Evolve – Review

Goliath Roar
Standard

(Reviewed on Xbox One)

UPDATE: As of the 26th February, Turtle Rock Studios have released a patch for the Xbox One version of the game – hooray! The 1.1 patch notes on Turtle Rock’s website outline the changes and tweaks that have been made to the game; chief among them is the fact that they have resolved the issue with players repeatedly losing their progress and data. While I’ve yet to hear anything about a patch for the PlayStation 4 and PC versions of the game, I think it’s safe to assume that a similar patch must be underway for players on those platforms as well. So, while Evolve’s progression and unlock system is still tedious and problematic, on the Xbox One for now at least, you should be able to play the game online with friends without having to worry about your progress being wiped when joining matches.

Groundhog Day

Everyone knows the legend of Achilles right? The invulnerable Greek war hero, who couldn’t be injured thanks to his mother Thetis ever so conveniently dipping him in the river Styx as a baby. Thought to be an immortal warrior after his glorified river-dunking, he was killed later in life from a wound to his heel at the end of the Trojan war; the very same place on his body where he was held during said river dunking by his mother all those years ago. An immortal warrior felled by a tiny but crucially overlooked detail.

Want a sci-fi version example of the above? Take the Death Star from Star Wars. It’s the Galactic Empire’s planet-sized world-destroying spherical megaweapon; equipped with powerful tractor beams and superlasers, and staffed with armies of Imperial stormtroopers and fleet after fleet of TIE fighters to defend it. So what happens? It’s completely and utterly destroyed thanks to the explosive combination of a shoddily placed two-metre exhaust vent and a pair of well-aimed proton torpedoes.

Well, those two above examples of fatal flaws are kind of how I feel about Evolve in its current state. It’s one of the most exhilarating, addictive and joyously inventive multiplayer shooters that I’ve played in years, but unfortunately due to the game being designed around a pointless and counter-intuitive XP-based progression system, and the existence of an infuriatingly frequent progress wiping bug, the game is also one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in gaming for a long, long time.

When everything works, it’s nothing short of a dream for shooter fans who are looking for a fresh and unique multiplayer experience. When the game wipes your progress and you lose everything again for the umpteenth time, making you start back at the bottom rung of a tedious and completely unnecessary progression ladder, it’ll make you want to unleash your inner monster and destroy your living room in rage. You’ve been warned.

FUBAR

Shear

The planet Shear, in all its ominously red glory.

Okay, let me rein in my personal frustrations for a second before I go into full-on beast mode myself just thinking about how messed up the game can be and let’s talk about what the game gets right.

Designed by Turtle Rock Studios, the guys and gals who brought you the fantastic Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, Evolve is an asymmetrical four versus one multiplayer sci-fi shooter/beat ’em up game, where four hunter players have to track and hunt down one massive player-controlled monster. When I first heard of the game, my immediate thoughts were something along the following lines:

“So the basic premise is that it’s a Left 4 Dead Tank fight, only with a giant Kaiju instead of a hench muscly zombie, and four tooled up space marines with lasers, rifles and all sorts of other sci-fi wizardry to boot? Count me in!”

Before we get caught up in the dusty catacombs of my easily amused mind, let’s go over the game’s short but sweet plot setup. Evolve takes place on the planet Shear, a human colony planet which is under attack from a new, non-native race of mysterious, alien wildlife. These monsters are incredibly powerful, cunning and intelligent, with the ability to rapidly evolve (hence the title) to ever-more increasingly powerful forms. Their numbers have increased to the point that they have entirely overwhelmed the colonists to the point of no return, and things are getting very desperate indeed.

The Hunter Team

Who ya gonna call?

As part of a last-ditch effort, a crack team of monster hunters, assembled from across the known galaxy, have been hired to help the colonists with their monster problem. Originally contracted to cull the monster population, the hunters arrive in orbit around Shear to discover that the situation has rapidly devolved (see what I did there?). The monster population is now so large that the entire planet is considered an inhospitable write-off, and the hunting expedition they signed up for is now a full-scale global planetary evacuation. So, it’s time to kill monsters, not get eaten along the way and save the population of the entire planet – not much pressure then eh?

Intergalactic Rentokil

Golitah Lurking

Insert your own personal clichéd ‘the hunter(s) becomes the hunted’ phrase here.

Evolve is essentially a digital foxhunt set on an alien planet – only the fox in question is about three storeys tall, breathes fire, and generally likes to cause a real ruckus for both humans and the local flora and fauna.

While I abhor foxhunting in real life, virtually hunting down a massive monster with three friends in tow is an incredibly exciting experience. As you might imagine, the game’s unique pacing and rhythm results directly from the power imbalance between the four hunters and the one monster. The hunters are inherently weaker than the monster, and they have to effectively co-ordinate and attack together with each of their unique weapons and abilities if they are to have any hope of taking the monster down. The monster, on the other hand, has to try and elude the hunters at first, scarpering off through the beautifully dark and grotesque environments of Shear, all the while wolfing the local wildlife along the way and hoping to buy enough time and distance to undertake the titular evolution process to get stronger and more powerful.

While there are several different game modes to play, the Hunt mode most effectively showcases the unique rhythm of Evolve‘s gameplay. In this mode, the monster gets a thirty second headstart to dash off into a level, at which point the hunter team drop in to the map and begin to hunt it. The monster, currently at stage 1, is at its most weak and vulnerable at this point, and unless controlled by a skilled player, then confrontation with the hunters can usually be fatal. After it’s eaten enough wildlife, the monster can then evolve to a stage 2, and ultimately a stage 3 – at which point, it can destroy the map’s power generator, forcing a win. The match also ends if the hunters kill the monster, or the monster kills all the hunters. Each match often consists of several stop-start scuffles between hunters and beast before a winner is victorious, and due to the game’s tight balancing between the hunters and the monsters, the clashes nearly always go right down to the wire.

Markov Vs. Goliath

Robo-Russian versus Goliath.

Matches take the form of four basic modes – the aforementioned Hunt, as well as Nest, Rescue and Defend. I’ll talk about Defend in just a second, but Rescue and Nest are slightly different riffs on the basic Hunt formula; Nest tasks the monster player with defending a clutch of its eggs from the attacking hunters, whilst Rescue pits the hunters and the monster in a frantic race to get to injured NPC colonists in the map and get them evac’d or eaten.

These modes and matches can be played as one-off single events, or collectively as part of a five-match campaign multiplayer mode called, funnily enough, Evacuation. This is where Evolve really comes into its own, and it’s the most ideal and enjoyable way to play the game in my opinion. Evacuation draws from all the game’s maps and modes and constructs a dynamic structure of events for players to fight their way through.

Each match in Evacuation functions as the equivalent of a day in the game’s story. After the opening round of Hunt, players vote on which mode they’d like to play next, with victory in each match granting their respective teams bonus XP in the form of saved or killed survivors.

Markov FP

Hunters + monster = chaos and brutality.

Evacuation ends on day five with a round of Defend, and it’s the outcome of this match which determines which team is the overall winner. Hunters have to stop the monster and its minions from destroying two power generators and finally, the evacuation ship’s fuelling pump in a tense last stand scenario. To bring up Turtle Rock’s previous work yet again, it’s like the rescue level at the end of a Left 4 Dead campaign, only with no zombies and a giant pissed off monster to shoot at instead; in other words, it’s great.

What’s really cool about Evacuation is that it functions in a similar manner to Titanfall‘s campaign mode in structure, but unlike Titanfall, the events aren’t scripted and pre-determined, and things dynamically change from match to match according to whether the hunters or the monster won the preceding match.

For example, if the hunters win and kill the monster on the Wraith Trap map, then in the next level, they are granted special teleportation gates which enable them to get around the map much faster. Likewise, if the monster wins on Wraith Trap, then the monster gets access to its own teleportation rifts which give it the movement advantage instead. So although you’ve technically only got to win on the last match in Evacuation to win the mode outright, just how easy or hard that last match in Defend is going to be is determined by how well you’ve played across the four previous matches; the outcome of the fourth match being particularly important as it gives the winning team either turrets with tougher armour or minions with tougher armour respectively. With all that bonus pot of XP on the table for the winning team, the Defend matches at the end of a close-fought Evacuation campaign often feel like a tense game of Poker…only with less pokerfaces and more poked (and presumably torn apart) faces instead.

David(s) and Goliath

Character Select

One big happy family – smile for the camera!

Moving on from such awful poker gags, from what I’ve just said about the overall structure of the game, Evolve might look overly basic, simple and repetitive at the macro level, but it’s at the micro level where things really get interesting. In particular, it’s how each character and monster in the game brings something different and special to the table. Each skill, perk and ability you choose, on top of your hunter’s/monster’s inherent abilities all feed into the flow and final outcome of the match. The attention to the smallest of minute details, such as how fast your jetpack recharges, to how damage resistant the monster’s armour is, are crucial factors in just how that next hunter on monster conflict is going to go.

However, if you’re playing the game solo, then a lot of the game’s fantastic intricacies can go largely unnoticed. Playing the game offline is alright with the AI bot companions/monsters, but it’s also rather dull to be quite frank. By all means, everything in Evolve certainly functions as a solo experience, but it’s far from ideal, and certainly not how the game was designed to be played. As a monster, you rarely feel threatened by the all AI hunter team, who don’t ever really manage to keep up with you particularly well (the Tracker AI in particular is terrible) or cause you much trouble when they do.

Likewise, playing as one of the hunters with all AI teammates is often an equally underwhelming experience. The starting Support class character Hank will often cause more harm than good by frequently calling in his orbital strike ability at the worst possible moments, scattering the team whilst completely missing the monster. Used in the hands of a skilled human player, Hank’s orbital strike is a fantastic area-denial tool, but in the hands of the questionable AI it just becomes what feels like a ridiculously annoying trolling tool.

Hank Smoking

While he may know his cigars, Dizzy has absolutely no fucking clue how to aim his orbital barrages.

Played online however, Evolve is absolutely incredible. Suddenly, once the tedium of the bots is removed, everything clicks into place and the adrenaline starts to flow. This is how the game is supposed to be experienced, with tense, anxious human players occupying both the hunter and monster positions. In a lot of ways, Evolve at its best can often feel like a really tense horror experience for both sides. There’s this constant fear that you’ve got to keep running and not get caught by the hunters early on when playing as a monster, and an equally driving fear to catch the monster as fast as possible when playing as the hunters to stop it from wiping you out later on.

