Tag Archives: Survival

Not So Isolated

When Alien: Isolation came out I was happy to see that Creative Assembly’s promises of delivering a game that recreated the look of the first Alien movie were actually kept. Still, I’ve never been a huge survival horror fan, and once reviews started coming in, talking about its long length and pacing issues, my interest waned. As time went on, however, it seemed like there were a lot of pockets of love and support for the game out there. People on podcasts I listened to and in articles I’d read talked about it being their game of the year, sometimes even on their short lists of favorite games ever. Eventually I couldn’t ignore the hype and vowed to play the game after all. Mentioning this to my partner, she soon began a campaign of peer pressuring me to play it so that she could watch and bask in my misery. Honestly, I was far more intimidated by its length than the scares, but eventually it felt like the time was right to commit to the 20+ hours, and dove in.

Welcome to Sevastopol...
“Welcome to Sevastopol…”

First in foremost, as touted, the game is absolutely beautiful. The style and feel of the original 1979 Alien movie were lovingly recreated and, without direct side by side comparisons, seems quite faithful. I especially love the bizarrely retro-future feel of the computers, with their monochrome displays and multitude of lights, knobs, and bizarre noises. Sevastopol station, where you’ll be spending the majority of the game, reminds me a weird combination of the UAC facilities of Doom 3 and BioShock’s Rapture. Maybe that says more about the Aliens franchise’s influence on those games than anything, but I’d call that high praise regardless. The design is meticulously detailed, oh so eerie, and at times oddly claustrophobic. Helping with this immensely, the environmental lighting is great, with enough darkness to produce an intimidating mood without completely impeding the player’s ability to navigate. It all really works.

Alien: Isolation also nails it in the sound department. The sound effects are good all around, but the ambient noise is freakily eerie with the occasional suspicious noise thrown in just to keep you on your toes. Of course, if an enemy (particularly the alien itself) is stalking you, noise plays a big part in trying to track its location and activity. Hearing the alien clunking around as it moves through the vents above you never gets any less terrifying. The soundtrack is similarly well executed, incorporating some of the original movie soundtrack with more modern, electronic elements. It’s perfectly atmospheric, while at times dynamically shifting into a faster pace, crescendoing when the action peaks. Whether purposely or accidentally, sometimes these music changes seemed to be misleading which had me turning the tides on my girlfriend – on several occasions I looked over at her to see her nervously shielding her face in anticipation simply because the music had picked up which she thought meant I was about to be attacked. Hilarious!

Scary. Change my mind!
“Scary. Change my mind!”

The game starts out quite slowly, and the pacing just feels off to me for the first few hours. It takes quite a while before the alien even shows up, in fact. This actually lead to a little bit of unexpected tension, as I was constantly waiting for it to make its first appearance and needlessly psyching myself out. The game even seems to have a little fun with this at the player’s expense in places. That’s not to say there aren’t enemies, though. While the station is largely deserted, you’ll run into the occasional band of unfriendly humans and, much more infamously, androids. I heard a lot of people talk about the “Working Joe” androids, shrugging them off as boring and definitely not at all scary. Well, they’re wrong! Sure, the androids are MUCH more predictable than the more complicated AI tied to the alien, but with their glowing eyes, movements shifting from slow and freakily deliberate to fast and deadly, and their creepy speech, I thought they were plenty menacing.

Anyway, I digress. Let me backup and (vaguely) talk about the story. Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley, the main protagonist of the original movies, learns that the flight recorder of the ship her mother was on in Alien, the Nostromo, has been recovered. She’s invited to travel to a distant mining station where it’s being held to learn more about her mother’s disappearance. When she gets there, well, let’s just say things aren’t going so great there. Shit gets crazy and Amanda learns more about what’s going on aboard Sevastopol station as well as more about the fate of the Nostromo along the way. The nice thing about the story is that it wedges itself between well known plot points in the first two movies without doing too much retconning, keeping it inoffensive to most franchise purists. The biggest complaints I can muster about it is that it feels a little extraneous and, perhaps, because of the length of the game, some of the plot twists and turns feel a little tedious.

Hack the planet! Hack the planet!
“Hack the planet! Hack the planet!”

