Monday, November 24, 2014

Game Review: Alien: Isolation

This review is based on the PC version of Alien: Isolation, available on Steam.

Can I just start this off by saying that I love that this game exists? (yes, I can, it's my review. I'll do whatever I please.)

I've been a fan of the Alien film series for years. I own all of the four Alien-titled movies on DVD, and I'm able to appreciate parts of Prometheus and the two Alien vs. Predator films, but my favorite will always be the first: Alien, from 1979. Perfect pacing, a really great plot of events, realistic characters with strong performances from everyone, fantastic visual style and sound design, and the amazing designs by the amazingly talented late H.R. Gigar for the Alien (among other things) make it one of my favorite films of all time. The fact that the first and the last few minutes of the film lack any dialogue really shows a great sense of direction. It's no wonder that so many films since its release have borrowed something from Alien.

To try being brief: Alien is a story set in the (ironically now very retro-looking) future about a commercial spaceship crew of the USCSS Nostromo being awoken from cryosleep and responding to a distress beacon on an alien planetoid, under orders from Weyland-Yutani. They find a derelict space ship, a giant corpse, and a field of odd looking eggs...Of course, a crew member gets attacked by a Facehugger, arguments to let him on the ship are had, he gets on anyway, and after a very memorable bursting through of that person's chest, the titular creature slowly decreases the crew's size, though it's not the only threat on board. Only Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley survives in a shuttle. The film does well in conveying themes including corporate corruption (The Company running the operation cares about preserving the creature, not about ensuring the crew's survival,) knowing to stick to safety precautions, and having determination even in the face of a big black alien creature that bleeds acid and wants to stick its second mouth through your squishy human body.

The badass who survived the Alien. Alongside a cat.
Plot Overview
Alien: Isolation follows Amanda Ripley, the now adult daughter of Ellen Ripley. The game's events take place 15 years after Alien, and Amanda has been living without knowledge of her mother's whereabouts since. A man from "The Company" named Samuels tells her that the flight recorder of the Nostromo's been found, driving Amanda to join Samuels and a nervous analyst named Taylor on a mission to retrieve said recorder. The recorder is located on a colony called Sevastopol Station, which is where you'll be exploring for the majority of the game.

Of course, the mission doesn't go as is a game set in space after all.

Overall, the story of the game is not really anything special, mostly retreading ground laid by Alien and Aliens. The writing is serviceable, I suppose would be the best word. A bit of a shame, but I'd never call the game's story bad; just not innovative.

From the first moments you're thrown into Sevastopol by an explosion somewhere on the station, the game's title really fits. Amanda is isolated from Taylor, Samuels, and the rest of her crew, forced to scrounge around the oddly rundown station. Her new environment is covered in graffiti, tossed around items, broken machinery, and lots of malfunctioning lights. The player can read various terminal logs that describe a wide felt outrage by Sevastopol's residents against the management, reminiscent of the original film's themes. Clearly Seegson ain't Weyland-Yutani in terms of funding.

But the station is not empty. Amanda has to deal with desperate passengers who would rather fight than work together, and Sevastapol's own androids called Working Joes, who wear jumpsuits and lifeless white vaguely-human looking faces, complete with dead white eyes. These eyes glow red when they find an intruder, and they'll do their damnedest to extinguish such intruders with their bare hands, all while spewing such cryptic and ironic messages as "Why not ask me about Sevastopol's safety protocols?" I recommend not trying to confront them unless necessary: they're very durable.

And sometimes they play dead...
The Alien (also known as the Xenomorph by many fans) is truly terrifying to encounter, so you'll be better off avoiding its attention. Your stalker possesses one of the most natural-feeling artificial intelligences I've seen in a game; there is no discernible pattern to its habits. You'll have to consider both how loud and how visible you are at all times, as the Alien has stronger senses than any other enemy in the game. Encounters will require strategy and patience if you plan to survive. The Alien can change its behavior at a moment's notice, alternating from running around the area, to creeping slowly and examining every inch of a room, to crawling through the maintenance vents, and waiting for an unwary Amanda to walk under certain vents that show its dripping saliva. Amanda can distract the Alien using such attention grabbing items as flares and noisemakers. In some parts of the game, I even used it to dispatch groups of enemies, diverting its attention to violent looters with well placed loud sounds...though that did end up with me having to still work my way around it alone.