Hunters Back

Shear’s environments are dark and dangerous, which gives the game a pseudo-horror vibe if you’re playing as a hunter.

In my opinion, while playing as the monster is fun, I particularly love playing as the underdog hunters, as I find the experience to be far more satisfying and exciting. Even though you’re tooled up with plenty of gear and in the dominant position at the start of the match, you still feel very vulnerable and nervous for the vast majority of the time; darting through Shear’s dark jungle environments with the rain lashing down on your screen as you’re in hot pursuit of your quarry still manages to send a bit of a chill down my spine when I know that there could be a clever monster player lurking around any corner.

When you do see this monster in amongst all the gloom, there’s just this really exciting and dangerous feeling about having spotted it. It’s this heart stopping moment where you might just catch a small dark shape in the moonlight lumbering up a cliffside in the far distance, or you get a glimpse of a leathery wing as it disappears into a nearby foliage of trees. There’s this mixed feeling of dread and joy at having seen it; you’re excited to be hot on its tail, but nervous at the prospect of engaging the brute in combat.

Goliath Attack

The hunters must work together and co-ordinate with each other if they want any hope of taking their quarry down for good.

Once you’ve caught up with the monster and trapped it in the mobile arena, then it’s time to unload all your firepower into its thick armoured hide. The action in these moments is fast, brutal and deadly. If you and your team are all synced up and communicating well, there’s just this brilliant sense of excitement and finesse to the combat. It all just flows, and there’s a real joy to seeing how each member of the team contributes to the action whilst also shoring up the others’ weaknesses. Having found the monster, the Trapper then needs to keep it contained, the Medic needs to keep everyone alive, the Assault needs to inflict as much damage as possible to the monster while it’s trapped and the Support needs to generally buff everyone’s abilities, functioning as both a second heavy damage character and impromptu escape artist when necessary. When every player on your team communicates effectively, helps each other out and generally functions as part of a well-oiled machine, then the game is incredibly fun to play from any of these positions.

Hyde FP

Meet the Kraken; part flying Cthulhu monstrosity, part electrical substation – 100% pain.

Personally, while it’s certainly exhilarating being the Assault trooper having the majority of the tête-à-tête confrontations with the monster, I find it more exciting playing as the Medic and Support classes who are more concerned with keeping the other hunters alive and kicking. There’s something really satisfying about being that steady base rock and foundation of the team who’s keeping everyone healed, and likewise it’s equally satisfying fighting as the Trapper or Assault when you know you’ve got a capable human Medic ready to patch you up when the going gets tough, or a Support who can briskly cloak the team to get them out of danger.

Even playing as a monster it’s still quite a surprisingly nerve-wracking experience. Knowing that you’ve got to run for your life as four eagle-eyed sci-fi poachers are hot on your tail (literally) is electrifying; that feeling of being persecuted for the majority of the match is incredible, and feels like something out of a claustrophobic horror game even though you’re being pursued across vast wide-open expanses of forests, canyons, tundras and swamps.

Kraken Generator

Did you know? All Krakens are also great electricians – nah, just joking, they only like to destroy things.

Evolve to a stage 3 monster however and suddenly the tables turn; the hunters become the hunted and now it’s your chance to actively pursue your human antagonists or destroy their power generator to win the match. The power trip you get when you’ve reached stage 3, knowing that you’ve managed to completely outfox your attackers and now all that’s left is to tear them to pieces is fantastic – you feel like an awesome end of level boss dishing out endless waves of pain.

Whether you’re playing as hunter or monster, what particularly keeps the game compelling and interesting to me after many hours of cumulative play is that there’s this frequent sense of wonder and possibility to be had upon discovering new tactics and uses for each hunter/monster’s abilities. Even though there are only a handful of different modes to play, the large variety of different skills, perks, hunters, monsters, maps, creatures, map modifiers and strategies to choose from can feel quite mind-blowing at times, even after several hours (alright, days) of playing.

For example, playing alongside a skilled human player using the Trapper Abe, I discovered that the Mobile Arena which is typically used to contain the monster within a limited arena and force it to fight, can also be used as a clever way of blocking off the monster from the injured survivors which the hunters need to save in Rescue matches. It was an incredibly effective yet incredibly simple technique that would never have occurred to me to try, and it’s testament to how flexible Evolve‘s sandbox really is.

It’s not just on the individual level that character choices and skills matter; how you pair up your choice of hunter with your teammates’ pretty much determines how you’re going to most effectively function as a unit. For example, certain groups of hunters are particularly well suited to finding the monster fast and early on in a match, but aren’t really built for dishing out or taking a lot of punishment if the monster makes it to the later stages, whilst other groups of hunters are best suited for tough, drawn-out combat scenarios that go to the bitter (and brutal) end, but aren’t particularly well suited to finding the monster early on. Experimentation with your own characters and your teammates is the key to success as a hunter.

Wraith

The Wraith; deviousness and deadliness in one conveniently slithery package.

On the monster side of things, I’ve also seen some clever monster players using unorthodox tactics that have consistently been very effective. I’ve seen stage 1 monsters who at first glance seem to be suicidal idiots waiting at the hunters drop location rather than running away like you’re supposed to, only for the monster to subsequently butcher the hunter team in record time. Impressive doesn’t quite do it justice.

From my experience of playing, there’s certainly a lot of different strategies to try out regardless of whether you’re a hunter or monster, and this great level of depth and freshness to Evolve‘s gameplay is what makes it so fascinating to play time and time again. Yes, it’s a repetitive experience (hell, technically aren’t all multiplayer experiences repetitive by their very nature?) but also a refreshing and damn fun one; Evolve in my opinion manages to absolutely nail and vastly improve upon that addictive just one more go mentality that Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 perfected.

So, you’re thinking, it’s a great game then? Well…

“Target That Weakspot!”

Dead Tyrant

In the words of the late great Steve Irwin, “Ain’t she a beauty?”

Okay, so before I delve into my problems with Evolve, it’s time for a bit of history and background information here about my relationship with the game. I’ve been one of Evolve‘s biggest fanboys pretty much right from the start, championing it for months and months on end, and so far in the review, I’ve been more than happy to excitedly shower it with praise. From the moment it was unveiled to the world with that awesome January 2014 Game Informer cover feature, I’ve been eagerly champing at the bit to get my hands on the finished thing and start blasting monsters and eating humans to my (twisted) heart’s content.

After playing the game early at the October 2014 London Comic Con, I was absolutely enthralled by the asymmetrical magic of the game’s human on beast combat, and it quickly rocketed to the top of my most anticipated games of 2015.

Shortly after Comic Con, I then played bits of both the Big Alpha and the Open Beta when they became available on Xbox Live – not too much of course, as I was already more sold on the game by this point and wanted to savour the final product and not get burnt out on these digital snippets of the final thing.

On release day, I downloaded a standard digital copy of the game, started playing, and absolutely loved it.

So what I’m trying to say is this – based on what you’ve read so far in this review, and bearing in mind what I’ve just told you about me and how much I absolutely love Evolve in these last four paragraphs, here’s my current verdict on the Evolve.

Unless you’re an amnesiac masochist with plenty of time to waste, do not buy the game right now.

As much as I adore the game on one hand, I couldn’t recommend anyone who’s interested in the game to pick it up right now in the condition it’s currently in as it has two massive problems. One of these is purely down to the way in which the game has been centrally designed, while the other is a small but disastrous bug which has been causing me and a hell of a lot of other Evolve players some major grief.

The small bug is by far the more egregious of the game’s problems, but before I can get into why it’s so poisonous and destructive to the player’s experience, I’ve first got to explain the bigger, more fundamental issue that’s part and parcel of the entire Evolve experience; the grinding.

Nose to the Grindstone

Val Progression

Unfortunately, Evolve locks off the full suite of its content behind a long and unnecessary grinding process.

The major problem I have with Evolve is that the entire game is based around an unnecessary, frustrating and pointless grinding system of unlocks. It’s a cripplingly bad design decision, a fatal harpoon in the side of what’s otherwise a glorious white whale of a success. In trying to dangle some fancy new arbitrary carrots in front of their player’s faces, Turtle Rock have actually implemented a progressions system which puts up roadblocks and gets in the way of everything their game does brilliantly.

If you pick up a standard copy of the game like I did, then you start with roughly a third of the game’s content. The other eight hunters and two monsters are locked behind a progression system which forces you to complete arbitrary objectives to level up each character’s skills. This means that you spend an awful lot of your early hours of the game playing as characters that you don’t want to play just in order to unlock other ones, and not only that, you have to play them in a way that is usually to the detriment not only of your experience but your teammates.

Often, the tasks you have to perform to unlock the next progression tier are completely counter intuitive to what you’re actually supposed to be doing as that role, or place entirely the wrong emphasis on the wrong activity at the wrong time.

Val Medgun

Val’s main responsibility is to keep everyone alive…

For example, when playing as one of the Medics, your chief responsibility to your team is to keep them healed – simple right? Yes, there’s more to it than that of course; playing as Val, the starting Medic, you also need to juggle between hitting the monster with tranquilizer darts to slow it down, and punching holes in its armour with your sniper rifle, but your first responsibility to the team is to keep the team healed.

Val Sniping

…and not just go off on a solo sniping spree.

Unfortunately, in order to level up her gear, you have to arbitrarily hit the monster X number of times with the sniper rifle, hit the monster Y number of times with the tranquilizer darts and heal Z number of health points with the med gun. Achieving the med gun one is relatively easy as it’s directly linked to you helping your team in the way you’d want a Medic class to operate, but the other two objectives are much less important to your job as the healer; yes, of course hitting the monster with sniper rounds and tranq darts is helpful, of course it is, but it’s no bloody good if half you’re team are flailing around in pools of their own entrails whilst you decide to go AWOL and snipe for a bit.

Similarly counter-intuitive objectives are present for every single character; follow Daisy for X numbers of metres as Maggie, cause Y number of damage points to the monster with mines as Markov, cause Z number of damage points with Bucket’s turrets. Why? There’s no need – why encourage players to go off and do things which aren’t always in the team’s best interest?