The length and the pacing are (again) common complaints. I actually didn’t find the pacing to be nearly as bad as people made it out to be, after that initial slog I mentioned at least. It may just be that how intensely, nerve-wrackingly stressful the gameplay is to a lot of us also makes it feel a lot worse than it actually is, especially given the save system. Saving is done by static, manually activated save points scattered throughout the environment. For the most part they’re spaced just about perfectly to break the game down into relatively small, digestible sections. That said, given that you spend large portions of the game being actively hunted, and being caught usually results in death, the save system feels incredibly unforgiving and, at times, fucking infuriating. I’m 100% sure they went with this style of save system to up the tension, and it is slightly more flexible than hard checkpoints, I admit, but it definitely feels a bit of a dated design. Regardless of the pacing, I definitely agree with the common criticism that the game feels a lot longer than it should. There’s a fair degree of backtracking too. I get the impression that they were going for a sort of “metrovania” approach to gating content and it largely works, though that style of level design pairs badly with a game that already feels a little too long.

Beyond gating related items (the Maintenance Jack, the Plasma Torch, etc.) there are also a number of weapons and other items, most of which can be crafted from certain components found in the station. I personally found very few of these items useful enough to keep using. The Medkit, of course, ended up being pretty essential, particular in certain areas, and the Stun Baton is a godsend against rampaging androids, but otherwise? Eh. I know this is going to vary greatly by person, but this honestly didn’t feel like a playstyle thing – those items just didn’t feel all that useful to me, period. Normally when I play a game with a lot of options and I don’t use them all, I can at least see the potential in them. The whole thing is just… odd.

It’s especially odd in the case of weapons. It takes you awhile to find one, and when you finally pick up your first revolver it feels damn empowering. Then you go to use it the first time and discover that it’s probably a good thing you’ve had up until then to get used to playing without them. The shotgun is a lot better, but by the time you get it you’ll probably find yourself reluctant to use your trigger finger for a host of other reasons.

The Torrens and Sevastopol Station.
“The Torrens and Sevastopol Station.”

The biggest exception to this is the aforementioned creepy androids which, when they turn on you, take quite a beating until you nail them with a Stun Baton or catch them with an EMP blast. Of course, right around the time I felt like I mastered facing off with them you’re introduced to the Hazardous Environment Joes which are pretty much invulnerable to all of that stuff. I found myself in at least a couple of situations where I was stuck with a room full of these bastards and no great way to defeat them. This lead to some very creative (and very tense) trial and error situations that I somehow eventually myself through. It’s worth noting that you will eventually get the Bolt Gun which takes down either sort of android with a single clean headshot, though landing that shot under the kind of intense situations you’ll most want to use it in isn’t always easy, and the gun comes with a punishing reload time.

Dealing with the Working Joes is a walk in the park compared to dealing with our titular alien friend, however. Nothing is all that effective against the alien save for the flamethrower which you get in the last half of the game. It’s often mentioned that the flamethrower makes the game instantly easy, though I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Fuel (ammo) for the flamethrower is limited enough that you’ll want to use it sparingly, and you’ll run into the alien enough, even when playing extremely cautiously, that you’ll burn through it quite quickly if you start to rely on it. That, and it usually only scares the alien off for a short amount of time. While it does undeniably change the game a bit, it still remains tense, and if you do run out of fuel you’ll be faced with a whole new feeling of helplessness.

The motion scanner is extremely useful at times. This isn't one of them.
“The motion scanner is extremely useful at times. This isn’t one of them.”

The topic of the alien itself really deserves a lot of attention. As mentioned, it takes awhile for it to become a factor, but when it does… oof! The game uses some interesting AI scripting for the alien that makes it behave in some pretty unique ways. It’s utterly ridiculous – mostly ridiculously cool, but sometimes ridiculously cheap and unforgiving. I quickly learned a few tricks to allow me to adapt to being stalked by it, or really, just existing in a world where it also happens to be, which is scary enough, but it never really failed to feel like an existential threat, keeping me on the edge of my seat. I did get a little desensitized by the end of the game, but that had a lot less to do with the game’s tricks wearing thin on me, and more to do with having to constantly force myself to resist my cautious nature and adopt a “let’s do it!” attitude to accomplishing my goals that Leeroy Jenkins would be proud of. It’s far too tempting to sit around waiting until you feel safe, but those moments rarely come, and even when they do they’re usually a bit of an illusion. In short, waiting around is rarely beneficial to you – you just need to keeping pushing ahead onto the next area, that next objective, and the next story beat.

