for this game, let's just wait to see what the reviews have to say before pre ordering? There is still much more to see.

Alien Isolation is scheduled for release on the 7th October 2014. 

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