Because of this, you’ll frequently find yourself playing with numbskulls who are more concerned about levelling up than playing their role – chucking out mines and laying out an anally organised bunch of traps when they should be just up-close and firing away at the monster that’s currently tearing up their teammates. If these stupidly arbitrary weapon and ability progression systems were taken out, then I’m sure that people would almost undoubtedly play their crucial roles far more effectively as a result.

Hyde

The unlock system actively incentivises players to put their own selfish wants over the team’s needs. Not a good recipe for success against the monster.

This ridiculous unlock system basically boils down to one question; do you want to play your role effectively and win the match, or do you want to level up your character? As a hunter, you stand or fall as part of the team. If one player decides to just go off free roaming in order to level up their assault rifle, then you’re all totally screwed. Participation and focus from every player is vital if you want to have any hope of success as one of the hunters.

Things aren’t quite so annoying on the monster side of things – if you want to go off and level up your monster over everything else, then at least you’ve only got yourself to blame if you want to level up your rock throws over surviving – but there’s still a ton of pointless grinding to do just to unlock all three beasts.

I understand that a lot of multiplayer games have these unlock and progression systems as a way of giving the player something to work towards or to keep them from getting bored, but were they really necessary here? The game is an absolute blast to play with friends; it doesn’t need this pedantic and fiddly Battlefield/Call of Duty style progression system to keep your interest in playing. Can’t you see that Turtle Rock? Your game is fun without all this artificial padding. Did you have so little confidence in your game that you felt that the only way to retain your player base and to stop them going off and playing something else was to give them silly little meters to fill up?

What’s more is that for a game which is all about delicately managing this constantly shifting but intricately balanced asymmetrical power dynamic between hunters and monsters, the progression system means that some players will have more powerful and effective hunters and monsters than others.

The small statistical differences that you do unlock are minor at first, but once they’re fully maxed out, they can make a world of difference to how your hunter on monster encounters go down. To take Val as an example again, with every one of her skills levelled up, she can cause 10% more damage with the sniper, keep the monster drugged for 10% longer and heal 10% faster than she could at the start of the game. That added 10% on all her moves is a slight but significant advantage, and it just feels strange that you have to slave away at these progression unlocks to make your class fully effective and not have them already operate at optimum levels right from the start.

Goliath Ambush

The progression system is hands…er, Goliath paws down the most problematic aspect of the game.

The problem is that this creates a power imbalance amongst players – those who’ve played the game longer than others will have characters and monsters that are way more effective than a starting player’s roster, which just seems needlessly unfair. Just the fact that the game even rewards you for having spent more time than others to level up the characters by performing tasks which often run counterproductively to playing your chosen role feels weird and distinctly odd. Giving some players better bonuses and perks purely on the basis of them having clocked up more in-game hours than others just doesn’t sit right with me in a competitive game at all.

Couldn’t we all just have the full set of characters and monsters unlocked at max power to begin with? There’s absolutely no need for any of the excessive grinding and jumping through hoops that Evolve makes you do. If there really does have to be a sort of progression system to give players that sense of forward movement, then why couldn’t it just be tied into purely cosmetic unlocks instead? As you’ll see from a quick glance at the in-game shop, there’s a ridiculous number of paid DLC character and weapon skins available to buy – instead of holding them back there, couldn’t those skins be the unlock rewards you could dangle in front of players as incentives instead? Come on.

If Turtle Rock had chosen not to make grinding new characters and unlocks such a substantial portion of the game, then the game would be so much more enjoyable, and gameplay amongst players also probably would be far more tactical as a result.

On second thoughts, perhaps that’s exactly why Evolve released with its own Candy Crush style mobile app – there’s so much grinding to do in this game that it’s starting to look more and more like a fundamental necessity to unlocking the full game’s content, and not an optional extra anymore.

Shear Waste of Time

Wraith Attack

Something wicked this way comes…

Unfortunately, the progression system is not the only big problem with Evolve. Oh no. There’s a second, smaller but even more infuriating hazard to you losing all resolve to keep playing Evolve, and it’s a problem that’s been plaguing me incessantly from the moment I’ve picked the game up. In fact, it’s still causing me issues to this day. While it’s not a questionable design decision like the game’s progression system, the combination of the two problems pretty much killed off all desire I had to keep playing for a time. Not exactly the best feeling to have in a game’s launch week…

Well, spit it out! Just what is this annoying problem you allude to I hear you ask? The game comes complete with a small but fatally overlooked bug which commits pretty much the biggest cardinal sin in gaming that I can think of – your entire game’s progress can get completely wiped when you join a friend in the online multiplayer. For a game built primarily around online multiplayer, this is a massive, MASSIVE problem. You lose all progress, unlocks, character and monster progression and all leaderboard scores, and your game is effectively reset as if you’d never picked it up in the first place. The kicker is that the £50 you paid to get the game hasn’t also been magically reset back in your pocket either.

I’m absolutely staggered that something this basic and fundamental has been missed by such a big and capable developer – particularly when you consider that the game has had two major public testing periods prior to launch. I have no idea whatsoever on how to make a game (as you can clearly tell) but just how on earth did something this destructive to the player’s experience slip through into the final product? How did something so basic yet so intrinsically problematic to the game get missed in development? Did Turtle Rock leave their entire QA department behind when they split from Valve or something? How!?

If you want to play online with your friends – i.e. the way the game is designed to be played – then you run the risk of losing all your progress, unlocks and leaderboard scores as frequently as every couple of days. Hell, you’ve even got to set your screen boundaries again, invert your stick controls and tell the game whether you want subtitles displayed – it’s a complete factory wipe of the game, you loose absolutely everything and anything you might have had up to that point and it’s as though you’ve never played the game before in your life. What the hell? This is absolutely unacceptable in my mind, and as a result I cannot recommend picking up Evolve until this massive problem is addressed via a patch or update.

When it first happened to me, I thought this must have been a simple but unfortunate one-off glitch, and that whilst I was slightly annoyed (I hadn’t made much progress at this point) I presumed that I’d just been one of the unlucky few, and that it was a one-off. However, guess what happens next? A few days later, I accept an invite to a friend’s game and lo and behold, my rank has been reset to level 1, all my characters are gone and my hours and hours spent tediously grinding away at their progression perks have apparently gone with them. How I managed to avoid destroying my controller right then and there I’ll never know, but thankfully, I kept my calm, let out a long sigh of resignation, and started again from scratch.

But guess what? A week later and – yes, that’s right – completely reset again. So, at the time of writing, my game has been entirely reset THREE separate times within the opening fortnight of the game coming out, with two of those resets occurring just days apart from each other in the game’s opening week. It’s not a one-off glitch; it’s a bug that’s baked into the game.

Goliath Firebreath

This is pretty much identical to the reaction I had when my progress was wiped for the third time.

Once I’d finished raging quietly to myself, I started looking online and seeing more and more people complaining about the same thing. It’s not affecting absolutely everyone who plays Evolve, don’t get me wrong, but from what I’ve seen it’s not exactly just a handful of one-off cases either. Turtle Rock’s forums are full of people having the same issue, and players have posted videos to YouTube showing the moment the bug wipes out their progress in real time. It’s a total mess – I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a consistently problematic bug in all my years as a gamer, and I’m sickened that it’s happened to a game I was initially endlessly passionate about.

From my own experience, every single person that I’ve personally played Evolve with online on Xbox Live so far has had a complete progress wipe (or two) themselves, or is well aware of the glitch and they’re desperately hoping it doesn’t affect them too, like some kind of particularly virulent flu strain. There’s also a similar (but way more avoidable) issue with the game wiping player’s progress when they are logging into game from a different console, which is worth bearing in mind if you’re planning on playing Evolve on multiple PS4s/Xbox Ones.

All of this is not exactly great news when you’re trying to foster an active community of players around your brand new game eh Turtle Rock? It doesn’t bode well for the game’s online longevity when a portion of your fanbase fears to play the game online at launch for fear of losing their time and progress.

Bucket

Sadly, although Bucket is a fantastic Support character, even he can’t do a thing to restore your lost characters and progress…

To calm down for a second here, it’s worth noting that Turtle Rock are aware of the bug, and I presume they are looking into patching it at some point in the near future. Also, on a sympathetic note, if you too are one of the unfortunate sods like me who’s been struck by the frustrating bug, then 2K Support have a help page where you can get your previous characters and monsters unlocked again.

Unfortunately, they can’t restore any of your progress, highscores or unlocks for some strange reason, but hey, at least getting your characters back is some consolation for the lost hours you might have already sunk into the game.

To be fair, losing your leaderboard highscores is purely superficial, though nonetheless it can still sting a little. To toot my own horn for a brief second, going from being in the top 300 Medics in the world back to a blank slate was a little bit crushing to say the least. But the same can’t be said for losing your progress – it’s unacceptably bad, and I’m sure many that have encountered the bug will just be so angry that they’ll just not want to go back to the game again.

‘Twas Bugs That Killed the Beast

Goliath Harpoon.png

Sadly, Evolve feels rather like it’s hoist by its own petard…or harpoon in this case.

In a lot of the online discussions and reviews of Evolve I’ve read, there’s been a lot of fuss that’s been made about the game’s DLC structure; namely the fact that the game has been built as a barebones platform structure to which continual DLC will be bolted on to in the future. Whilst this is an important concern, and something that certainly looks to be the case, I’d argue that it’s not worth bothering getting worked up about any future content the game might get when the basic content the game ships with doesn’t even work with regular consistency.

The crucial takeaway fact from this review is probably this little nugget – there’s a good chance that if you play the game online, or get invited to a friend’s online multiplayer game i.e. the whole entire concept that the game is built around, you can potentially and inexplicably lose all progress when joining. Fuck it, you’ll probably just lose progress by sneezing too loudly when the game is on, it’s that temperamental and shaky. Unless you want to play the game offline by yourself (don’t, it’s painfully dull after only a few games with the bots), or you have no qualms about regularly losing all your progress every couple of days, then I’d highly recommend not picking up the game until Turtle Rock make an official announcement that they’ve dealt with and patched the problem.

However, to gradually ease off the vitriol a tad as we reach the end of this review, it’s a big testament to just how much fun and excitement there is in playing Evolve that despite being unlucky enough to get three complete progression resists within just the opening fortnight of the game’s release…the game’s just so much damn fun that I can’t help but wearily pick up the controller once again and go back for more, even though I know that I probably shouldn’t at this point.