Like I said, as amazingly cool as the alien’s behavior could be at times, it could also really suck. There were plenty of quirks in its scripting resulting in kills that felt amazingly cheap and unfair and some generally annoying patterns of behavior, such as the realization that you’re on this massive space station but no matter where you are, the alien always seems to be coming after you and you alone. It doesn’t matter where you are, where you’ve gone, or what else is around, it’s like its tethered to you, which definitely ruined a lot of the immersion for me. As such, I also wish there were more moments of the alien interacting with other humans and, despite some plot points against it, the androids. There are some other minor issues with the game too, like how the auto-map largely feels like it was an afterthought and how some other elements of the UI don’t feel like they spent enough time in the hands of the UX team.

The majority of xenomorph encounters go more like this...
“The majority of xenomorph encounters go more like this…”

Despite all of this, there’s no doubt in my mind that Creative Assembly managed to make a compellingly terrifying experience. Before playing Alien: Isolation, I think the scariest game I ever played was Doom 3. That game was all about tension though – never knowing when the next monster would pop out of a deviously placed “monster closet” to achieve a cheap jump scare. This game, on the other hand, had all of that and more – an incredible atmosphere and an almost palpable feeling of dread at times – I mean, it had me literally yelling out loud multiple times throughout my playthrough. Sure, some of this was me just getting into the spirit of it, which was even funner with my girlfriend just as freaked out by watching me play as I was playing, but this was genuinely a first for me.

There’s probably a lot more I could say, but in the spirit of avoiding too many spoilers and encouraging people to try it themselves, I’ll just wrap up by saying that Alien: Isolation is a great game that more people should play. Should you play it? It’s hard for me to recommend this kind of game in any sort of universal way, given how subjective the enjoyment of these types of games can be. For me, it’s a bit of a love and hate situation, with love undeniably winning out at the end of the day. It’s certainly my new favorite survival horror game, but with the length and odd annoyances added to how nerve wracking the whole thing was for me, I have no plans to check out the DLC any time soon and I highly doubt I’ll ever play through the main campaign again despite how much I ultimately enjoyed the experience.

In the future I will be shoved out of an airlock for my stealing the above screenshots from random sites around the web. Please, just make it quick.

Lost in Erangel (…And in Space!)

This entry is so massively overdue that I’m honestly not sure where to even start at this point, so I’ll just dive in. Apologies if this is a little more “stream of consciousness” than my normal posts.

I started playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (AKA “PUBG”) in early April, after an old friend from the TPG days and I linked back up and he mentioned being eager to start playing it with friends. Coincidentally, one of my favorite, randomly discovered YouTube channels, FUBARBUNDY, which is usually dedicated to antics within DayZ, posted a video of some PUBG action. I actually first became intrigued by the idea of this style of game after watching another FUBARBUNDY video in which he played the similar (and related) H1Z1: King of the Kill. I hadn’t seen anything quite like either game. They took some of the core ideas of DayZ and other, similar survival games, and gave them a mega dose of adrenaline.

Lying in wait.
“Lying in wait.”

I didn’t mentioned it here, but I did very briefly dabble in DayZ. Only very briefly. I’ve been interested in the game since the early days when it was still a mod, but resisted trying it out, afraid that I’d either hate the harsh playstyle of the game, or become absolutely addicted to it. Again, I largely have FUBARBUNDY’s insane videos to blame for my more recent bout of interest. In DayZ’s case, it was for making the game look far more interesting and dynamic than it actually tends to be. That said, I loved the immersive feel of the world. Exploring the desolate, empty landscape, and the possibility of running into other players was endlessly intriguing, but I didn’t like dealing with zombies or wildlife, or how all of my minor injures started to add up until my focus had to shift from the seemingly impossible task of finding guns and ammo to finding first aid and medical supplies, or how most of the time when you do run into another player it doesn’t lead to teaming up, or an interesting conversation, a stickup, or anything besides a well placed bullet from afar. I took several stabs at it, but in the end the pace was just far too slow. PUBG though? It’s like DayZ for impatient people.

