Tag Archives: Xbox One

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.

Out of the Fire

I’ve been intrigued by Firewatch since it was first announced. Not only have I been a longtime fan of many of the the Idle Thumbs podcasts, of which three members are key Campo Santo employees, but I loved The Walking Dead, and two of those three employees were its project leads and writers. I’ve also enjoyed my few forays into the “walking simulator” genre thus far, and the previews of the game made the basic themes look appealing as well. Despite buying it on PC the first time it ever went on sale on Steam, I only finally got around to playing it last month, buying the Xbox One version so I could more easily share the experience with my girlfriend from the comfort of our living room couch.

Home sweet home.
“Home sweet home.”

Right off the bat Firewatch hits you with a bizarre “choose your own adventure” like interactive story about your character Henry’s backstory. A bit jarring, it feels a little low budget and isn’t anything like the experience I was gearing myself up for. Still, it has an interesting function – you immediately start the game with a good idea of who your character is, what he’s gone through, and having customized his backstory a little in the process, even a bit of a connection to him.

Once in the game proper, you find Henry in the beautiful Wyoming wilderness where he’ll be manning a fire tower for the season. We have fire lookout towers not too dissimilar to the ones featured in Firewatch out here in and around the southern Appalachian Mountains and, having had the opportunity to climb several of them over the years, I’ve always been fascinated by what manning one of them must have been like back when they were in full-use. The Campo Santo team did a fabulous job bringing those towers and the surrounding wilderness to life. The stylized art and the engine’s lighting system steal the show, but it all comes together just perfectly, producing beautiful vistas filled with swaying trees and grass among rolling hills and rocky peaks. Combined with the forced first-person perspective and minimalist, mostly in-game-world UI, I quickly found myself totally immersed in the setting.

The lighting really brings the whole presentation together.
“The lighting really brings the whole presentation together.”

Firewatch’s world is fairly open, and while there is some gating and the occasional invisible wall, I never found them to take me too far out of the experience. This is likely because I was always too busy either checking out the amazing views, looking for the next interesting detail, or looking at my map and compass to try to figure out where in the hell I was. On top of that, I often felt a sense of urgency to try to complete my objectives before the sun went down and I’d be forced to wander my way back to my tower in near pitch-black darkness. Those objectives felt important to me most of the time too, so going off and exploring far beyond where I needed to be never made a lot of sense to me.

A lot of the user reviews I glanced at while writing this seemed to mention bugs and performance issues but for me the fact that the game ran so smoothly with such a degree of polish was absolutely a part of why I was able to really get into the experience. Maybe the Xbox One port is better than some of the others or perhaps I’m benefiting from being a late adopter here, but in any case, I think it bears mentioning that I didn’t have any such issues.

I hope you like looking at maps!
“I hope you like looking at maps!”

Anyway, so far, I’ve just described a game about a guy wandering around in the woods. Obviously, I’m leaving out a massive part of the game here: Delilah. Your character has a nearly-constant companion over the radio, something along the lines of Atlas helping you out in Bioshock, though a little less manipulative. The conversations between Henry and Delilah, both in terms of writing and voice acting, are what really push Firewatch into excellence. These chats are unusually funny, heartwarming, realistically written, and full of character. The dialog system has both the urgency of a Telltale adventure game, in which you might have a limited time to respond and your lack of a response is, in and of itself, interpreted as a response, and unlike most modern games with dialog systems, isn’t tied to story decisions or moral choices but mostly just serves to further develop your own personalization of the characterization of Henry. I can only guess that how well this all came together must have surprised even the developers themselves.

I was more than a little disappointed about not having the option to order prints of my pictures in the Xbox One version.
“I was more than a little disappointed about not having the option to order prints of my pictures in the Xbox One version.”

Through the friendship that grows between Henry and Delilah, the mysteries they unravel and personal baggage they unpack together, we eventually reach a conclusion that is, as with the dialog, rather realistic. I won’t spoil it or go into any in-depth analysis of the ending, despite how desperate I was to discuss it when first finishing the game, but I will say that like so many others I was a bit disappointed in the ending. At the same time, I felt like I understood, at some very deep emotional level, what Campo Santo was aiming to achieve, and I got it. I got it. I didn’t like it, maybe because it was a bit too real, but in some way, it made me respect the entire experience all the more for it. What a fantastic game.

One player distracts the guard, the other unclogs the toilet.
“One player distracts the guard, the other unclogs the toilet.”

At some point while playing Firewatch we stumbled upon A Way Out in the Microsoft Store. From watching trailers and listening to some podcast banter about it, all I really knew was that it was a game about two convicts working together to escape a prison, and that the whole game was based around being a two-person co-op experience. I could also see that the game looked fantastic, with a simplified but realistic art style, and a lot of interesting, very cinematic camera work. Overall the art and presentation is somewhat reminiscent of the last couple of Grand Theft Auto titles, which is a good thing.