Like a poor battered housewife, I stupidly keep deciding to start the lengthy grind process all over again, in spite of all the lost time and progress that I’d previously clocked up, and jump back into the hunt, hoping that I don’t get my hopes dashed all over again. It’s literally the definition of insanity. I repeat the same actions over and over again, each time I furtively hope that this time, maybe this one time, my progress won’t get reset. Each time, I’m bitterly disappointed, and even more disgusted with myself for even hoping that the game might just really work this time, fingers crossed.

To arrogantly re-quote myself from the beginning of the review, I’ll stand by my words that Evolve is one of the most exciting and interesting multiplayer experiences that I’ve played in years. It’s managed to reignite the long-forgotten flame in me that fell in love with online multiplayer games in the first place. Not since the glory days of Halo 3 matchmaking have I become so involved in an online multiplayer game; over the 40+ hours I’ve racked up so far, Evolve has kept me involved, interested, focussed and excited in ways that I wouldn’t have thought possible for a game that’s only got four different modes at its core. It’s asymmetrical combat is pretty much perfectly balanced between man, woman, robot, trapjaw and beast. It’s got intense moments of nail-biting dread, epic adrenaline-pumping player-controlled boss fights and a deep and interesting level of tactics and strategy to every decision and choice you make, all wrapped up in a tight, clever and intricately balanced class based shooter.

However, despite all this praise, I can’t recommend you pick up Evolve. Not right now anyway, not in the state that it’s in.

Monsters

Want to unlock all the monsters? Whatever you do, don’t play the game online!

Unlike the titanic beasts the hunter team must fight, Evolve is constantly getting caught and trapped by its own faults; it’s a powerful yet graceful beast that’s unfortunately been snared by its own egregious and intrusive progression system and small but deadly overlooked bug in its code. It’s a majestic beast of a game, but despite its intricately balanced and addictive four versus one combat loops, the game is scuppered by a frustrating clusterfuck of problems. So, whilst I definitely recommend you give Evolve a try at some point if it looks like something you’d be interested in, even as a huge fan of what the game manages to get right I’d still highly recommend not buying the game until there’s an official patch from Turtle Rock that they’ve fixed this platform-agnostic progress reset bug.

This is exactly the sort of thing a reviewer is here for in my opinion – to wade knee-deep into game, whether it’s good, bad or anywhere in between, and report back to the reader so that they don’t have to. Well, while this hasn’t exactly been a timely review by any means – I’m sure that many of you reading this who are interested in the game may well have already gone out bought the game like I did – I just hope it’s been a useful one. If you’re reading this and you’re on the fence about Evolve, then hopefully I’ve given you some potentially useful pointers to think about whether the game is worth your time.

Evolve is one of the freshest most exciting multiplayer games that I’ve ever played – but consider that fourteen days after release, I’ve got a game on my hands which has been designed for extensive online play with others, yet I daren’t play it online anymore without risking losing all my progress for the fourth time. Sound like fun to you?

Left For Dead

Killer Instinct Season 2: Omen First Impressions and Beginner’s Guide

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Omen, Get A Load Of This Guy

Iron Galaxy kicked off the new year in delightfully demonic style with the release of January’s Season 2 character, Omen, or as he likes to proclaim, the one and only Herald of Gargos. Ooooh, well get you, Mr. bluey-too-shoes.

A crackling blue shadowy man-bat beast with a horned mask, Omen is an ethereal manifestation of Jago’s evil tiger spirit (previously revealed to be the demon Gargos in Killer Instinct 2) who has outgrown and overpowered his host’s body. Essentially then, Omen’s a sort of nightmare parasite; he’s been incubating and feeding off Jago’s powers as the notoriously brutal Shadow Jago (who collectively beat the shit out of the Killer Instinct community as the hidden Season 1 boss), and now he’s powerful enough to take the fight to his enemies face to shadow face as the demon spirit Omen. Wonderful.

Shadow Tiger's Lair

Shadow Tiger’s Lair – Omen’s newly metalled-up digs.

After such a dramatic divergence and rebirth, it’s only fitting then that Omen inherits the Shadow Tiger’s Lair as his own personal stage; one which now comes complete with a twisted new shadowy theme to compliment its new owner. Thanks once again to the awesome audio talents of Mick Gordon, Shadow Tiger’s lair now has a really nice metalled up version of Jago’s theme, complete with some great death metal screaming replacing the traditional monk chants, chugging palm-muted downstrokes and overall, a faster, punchier and more aggressive feel to all aspects of the track.

A Monument To All Our Sins

Crouched Wings

I’m Batman…no not really, I’m Omen.

Designed as an exclusive mid-season bonus character for owners of the Ultra and Combo editions of Season 2, Omen brings some interesting new shadowy things to the battered and blood-soaked table of Killer Instinct.

In terms of his fighting style, Omen has some pretty interesting mechanics to learn. He has a kind of hybrid fighting style which draws predominantly from Jago and Shadow Jago’s movesets (as you might expect) but also incorporates some Glacius-style long ranged projectile attacks into his varied repertoire, not to mention a dash of Sabrewulf, a pinch of Thunder, a sprinkle of Sadira and Orchid in there as well – just like there is in most fine cuisine, come to think about it.

I think that this idea that the Omen spirit has been learning the characteristic moves, traits and behaviours of the Season 1 cast is a particularly awesome idea. It’s as though through all those countless controller-breaking moments of frustration when he was collectively battering the Killer Instinct community as Shadow Jago were real within in the unfolding story and lore of KI; our combined failures to thwart Shadow Jago were instrumental to the character’s evolution. This separate manifestation of the fiendishly evil spirit into his own unique form incorporating aspects from all the fighters he’s vanquished is a really neat concept; allowing Iron Galaxy to pay nods to the Double Helix Season 1 character cast in an inspired and creative way.

Splash The Rash

Rashakuken

Rashakukens; individually wrapped balls of pain. Kind of like Ferrero Rocher, only with less chocolate and more searing agony.

So, let’s get down to business and have a look at Omen’s command list. Again, just as a word of caution for anyone who’s new to my Killer Instinct character guides; I’m by no means an expert player, so I can’t offer in-depth frame-by-frame analysis or pro competition tips. I consider myself to be a friendly and enthusiastic member of the baby pool of Killer Instinct, so while I can’t tell you how to dominate at the top level, hopefully I can steer a fellow beginner/intermediate player wanting to learn Omen somewhat along the right path with some handy tips and observations about the character.

All of Omen’s special move inputs have a classic fireball/quarter-circle motion to them, and aesthetically speaking, they can be roughly divided into kick and projectile attacks. First up, let’s look at the Rashakuken, which as the name implies, is a borrowing from Jago’s repertoire, but one that’s been mutated with some unique shadowy twists.

The Rashakuken is Omen’s offensive projectile attack, which launches glowing blue energy orbs at your enemy in a similar style to Jago’s Endokukens. Performed with Quarter-circle Forward + Punch, the strength of the attack determines how many Rashakukens you throw out – Heavy sends three orbs flying, Medium two and Light projects out a single orb.

What’s interesting about the attack is that the Rashakuken projectiles that Omen throws out all have randomly generated properties. This means that unlike Jago’s Endokukens or Glacius’ Hail balls, Omen’s Rashakukens operate on a random luck-based algorithm, and can’t be predictably relied upon to operate identically when in battle.

This adds an interesting Russian roulette element of chance to his projectile combat. While most of these Rashakuken properties are normally incredibly useful – such as homing, spinning or crawling projectiles – bear in mind that you can occasionally get a dud one which will just embarrassingly plop onto the ground, and usually at the most inopportune moments too.

To keep you from just filling the screen with countless Rashakukens, you can’t perform any form of the move again until all the current projectiles have hit their target or have disappeared offscreen/timed out, so bear this in mind if you’re wanting to keep your opponent pressured from afar. There is a way around this however, but we’ll come to that shortly.

Shadow Rashakuken

Games of catch the Rashakuken always ended in tears and agonising third degree burns for some reason. Who’d have thought it?

The Shadow Rashakuken does operate more predictably than the standard version of the attack however; Omen launches a volley of three orbs which, after a brief pause to line up, hurtle directly toward your opponent one after the other. Used at the end of a combo, the Heavy Rashakuken acts as Omen’s Battery Ender. In fact, all of Omen’s Enders are Battery Enders plus another quality, but this one appears to be his primary method of gaining shadow meter.

Orda Shield

Omen tried his best to teach Jago how to conjure up orbs, but frankly it just went in one ear and right orda the other.

As a defensive mirror to the Rashakuken, Omen’s Orda Shield is an arcing projectile move which sees Omen swipe a blue energy orb in an overhead sweep. The onscreen motion of the move is nicely copied by the controls; Quarter-circle Back + Punch makes Omen curve an Orda orb though the air.

Naturally, the Orda Shield operates most effectively as a great anti-air/wakeup tool, but it can take a bit of time to learn the necessary timing and distance of the attack to make the orb consistently connect with your mid-air opponent at a variety of angles. The Heavy version of the move has the highest but slowest arc, Light is the lowest and fastest, and the arc of the Medium attack lies – would you have guessed it – in the middle of the two extremes.

Shadow Orda Shield

Using energy orbs as defence tactic? I say, that’s bang out of orda!

The shadow version of the move generates a set of three orbs which circle Omen in a defensive perimeter. These act as both a sort of temporary armour for Omen, and a means of inflicting extra damage and points to the combo meter once in the middle of a combo. Used at the end of a combo, the Heavy version of the Orda Shield acts as Omen’s Battery and Launcher Ender.

Kicking Above His Weight

Face Kick

Oooph! Furious foot to the face, that’s gotta hurt!

Okay, so those are Omen’s projectile-based special moves. Time to look at his crazy kick attacks.

First up, we’ve got the Furious Flurry. This move is a lightning fast (and no doubt painful) series of kicks to the body and face of your opponent. Performed with Quarter-circle Forward + Kick, the move can be used as a combo opener, combo linker, and the Heavy version used whilst in a combo acts as Omen’s Battery and Keepaway Ender.

Ranged Shadow Furious Flurry

Omen; owner of the fastest fireball-spewing feet in the East.

