Video Game Review: Alien Isolation (2014)

(NOTE: I’m going to be super busy this week so I’m going to hold off from updating the playlist until next week hopefully)

Harkening back to the origins of this blog, back when its focus was mainly on pop culture rather than Christian/social issues/current events, I’m going to put out a long-overdue video game review about 2014’s survival-horror game, Alien Isolation. As you might be aware, I’m quite a big fan of the Alien series, and would count the first 2 films in the franchise amongst my all-time favourite movies ever. As a result, the prospect of being stalked constantly by one of these killer rape-beasts left me extremely excited to try out the final product. So how did the game measure up? Read on to find out… (and as a warning, there will be some spoilers.)

Alien Isolation stars Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, as she travels to the run-down space station Sevastapol in search of the flight recorder for the doomed ship, Nostromo… and, uh, well that’s basically the entire plot summed up right there. Don’t get me wrong, there are obviously plot points that go beyond that, but the plot was sadly not all that memorable. Even worse, most of the stuff that you’re tasked with doing in the game has basically no bearing on the main plot, so it’s really easy to forget what the hell is actually going on, or why it matters, at any point in time. Oh, and the ending is freaking awful.

That said, Amanda Ripley is quite a good protagonist. She is very capable and brave, even if she is in way over her head and is no match for the foes all coming after her. It’s refreshingly positive to see a strong female character in a big game like this too, so major props to Sega and The Creative Assembly for that. Again though, the plot doesn’t give her much room to develop, outside of just going and performing tasks, so that’s unfortunate. Still, she gets a better shake than the rest of the cast, who are completely forgettable.

Of course, you’re probably not coming to Alien Isolation for the plot, you’re here for the antagonist, the scares and the gameplay. First off, I have to say that the alien is consistently terrifying. For the first few hours, every time you see the alien you’re going to squeal in terror and want to shit your pants. Even later in the game, when you’re starting to get used to the alien’s movements and have some methods to defend yourself, the alien can still catch you off guard and scare the crap out of you. The alien’s dynamic AI keeps it from getting too predictable and keeps alien encounters very tense. The game seems to “cheat” sometimes though – at a couple points in the game, it seems like there is a certain amount of rubber-banding with the alien, where you can’t leave an area without having the alien be forced to follow you around despite not even knowing that you’re there. It can also be really frustrating when you wait for the alien to buzz off somewhere, wait until it’s safe to leave a room and suddenly find yourself face-to-face with the alien out of nowhere, leading to a quick respawn back to the last save point. These moments can be extremely frustrating, but there’s enough unpredictability and tension in alien encounters to keep the game engaging and interesting.

The alien isn’t the only enemy on the station though. The there are human looters aboard the station who will shoot on sight. You only run into them a handful of times thankfully (this isn’t the sort of game that needs to turn into a shooter), but they are typically pretty interesting moments when you do. This is mostly because confrontation is basically impossible – while you do get a revolver early on, the shooting in the game is very difficult and unreliable… and gunfire typically attracts the alien, so it is very much discouraged. The nice thing about human encounters is that you can either sneak past them very carefully, or you can lure the alien in to kill them all for you, giving you a clear path to escape. The only real issue I have with the human enemies is that their AI can be kind of stupid. At one point, I opened a door and had 2 humans look right at me, but they didn’t even see me. I threw a noisemaker in the corner to distract them and just snuck around without them even having a clue I was there. I don’t know if their vision cones are just embarrassingly small or what, but there are lots of moments where you think a human should be able to see you, but don’t.

The other main enemy type in the game are the Seegson androids which populate the station. They are moderately unsettling the first few times you see them, but I quickly got tired of fighting these enemies (which sucks, because you’re going to fight A LOT of them, and there’s a fairly large chunk of the game where the alien disappears and you have to fight androids exclusively). Their AI is even stupider and more inconsistent than the humans’, and their grab animations are annoyingly long (probably around 10 seconds… and you’re going to be seeing it quite often). The only good thing about androids is that they give you an excuse to use some of your weapons which are useless against the alien (eg, shotgun and stun baton) or overkill versus humans (eg, bolt gun), but this doesn’t really make up for the frustration.

