Yeah, so come this Autumn there are two big interesting games coming out, which might just have it in them to make the gaming scene a lot less bland and uninteresting, and just a bit less crap. So here is a premature review of two games set to release soon, neither of which I have personally played, and the impression of which is completely based on pre-rendered trailers and hype. By the way, if the previous statement did not offend every one of your consumer decision-making instincts, then you probably should not own a credit card.
So, Alien: Isolation then, the most interesting and excitement gathering AAA-horror title – that is actually about horror – in a long while. Set somewhere between Alien and Aliens, Isolation follows Ellen Ripley’s named-but-never-seen daughter, Amanda, following the trail of the last transmission of the Nostromo, trying to find the truth of her mothers fate. Since it is an Alien IP, things obviously go tits up and soon there is a truly horrifying and utterly alien figure disfiguring everything squishy and meaty, and survival becomes a desperate and pants-shitting struggle.
So far gaming has been mostly groping in the dark, hoping to find a way to recreate the freshness and ridiculous success of Aliens, while recycling the same tired tropes and conventions, if not ripping off actual iconic scenes from the film. Oh, is the power going to go out to create tension again? Are we going to find a mysteriously empty facility, full of bullet holes and acid burns, with a mysterious shortage of living, coffee-brewing people? Is there going to be an evil corporation that is keeping things from us? Is there going to be a bit where a cartoonishly evil scientist is going to try and exploit the creature, while being a bit lax on the security protocol? Is there? Is there, oh, is there?
While Sega has mostly been stroking Aliens and fantasizing about big, burly space marines, developers of Isolation have had a serious hard-on for the Ridley Scott original classic, and try to jerk…to honour it in every possible way. Isolation is kind of fresh, in only having one, terrifying and unstoppable creature, while taking away everyone’s pulse rifles and making you an insignificant little insect, whose only hope is to avoid the dangerous organism and noiselessly sneak around, followed by a faint smell of poopy terror. Apparently, a lot of effort has gone into recreating Ridley’s Alien’s oppressive feel, in claustrophobic environments, steaming pipes and poor lighting, all providing a perfect sense of the alien being ready to emerge from the shadows, or around the next corner – or possibly already behind you, ready to give you a sharp and terminal wedgie.
Isolation is also supposed to feature other unsettling enemies, like psychotic survivors and unhinged androids, all of whom could either be helpful, or might melt down on you and try to and rip off important bits of you. Still, the alien itself also considers everyone else fair game, and the biggest threat is always making too much noise and attracting the monster itself.
So far it sounds like Isolation owes a lot to recent PC survival-horror games, especially things like Slender and Amnesia: Dark Descent, where the player is a helpless little cretin, constantly hunted and unable to fight against their relentless hunter, with hiding, panic, running and avoidance as the only possible way forward. Fortunately, Isolation gives you some tools and weapons to give you at least a humble little bit of agency against the dangers, but even they are only good for distracting and slowing down the creature. Another happily absent feature is the sanity mechanic, which feels like a cop-out way of telling the player they are feeling scared.
Horror is something that is difficult to balance, and previously one of the best games on that front has been the classic Aliens vs Predator from 1999, and particularly the brutally oppressive marine campaign. AvP was fantastic in combining a crushing sense of loneliness and a constant sense of danger, with difficult-to-navigate levels and randomly spawning, hyper-fast aliens ever nibbling on your ankles. Every ping of the motion tracker was enough to push your heart into overdrive, and the fast, messy action was enough to cause a lot of extra laundry. Still, the game was balanced enough to keep you trying and squeezing your legs together, no matter how much it tested your sphincter’s ability. The worry here is that Isolation might aim to be too much like Amnesia and leave the player too tense and frustrated, or fall short on the terrorising, and make the alien a one-time jump-scare. So far the hype would suggest that the creature is hardly seen at all, and that the anticipation and emergent game-play are doing a lot of work to keep things interesting.
On the shittier side, Isolation has a bad case of the DLCs and season passes, and its already attracting some unsavoury attention due to putting the Crew Expendable campaign and original Alien cast features behind a pre-order paywall, and it seems like a real dick-move to exclude something so integral to the game’s story.
On the less depressing but equally psychotic side, we have Far Cry 4. Which will almost inevitably be good, because Far Cry 3 was good, and this is just Far Cry 3+1. Where Alien: Isolation wants you to feel truly alone and powerless, Far Cry 4 is more of a power-trip, where you are given a massive free-roaming map, filled with interesting enemies and masses of stuff to do, and then given lots of fun toys to spread chaos and death around, like bullets were sweets and heads were adorably dressed trick ‘n’ treaters.
Again, like in FC3, you here seem to be a witless bystander to be a plaything for colourful, psychotic villain characters, who feel like a crossing between Buffalo Bill and Charlie Sheen. Vaas is destined to make an appearance, and new wacky villain is the autocratic despot Pagan Min, against whom the native population is fighting in a civil war, which all non-mutant-including Far Cry titles are required to have – because of an ancient curse.
Apparently, Far Cry 4 is supposed to fix some issues from Far Cry 3, hopefully including underwhelming QTE-boss-battles and strict linear missions. Far Cries have always had a thing for environment design, and again we are in danger of having our eyeballs blasted from our heads by the stunning power of beautiful sky-boxes. The Himalayas are a nice idea for unconventional setting and stealth-based game-play, and hopefully that doesn’t mean spending 60 % of your time trying to climb up a really steep mountain, only to find yourself impotently sliding down in slow motion, no matter how hard you hammer on the W.
The reason why Far Cry 3 and possibly 4 are going to take away the main prize in shooty action, is that the game-play leaves room for emerging scenarios and random chance. A good game should give the opportunity to feel like a badass and an absolute wally in equal measure, and there’s nothing as exciting as unfolding chaos as a battle escalates with enemy reinforcements turning up unannounced – nor when things go unexpectedly bad, and you end up looking like an absolute muppet. Best example, like when I was scouting an enemy encampment, ready to find a sniping position on a ridge above in a really cool and calculating way, when I suddenly heard a low growl behind me that I just knew was a tiger that had happened to walk past at a really inconvenient moment. One thing leading to another, next I was running through the enemy encampment – gunfire and shouting erupting everywhere around me, along with the sound of the alarm starting, calling for more reinforcements – while being chased by a really angry tiger. And I was on fire.
So that’s my review of two very exciting games, neither of which I have played, and neither of which will probably live up to the hype surrounding them, but which give you at least something to…oh wait, Aliens: Isolation is now available. Well, bollocks to this then…