The Shadow Furious Flurry is interesting, as it unleashes a flurry of five Rashakuken projectiles which shoot across the screen at various unpredictable angles. Used up close as a combo opener or linker, it looks and functions just like any other shadow opener/linker but when used from a distance, the Shadow Furious Flurry gives you even more ranged options to play with. This is the method I was referring to earlier about being able to fire off more projectiles if you’ve still got some stray Rashakukens floating around onscreen and you need to keep up the projectile pressure on your opponent.

Demon Slide

The ref didn’t approve of Omen’s dirty tackling. Red card!

Of course, the major move that gave so many players grief when fighting Shadow Jago has transitioned to Omen’s moveset – the Demon Slide. This deadly forward slide move that devastated so many players in the hidden Season 1 boss fight can now finally be yours by pressing Quarter-circle Back + Kick. Just like the Shadow Jago move, the move swaps you to the other side of your opponent when it hits, regardless of whether the move is blocked or it connects. The Shadow Demon Slide hits five times in total, switching to your opponent’s other side on the final impact. Like the Furious Flurry, Demon Slide can be used as a combo Opener, Linker and whilst in a combo, as Omen’s Battery and Heavy Knockdown Ender with the Heavy version of the attack.

Winging It

Flying

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s actually a nightmarish inner demon of a Tibetan warrior monk, to be quite precise.

With such a cool pair of batwings, it makes sense that Omen has some interesting airborne abilities at his disposal. While you can’t fly per se as Omen (and the awesome batwings only appear when he jumps…sadface), the heraldic messenger of Gargos does have a very floaty jump instead – this, as you can imagine, is great for crossups and combo openers. You can dash forwards and backwards in mid-air to give yourself more airborne manoeuvrability, and even give Sadira a run for her money with the ways you can toy with your opponent on the ground.

Shadow Form

Jago quickly regretted not bringing his night vision googles to the fight.

Speaking of manoeuvrability, pressing all three kick buttons with a bar of shadow meter allows Omen to briefly travel in any direction. Known as Shadow Form, this sneaky move is fantastic for setting up crossups, and it gives you some limited mix-up potential – it effectively functions similarly to Thunder’s Instinct dash, only you can shoot off at any angle you press the control stick/d-pad. Combine a pair of shadowy bat wings with the ability to travel in any direction momentarily, and you can really catch people off-guard time and time again – trust me.

You Cheeky Devil

Demonic Despair

Now you see Jago…

However, if you really want to catch your opponent off guard and get them really sweating, then it’s time to go all out for the Demonic Despair. You may have already noticed in these screenshots that Omen (aside the fact that he’s a cool shadowy demon…thing) is the first character in the Killer Instinct roster to have not one, not two, but a massive three-bar shadow meter. Pretty neat huh? As you might expect, there’s a very cool thing you can do with a full three-bar meter, and Demonic Despair is it.

When you’ve got a full three bars of shadow meter, and you’re close enough to your opponent to grab them, press Quarter-circle Forward + Light Punch + Light Kick. This is an absolutely brutal move in which Omen grabs his opponent, hoists them into the air and unleashes a brutal pillar of energy into their body, before chucking them away at full screen distance, all the while chuckling mercilessly. Though the attack itself doesn’t technically inflict any real damage to your opponent, their entire lifebar is instead converted into 100% potential damage; this means that you only need to start a combo and immediately end it in order to wipe out the entire lifebar.

Demonic Despair Energy

…now he’s parboiled in ethereal flame. Ouch.

However, in the immortal words of Uncle Ben (Peter Parker’s elderly uncle and incidentally also the microwaveable rice pioneer), with great power comes great…risks, not responsibility. This move requires all three shadow bars to pull off, whether the move connects or misses, and due to its long startup animation, it can be interrupted really easily, all your meter can be wiped before you’ve even started by a timely punch from your opponent. Much like with Fulgore’s ‘Hype Beam’, it’s probably not wise to base your entire winning strategy around building up all your meter for just one powerful but risky move. Instead, it’s best thought of as another option to bear in mind if you’re fully juiced up and a good opportunity to grab your opponent becomes available in the heat of battle.

Instinct

Activating Omen’s Instinct reveals a ghostly projection of his master, Gargos. Neat – scary, but definitely pretty neat.

Rounding out this written crash course to Omen’s special moves and abilities, we’ve got Omen’s Instinct mode, the ominously named Shadow Gathering. When activated, Omen will throw out one additional projectile per Rashakuken attack, and an extra two orbs for the Shadow Rashakuken and Shadow Orda Shield moves. What’s particularly interesting however is that whilst you’re in Instinct and a Rashakuken or an Orda orb hits your opponent, they will actually get locked out of one of their shadow meter bars for a couple of seconds; hit them with two or more and they’ll get locked out of both. In other words, you can prevent your opponent from doing any shadow attacks for a brief window of time; an opportunity to swing a losing battle back your way. Very useful stuff indeed.

Additionally, you can also lock opponents out of their shadow meter by successfully pulling off a round of Demons Loop – this is Omen’s combo trait, and it effectively operates as the inverse of Jago’s ‘Around the World’ trait. Whereas Around the World lets you string together Jago’s autodoubles as long as you keep a descending strength pattern of attacks going (from Heavy to Medium to Light), Omen’s Demon Loop lets you string together the blue demon’s autodoubles by hitting attack buttons in an ascending strength pattern (Light to Medium to Heavy). As with any character-specific pattern of autos like Demon Loop however, it’s best not to constantly use the same pattern for all of your combos, otherwise you’ll be continually wrenched out of combos by your opponent’s C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER…s.

Rash Bandicoot

Lockout

The visual definition of the word pain.

From my own personal experience playing Omen over the last couple of weeks, he definitely feels like a very fun and relatively easy to use character with plenty of options to his moveset that will suit players who like both rushdown and keepaway tactics.

In particular, I found that Omen’s Rashakuken projectiles are incredibly good at playing a ranged game with your opponent – they’re so good that he’s even great at pressuring long-distance punchers such as Glacius and Kan-ra. As a primary Glacius player myself, I can say from bitter experience that you can quickly find yourself getting battered by Omen’s projectiles from afar, and unless you’ve got a stock of shadow meter to do Shadow Hail, then you can rather humiliatingly find yourself getting beaten at your own long distance game.

While Omen’s projectiles are all random, and while he can often potentially throw out a dud or two, they can still cause a lot of pressure for your opponent. As long as you’re launching two or more at a time then you can quite comfortably sit back and shell your opponent from long range. Just remember that if you do like to play a keepaway ranged game with Omen, always be aware of the spacing between you and your opponent, and consider how much time you’ve got to fire off Rashakukens. While the Heavy Punch version of the move spits out three orbs at a time, remember that you can only perform another Rashakuken move once all three of your projectiles have hit your opponent or disappeared offscreen.

This means that if you throw out a bunch of duds, then you temporarily won’t be able to use the Rashakuken to keep your opponent at bay, and you may need to think about using your Orda shield or going on the offensive instead. Don’t forget that you can also fire off additional projectiles by performing a Shadow Furious Flurry if you’re desperately needing to launch another volley of orbs at short notice.

Shins

Sparks, shadows and no doubt some absolutely screaming shins.

The Light version of the Orda Shield is a fantastic recovery tool, as it’s invulnerable on startup, meaning that you can throw it out without having to worry about it being interrupted. Again, as when throwing our Rashakukens, just be aware of how fast your opponent can close the distance to you as the Orda Shield leaves you wide open for attack if you get the timing wrong.

The Demon Slide is a great tool for closing distances and starting combos, but just like Orchid’s slide, it’s pretty unsafe if blocked. The Light version is generally safe though short range, and whilst medium and heavy versions can connect from further out, they leave you wide open for a counterattack if correctly anticipated and blocked, so just keep in mind what strength you’re using, and how far out you’re planning to slide into your attack from. If you’re looking at anything from over half the screen away or more, then consider getting into the air and dashing into an overhead combo as an alternative way of covering distance and simultaneously opening a combo.

From my own time in ranked and exhibition matches, while I didn’t particularly come across any specifically difficult character matchups for Omen, the rushdown characters such as Sabrewulf, TJ Combo and Sadira could sometimes give me trouble when I tried to rely too much on spamming them with projectiles from afar and they’d manage to get in close. While I’d personally say Omen perhaps operates best with some distance between him and his opponent, don’t be afraid to rush in from the air as well as the ground to keep your opponent worried about you whether you’re up in the face or at distance.

Fireball Explosion

Light versus dark. Who wins? You decide!

The main thing I’d say to take away from all this noob-level advice that I’m spouting is just to have a bit of an experiment. See what works for you and what doesn’t. Omen has a lot of interesting mechanics at play in his design, and while perhaps not as balanced and well-rounded as Jago, the other character’s influences on Omen’s command list mean that he has several varied options of attack to choose from at all times. I tended to play him as a keepaway zoner, but perhaps that’s because I normally play as Glacius and it’s my normal modus operandi. Try pressuring from the air like Sadira using your winged swoops. Have a go at playing a close-up rushdown game like Sabrewulf with your kicks and slides. Keep things unpredictable with your Thunder-like Shadow Form. Experiment, have fun, and above all, keep things Omenous…sorry, had to do it.

Spiritual Successor

Omen Win Pose

The hottest jazz hands in the business.

So that’s my paltry beginner knowledge and insight into Omen; time for you to have a go at wrestling with your own inner blue parasitic demons. We’ve got the goliath golem Aganos to look forward to later this month, so enjoy swooping, kicking and Rashakukening about in the shadows for the time being and be ready to rock out with Aganos when he drops (like a stone, probably) later this month.

Retro Collect: Video Game Market 2 – Leeds Town Hall, 7th February 2015

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Leeds Town Hall

Today, it’s really easy to take for granted just how far the games industry has come, and in such a relatively short period of time too. While it’s cool that our shiny new always online modern consoles are busily purring away, automatically downloading the latest patches, system updates and all manner of other digital shots in the arm that are part and parcel of today’s gaming landscape, it’s a really nice change to once in a while step back in time and blow the dust out of the thick plastic cartridges of yesteryear.

This is exactly what a lot of West Yorkshire retro gaming fans did this past weekend. Retro Collect’s Video Game Market 2 took over Leeds town hall on Saturday 7th February, transforming the stately civic venue into a vintage gamer’s dream.

