December 01, 2014

Impressions: Alien Isolation

I've spent a couple of hours playing Alien Isolation on the PS4.  So far I'm enjoying the attention to detail The Creative Assembly put into recreating the look and feel of the original film.  There are some missteps, but so far this feels very close to the atmospheric Alien game I have wanted to play for years.

Full disclosure:  The original Alien is one of my favorite films.

The game environments and art design all teleport the player back to a 1980's vision of the distant future.  Much of the technology in the game is ancient by today's standards.  Interactive displays are huge CRTs that project from the walls.  There are boom boxes and cassette tapes littering the spaces where NPCs spend their time.  You'll come across areas filled with old game cabinets and air hockey tables that would feel right at home in an arcade from 30 years ago.  Videos are grainy with tape hiss.  These details will be hugely appreciated by fans of the movie, but I wonder how much of this will be lost on people that grew up in a post-analog world?


Alien Isolation environmental lighting
The lighting can be beautiful.

The sound design is excellent.  You are trapped on a dying ship and it moans as it pitches in space.  Industrial machinery hisses with steam.  The technology on the ship whirs, pops, and bleeps in a manner consistent with the film.  The environment sounds warm and menacing.  It can terrify when it wants to, and I haven't even reached the titular alien.  It's great stuff and it goes a long way to absorbing you into the game.

So what are the missteps?  It feels like there are a few too many video game tropes here.  Do you remember the drinking water bird from the film?  You'll see scads of them throughout the opening sequence.  That's corny.  There are a few places with this kind of unwelcome repetition of references.   Second, While I like the visual appearance of the ship, the level design doesn't feel as claustrophobic and cramped as the film.  I was hoping to feel a little more trapped. Granted I'm not far into the game, so this could change as I progress through it and meet up with the xenomorph.  All those wide open areas make it even more apparent that the player character's movement speed is slow and mechanical.  Something feels a little wrong with the way turning and looking around feels.  Maybe that is intentional and will fit the forthcoming gameplay.  Finally, the visual tone can be a little inconsistent.  Some areas are vibrant with detail and beautifully lit.  Other large spaces are dull.

Overall, these are small gripes and I'm looking forward to seeing what the rest of the game has to offer.

Highs:
  • Great sound design.
  • Effective scares.
  • Constant tension even when there is no enemy on screen.
  • The lighting can be beautiful and varied.
  • There are some good looking volumetric fog effects.
  • The save mechanic is interesting.  Not sure how it will play into the game later on. 
This is how you save your game in Alien Isolation. It leaves plenty of time to be eaten.

Lows:
  • Some references to the original film are overused.
  • Movement feels stiff.  
  • The ship has more character than any of the humans in the game so far.
  • Visuals are inconsistent.  Some areas are beautifully rendered and lit. Others feel flat.


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