Alien: Isolation, a Stunning and Absolutely Terrifying New Chapter

 

What do you think of when I say the word fear?

I’m talking about real fear, like terror, horror, sheer “f^ck fight, FLIGHT!” kind of jump-out-of-your-shoes afraid. Where the fear touches a primordial place in our basest instincts. Where most people pee a little and do stupid things like try and smuggle a dangerous organism through ICC quarantine.

Alien magI remember when I was a kid, I was afraid a lot. The whole jumping at shadows in my room at night routine, pulling the covers up over my head to hide from the monsters I was absolutely sure were hanging out in my closet or under my bed. When I got older I found that I’d spent so much time afraid, that I learned to like it. I sought it out. As young as 9 years old, in 1986 (yep, I’m an ancient historical fossil), when I picked up a magazine on a shelf at the store. I’d never seen anything like what I saw on the cover of that glossy book. You remember back when they used to do “behind the scenes” of movies in magazine form? I do! This one was for the movie Aliens, by James Cameron… And I think I fell in love with the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen. I hadn’t seen the original, I wasn’t even old enough to see either, but I was totally obsessed. I remember pouring over the pages of that “Movie Book” and just getting lost in a world I had no idea existed: adult science fiction. I grew up watching Star Wars, Aliens seemed like the next logical step.

Now picture if you will: a family of five gathered in the living room with the lights turned down on a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1986 to watch a VHS tape… The movie on the agenda for this happy little gathering? Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Alien. There was no commonsensemedia.org back then, no imdb.com to look up what they were getting into, only the begging pleas of a 9 year-old boy. It was epic. When that facehugger dropped from the ceiling halfway through the movie, I spontaneously dropped my Pink Panther stuffed animal on my little sister’s terrified head.

I literally cannot believe they let 3 kids under 10 watch Alien. Ahh the 80s.

hr_giger_desktop_1200x808_wallpaper-179171There’s something about H.R. Giger’s design of the Alien in the movies… It’s simultaneously both terrifying and disgusting, yet also strangely beautiful. Giger had a way of turning his strange characters and paintings into erotic images with organic, sometimes phallic designs… They’re almost impossible to turn away from, and I think that’s the part of the attraction of these nasty-looking things… They’re so different, so fascinating, that the brain wants to understand what it’s seeing. When you make a movie with the scariest creature ever made and then use nothing but low lighting, smoke and shadow… Well… You’re daring the audience to look closer on purpose. The Alien franchise, while screeching for new blood, has held up over the years as a testament to what can go right in sci-fi/horror, and what can go wrong when the studio decides it knows best (I’m looking right at you, Alien 3 and Resurrection… Even Joss Whedon’s story couldn’t save that mess).

Over the years we’ve been given differing looks into the Alien universe. From Dark Horse’s comic series to the Aliens vs Predator movies and games, none of it really held a candle to the original (2) movies. However, the Creative Assembly and SEGA Games’ 2014 release Alien: Isolation looks to have broken the decade-or-longer losing streak of failed Alien video games. In fact, Alien: Isolation knocks it out of the park.

alien_isolation111111111111Isolation is a direct sequel to the original Alien from 1979, and honestly, it looks EXACTLY like the movie, to a painstaking detail. From the ship designs to the old green CRT monitors and retro-tech tools, Isolation does the best adaptation I’ve ever seen in a licensed video game. There’s easter eggs and nods to everything from the “Water-Drinking-Bird” perpetual motion toys to the beeping motion trackers… But beware… There aren’t any Pulse Rifles or Loader Exo-Skeletons to give the acid-dripping Alien a stand up fight. This is not Colonial Marines, this is hide and seek, with a deadly monster.

The game picks up the mythology of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, who is at that point in time floating through deep-space after detonating the emergency self-destruct systems on the commercial towing vehicle she worked on. After 15 years, her ship’s “black box” has been found on the edge of known space, and as Amanda Ripley (who has been searching for answers to her mother’s disappearance) your task is to fly out to Sevastopol Station and retrieve the flight recorder.

Simple right? Wrong…

sevastopol-wide-image.0

First of all, let me just say that Alien: Isolation is graphically stunning. I wanted to pause the action every five seconds and just look around at the space station’s massive interiors, ominous passageways, and dark ventilation shafts… But this is one of those games where looking at the scenery will get you impaled by an Alien tail. In a game reminiscent of Dead Space 2, where lone engineer Isaac Clarke must explore an infected space station turning on systems and diverting power in order to escape all the while battling a horde of mutated monsters, Alien does a brilliant job of breaking up the action just enough for you to catch your breath. Usually just long enough to walk through a medical lab or a docking bay and be surprised by a massive snarling creature dropping from the vent duct above you or a blank-faced android looking to smash your head into a wall.

Alien-Isolation-E3-scaryI’ve never played a video game that had me so scared. The main reason, other than the disgusting Alien hunting me the whole time, was there is NO AUTOSAVE feature. Let me stress that point one more time. If you die, you go back to your last save that wasn’t the beginning of a new level. You’ll only learn this lesson once, trust me, but take my word for it. If you hear the chirp of the Save Game Station, don’t think, just do it. Unless the Alien is literally in the room with you, you’ll generally have enough post-load time to get to cover quickly. This left me frazzled, at the end of some levels, miles away from the nearest Save Point, hearing the thump of the Alien hitting the floor behind me, and my heart rate shot through the roof.