The gameplay itself generally revolves around trying to get from point A to point B without being spotted (at which point you will usually die). The maps are generally have a few different ways to get to your destination, opening things up for player choice – do you risk the most direct path, or do you take the safer path along the perimeter where you have more hiding places? The game features a The Last of Us-style improvised crafting system, which can be helpful and encourages risk-taking as you try to find parts. Unfortunately, as with all of these survival games with crafting, if you play like me then you’re going to find yourself stockpiling these scarce items on the off chance that you might need them someday, and never end up trying them out. I don’t think I ever even used two of the strongest items, the EMP mine and the pipe bomb, just because I was worried that I might need them later and wouldn’t have the parts to build new ones. This isn’t a major issue by any means, but it is an annoying aspect of this kind of game. The game also features an old-school save system where you have to reach a save point in order to get a checkpoint. This system can lead to some major frustration at times, but I personally found this to be a great system for this sort of game. The threat of dying becomes even more terrifying and it keeps you playing carefully to avoid the harsh penalties of failure.

To help you when you’re being hunted by the alien, the game gives you a motion tracker early on, and this is arguably the most useful tool in your arsenal. The motion tracker is basically essential to survive, and features an objective compass as well, which is good because it is easy to get lost (especially since the narrative is so unhelpful about what you need to do). You can’t rely on it too much (it gives a lot of useless readings and doesn’t work in air vents, so you have to rely on audio cues just as much), but it is really handy and makes the game fairer. At around the halfway point in the game though, you get a flamethrower which arguably breaks the game from there onwards. As soon as you get the flamethrower, alien encounters become significantly easier and less tense, as you can whip out the weapon and fire a couple bursts to keep the alien from attacking you. You still have to avoid combat as much as possible, since fuel consumption is a major concern, but by that point in the game you should be adept enough at facing aliens that they no longer become nearly as terrifying (except when they catch you off guard, at which point you’ll squeal like a pig all over again).

Also worth mentioning is the game’s fantastic environmental work and sound design. Sevastapol looks incredible, fitting the retro-future aesthetic of the first film perfectly (something which Prometheus should have taken a cue from). The game just looks so good that you’re almost tempted to wander around and check out all the cool little details of the world. The sound design is also really crucial to the game’s world. Sometimes the only way to know if it’s safe is to hear the tell-tale sound of the alien heading into an air duct, or clench your asshole in terror as you hear it dropping down from a duct or screaming as it barrels right at you. I don’t know how many times I jumped just from walking past one of those creepy air duct entrances, which make a jarring sound of metal scraping against metal. Arguably the scariest moment in the game for me was when I was hiding and listening for the alien in the corner of a pitch black air duct, not daring to turn on my flashlight for fear that the alien will see it and come find me (it did, and I yelled “SHIT” loud enough that probably everyone in the house heard me).

I have touched on the good and the bad of Alien Isolation so far, but I think the absolute worst issue in the game is that it’s just too damn long. Playing on hard mode, the game probably took me at least 22 hours to complete, which is just insane for this kind of game. It would be one thing if the game managed to stay fresh throughout this playtime, but unfortunately Alien Isolation starts to outstay its welcome very quickly and features a ridiculous amount of padding. Most of the complaints I have had thus far are quite minor, and can easily be ignored if the rest of the game is strong enough. However, the long playtime just services to exacerbate all of the issues with the game – fetch quests and point-A-to-point-B gameplay become stale very quickly, hours of the game get dedicated to just fighting waves of androids (which are now immune to your stun baton…), and the plot just becomes utter background noise. Hell, even the game’s strengths start to lose their lustre. The environments start to bleed together through asset reusual and the alien gets annoying very quickly because it won’t leave you alone long enough to finish your already-unfun objectives.