One of my own encounters with the Alien. Thank YouTube for the butchered quality.

Alien: Isolation's story can be played in three difficulties: Easy, Normal, and Hard. I strongly recommend you play the game on the Hard difficulty, so that you get the best sense of having to scavenge for items and managing your resources (also, DO NOT MISS.) I've heard some reviewers call certain parts of the game unfair, which I mostly disagree with: the game does a great job of punishing you for not paying attention to your surroundings or responding in a less prepared manner. However, toward the end of the game, I did think it was getting a little too hard to tell what was going on, due to the level design blending in with the enemies. Even then, this was a learning experience: I had to slow down and really focus on what was happening around me instead of treating the game like I could just run past the obstacles (a big issue for me when it came to the game Outlast.)

Aside from the multiple encounters you have with less-than-friendly inhabitants of Sevastopol, you'll engage in hacking mini-games in order to brute force security, little interactive moments of using tools like a wrench or a torch, and rewiring power to different doors or systems. Since they take time, you'd best make sure you're not around any enemies when doing these tasks. The mini-games are simple and neat enough that I never got annoyed by them, though it can be frustrating how much time it takes Amanda to transition between interacting with things and being able to move.

One of the hacking mini-games involves matching shapes with the displayed Callback Code.
One thing some people dislike but I'm actually glad was implemented is the manual save system, another of my (many) complaints about changes brought on by Dead Space 3. You'll have to be careful whenever you want to save your progress, make sure the coast is clear, and then interact with specific save points marked by a big "EMERGENCY" sign and a distinct beeping that will become your best friend.

Tip: don't ignore any of these. Death will no doubt be a constant.
One more thing: the game's story is beefy, and will last around 18 to 20 hours, depending on your deaths, adaptability, and knack for exploration. I don't think the game is overly long as some other critics have said, but the ending is disappointing to me. Hope that doesn't spoil the experience though: it's well worth it.

Beside that, there's a Survivor Mode, where you try to complete a number of objectives in a specific area of Sevastopol while also dealing with the Alien while having a very limited amount of supplies. It's a test of against time to fulfill these objectives as soon as possible while staying alive, and it's recommended you don't play Survivor Mode until you finish the story. Interestingly, Survivor Mode has a characters select and area select, yet only one character and area are available if you haven't bought the game's DLC. This was disappointing, to be blunt.

Put simply, the game looks gorgeous...about 90% of the time. Immediately you get a sense of what the future must look like if it were made with 1980's aesthetics, with CRT displays, tons of cigarette trays, oddly antiquated furnishings, and other effects. A vastly impressive level of detail has been paid in making the game both look faithful to the original film, while also being innovative with the introduction of the uncanny valley-evoking Working Joe androids.

I love the black screens with green text.
The manipulation of lights and shadows and dust particles, and the effects created from weaponry and tools alike all really make the game's scenes pop out in engaging ways. Activating a flare will make the screen glow red and give a little lens flare, to the chagrin of many realists; I don't mind the cinematic effect personally. Some moments you'll be wearing a suit to traverse outer space, and vision in the helmet is accurately cut down a bit by the helmet itself and the scratches on the glass. There's even a toggle between focusing on your motion tracker and what's in front of you.

You don't want to see dots on that thing. Especially if they're close to you.
The Alien itself is incredibly detailed, even though you'll want to avoid having to see it up-close obviously. From the trailing tail to the elongated shape of its head to the creepy six fingered hands, the creature looks marvelous, a perfect mix of organic and mechanical. Again, props to H.R. Giger for the original design. In certain moments of lighting hitting the creature just right, it really felt like I was experiencing the films again.