After one particular intense night of mid-game play, I even had to pause it to just take a deep breath… That damn thing scared me so much my heart was racing from adrenaline. Now that’s a horror game!

Even the Last of Us, even Dead Space, they only scratched the surface of what the Creative Assembly is able to achieve here. Mainly because Alien: Isolation is not a weapons-heavy blast-a-baddy Bioshock, but a sneak-around-or-get-an-embryo-in-your-chest kind of game. One of the ways they’re able to do this is through the behavior of the AI. Most stealth games, horror or not, follow the time-honored tradition of Bad Guys on Tracks. All you have to do is post up, watch the route the AI takes through the level, and adapt your play in order to sneak from one end to the other. In Isolation, the Alien is programmed to think.

Yes, think.

New-Alien-Isolation-Screenshots-Artwork-are-here-to-terrify-you-2-1024x613The level will start like this: you’ll enter a space where you need to find something to switch on or off and then get back to the elevator. It sounds so simple, and if there were no bad guys in the game you’d be able to just sprint down the corridors and get it done. However, because this is Alien: Isolation, about halfway into the first corridor, your little motion tracker will beep, and your heart will skip a beat every time. Soon you’ll hear it moving around in the vents, behind the walls, all around you. You can keep dibs on it with the tracker, but the Alien has heightened senses, so use it when it’s too close and it will find you instead. Remember what I said about how you could just sprint from one end to the other? Yeah well, you don’t ever want to sprint. Ever.

By heightened senses I mean if the Alien is standing outside the locker you’re currently hiding in, don’t pull up your tracker… The locker will be shredded with you in it. Luckily Sevastapol is teeming with lockers, tables, even tiny little cabinets for Ripley to squeeze into when the familiar rumbling of the vents becomes the terrifying thump of the Alien’s footsteps- which means it’s on the floor, and at its most dangerous.

2414282-6It’s a surprisingly simple plot, coupled with all the corporate intrigue and greedy side-plots that make the Alien universe what it is. Sevastopol is damaged when you arrive, triggering a slow descent into the nearby planet’s atmosphere. As Ripley you have to crawl from cover to cover, up one side of the enormous station and down the other in order to try and A) capture/kill the Alien B) Find out what happened to your mother and C) Escape. All the while the evidence of what has transpired over the last weeks or so since the Nostromo’s flight recorder was discovered. There are bodies everywhere, some disemboweled with a detail that leaves you a little disturbed… And where there aren’t bodies there are survivors, some friendly some not.

If fear of the unknown is the big-mamma-jamma of our deepest fears, then Alien capitalizes on it at every corner. It’s a pressing feeling of dread. One that filled my entire body with chills and had me literally on the edge of my seat for almost the entire play-through. From sudden explosions that turn your simple level objectives on their head to the startling appearance of the Alien from a nearby vent, Isolation is full of scares, thrills, and just plain exhausting terror. At the beginning of the campaign I found myself only able to play for about an hour at a time before the constant adrenaline would just wear me out.

Alien-Isolation-Video-Features-Original-Movie-Cast-Reunited-452153-2In fact, now that I think about it, Alien: Isolation is just a delivery system for adrenaline. It is, at least, on the harder settings where the AI’s distance-to-detection is significantly pushed out (meaning that on Easy the Alien doesn’t see you standing across the room, but on Hard it can spot you across huge distances if you’re not behind cover). Like lighting up a cigarette and getting your nicotine, or drinking a shot to get your alcohol, a poor soul plays Alien: Isolation to be pumped full of adrenaline, jumping at shadows, and hearing the echoing sound of “something in the vents” long after the power light has faded on their console of choice.

I picked it up for 75% off during the Playstation Holiday Sale bonanza, and after playing it I would have gladly paid full price for this masterpiece of set-piece wizardry and AI physics. Warning however, do not play this game on any lower setting the first time through, it WILL ruin the game. If the AI is turned down you can pretty much walk around the station without really getting into too much trouble… And I can see why most people would think that this is why the game is too quick and too easy.

I promise you that if you put the AI on medium or above this will be one of the most frightening games you’ve ever played, whether you’re an Alien fan or not. Bravo Creative Assembly, you made one of the best games of the new generation… Hands-down. I can’t wait to play a sequel.

Alien-Isolation-Walkthrough-Mission-17Alien: Isolation is available for XBox360, Xbox1, PS3, PS4, and PC. It currently holds Game of the Year from multiple publications including PC Gamer and Kokatu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Last of Us (PS3) – Review

The-Last-Of-Us-wallpaper-hd

Let’s talk about magic. Not the Harry Potter, wave your wand kind of magic, but the real kind. The kind you feel on a first date, or a beach, or any time when events, emotions, thoughts, everything just seems to flow in harmony. When your ears are ringing from the comprehension that something truly special is happening… It doesn’t happen as often as it should in life. Especially in the realm of entertainment. Entertainment is another beast altogether. It’s manufactured magic… And most of the time you can tell the glaring difference between the two.