If they had cut the game’s length in half and focused about half-to-two-thirds of the game towards alien encounters, the game would have been a hell of a lot more enjoyable. As it is, it’s an utter slog and a chore… which is too bad, because there are a lot of things to like about it, buried beneath all of that. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to give the first person survival-horror crown to Outlast, a game which knew damn well not to outstay its welcome and was all the better for it. If there is an Alien Isolation 2 though, I really hope that The Creative Assembly can work out the issues with this one and make a better experience.

6/10

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7 Ways AVP Inspired Recent Alien and Predator Movies

So when I wasn’t playing the shit out of Battlefield 4 on PS4, the AVP Miniatures Game I’ve been talking about the last two weeks inspired me to go back and revisit Paul W.S. Anderson’s much-maligned 2004 Alien vs Predator movie. It was actually worse than I remember it being, but while watching it I noticed something a bit… odd. Considering that Predators and Prometheus, the most recent Predator and Alien movies respectively seem to draw plot points and details from AVP liberally. This is especially surprising considering that they have done their damnedest to distance themselves from the AVP films. I’ve compiled seven examples of these instances here for examination.

As a note before we begin, I would like to mention that Prometheus and Predators are much better films than either AVP. I also figure that most of these similarities are coincidental, but find the links interesting enough to warrant mentioning. Oh and it should probably go without saying that SPOILERS ARE IN EFFECT.

Honourable Mention: Two expendable goofballs get separated from the main group and have very bad things befall them… (Prometheus)

I didn’t include this one because it seems more like a genre trope than anything, but in AVP… uhhh gimme a second to look up the names of the “characters” in this movie… umm so Miller and Verheiden get separated from the main characters and begin bumbling and freaking out. Neither have really done anything so far but they try to buddy up to get through things since they’re both “dads” and therefore can’t give up. If only they knew they were in a horror film they might have just turned the guns on themselves… Anyway, both end up getting captured by the Aliens and impregnated.

Meanwhile, in Prometheus, scientists Fifield and Milburn have had enough scary alien crap and so head back to the ship… but get lost like dumbasses despite having a digital map on them. They basically scream and hold each other until Milburn tries to pet a hissing serpent (no homo). They are mysteriously killed and/or weaponized soon after.

7) Predators Hunt in Threes (Predators)

I think there’s some precedence for this development in the Predator and AVP comics, hence why I rank it so lowly. However, to be fair, how often do films series respect extended universe stories? Just look at Alien 3, which took a dump on all the Alien comics which had been written as sequels to Aliens. I imagine that the new Star Wars movies will invalidate all the post-ROTJ fiction as well. In that regard, considering that all prior Predator films featured only a single hunter, this is a pretty interesting correlation.

In AVP a trio of Predator teenagers head off to their ritual hunting grounds to kill some xenomorphs (and any foolish humans who get in their way). In Predators, a trio of Super Predators hunt aliens and humans on their game preserve planet. In either case, three isn’t the magic number as they all get killed.

6) Mysterious Temple of Bad Things (aka Human Killing Grounds) (Prometheus)

Considering that both AVP and Prometheus are horror films, it makes sense that the mysterious, alien-built temple of doom that the protagonists come across would turn out to be something bad in the end. However, I think it’s more than a little odd that Prometheus features this trope at all, considering that it is trying to do something unlike the AVP films. If you really wanted to stretch it you could probably try to make an argument that both structures are pyramids, although the Engineer’s weapon facility looks more like a mound to me. There’s other similarities as well, such as the fact that the protagonists are able to conveniently read and translate the glyphs on the walls which are written in an unknown language. The owners of the temples also end up getting defeated by Xenomorphs/proto-Xenomorphs, both during and prior to the events of the films.

In AVP, the humans discover a temple 2000ft beneath Antarctica. It turns out that it is an ancient Predator hunting ground where humans are sacrificed to create Xenomorphs. In Prometheus, the humans travel to the Engineer’s planet to trace back to the origin of life. They end up discovering a weapon’s facility where the Engineers destroyed themselves with biological weapons before they could purge humanity from the stars.