Scoping out a compound before I approach.
“Scoping out a compound before I approach”

Now, most people reading this will already be familiar with PUBG as it has become a bit of a phenomenon since it was released into Steam Early Access. Just in case though, here’s a quick summary:

You and 99 other players are air dropped onto a deserted island devoid of much outside of a disturbing amount of guns, ammunition, body armor, medical supplies, and the occasional vehicle. Your goal is to be the last person left alive. So, at it’s core you have a death match across a huge battlefield with an element of looting and survival tacked on. It’s not some bizarre social experiment though, games could last hours without something to give them a little more focus. Instead, inspired by the likes of Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, players are constantly being funneled closer and closer together, as the playable area of the map constricts, eventually forcing anyone left to end up in extremely close quarters. Because of this, matches tend to be over within 40 minute or so, and (more likely) much, much quicker if you die earlier on in the game.

Pro tip: Don't skimp on fashion.
“Pro tip: Don’t skimp on fashion.”

That is one of the strengths of the gameplay model: total, brutal elimination. The number of players left alive is always displayed in the HUD, and is constantly dwindling down. Thanks to a damage model erring on the side of “realism”, you can die very quickly in this game, and you, without a doubt, will. You will have bad games that end in someone beating you to death within the first few minutes of the match, you will have bad games in which you fully gear up, only to find yourself ambushed as you make your way across the map, all your progress vanishing in seconds, and you will have bad games when you make it to the very end of the match only to be outgunned with only a few other players left alive. The game is so brutal that I’m honestly surprised it gets as much love as it does. There’s something really special about the gameplay loop that just keeps you coming back though, and on those rare occasions when you do actually win? Amazing.

Running through the hay fields.
“Running through the hay fields.”

Besides the frustration associated with taking a lot of inspiration from its earliest incarnation as an ArmA mod, tending to lean a bit more towards “realism” in various areas in addition to the aforementioned damage model, the effect of “RNG” on each match is also often a topic of out of game discussion. Where you can land, who lands with you, what items and vehicles you find around you early on, and where the playzone constricts to are all vital to your success. In fact, many of my best matches have been, not coincidentally, when the playzone ended up focusing the fight in the location I was already in, allowing me to spend more time on gearing up and fighting than traveling. Likewise, many of my worse matches found me traveling far across the map, often slogging it without a vehicle, and desperately lacking good gear.

Expect to meet strange men in their underwear, and shoot them.
“Expect to meet strange men in their underwear, and shoot them.”

So I’ve been playing this game for something like 5 months now which begs the question “what do I like about it?” Well, I actually really enjoy the semi-tactical gameplay, with more realistic handling weapons, including quick time-to-kill, and the ability to move stealthily, or lay prone in wait. Like the ArmA series, I enjoy the wide-open battlefields and the tactical scenarios that kind of freedom can provide, including a nice mix of long range and CQB engagements. I also really enjoy sneaking around and loot old buildings, which is something I’m apparently just into. *cough* State of Decay *cough* I enjoy the intensity of having to spot enemies on the distant horizon and pay attention to the sound of their movements close around you. I also really enjoy the camaraderie of playing these matches with other players when in duo or team matches – being able to work as a team under these conditions is a lot of fun, especially with the added component of being able to revive your fallen teammates, massively altering your priorities versus playing solo.

Proof that I've won at least one match in my life.
“Proof that I’ve won at least one match in my life.”

This game has, no doubt at all, sometimes frustrated the hell out of me. My friends and I have gotten into arguments and left sessions annoyed and irritable on far too many occasions. Yet, at the same time, I’ve also made some new friends and relished practically every “chicken dinner” (PUBG slang for a win) I’ve been able to score, whether I was instrumental in the win or carried by my teammates. With the game continuing to improve with every update, I’m glad I decided to take the plunge. I really don’t know how long its legs will continue to be for me, but I’ve already gotten my money out of it at this point.