I popped down to the event to grab a few cheeky snaps and peruse all the lovely old school gaming delights on offer…and, of course, to snag some sweet loot along the way.

Retro gaming fans flooded en masse to the event to buy, browse and button-mash their way through over 40+ shop stalls spread out across the main room and off into the twisting passages and corridors of the town hall. There was an exciting  and at times almost mysterious buzzing atmosphere in the air, like you’d stumbled into the gaming equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave; was that a NES Zapper over there or is it just my eyes? Is that a copy of Zool for the Mega Drive I spy with my little eye? What’s that – An Altered Beast t-shirt? Wow, look, a pimped out Game Boy Colour! Oh hell yes.

In other words, to use a modern gaming analogy, it felt rather like walking straight into The Tower in Destiny, only way WAY busier, with far more interesting shops to browse and no miserly Cryptarch skulking about in the corner, doling out shoddy green engrams left, right and centre.

Video Game Market 2 had something for practically anyone who’s been even remotely interested in console and PC gaming of years gone by, and thankfully, unlike Destiny, the only currency to worry about was cold hard sterling, no fancy-schmancy marks or emblems and whatnot. The scope of gaming history packed into the town hall was really impressive, and between all the various shops and stalls displaying their wares, practically every era PC and console gaming was covered; with Atari 2600 games and Commodore 64 keyboard units snuggled up cosily against Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s of this past console cycle.

It was a really cool sight to see, and this juxtaposition of the old machines alongside the new got me thinking about the retro scene with regards to this current console generation. Standing in amongst the buzzing throng of the eager crowd, fawning over the various treasures and trinkets on sale, I found myself pondering whether today’s consoles will have anything like the lifespan or legacy of their predecessors. My gut feeling is that no, they won’t…but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Food for thought, right? Personally, I think it’s hard to imagine just what sort of retro revisiting will be possible in the future, what with the current console generation’s reliance on online infrastructure as an integral part of their basic operation and the industry’s gradual move to more multiplayer-centric always online experiences in general.

Whether today’s consoles will still be able to generate the same level of fan appeal and interest once their time is up in the spotlight, and we’re all playing on our PlayStation 5s and our Xbox Twos etc. remains to be seen. In fact, will our current PS4s and Xbox Ones even work once the servers and the all-powerful omniscient ‘cloud’ finally gets unplugged? As the holiday attacks on Xbox Live and PSN by Lizard Squad unfortunately demonstrated, the inevitability of an always online gaming ecosystem is slowly but surely becoming a reality, and even a temporary inability to connect to online infrastructures can grind pretty much all activity on these consoles to a complete halt.

For a very real example of this, consider a game like Titanfall. Whilst it’s an awesome game (one that I’ve sunk an unhealthy number of hours into), it’s a completely online multiplayer title with no traditional singleplayer campaign component. Almost a year after its launch in March 2014 however, the game hasn’t really been able to retain its player base as effectively as we once hoped, and now the player population is a tiny fraction of what it originally was.

With the exception of the subsequently patched in Frontier Defence mode (Titanfall’s robotically-themed equivalent of Gears of War‘s classic horde mode), which albeit can be just about played solo (the mode doesn’t scale the difficulty according to party size, meaning you’ll have to slug it out on your own against near-impossible odds on some maps), Titanfall fundamentally requires an always present internet connection and a full set of active players in order to even function.

Due to its ever-dwindling player base, future players of the game on the Xbox One are essentially going to be left with an unplayable shell of the original experience. Once the last players have moved on for good and the servers are finally shut down, that’s it. Finito. No more Titanfall. All that remains will be an obsolescent global graveyard of cracked green plastic cases of the physical copies, with their sun-bleached covers caked thick with dust, and a community’s collective memories of smart-pistoling Spectres, gunning down Grunts  and rodeoing Titans to their heart’s content; all a long time ago in a virtual galaxy far, far away…

But hey, they will probably have Titanfall 2 or 3 in their greasy mitts by this point, so you know…swings and roundabouts.

Of course, I’d love to be mistaken, but I just doubt whether current consoles and their game libraries will be able to sustain themselves for anywhere near as long as their offline predecessors have been able to.

By its very nature as a technological industry, gaming is  a constantly moving and forward-looking form of entertainment. There’s almost always something new to get excited about, that next big thing that’s just around the corner; some elusive, flashy new carrot that’s provocatively dangled in front of you at an E3 show to keep you salivating and desperate to get your hands on, even though it’s still many months and sometimes years away.

With each new major release in the gaming calendar inexorably sweeping up the player populations of older titles, we’re no doubt going to see more and more examples of these types of gaming experiences; ones which require a buzzing hive of online players to keep the blood pumping through their virtual online veins.

Anyway, with thoughts of all these extraneous online issues floating around, there’s something really delightful in being able to go back and revisit gaming’s past at an event like this. Even if it’s something as fleeting and momentary an experience as looking at the crumbling papery boxes and artwork of early cartridge games, or feeling the chunky controllers and garish peripherals of the past in your hands once again.

Resident Evil 2

Amongst all the delights on offer, a personal triumph for me was that I managed to find a Gamecube copy of Resident Evil 2 – the only game in the series that I (shamefully) haven’t been able to play…until now. I’d been searching for a reasonably priced copy of the game for absolutely ages, so I pretty much lunged for it like a crazed Black Friday shopper when I saw it on one of the stands, clutching it to my chest like my life depended on it. It did though, seriously, it really did.

I’ll absolutely be streaming Leon and Claire’s adventures through the wonderful tourist hotspot that is (or, perhaps more accurately after the events of Resident Evil 3, was) Raccoon City at somepoint in the near future on my Twitch channel – so stay tuned if you’re a fan of zombies, side-swept long blonde fringes and delightfully wonky dialogue from time to time.

So, as much as I love my modern consoles and this era of interconnected online experiences, there’s something particularly comforting in knowing that say in ten years time, I could dig out my treasured purple gamecube – itself already fourteen years old at this point – hook it up to an old CRT TV, pop in Resident Evil 2 and desperately try and escape Raccoon City one more time. Alone, anxious and desperately short of ink ribbons.

Alien: Isolation – Review

Title Picture
Standard

(Reviewed on Xbox One)

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream…With Joy!

You’d have thought that after the release of the pretty much universally accepted train wreck that was Aliens: Colonial Marines back in 2013 that it was a very real possibility that we might never see another game set in the Alien franchise ever again, let alone get a spectacularly good one in the near future. However, within approximately the space of two years, we were collectively proven wrong. Creative Assembly delivered Alien: Isolation in November 2014, and it’s one of the freshest, most inventive, and cruelly difficult survival horror experiences to hit PC and consoles in recent years. To cut right to the chase; I absolutely love it.

The fact that we even have a decent game set in the Alien franchise following the toxic aftermath of Gearbox’s abortion makes Creative Assembly’s excellent efforts even more incredible in my opinion; fair enough, Creative Assembly’s game had already been long in development when Colonial Marines launched, but Gearbox’s game left such a sour taste in fan’s mouths that it seriously felt like it had totally killed off any remaining appetite for another game in the Alien franchise.

That was before Isolation had chance to punch out of its incubating development chest cavity and terrorise the survival horror crowd.

But before we delve under the lovely smooth, sleek, glistening carapace of Creative Assembly’s excellent experience, let’s take a few moments to further explore the toxic context the game launched in. That’s right, the aforementioned big white elephant (or Xenomorph) in the room, Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Game Over Man! Game Over!

Gearbox Logo

Back in February of 2013 when it launched at fan’s wallets like a money-grabbing Facehugger, Gearbox Software’s Colonial Marines delivered on none of the overblown and overhyped potential it promised, and displayed a disgusting level of dishonesty and deceit in the process. The game became the go-to industry standard example of appalling bait and switch tactics, underhand last-minute day of release review embargoes and before the glut of broken and unfinished games that washed up in the latter end of 2014, it was one of the most universally derided games in recent memory.

Whilst it’s by no means the worst game I’ve ever played (hey, wouldn’t that be a fun piece to write), it certainly isn’t anywhere near what I’d consider a good game, and certainly not one that lives up to the pedigree of the Alien franchise or the James Cameron film it’s supposed to follow (yes, you read that right, follow – it’s actually considered a legit part of the Alien cannon – fuck knows why). What made it so offensive in particular was down to the way the game was marketed; how drastically different the finished product was from all the pre-release footage and gameplay sections that Gearbox kept excitedly trundling out for both press and fans to see.

With the pre-release materials showcasing fantastic looking lighting effects, intelligent Xenomorph AI, awesome looking powerloader combat scenes and, can you believe it, lifelike marine squadmates to fight alongside, the game looked great. It was basically everything you could ever hope for in an Aliens game, and it looked like one that appeared to show a great respect for its source material. Yeah, I know, from what we saw in the E3 demos prior to release, that the game was not exactly doing anything drastically different or breaking new ground per se. It probably wasn’t going to be redefining first person shooters anytime soon or providing anything other than a cheesy rehashed plot of the film with even cheesier characters and dialogue. But all of that didn’t matter; it simply looked like a great marriage of a decent first person shooter experience mixed with the Aliens franchise in an exciting and respectful way – something fans had been clamouring to get their hands on for years.

With Gearbox at the development helm, things were looking very exciting indeed. A development studio with a strong history stretching back to the early ’90s 3D Realms days of Duke Nukem, and with a known pedigree for quality most recently affirmed with the highly-acclaimed FPS shooter/RPG looter Borderlands 2 which released mere months before Colonial Marines‘ launch, they seemed like the perfect choice of developer to finally do the Alien franchise video game justice.

In particular, it was the studio’s early work on the Half-Life expansion packs that garnered them a reputation among gamers for treating external franchise source materials with the utmost respect, diligence and care it deserves. In fact, Gearbox Software’s very first major project was 1999’s Half-Life: Opposing Force, a great expansion to the original Valve classic which basically was Aliens: Colonial Marines in all but name; you play as a soldier of a crack US marine platoon who drop into the Black Mesa Research Facility of the main game to wipe out the alien invaders running amok. Sound familiar?

With all these advantages behind it, what on earth could possibly go wrong with Colonial Marines?

Unfortunately, the answer was a lot. Things went very fucking wrong indeed. FUBAR, you might even say if you were a colonial marine.