Dat tail tho.
The game's third-person (and a select few first-person) cut scenes are pre-rendered at I believe 30 FPS, with very realistically animated human faces. However, in-game talking characters look like Muppets. These cut scenes also were a little choppy. Also, some textures are much lower resolution than I thought once I got close to them. I'm not that worried though, as this work around helps more systems run the game well. In fact, I'm very impressed how good the game looks on my Asus G550JK, and I even tweaked the graphics settings higher than the default settings with no noticeable drops in FPS. Seriously, you'll be surprised how good this game can look and run on a less-powerful setup.

Very impressive detail in the faces for the third-person cutscenes.
Also, I did experience multiple visual bugs in my playthrough, but usually they were very minor and didn't affect my gameplay. Most common was floating revolvers or wrenches. I also saw Amanda's fingers clip through a vent or two. The one gamebreaking glitch I experienced was what seemed like the darkness of space farting out crystals through a character's body, so I couldn't see where I was supposed to be going. Resetting to an earlier save fixed that issue though I believe. That or just resetting the game; luckily they were close to save points.

No horror game would be complete without competent sound design, which thankfully Alien: Isolation does very well. The moment that you're aware of the Alien's presence on the ship, every sound can set you on edge, making the gameplay rely partly on knowing what each sound means. This is especially true when you find yourself hiding in a locker from the Alien. Using your motion tracker emits sound that the Alien can hear, so I found myself keeping that instrument down and instead listening intently to the sounds of the Alien's footsteps and shrieks in order to estimate my distance.

Listen to the saliva dripping...

Music is not commonly in the forefront of the game, but when it is used, it fits the scene perfectly. Loud violins that reflect the tension of the scene often complement the stalking of the Alien. I'm pretty sure I heard some music from the original Alien film as well. Wouldn't doubt it at least.

The voice acting in the game feels pretty natural too, with no performances I'd call weak. Amanda displays a range of emotions in her voice, like fear, annoyance, anger, sarcasm, and concern. The Working Joes all emit a lack of emotion that really helps make them all the more creepy. Whomever does the Alien's shrieks deserve kudos and probably a lozenge or something.

Alien: Isolation is easily one of the best games I've played in 2014. It combines a universe that I love with truly immersive gameplay, and features one of the best antagonists (who doesn't even have dialogue) in recent gaming history. If you're a sci-fi fan and/or a horror fan who enjoys games that focus more on exploration, patience, thinking through situations, and SPACE, I can't recommend this game enough.

Personal score: 9/10 

Extra Bits
I know a few certain advocates for positively portrayed female protagonist in games are gonna like this part: (COUGH HALEY AND CASS COUGH)

Amanda Ripley is a great example of a female protagonist done respectfully, just as her mother Ellen is in the film universe. Her sex is never addressed in a dismissive way by other characters (or really at all,) she doesn't seem in any way weaker than the male human characters (in fact, she's more of a badass than any of them,) and her behavior and attire aren't tied to her sex (when too many cases see this happen in submissive ways,) but rather her own personal motivations. While I don't think she's exactly memorable like Heather Mason from Silent Hill 3, she's at least another forward-thought example in terms of having female protagonists that are treated like humans.

David Cage, take some damn notes.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Game Review: The Wolf Among Us

This review is based on the PC version of The Wolf Among Us, available on Steam.

Hot off of the success they garnered with their excellent adaptation of The Walking Dead, Telltale Games set off to tackle another acclaimed graphic novel with The Wolf Among Us. And boy am I glad that they did.

Based on the Fables series written by Bill Willingham, The Wolf Among Us is centered around the investigations conducted by Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of a community in New York City called Fabletown. Appropriately, Fabletown is where a variety of characters from old fables and folk lore now live, following their exile from the Homelands. Bigby thus has to deal with the issues of such characters as Toad, Beauty, Beast, Snow White, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and Grendel. Many of the characters would look peculiar in our "Mundie" world of humans, so some (such as Grendel and Jersey) use a magic called Glamour in order to appear human, though they'll show their true forms in times of conflict.