Journey to beautiful solar systems...
“Journey to beautiful solar systems…”

Another game I’ve been playing lately is Everspace. Everspace is a cross between an old school, semi-arcadey space sim (think the Wing Commander series, Freespace, etc.) and a rogue-like. You journey from sector to sector exploring randomly generated systems filled with loot, enemies, and other resources but when you die, you die, starting over from scratch. Well, as these things go in rogue-likes, mostly from scratch; you retain any cash you gained in your run which you can spend on skill tree upgrades, and some other special items, such as crafting blueprints, that will also help you in future runs.

...and shoot everyone in them!
“…and shoot everyone in them!”

Not only is it fucking beautiful, but this game has also proven to massively addictive. Your ship controls excellently, even on a controller (I’m playing the Xbox One version) and the space combat is just deep enough to be fun and, at times, a little challenging. My only real complaint is that I wish there was a bit more variety to the random areas and enemies, or even some crazy random scenario ala another space themed rogue-like, FTL: Faster Than Light, as I’ve already hit a bit of a wall with it. Honestly, that’s fairly typical with how I play rogue-like style games, so I can’t cast any blame there. Even still, it served me well in allowing me brief but highly appreciated vacation into the space combat genre and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the genre.

Oh, and for you VR types, the PC version has Vive support!

Questing and Surviving

A few months ago while looking for a new adventure-ish game to couch co-op through we noticed King’s Quest episode 1 for free on Xbox Live. Being a bit of a PC adventure game fanatic I’m, of course, quite familiar with the King’s Quest series. My girlfriend had probably never even heard of it, but I think the aesthetics and production value of the new game were intriguing enough on their own to get her attention. We grabbed the Xbox 360 version and made it through most of the episode, enjoying it immensely and vowing to return to finish it off. Many months later, we finally dedicated ourselves to playing through the entire run.

The Kingdom of Daventry!
“The Kingdom of Daventry!”

The second time around we grabbed the Xbox One version, which wasn’t notably different, and bought the season pass. Re-playing episode one and then, eventually, making our way through all of the episodes, our opinions never really waned despite the fact that each episode is somewhat of a departure from the last. That is, they each have slightly different tones and even different gameplay focuses. The first episode felt like some of the more traditional (pre-Walking Dead) Telltale games, and exuded a whimsical, storybook tone while episode 2 was much darker with a lot more traditional graphical adventure game style puzzles. Episode 3 was a mixed bag but overall much more story focused, episode 4 had tons of back to back logic puzzles, not unlike something like Myst, and episode 5 seemed to mix up all of these flavors into one final, satisfying, and somewhat emotional finale. This is an interesting strategy to keep each episode feeling fresh, but looking at comments online I found that it often seemed to have a negative effect – everyone seemed to have his or her own favorite episode and was disappointed that the others weren’t more of the same.

The lure of adventure still calls out to old geezers like King Graham and I.
“The lure of adventure still calls out to old geezers like King Graham and I.”

Speaking of personal preference, oh man is this game beautiful, but it’s art is highly stylized and I’m sure a small percentage of players found it immediately objectionable. Hopefully a little less divisive is the great voice acting across the board, including notable appearances from Christopher Lloyd and Wallace Shawn. Not only does Wallace Shawn shamelessly re-visit his role as Vizzini from The Princess Bride but oddly there are even numerous nods and references to his scenes in the film. The music, while fairly unobtrusive, is also well done, with some notable callbacks to the themes of the original games. The whole package feels highly polished overall and you can really tell The Odd Gentlemen spent a lot of time and care researching and designing this game from the ground up.

The story arc takes you through King Graham’s life as an adventurer, from before he was King all the way until the end of his reign, and while each episode has its own plot, the story that connects the episodes feels much better written than the loose, probably largely ad-hoc, through-lines that tied the original King’s Quest games together. It mostly attempts to expand upon and tie together some of the gaps in the fiction of the original games as well as re-imagine some of them entirely. For instance, the plot of the first episode barrows many elements from the original King’s Quest game, yet tells a bit of a different story, and the plot of the third episode is almost a re-telling of King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne without invalidating too much of it. Episode 4 seems to draw heavily from King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human. Beyond that, there’s all kinds of other nods and references to the original series of games which nostalgic fans will probably get a major kick out of, and there’s even some direct flashbacks to the old AGI and SCI engines.

