Monday, 31 October 2016

October Nightmares II #31 Ultimate Alien Finale Double Part 2: Alien: Isolation (2014) - The Bitch is Back

So it’s time to put October Nightmares back in the box under the stairs, ready for the next time I need something to parade around for the freak drive. As was the case last year, it’s been a lot of fun, but also a lot of frustration and incidences of staying up until 4am. There’s shed loads of games I’ve missed off this list, so don’t bother emailing me to cry about forgetting to include The Last of Us or some bollocks. Maybe I’ll pick up the slack next year, or maybe I’ll do board games instead. Fuck knows what I’d do for that. Atmosfear? Monopoly with the lights off? A game of Risk in which I actually invade and pillage neighbouring countries?

2) Alien: Isolation (2014)

Alien: Isolation was gifted the poison chalice of making the franchise’s central concept terrifying again after decades of Flanderisation and tame sequels. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Xenomorphs and their combination of feline elegance and corrosive bodily functions. They’ve always seemed genuinely alien, functional-looking but also weird enough to avoid the cliché of a human painted green like they’ve caught the inter-dimensional Broccoli Disease from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. But the problem is that ever since James Cameron got his hands on them, they’ve become like Worf from Next Generation: a supposed badass, but as the show went on he got ten bells of shite knocked out of every time the writers needed to raise the stakes – which was every other week.

Most Alien games have the same basic set-up: initially terrifying as the Xenomorphs charge out of the darkness tearing at you, but by the end the game’s still pulling the same shit and you’ve culled their entire population like a fox-hunting Tory. Alien: Isolation attempts to go back to basics and look at exactly what it was that made the first movie scarier than the rest of the franchise combined. The solution, evidently, was to pare the experience back and have you stalked by a solitary killer – as though you’re the cute girl at the bar and you’ve just made eye contact with the Francis Dolarhyde type.

Yes, Alien: Isolation is a true survival experience – unlike the more run-and-gun based Alien Trilogy. This isn't one of your church picnic flare gun firings, this is the real thing. Set 15 years after the disappearance of the Nostromo, the player is thrust into the patriarchy smashing shoes of Amanda Ripley – the daughter of Ellen Ripley who died of old age sometime before Aliens. The plot’s your standard sci-fi setup; search for abandoned spaceship, everyone’s dead, revelations, double-crossing, and shit ending. Of course, we all know what happened to the Nostromo, so the game plays out like some boring bastard telling a story you’ve already heard before, but he’s embellishing it so that it takes four times as long to tell. Alien: Isolation begins as a search for the Nostromo’s flight recorder, aboard the space station Sevastopol, but as it progresses it becomes like when your older siblings hid your toys and popped out to hit you as you searched for them. Or was that just me?

By that awful insight into my life as child, I’m clumsily referring to the titular Alien. I mentioned previously that there’s principally a single Xenomorph this time, who stalks you throughout the dark levels. And that’s Alien: Isolation’s whole bag really. There are other enemies, scavengers stripping the dying Sevastopol and rogue androids, but they’re mostly there to break up the monotony between Xenomorph appearances – like having a wank at work. I have to say that the design of the Sevastopol is brilliant, bringing to mind games like Deadspace, System Shock 2, and Bioshock, in that it's brimming with a lot of environmental detail which highlights the place's sad decline. The little details in this game are absolutely glorious. From the VCR style video tracking during the opening, to the DOS-computers, CRT monitors, big dials, blocky structures, and grey-orange décor, Alien: Isolation captures the visual design of 70's sci-fi. Minus the overtly bleak social commentary of course.

It’s the Xenomorph who’s the highlight of the show, however. Towering, streamlined, and vicious, the Alien in Alien: Isolation is every bit the monster it is in the original film. All too eager to tongue you to death like a randy Frenchman. I'll admit that when you kill it off, around the mid-way point, it comes as both a relief but also a slight tinge of sadness. The Xenomorph proves itself to be a worthy adversary throughout that it gets such a bollocks death as being thrown out the airlock is such bullshit. What makes the Alien truly interesting is that it doesn’t following a pre-determined path, with the AI capable of hunting the player down. As a result emphasis is placed on the Outlast kind of stealth, in which your only real recourse is hide cowering in the shadows like you’re the kid from The Shining and dad’s on the drink again.

Unlike Outlast, however, you’re more proactive. There’s a small pool of weapons such as the revolver, flamethrower, and shotgun, as well EMP mines, the tracker, noise-making devices, and pipe bombs. So you can defend yourself against the looters and androids, and some weapons pull double duty (such as Molotov cocktails and flamethrowers) as weapons and means of fighting off the Xenomorph. Naturally resources and ammo are extremely scarce, but not as scarce as in Outlast where all you could do was sit and take it like Poland in the prelude to the Second World War.

I’ve never understood the pacifist style of horror. Perhaps if you were playing as a quadruple amputee, maybe. But it doesn't make sense that you'd have no defensive options. When I fight I look like a cat sharpening its claws on a cat post, but if some ugly creature tried to rip my face off I'd fight back. Pacifist stealth wouldn't be a natural fit for the Alien franchise anyway. That franchise has more rough and ready women than the average English working class estate.