5) Aliens Are Responsible for Civilization on Earth (Prometheus)

What’s with the recent fascination with the belief that humans were created/improved by aliens? I mean, they have a bloody TV show on “The History Channel” for goodness sake. Oh and of course there are people who think that Prometheus is a true story, but covered-up to look fictionalized (because as we all know, the best way to hide the truth is to give it a $130 million dollar budget and a wide release and then expect that absolutely no one will be crazy enough to believe it). Anyway, both AVP and Prometheus have this idea as a central plot point, even if it doesn’t make all that much sense.

In AVP, the Predators established the early civilizations and taught them to build pyramids so they could hunt Xenomorphs in them. They also apparently did a whole Tower of Babel thing too, because apparently the temple in Antarctica has all of the ancient cultures in its architecture and language, but somehow this singular origin didn’t muddy their own cultures, since they still remain unique (…AVP is really dumb). In Prometheus, the Engineers were the origin of life on Earth through a Christ-like sacrifice. They also came back later and helped civilize humanity, being worshiped as gods by us and leaving behind star maps for us to follow.

4) People Inexplicably Bring Weapons on a Scientific Expedition (Prometheus)

Scientific research is to the Alien franchise as archaeology is to Indiana Jones – if it can’t be shot at then it isn’t worth investigating. Supposed “scientists” in both films don’t do their jobs at all, generally acting like stupid tourists gawking about on their field trip. Also worth noting is the fact that the female protagonist in both AVP and Prometheus says that weapons aren’t needed, but are dismissed offhand. Guns are cool, but seriously… they aren’t really justified in either film very well at all. Of course, the weapons end up being useless anyways. In AVP I think a grand total of… two Aliens end up getting shot by the humans (and one of them was with some sort of sci-fi gun which just showed up out of nowhere). In Prometheus, only one creature gets killed by guns, but to be fair it was more because he ended up getting backed over by a huge-ass car.

As for justifications, AVP takes the cake for being more inexcusable. It’s a scientific expedition to a temple 2000ft beneath Antarctica… there’s not going to be anything alive down there. You could argue that they have the guns in case another team comes to investigate the site, but doesn’t that sound excessive? Obviously the only reason they have the guns is so that Paul W.S. Anderson can have his stupid action movie. At least in Prometheus they are venturing into the unknown to meet a potentially hostile alien species face-to-face… but still, considering that they had no reason to believe they harboured us ill-will (considering the Engineers created us and all that), it’s a tad tenuous.

3) The Hero Teams Up With a Predator (Who Gets Killed for His Troubles) (Predators)

LittleJimmy hates this trope, but I don’t have a huge problem with it myself. That said, Predators should not be seen as good guys, but rather as lawfully evil figures. Predators fits that criteria, while AVP ventures too close to making the Predator a hero. Oh and I could have swore to God that Paul W.S. Anderson was going to make Lex and the Predator kiss, it’s probably the most “WTF!?!!” moment in the whole movie. In any case, both Predators end up getting killed shortly after (is it too much to ask that a Predator actually survive a damn Predator film for once? They must have a ridiculous mortality rate).

In AVP, the humans steal the Predators’ weapons, which makes them get picked off easily by the Aliens. In the end, the last remaining human and Predator team up to bring down the temple and kill the escaped Queen. However, right at the end the Predator gets impaled by the Queen’s tail and dies. In Predators, Royce frees a captured Predator who begrudgingly directs Royce to a Predator shuttle in exchange. The Predator ends up getting killed by a Super Predator shortly after though.

2) Weyland (Prometheus)

This is another odd similarity for a series that was trying to move away from the AVP movies. Why is an aged and terminally ill founder of Weyland enterprises a commonality between the two? Even if you dismiss the rest of this article, this one’s pretty damn compelling to me because we get a really similar character and motivation in both films.