Motion Tracker

In the end, Colonial Marines, for all its hype and hyperbole, was nothing more than a clumsily cobbled together series of Alien-themed shooting galleries, with mediocre…well, everything really. Aside from a couple of decent one-off horror/stealth themed sections, the game was a gloopy mess of poor writing, hopelessly inadequate AI, weak Call of Duty corridor shooter sections, massively mis-represented graphics, dull lighting effects and poorly-implemented co-op features to name just a few of its plethora of faults. Finally, to top it all off, if you did manage to heroically slog your way through the entire campaign, an unfinished bolt-on DLC tease ending was your final reward; adding yet another insult to a by now very much gangrenous injury.

Overall, there was just this great big lacklustre feeling of disappointment permeating every aspect of the game’s design. The final game looked nothing like what had been previously shown; in fact, it was a hell of a lot worse than anything we’d been previously shown. Amazingly, the short E3 2011 demo looked more entertaining than the final game, and it actually looked like progress had been going backwards between that demo and the finished product, with many features and scenes that had been stripped out completely.

Obviously, things are of course subject to change during the course of a game’s development – it’s why it’s called development after all – and tech demos and E3 presentations are typically small, highly polished vertical slices of the finished thing. But when there’s such a huge divide between the final game you buy in the shop or online and the work-in-progress materials that the game was shown off with – worse, the game looks far worse than the work-in-progress materials – then you know something has gone horribly wrong.

What made the whole debacle so offensive to fans though was the way that Gearbox appeared to have been blatantly lying through their teeth as they falsely advertised a product they knew was nowhere near what they had so eagerly promised for so long – they pulled the classic day of release review embargo trick, which is almost always a sign of something rotten afoot.

Today, if you go back and revisit some of the Gearbox Vidocs and PR interviews that were filmed during the development of the game, they’re just laughably bad and downright dishonest. Perhaps most amusingly, the Wii U version of the game, which was heavily promoted in the run-up to release as the ideal way to play the game (using the Wii U’s gamepad as a tactile motion sensor), and was purportedly going to be the “the best-looking console version of Aliens: Colonial Marines” was quickly scrapped only months after the negative reception of the PC and other console releases. The benefit of hindsight eh?

Unsurprisingly then, much like the wild spray of the Xenomorph’s acid blood from a close-quarters 12-guage shotgun blast, Gearbox Software’s Colonial Marines burned a deep bitter hole in the hearts and minds of many Alien fans; leaving a sizzling wound that can still be felt in the gaming community’s collective consciousness to this day.

Alien

It’s true; ask any gamer today what they think about Aliens: Colonial Marines, and they will likely hiss loudly at you, Xeno-style, before trying to scurry off into a nearby (because they’re always nearby) ventilation shaft. Okay, maybe not the ventilation shaft bit, but you get the idea. It’s really not a good game by anyone’s stretch of the imagination. Admittedly, all of this pain could have been avoided by fans holding off to read the reviews before purchasing, but as the press sites were embargoed until the actual day of release, many gamers (including chumps like me) excitedly (read: stupidly) rushed to pick the game up or had it pre-ordered like the fools we are. It became an industry standard reason why pre-ordering games is not a good idea.

Looking to the future, I don’t know if we’ll ever see a decent standalone tribute to Aliens in video game form, and, quite honestly, I’m not sure that we even need or really want one nowadays anyway. So many of the popular gaming franchises we have today have already borrowed so liberally and successfully from the Aliens action film blueprint – Halo, Quake, Gears of War, and Doom to name a few – that a specifically tailor-made Aliens shooting/action game feels almost unnecessary by this point.

Plus, like it or not, it’s kind of been largely done already in the Aliens Vs. Predator games. Unlike the AVP films that were released, some of the Alien Vs. Predator series of games were actually pretty good, usually on the human marine side of things at least (Aliens Vs. Predator 2 being my personal favourite). While not a dedicated Aliens game per se, the marine campaigns usually manage to offer some fun shooty-shooty bang-bang Xenomorph sections, which although they don’t exactly re-invent the shooter rulebook, are nonetheless entertaining if you’re a fan of either of the two mega Fox franchises.

Anyway, to wrap this prelude section up, that’s enough about my stupid spendings for today, but on a final point, I’ll leave Angry Joe’s humorous and spot-on review of the game here for more of the disappointing details (and, to be fair, some of the things the game did get right):

Get Away From Her You Bitch!

Ironsights

So a whole year before Isolation had even been announced, the damage had already been done to the Alien franchise in the gaming space; both to Colonial Marines itself and any lingering hopes for a future Aliens-themed game had been effectively nuked from orbit by critics and fans alike.

Not exactly ideal conditions for making a brand new creative endeavour in the Alien franchise then. However, much to everyone’s surprise, Creative Assembly were able to facehug the massive writhing body of disappointment and cynicism that was left in the wake of Colonial Marines, incubating a brand new experience in its predecessor’s still warm corpse (I know Facehuggers don’t attach to dead bodies, but just work with me on this one okay?)

Out from that mass of uncertainty ripped forth something amazing and new; a plucky and triumphant Hadley’s Hope in the dark looming shadow of the crashed promethean wreck of Gearbox’s failure. Developed by Creative Assembly, the game is, in my humble opinion, the finest game in the Alien franchise to date, and without a doubt the best Alien game you can play.

After such a commercial and critical failure, fans and critics needed an awful lot of convincing that Isolation wasn’t going to be just more of the deeply disappointing same. Far from it; Isolation is, if you will, the hulking jet black phoenix of claws, teeth and acid blood that’s risen from the carcinogenic flames of Colonial Marines, and in my opinion, it’s easily the best game of 2014, hands, claws and vicious spiked tail down. In a way, Isolation is like the hybrid Newborn creature at the end of Alien: Resurrection; it’s the dark and brooding sci-fi of the Alien franchise mixed with the tense scares of the survival horror genre – but unlike the Newborn, it’s a beautiful mix of styles that compliment each other so well.

If, like me, you get your masochistic kicks from being locked in what’s essentially a giant game-long horror house, then you’re in luck. In the words of the late great Donald Duck, “Boy oh fucking boy!” – you’ve come exactly to the right place. Alien: Isolation is an absolutely incredible game, and absolutely essential playing if you’re a horror game fan. The game is exceptional; in its vision, in its design, in the way it really manages to pull you in and really makes you feel right there and part and parcel of its horrifying universe. Whilst there are some aspects to it which I found to be slightly problematic, and places where the glossy finish of its finely polished exoskeleton fall away a tad, overall, my thoughts on Alien: Isolation are…well, I think some crude paraphrasing of the words of Ash are in order: It’s a damn near perfect organism, and truly one of the most unique and exhilarating horror experiences available in gaming today.

Perfect Organism

Alien Game Republic

“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor…”

Purity is exactly the right word to use when describing the brave vision Creative Assembly had for Alien: Isolation, and just how well they managed to pull it off.

The game is a first person horror simulator, aimed at delivering a hardcore horror experience chiefly centred around the hardcore horror player. It’s a bold and risky move, particularly considering that this is Creative’s first go at a horror title, especially in an era when most mainstream horror titles tend to opt for tried and tested action/adventure gameplay simply dressed up in a horror skin to make it somewhat visually scary – i.e. The Evil Within.

It’s a risk that was well worth taking however, as Creative Assembly have not only managed to create a fantastic experience in Alien: Isolation in its own right, but also repaired a lot of the colossal damage that Colonial Marines wreaked upon the franchise in gaming circles. Like I say, I’m of the opinion that a straightforward Aliens first person shooter is probably a bit uninteresting and unnecessary by this point, but for those who do want such a game, Isolation will have definitely removed a great deal of the horrible aftertaste that Gearbox’s effort left in both fan’s and publisher’s mouths last February.

Ripley

Anyway, enough about that piece of hot mess, and let’s talk about the awesomeness that is Isolation. In a bold divergence from previous Alien video game efforts, Isolation by and large strips you of the atypical space marine power armour and pulse rifles you’re familiar with, and plants you firmly in the cream coloured Converse Hi-Tops of a civilian engineer. But not just any engineer – and no, it’s not Isaac Clarke in his civilian attire before you ask. You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley – incidentally the same Amanda Ripley that you see as an old woman in the photograph at the start of Aliens. And no, as entertaining as the thought might be to square off against the alien as an elderly OAP, Alien: Isolation thankfully takes place quite a number of years before Amanda starts drawing her pension and clattering about on her zimmerframe.

Set fifteen years after Ellen destroys the Nostromo in Alien, the twenty-six year-old Amanda (who now works for Weyland-Yutani as an engineer) is sent along with a recovery crew to retrieve the Nostromo’s flight recorder, which has been picked up by the decrepit Sevastopol Station (operated by a Weyland-Yutani competitor, Seegson, who deal primarily in second-rate synthetics), and hopefully find out what happened to her missing mother in the process.

Naturally, things quickly spiral out of control, and Amanda and her team discover that things have been going horribly wrong on the Sevastopol for quite a while. There’s frightened and dangerous humans scuttling about, terrified out of their minds and ready to shoot anything that darts out of the shadows. A multitude of murderous, malfunctioning Seegson synthetics – a cheaper line of synthetics that are of a much lower quality than Weyland-Yutani’s models – are strangely going berserk and coldly killing off survivors and anyone they consider to be breaking Sevastopol ‘protocols’. Last but certainly not least, there’s something else thudding around the cold, dark corridors of the Sevastopol…something not right, something…alien.

Not Just Another Bug Hut

Sevastopol

In a refreshing change from past games based on James Cameron’s gung-ho sequel film, the design and creative vision for the game is an overtly big love letter to Ridley Scott’s original film. Rather than the objective being to shoot your way out guns akimbo, your aim in Isolation is beautifully simple; survive.

Alien: Isolation is designed to be an incredibly stressful survival experience, a painstakingly crafted virtual simulation of just what it would be like to be in that awful nightmare of a scenario yourself – trapped, alone and afraid whilst totally stressed out. As a result, it’s an extremely immersive and especially enjoyable gaming experience, one that’s full with horrific tension and dread pervading every moment.