Starting the game, we found ourselves quickly engaged, as we had to decide which of the two distinct characters we’d want to play and then, after a brief cutscene, were set off on two different paths. The fact the game starts off with your two characters not even knowing each other was unexpected, and despite the beginning being a little slow, made for some interesting development as the two characters met and the story progressed.

Wandering the yard.
“Wandering the yard.”

Having each player working on separate goals via split-screen, interspersed by the occasional use of clever timing to trigger cutscenes and events involving both characters together is the game’s central novelty, in fact. Sometimes these events are little mini-games meant to allow the players to interact and the characters to bond a bit, and other times they’re simple cooperative puzzles, like needing both players’ input to lift a heavy object or to climb up an otherwise unreachable ledge. Occasionally the players must decide between two different approaches to solving a situation, which was kind of cool. I do wish there was a little more depth to these mechanics, as your interactions with NPCs are short and mostly only serve as fluff, the exploration is very limited, and the cooperative puzzles are almost all exceedingly basic. I suppose the simplicity is in service of being an approachable co-op experience, so I can largely overlook that. Besides, early on, it was mainly the story and the characters that had me hooked.

You can choose to handle a lot of situation Leo's way, or Vincent's way. You'll figure out what that means quite quickly.
“You can choose to handle a lot of situation Leo’s way, or Vincent’s way. You’ll figure out what that means quite quickly.”

Unfortunately, the story is really nothing too special. The fact that almost every aspect of it was swiped from genre tropes is a common complaint but I personally didn’t really find that to be distracting or problematic. Instead, my main problem is that while the game does a good job at giving you a sense of who both characters are, in fact watching them interact as the story unfolded really seemed like it was going to be something very special, it ends up squandering the opportunity for some real character development and an impactful story. This is especially true when the plot takes a sharp turn from being about our characters escaping prison and reuniting with their families to being about them seeking revenge on the person who put them there. It just goes a bit off the rails.

Revenge certainly could have been an interesting angle, of course, but when the game suddenly devolved from what felt more like a narrative heavy adventure game, not completely dissimilar to the aforementioned Firewatch, into a mediocre third person shooter, it kind of lost me. By this point in the story we had learned that neither one of our two characters were what you’d call “violent criminals” yet they suddenly engage in the wanton slaughter that makes up this next to last scene of the game without batting an eye. Talk about ludonarrative dissonance! That, and the twist at the end, while mechanically kind of cool, just wasn’t at all where I felt like the story was taking me early on.

There's always time for Connect 4!
“There’s always time for Connect 4!”

Despite the disappointing finale, I liked A Way Out overall. The presentation, the characters, and the co-op centric gameplay really impressed, even if my great early impressions didn’t quite last throughout the game. There aren’t a lot of games out there that rely on cooperative gameplay, especially split-screen cooperative gameplay, and A Way Out even lets a second person play online without owning the game, which is awesome! If the negatives in this little review here don’t sound like they’d outweigh the positives for you then it is probably easily worth your money. At the very least, Hazelight Studios’ next project will have my full attention. I hope it’s not something entirely different as I really do see a lot of potential in A Way Out’s style of gameplay.

As usual, I’ve stolen my Xbox One screenshots from aimlessly scouring the Internet for decent ones. Apologies for not having individual credits for each of them!

Grubbin Cold War

I’m a little bit behind with my normal game log updates so this is a bit of a catch up session.

Around Halloween last year I decided to grab Double Fine’s Costume Quest 2 off of XBLA. As a side note, I don’t think they call it Xbox Live Arcade anymore, do they? Whatever man, I’m a die hard! Anyway, I gushed quite a bit about the first one on here, so I felt pretty confident about grabbing the second one.

Dentists should be portrayed as villains far more often.
“Dentists should be portrayed as villains far more often.”

Gameplay hasn’t shifted significantly in the sequel. It’s still basically a simplified take on classic JRPGs, with the game divided into wandering an “overworld” exploring, looting a little and talking to the odd NPC, and then moving into turn based, party versus party battles when you encounter enemies. The overworld is mostly the same, though some costumes have special abilities which are used to solve simple puzzles while navigating. Really, they’re more about gating you based on whether you have the costume or not than presenting any sort of challenging puzzle to solve though. The combat system itself a bit different, with a greater focus on timed attacks and blocks and the addition of special ability cards, but it all still feels very JRPG-inspired, and while you may prefer one system over the other, the difference isn’t all too compelling to me.