In AVP, Charles Bishop Weyland discovers the temple in Antarctica and wants to lay claim to the find. He is dying and wants to leave his mark on history by making the greatest discovery in human history (read: he wants to become immortal in a metaphorical sense). He also seems to have secret agendas and doesn’t heed warnings that he should let go of his hubris. He gets killed for his troubles of course. In Prometheus, Peter Weyland wants to lay claim to Elizabeth Shaw’s discovery of the Engineers. His crew have a secret agenda which hangs over the entire expedition. It turns out that Weyland was secretly in stasis aboard their ship and is close to death. He wants to meet the Engineers and have them make him literally immortal, even though Shaw warns him that they will kill him instead. Predictably, he ends up getting bitch slapped to death by an Engineer.

1) The Opening Briefings are Nearly Identical (Prometheus)

This is the plot point which really kicked off this article because when I watched it in AVP I thought “wait a minute… didn’t I already see this…?” Both scenes follow the same purpose and structure, they’re at similar points in the film, hell even the details are similar. They’re basically the early exposition dump to get the audience up to speed and set up what’s going to happen. Both scenes open with Weyland’s right hand man/woman beginning the presentation before giving the floor to Weyland himself (or a hologram of Weyland at least) to explain the finer details. The briefings are occurring in a wide-open chamber aboard their respective ships, while the attendees are sitting in cheap folding chairs (!).

The nature of the briefing scenes also create their own problems, because from what we’re shown all of these people apparently didn’t know where the hell they were going or doing until this briefing started (especially egregious in Prometheus). At least in AVP they try to create a sense of urgency, in Prometheus it’s just lazy. The whole scientific angle also gets thrown out the window in Prometheus because Shaw says that they’re on this expedition for Engineers is because “that’s what she chooses to believe”. Umm, good thing for you that Weyland’s a crackpot then I guess. Oh and then there’s another problem – why send a manned team at all? Why not send an unmanned drone to investigate first instead of pouring a trillion dollars into searching for Engineers who probably aren’t there in the first place (as the characters state on many occasions)?

Anyway, despite everyone hating AVP, it seems that it has managed to spread its influence to subsequent Alien and Predator films. Sure, it’s probably entirely coincidental, but the connections are interesting at the very least. I hope you enjoyed. Retrospectives should be beginning next week so stay tuned for that!

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Quick Fix: Follow-up + Current Events

Okay, due to the nature of last week’s quick fix, we’ve got a bit of follow-up on some of the “top stories” which were in that post. First of all, I caved in and got that Elgato Game Capture HD I had been looking at and it seems to work quite well. I suggest that you see the results for yourself if you don’t believe me. Currently I’m stuck with PS3 footage, but I’ll be getting a PS4 before the next blog post is up so expect footage at some point soon thereafter. In fact, you can always reach my Youtube channel by clicking the link in the sidebar near the top of the page – now that I’ve got this Elgato, updates should be fairly regular.

Also as follow-up, the AVP miniatures game has been announced and has already gotten underway on Kickstarter! I’m a bit torn on it to be honest… on the one hand, the minis are amazing and it looks like it’ll be a pretty fun game. Plus it’s FREAKING ALIENS AND PREDATORS (if that wasn’t clear enough)!!! On the other hand though, the game company’s communication has been lackluster and it’s rather expensive… even more-so with the stretch goals getting unlocked which are largely paid expansions. I mean, I’d LOVE Alien Warriors and Predator Hounds, but the notion of paying 30GBP on top of my 75GBP pledge isn’t particularly appealing. On the plus side though, the freebies are starting to pour in (at present, pretty much everyone’s getting free Facehuggers, a 10GBP add-on, a Berserker Predator [SQUEE!!!!] and almost certainly a model on a 40mm base once we hit 2000 backers). On the whole, I’m still happy about the project and will probably even increase my pledge, although I hope that the news is only positive from here on out. If you’re interested in checking it out, the Kickstarter is underway here. You can also check out the awesome minis on their Facebook page.

Now, onto current events. It’s been a little while since I last tackled a recent news story, but this one’s a doozy which I just can’t escape when I turn on the TV. I’m talking of course about Rob Ford, the crack smoking mayor of Toronto. Honestly, I wish he’d just step down because then I wouldn’t have to listen to the media drag this thing on indefinitely. In all seriousness though, Ford really does need to bow out – he has become an international embarrassment to himself, his city and his country. Saying that he’s going to keep working just makes no sense – does he think that no one else can run his job as well as him? Obviously there’s something up there.