And so will the Big Bad Wolf himself.
 Gameplay in The Wolf Among Us is strongly reminiscent of point-and-click adventure games of the 1990's, as well as the earlier titles from Telltale such as The Walking Dead and Back to the Future, in a specific genre most put as "graphic adventures." Generally, you'll be choosing to interact with various objects and characters in a certain location, or choosing what to say in conversations with limited time windows. Breaking up these moments are also more action-packed sequences where you'll have to press certain buttons with even smaller time windows. While the gameplay is by no means complex, it doesn't have to be: this game is more about telling a narrative and letting players choose from multiple paths how that narrative will progress, and for me, the gameplay helps do just that in an effective way.

An example of the game's exploration gameplay. The rings denote what Bigby can interact with, like the Dust Ring, or the door in the background.
As The Wolf Among Us is a game driven by its narrative, the experience lives or dies on writing and voice acting. Both are thankfully excellent, with a lot of clever foreshadowing, sarcastic comedy, noir-esque dialogue, mystery, and a charm all its own. I also love that every character has multiple dimensions to them. Snow White, for example, manages to be a great authoritative character without ever becoming a damsel-in-distress; in fact, some moments feel like she's the one who Bigby should be careful around. The game's voice cast makes all of the dialogue really come to life, with some of my favorite performances being for Bigby, Jersey, Bloody Mary, and Snow White.

One thing you'll learn about Telltale's design style though is that the story always will reach certain milestones no matter your choices, though your choices do affect how certain characters feel about Bigby, what interactions open up to you in certain situations, and even the life of death of some characters. My version of Bigby was someone who attempted to stick to lawfulness and thus (usually) avoided violence, but wouldn't take bullshit when he knew things weren't going anywhere by being gentle, and I quite like how his lines and actions are written. Thus, he saved just about anyone he could, but wasn't afraid to step on a few toes when need be.

Gren is one person whose toes were stepped on, though I came to like him eventually.
I'm also a big fan of how the game looks visually. The cell shading and color pallet really bring the clash of New York City with fabled creatures to life in visually exciting ways. Telltale once again does wonderful work with the facial animations of characters too, especially showing a great manipulation of mouths, eyes, and eyebrows. I couldn't help but find Snow White's smile cute, while also being impressed with the work done with The Crooked Man's unique appearance (well, they're all unique, but you'll see what I mean.)

Seriously, this scene looks to be straight out of a comic book.
Complimenting the strong writing and visuals is a competent soundtrack, composed by Jared Emerson-Johnson, with music that ranges from the thriller theme of the story to more slow-paced background thumping for quiet bars to hectic orchestrations for hectic chases. Each track fits the scene it plays in well, especially strong in the more dramatic moments (don't want to spoil anything.) I especially like the music that plays during the opening credits of each episode.

 Credit goes to LazyDude24K for this upload.

One difference I saw in versions of the game pertains to the performance and number of technical hiccups, a recurring issue with Telltale's game engines that many players have become familiar with. On my PC, the game ran perfectly, with no glitches, crashes, stutters, or long load times. Meanwhile, I played Episode 1 on the Xbox 360, and have been watching the playthrough on YouTube channel "The Sw1tcher," where I saw a few recurring issues: scene transitions that were stuck for a few seconds, long and frequent load times, models popping-up in odd ways, fluctuating frames-per-second, and a few more. The worst hiccups occur in flashback sequences that play when you start a new episode. Still, these hiccups aren't bad enough nor frequent enough in my eyes to take away from the experience. Rather, they're minute breaks in immersion, akin to hitting the pause button at the wrong time. If anything, I'd recommend you play this game on a decent PC, though I've not heard how it fares on Xbox One or PS4.

Da bes glitch (no spoilers)

With a great story, wonderful presentation, strong writing and voice acting, memorable characters, and intense moments of drama, The Wolf Among Us is one of the best graphic adventure games I've had the opportunity to play, alongside Telltale's magnum opus: the first season of The Walking Dead. I recommend this game to anyone who's into games with themes of noir, fantasy mixed with reality, crime, and delicious irony.

Personal score: 8.5/10