The real appeal of Costume Quest is its quaint charm and humor. Unfortunately, while the overall plot might be better realized this time around, the writing struck me as far drier. I didn’t get nearly as strong of a genuine sibling vibe from the main characters, for one, and it’s hard to put my finger on why, but I also didn’t think the game was quite as funny as the first one. Maybe I’m just in a drastically different headspace than I was a few years back, or perhaps the formula has just worn out its welcome. The gameplay also started to wear out its welcome though. In the end, the repetition of exploring the overworld and getting pounded with so many random battles really took a toll on me, and I had to drag myself to the finish line. For a game that’s only 8 or 9 hours long, that’s definitely not a great thing.

Dream
“Dream team: Gandalf, Thomas Jefferson, and a fucking pterodactyl!”

I hear a Costume Quest 3 is in development now but unless they make some major changes to the basic formula I may give that one a pass.

I started a second game from the dusty corners of XBLA at around the same time as I started Costume Quest 2; the sequel to another game that I absolutely loved, Toy Soldiers. I was actually a lot less confident about Toy Soldiers: Cold War because of what seemed like a new focus on special “barrage” attacks, especially the new Rambo inspired playable commando, who was featured constantly in all of the media surrounding the game. I’m happy to report that I was wrong, and Toy Soldiers: Cold War is about as direct a sequel as you could ever want while still allowing for some tweaks to the formula.

Sometimes it's just too easy...
“Sometimes it’s just too easy…”

So about the game. Well, I’m just going to steal, almost verbatim, what I said about the original Toy Soldiers here. Toy Soldiers: Cold War takes the classic, simple tower defense gameplay, gives it an awesome Cold War/Vietnam era meets kid’s toy box theme, and adds in the ability to control towers and other special units (tanks, helicopters, and jets) by hand to up their effectiveness and/or your score. It’s a very simple concept but executed almost perfectly with an awesome presentation and a healthy layer of polish.

As with the first game’s World War I theme, the cold war era doesn’t get used too often in video games, and the variety and selection units is even cooler and funner to play with in my opinion. The fact that these are toys means how “realistic” it might be for a Huey gunship to duel a MIG-23, for example, is almost entirely irrelevant. That said, like the first game, everything being a “toy” of some sort, and the fact that you’re fighting in some kid’s bedroom, hardly detracts from the gritty war experience. I quickly forgot that my M1 Abrams tank had an radio control antenna sticking out of it, or that the mass of troops I was brutally gunning down were supposed to be toy soldiers at all.

These (toy) BMP-1s don't stand a chance against my (toy) Abrams.
“These (toy) BMP-1s don’t stand a chance against my (toy) Abrams.”

The aforementioned barrages, which are awarded for certain conditions, actually rarely come into play, though I suppose you could optimize your play to get awarded them more frequently than I did. Besides the commando unit I mentioned, most of these are powerful air strikes, some controllable and some not, and can really help turn the tide during a particularly nasty wave. The special controllable units, tanks, helicopters, and the occasional jet, feel more powerful in Cold War, but now have batteries, effectively meaning you can only use them for a short durations, having to wait for them to recharge between uses. Timing your use of these units can make or break your success in certain waves, and can greatly make up for a lack of certain turrets or upgrades.

I completed the entire campaign on the default difficulty, and also ran though both DLC campaigns. The DLC campaigns are short and sweet and seemed more focused on adding more maps rather than changing up the gameplay too much, despite one of the campaigns letting you play as the USSR, but if you really like the base game, perhaps more maps to play is incentive enough to pick them.

I’m ashamed to say that, like the first game, I still didn’t end up trying the multiplayer modes. One of these days. They look awesome, feature glorious split screen, and you can even play through the entire campaign co-op.

The Commando doing what he does best, which is apparently effortlessly shooting down Mi24 Hinds!
“The Commando doing what he does best, which is apparently effortlessly shooting down Mi24 Hinds!”

Signal Studios keeps knocking these games out of the park for me, and I’m already planning on picking up the latest game in the series, Toy Soldiers: War Chest. War Chest looks to really push the fun toys angle of the series over the edge, and even includes licensed toys like He-Man and G.I. Joe this time around. Seriously? Dude.

Last, and least, I’ve been playing Bungie’s Destiny 2 here and there. I know it’s been out for months already, but I’m going to hold off on talking about it until I play through the campaign a second time and can put together some more coherent conclusions on it, but I’ve definitely enjoyed my time with it so far. Stay tuned for that!

As usual, the screenshots here are mostly stolen from other places. Despite scouring Steam Community for what felt like hours, I’m not too satisfied with the Cold War screenshots. Sure, they’re cool, but they don’t represent that game’s core tower defense gameplay too well. What can I say? The flashier action stuff just makes for better pictures.