Now I hate conspiracy theorizing, but I’m going to do some speculation so take the rest of this paragraph with a huge grain of salt. An acquaintance on Facebook made a post after the confession came out, suggesting that Ford might have called out a hit on gang members he had been famously photographed with (in front of a suspected crack house), one of whom was murdered recently. Now while I didn’t think there was much to back up this statement, it was certainly an interesting take on the situation. In any case, it is likely that Ford knew more than he was willing to admit to the press leading up to his confession. For one thing, there’s a story going around that his office hired a hacker to try to destroy the tape before it could fall into police custody. I can’t exactly verify it, but based on the information and evidence it presents, I’m willing to believe it. If it’s true, then there’s probably some seriously illegal and corrupt actions going on in the highest levels of the Toronto government. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of a film I watched called Tycoon: A New Russian, where a gangster funds a politician, but keeps a sex tape to blackmail him with (according to the story, it is thought that the Dixon City Bloods have a Ford sex tape as well) in case he ever turns on them. I wonder if a similar sort of situation is going on here which will be revealed in due time… Again though, this is almost entirely speculation and unverified information, so don’t take this as anything more than that.

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Quick Fix: Battlefields, Retrospectives, Aliens and Novels

A bit of a quick post this week on, coincidentally, the 5th of November. Not that I’m an anarchist or even a huge fan of V For Vendetta, but the date has a bit of pop culture significance so it’s notable in itself.

Anyway as you probably know, Battlefield 4 was released a week ago and (predictably) I’ve been playing the shit out of it. Actually, I rented it for 4 days and have since had to return it, but I’m already jonesing to play again. I’ve only gotten ahold of the PS3 version so far, but I’m stoked to see it in action on the PS4. I’m actually surprised at how BF4 turned out on PS3, the beta had tempered my expectations, but it’s fully-featured and functional. Graphically, it’s muddier and has worse textures than BF3, and I think the maps might have been shrunk, but overall if you can’t get any other platform then the current-gen versions of the game are certainly a lot of fun. When I’m a bit more acclimatized to it I’ll probably make a new “Battlefield Tips” post, but in the meantime you can check out my Battlelog profile. I’m also seriously considering buying an Elgato Game Capture HD to record in-game footage, so keep an eye out for that – my Youtube page might be getting updates in the near future… On the negative side though, the netcode needs some retooling, at the moment it’s extremely frustrating getting killed in what seems like a single shot by everyone. I probably need a bit more practice (it took me about 30 hours to acclimatize to Battlefield 3 from Battlefield: Bad Company 2), but hopefully this issue is rectified in the PS4 version, or a patch comes along soon.

I think I’ve also got the next Retrospective lined up, partially out of convenience since one of my brothers owns the whole series on DVD. I don’t have a firm date on when I’ll begin the series, but it should be before the end of the month… actually, now that I think about it, that’s pretty much perfect and should coincide well with future events… and I won’t say anymore than that. Ho ho ho. In any case, I’m thinking of doing something unconventional for the Retrospective after this one, so be sure to keep an eye on the blog in the new year!

This is a bit of personal excitement here, but there’s an AVP miniatures game coming soon, and based on the sculpts it looks FANTASTIC. I’m seriously stoked beyond belief for this. It’s coming to Kickstarter and traditional retail methods soon, so I’ll post up a link when it becomes available and when more info is released. In the meantime, I need some people to play it with on release…

Finally, a bit of exciting news. I have begun writing a sci-fi novel, which will expand into a series at some point. Of course, this is assuming I finish it – I already have an unfinished manuscript sitting on my computer from an abandoned project so I don’t like to count my chickens before they’re hatched. The novel is largely in the conceptual stage at the moment, but I’ve got the basic trajectory of the story developed and have written first drafts of the prologue and about half of the first chapter already. All-in-all I’m pretty excited about it and sincerely hope I actually take the effort to finish the damn thing!

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