Movies, and lately TV, have always been the perfect medium for manufactured magic- just as any other art stirs emotion, thoughts, questions, etc… But at the same time, for every Godfather, Unforgiven, or Indiana Jones, there are 200,000 direct-to-video Steven Segal movies hoping to cash in. That’s the thing about entertainment. In it’s most refined form, it’s strictly for profit. last2It’s not coincidence that movies make billions of dollars these days, they’re designed to. However, luckily for us, even manufactured magic is magic. Let’s face it, there are great movies, and then there are Apocalypse Now’s… Just as there are great shows and then are Mad Men‘s.

Well, the 8th dimension has just been blown open. Now we have great video games, and then we have The Last of Us.

I’ve never played anything like it. Technically it’s a video game, in that it comes on a game disc and you play it on a console… But when the opening scene of this unfathomably fantastic adventure begins… It’s all magic from then on.

imagesThe Last of Us is the story of two people, Joel and Ellie, and how they survive 20 years after the world as we know it ends. Do you remember that scary picture of the tarantula that had been over-grown by the Cordyceps fungus? I do. It looks like some kind of monster from under the sea. As the spores from the fungus replaced the spider’s cells with its own, it changed it into the freakish alien-looking horror it became… While the spider was still alive. Ultimately, the spider dies and the spores are released into the air to find the next host. Scary right? Well imagine it happens to people. The spores have mutated, speeding up the process, turning regular people into mushroom-headed nightmares that attack and kill anything they see or hear.

It’s a twist on the old zombie apocalypse, one that’s rooted in real, disgustingly terrifying science.

the-last-of-us-hd-wallpaperThe Last of Us starts off on the night of the outbreak, with animation done so well it looks Pixar-real. Animation in a game is key, and the motion-capture technology used to bring these characters to life is as good as it gets. The movements are real, the faces, eyes, and the mouths all move perfectly to suspend the disbelief. The characters have weight, they don’t spring like normal video game avatars. They move deliberately, it’s one of the dozens of tiny details that work together seamlessly.

After the heart-wrenching opener we cut to Joel in Boston, 20 years later. He’s older, greyer, and hard as f*cking steel. The story picks up when Joel and his girlfriend Tess, a pair of morally-ambiguous smugglers, people who ferry goods and services in and out of the Quarantine Zone, get roughed up by a local henchman. Boston is one of the few remaining Zones that are still functioning, although the more time you spend in the Zone, the more it feels like these people are just dying a little slower than the infected that roam the dark corners of the world. The_Last_of_Us_Preview_1The story doesn’t fall back on exposition, it drops you in the middle. It doesn’t stop to explain everything that isn’t vital to the main story, and therefore doesn’t insult the intelligence of the player.

In fact, this “game” is all about not insulting the intelligence of the player. It takes every zombie-horror-survival cliche and turns it sideways. There is never a moment in the entire 17 hours of play that feels stale or tossed in… And did I mention no load times? Usually in games you’re waiting for a little bar to fill up in order to play the next mission or level… Here, it’s all one seamless experience. There’s no breaking the fourth wall to pull us out of the world we’re submerged in.

Seriously, there were times I referred to things in the game in the first person. Like, “well she’s been traveling with me for this long,” that never happens for me. I play a lot of video games and not once have I felt personally responsible for the outcome of the story. Why not? Because I’ve never been invested like I have in The Last of Us. I’m telling you, this is not a video game. It’s a simulation.

images2There are moments of pure shit-your-pants terror, where the controller is slipping from your hand because your palms are sweating from adrenaline. All because Naughty Dog, the makers of the uber-popular Uncharted series, plays it straight and lean. There’s no over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek here… There is brutal, unforgiving, and yet ultimately beautiful “game” play. From the scariest depths of spore-ridden basements to the stunning views of an over-grown world where nature has taken back what man had built, this is a phenomenal experience.

I won’t spoil a thing that you don’t already know. Joel and Tess meet up with Ellie, a young teenager, and they are paid to smuggle her out of the Quarantine Zone to the local militia/freedom-seeking Fireflies outside… But of course, things go wrong along the way, and it’s up to you to guide these characters across a ravaged landscape chocked full of scary fast zombies and even scarier fast people. Early on one character muses, it’s not the infected you have to worry about, it’s the people that are unpredictable.

elliesThe Last of Us is a triumph in every way. It succeeds in flushing out a world only glimpsed in films like The Road, Children of Men, or I Am Legend, in which the environment itself becomes a central character. It take you out of your living room and into a world so dangerous, so unforgiving, that the only choice is to be even more brutal. Eventually you come to truly care about the characters on the screen. When they’re hurt, you feel it… You really do. More than once I found myself tearing up, feeling grief, feeling betrayal, feeling the cathartic struggle for life. I cannot recommend this “game” enough. It’s the reason why the PS3 was made, and a fitting swansong for one of the best entertainment consoles ever made.

Bravo Naughty Dog. This is truly a work of art.