King's Quest almost looks animated, a la Dragon's Lair, in stills.
“King’s Quest almost looks animated, a la Dragon’s Lair, in stills.”

While I’m sure there are some, maybe even many, King’s Quest fans who didn’t enjoy this new series, I’m personally delighted by this reboot, or re-imagining as they prefer to call it, and love seeing Sierra’s name once again tied to a whimsical, clever, and beautiful adventure game. It seems like relatively few people I know have played through these episodes, even some who would seem to be in its target audience, but it’s such a complete package on its own that if poor sales don’t lead directly to a sequel I can’t say I’d be too disappointed. If you are one of those people, however, I’d encourage you to at least check out the first (free) episode and see if you think you might like more.

Speaking of co-op experience, I finally took the plunge and grabbed the Xbox One version of 7 Days to Die. If you’re not familiar with the game, it started life as a Minecraft clone aimed at focusing on the survival element of the game, dropping you in a bleak zombie apocalypse. The more development time the game got more it came into its own, both in terms of presentation, with graphics now much more realistic, and gameplay, a little more hardcore, bringing in some of the statistics heavy elements some survival games are known for.

It's an ugly, desolate wasteland, but it's home.
“It’s an ugly, desolate wasteland, but it’s home.”

I had actually purchased the game on Steam ages ago but it didn’t run on my old gaming machine worth a damn so I barely touched it. When the console version of the game launched relatively recently I was amused by how harsh the feedback was. People were turned off by the graphics, not realizing the game’s roots. Instead of looking like a realistic take on Minecraft’s big, cartoony voxels, people saw an ugly attempt at a more modern game. Still, between people attacking the game’s relatively unsophisticated visuals, there were smatterings of people who were absolutely loving the game. The console port, in particular, has the increasingly rare featuring of supporting same screen couch co-op, which seemed to be one of the more endearing features to people. It definitely is to us!

So how is it? Imagine Minecraft (Okay, sorry to keep harping on this, but it was my original frame of reference for this game) if it had a that gritty, more realistic art style I mentioned, and… oh yeah, guns. Imagine if instead of mining and farming, that game was more focused on scavenging and crafting. That’s it, in a nutshell. Sounds fun? Yes, it’s fun!

Modern day Detroit, MI. width=
“Modern day Detroit, MI.”

One thing I’m finding a little unusual is that this game has a reputation of being brutally difficult. In fact, the title comes from the fact that every 7 days the zombies will aggressively swarm to your location. Maybe we were just playing it a bit more cautiously than a lot of people, but we’ve yet to be too challenged. We immediately took over an old farmhouse and began fortifying it. We then used it as our base from which we went on limited scavenging and exploration runs in an increasing radius around us. Other than running into some harry spots in some more dense cities, it’s been relatively easy going thus far.

We’re still playing this game in 2 or so hour chunks at a time and, I’m guessing, will continue to play it here and there for quite awhile. It’s still fun, and we still sometimes find ourselves unable to put our controllers down. In fact, one of the first times we played it together we found ourselves up until 2 in the morning, which is rare for us – surely a good sign!

At long last, I also FINALLY started putting real effort into playing through Skyrim with the release of the new remastered “Special Edition.” I grabbed the Xbox One version of it with the intention of letting my girlfriend play through it again, yet she ended up getting more satisfaction out of peer pressuring me to play it and watching me stumble around like an idiot while she amuses herself with the supreme power foreknowledge. Well…

All Draugr really need is hugs. Hugs and lightening bolts.
“All Draugr really need is hugs. Hugs and lightening bolts.”

So, seriously, what is there to say about Skyrim at this point that everyone hasn’t already heard? I’m playing a grizzled orc warrior and having an utter blast, which, frankly, is no surprise to me and shouldn’t be much of one to anyone who has ever glanced at this blog before, as I’m a huge Elder Scrolls fan. Sure, every Elder Scrolls title is a little divisive, even among fans, but ultimately Skyrim, for all of its pluses and negatives, is an Elder Scroll-ass game and a great one at that. The only downside is that this unfortunately means it’ll probably be quite a while before I move onto my next console game…

Xbox 360 and Xbox One screenshots stolen by the Khajiit and traded for sweet rolls…