[Over the years, I, like many gamers, have accumulated a huge backlog of unplayed games. Sometimes a huge open world RPG takes up hundreds of hours of my time. Sometimes I get preoccupied chasing down every last star in a Super Mario game. Sometimes a game comes out that I want to try, but not until its price drops. Sometimes there are just too many games coming out at once. Whatever the reason, I end up setting certain games aside and not getting to them until months or even years after they were released. As I try to work my way through this backlog, I’ll post my thoughts here, in a periodic column called “Backlog Adventures.”]
Alien: Isolation is one of those games that gets me really excited until days before its release, when reviews begin to pop up and it starts to look like much of the game’s potential was left unrealized. In days gone by, I would go to the local Blockbuster and rent a game like this; depending on how much I liked it, I would either buy it, keep renting it until I beat it, or return it after a few days. But with game rental largely a thing of the past, games like Alien: Isolation get relegated to the ever-growing backlog, waiting until I can grab a used copy for a price that matches my expectations.
Alien: Isolation was released last October, around the time I got my Xbox One, and was on my short list for First Xbox One Game. Reviews scared me off, though, and I opted instead for Shadow of Mordor, which proved to be an excellent choice. When I discovered that my local library had a copy of Alien: Isolation in its meager games collection, I decided to give it a shot. After waiting for some chucklehead to return it five weeks overdue – (come on, buddy, you can buy it for less than you’re going to pay in fines!) – I finally got a chance to play it. Would it be so great that I’d run out and buy it for its current price of $40? Or would I play it for a bit and then return it, unimpressed?
My first few hours with the game were promising. Developer Creative Assembly absolutely nails the atmosphere. Everything in the game – the sets, the props, the menu screens, the video effects – feels like it’s straight from the 1979 movie. The game’s deliberate pace, foreboding mood, and 70s aesthetic make you feel like you really are playing an Alien movie. All signs point to a fun, immersive gameplay experience. If I couldn’t finish the game in the three weeks the library allowed me, I was pretty sure I was going to want to run out and buy it.
Then came the tropes. Alien: Isolation promises a unique gaming experience – a mano-a-mano between Amanda Ripley and a xenomorph – but what you get starts to look more and more like any other game as time passes. The story, for one thing, follows the familiar pattern of giving you a single simple objective – in this case, retrieving the Nostromo’s flight recorder from a space station – and then dropping obstacle after obstacle in your way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I sometimes prefer this straightforward approach to narrative over massive mythology drops and stories where I am once again the Chosen One in an existential fight between good and evil.
But a lot of these obstacles come in the form of other people and androids. Every time you encounter another generic enemy, the game loses a bit of its titular isolation. I don’t know that it would be possible to make a game where the only characters are the protagonist and a single enemy, but this is clearly not that game. And as much as the xenomorph is powered by a sophisticated AI system that keeps it terrifyingly unpredictable, the other enemies in the game are typical stock videogame characters. Androids walk predictable routes, forget you exist if you hide long enough, and have excellent vision in one direction but almost no peripheral vision. At times, the game feels like it’s really a battle between Ripley and an army of these androids, only sometimes the xenomorph drops from the ceiling and eats you.
And you spend a lot of time just waiting for androids or the xenomorph to walk away so you can go where you want. The game can be frustratingly slow at times. Granted, my experience with the game was probably marred by the fact that I was trying to rush through it to beat a deadline, but it did feel like I was spending a lot of time just hiding and waiting. This, combined with the fact that the game is sometimes punishingly hard, and that save points are sometimes few and far between, can make the experience move from engrossing to frustrating pretty quickly. This is the kind of game I might want to play for an hour or two at a time, once a week. Trying to plow through the game in one chunk is too frustrating to be enjoyable.
Alien: Isolation excels at a lot. It creates great atmosphere and tension, has some decent character acting, and really does feel like an Alien movie. But it also feels like a slog sometimes. When you successfully navigate a tough section and reach that next save point, it feels great. But when you’re replaying a twenty-minute section of mostly hiding for the fifth or sixth time, you might start to look around to see what else you have to play. I don’t know how far I made it into the game, but I think I have a pretty big chunk left. I’d like to go back and finish it, a little bit at a time, but not for the $40 most retailers are currently asking. Eventually the price will drop a bit more, and, if I’ve still got my save file, maybe I’ll go back and try to finish the job.
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