The game is exceptionally difficult, and this is coming from someone who masochistically (read: idiotically) plays a lot of horror games on their top whack difficulty…well…when I’m feeling particularly brave that is. I’m not saying that trying to come across as some boasting dude-bro douchebag, it’s rather that I find that horror games in particular usually benefit from being played on the highest difficulty you feel capable of tackling, as you’ll often have an experience closer to the developers original intentions. For example, playing through something like Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within on the Nightmare setting makes that game significantly more challenging and fun to play than on the easier difficulties, and, to draw from another Mikami example, Resident Evil feels like an entirely different game depending on what difficulty you play on.

The same can’t really be said for Alien: Isolation. For the most part, the game still sets the bar pretty high when it comes to difficulty, no matter what setting you pick (although technically there is now a recently patched in exception to this, but I’ll discuss that mode a bit further in).

Ripley Side

In this sense, I consider Alien: Isolation to be the Dark Souls of the horror genre (okay, look, I know that’s a rather hackneyed expression these days, but just go with me here). It’s punishing, frustrating, and at times, seemingly impossible. But, just like how From Software’s acclaimed series has become evangelised in the eyes of its devoted fans for its unforgiving difficulty, I can’t sing high enough praises for Creative Assembly’s bold decision with Isolation to focus on delivering a hardcore Alien experience for diehard fans, potentially at the cost of losing the casual audience’s interest. Creative Assembly were determined to make their game the most fiendish and realistic simulation of being stalked by an Xenomorph; it’s a nightmare gauntlet of stress, tension and blind panic – which to be honest, is certainly not for everyone.

The gameplay takes the shape of a first person survival/exploration horror game, very much in the style of games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast. While some first person shooter elements are thrown into the mix from time to time, the emphasis is firmly on stealth, hiding and exploration over shooting. Amanda is an engineer, therefore not combat trained and armed to the teeth for extensive intergalactic combat like your average colonial marine, no, instead she relies more on her wits and technological wizardry to navigate the crumbling Sevastopol Station in one piece.

Blowtorch

In fact, at times, it’s almost helpful to try and forget that you’re playing a survival horror game, and to pretend that you’re, once again, donning Big Boss/Solid Snake’s skin-tight sneaking suit, and playing a first person stealth title. Only without the cardboard boxes, chaff grenades and risqué adult magazines to distract the alien with, unfortunately. However, being an engineer, Amanda is rather good at MacGyvering together rudimentary devices to help her survive, such as smoke bombs to blind humans, EMP mines to short-circuit Working Joes and noisemaker grenades to lure the alien away from her current position.

Noisemaker

As a result, whilst playing, you’ll need to be constantly collecting scrap and machine parts and cobbling together the right devices to survive each perilous situation the game throws at you. The games resource system has a similar feel to The Last Of Us, where the same sets of resources are required to build multiple devices, requiring you to pick and choose the right item for the right context. Just like in Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, where gambling with the short term needs versus long term strategy was vital to getting through Joel and Ellie’s journey, it’s essential to help Amanda survive her’s as well. Do you save those sensors and blasting caps you’ve been hoarding for a bigger, more costly specialised projects such as pipe bombs or EMP mines, or is it better to make more of the smaller, cheaper throwables which are a bit more generally suited against all enemies?

Unlike Metal Gear Solid or The Last Of Us however, detection in Isolation is practically synonymous with death. Get caught by the alien and you’re absolutely screwed, but even just getting cornered by a synthetic or even spotted by a gun-toting human is still very bad news, and it’s practically lights out. In particular, the early hours of the game, where you’ve practically got no actual firearms and usually not enough resources to make an abundance of jerry-rigged survival items pack some of the most intense and pulse-pounding panic-inducing experiences that I’ve experienced in a horror game for a long while.

Flare

On this note, one of the common misnomers about the game that I think is worth pointing out early on is that though it’s marketed as a scary and really frightening game, it’s not really. If we’re getting nit-picky, I’d personally describe Isolation as more of an intensely stressful yet exhilarating experience rather than as a prototypical spine-tingling fright-fest.

While there certainly are moments in Isolation (both dynamic and scripted) that will make you leap out of your skin, personally, I don’t think that it is a particularly scary game. Not that that’s a bad thing by any means, it’s just that it’s simply not designed to be your typical monster-closet party or jump scare fright-a-thon, nor a brooding dark psychological horror mind-fuck. It’s pretty special in this regard I reckon, as it feels quite unlike any other horror game I’ve previously played.

Alien: Isolation is extremely good at being able to quickly ratchet the tension up to absolutely unbearable levels, making it both nerve-rackingly uncomfortable and electrifyingly exciting to play. The way Isolation manages to whip you up into an unbearable pressure cooker of stress is nothing short of incredible. As I mentioned above, its closest counterpart is probably Red Barrels’ excellent Outlast; both games rely on creating an overwhelmingly powerful build up of dread, one that’s so intense in its execution and release that you end up getting so worked up and stressed out that you actually stop being scared and just start blind panicking. Isolation makes you panic to such a degree that you’re having to fight your screaming instincts and reflexes just as much, if not more so than the horrors pursuing you.

In other words, from my own point of view, the age old fear of the unknown is what typically (and predictably) gets my teeth a-chattering in horror games, and with a creature like the alien, which has become such an increasingly popular cultural icon over the years since it’s debut, I actually find it quite hard to be genuinely afraid of it to the same degree that I originally was when I first saw Alien. Plus, the clue is in the title, so it doesn’t exactly come as a shock to find that you’re going to be spending a lot of time being stalked by H.R. Geiger’s beloved creation. However, the first few hours of your Isolation will definitely test your survival horror mettle to the extreme.

But just why exactly is the game so hard, stressful and intense then, I hear you ask? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s because of that ingeniously devious Xenomorph AI. In fact, that’s a slightly wrong distinction; all the AIs in the game run under the same umbrella system as it were, and therefore they are all impressive in their own special ways. But it’s that damn Xenomorph AI that will naturally have you the most worried and on edge as you play.

Clever Girl

Clever Girl

The alien is, of course, the star of the show. From the second you first encounter it, you won’t believe just how clever and cunning its AI is. In fact, the first time I came across the Alien in the game, I was extremely cocky and naively unprepared.

To put it another way, I didn’t last long.

The first time that the creature gracefully unfurled itself from the overhead vents of the Sevastopol, I was absolutely spellbound with dread. Instantly freezing to the spot, I watched its sinuously sleek black musculature ripple and slide out from the vent and pad gently down onto the cold metal floor. Pausing for a brief moment under the harsh strip lighting, as if to admire its own liquid grace, the creature slowly raised up off its ribbed haunches, its elongated head rising as it let out a long sustained sibilant hiss. It was an utterly terrifying moment that I’ll probably have burned onto my retinas for the rest of my gaming life.

As it took in the cold dark environs of the Sevastopol, it started to prowl around the room in search of its prey. Despite my silent horror/reverie a few seconds earlier, foolishly, I wasn’t all that immediately concerned, thinking that with it being so early on in the game, I’d be okay if I didn’t do anything stupid. Being a rather precocious bastard, I shuffled further forward into the brightly lit open waiting room in a stupidly nonchalantly manner, loosely hugging nearby walls and cover all the while confidently assuming that the alien couldn’t possibly have sensed me yet.

That was, until I heard a loud rasping hiss, followed quickly by a piggish squeal of delight; an animalistic announcement that the alien had indeed seen me, and I felt the cold rush of fear flood into my hands and feet. It was only then that I realised (altogether far too late at this stage) that I wasn’t looking at this specimen down the iron sights of a trusty pulse rifle…at which point I tried to run, thinking it couldn’t possibly have seen me yet. How wrong I was…

This is the first Alien­­-based game that I’ve played that I feel has truly managed to adequately capture the proper size and scale of the Xenomorph. She towers over you at a colossal eight feet tall. It’s a genuinely terrifying sight to see the alien in its accurate proportions up close, and the early hours of the game easily provide some of the strongest and most memorable moments, as you’re able to do little other than simply just hide from this towering monstrosity. You feel woefully outclassed by this towering apex predator fright from the word go…or, perhaps more appropriately, the word “Arrrrgh!”

Unlike the vast majority of other games in the franchise where the aliens slither about on the walls and ceilings, this monster stalking you throughout the Sevastopol walks upright on its legs. Hearing its heavy thundering footsteps thudding loudly on the metallic floors creates unbearable tension. Watching the creature’s vicious tail rasping along the off-white walls when you’re hiding, often with it being only mere inches away from brushing your face and legs, can make you want to run screaming for your life. Fighting the urge to not completely freak out when the alien is nearby takes an awful lot of practice and some seriously steely nerves, but it’s something that will have to be done if you want to make it through even the earliest missions.

In addition, learning just what the alien picks up on and how it tracks you is all part of the frightful fun. Much like in Resident Evil 3, when the shock of Nemesis breaking into the room behind you snarling “S.T.A.R.S.!” felt like a massive and horrifying invasion of player privacy, trying not to panic when you hear the beast thud down in the same room as you is a similarly petrifying experience.

Tracker Tram Lounge

Of course, this wouldn’t be an Alien game without the trademark motion tracker in your sweaty panicking mitts, and it’s your primary method of keeping rough tabs on the serpentine beast stalking you, not to mention other undesirables strolling around the Sevastopol. Quite possibly one of the scariest noises heard in a horror film/game, the minimalistic pings on the grainy screen of the motion tracker are your only way of keeping track of whatever threats are crawling or thudding around out of your line of sight.

The tracker also handily doubles up as your objective waypoint navigator, giving you an approximate sense of where you need to be heading at a glance. When it’s equipped, you can choose to focus on the tracker’s display, which cleverly blurs your long-distance vision as a trade-off, or you can glance upwards from the display by pressing the left trigger to shift the focus back to your environment, but in turn this now blurs the tracker’s display. It’s a clever balancing act, as it means you can never visually cover all the bases at once.

Tracker Blips

Crucially, the motion tracker is diegetic; in other words, it means that your enemies can hear its quiet pings too if they are close enough. This makes hiding even more of a nail-biting buttock-clenching fright fest; naturally I found this out the hard way…

What I found particularly interesting about using the motion tracker’s design is that if you rely on it solely as your main observational tool, you are most likely going to end up as a human shaped donner kebab on the Xeno’s tail in next to no time. Unlike in the films where the characters almost constantly have the trackers out and beeping away, as my above clip hopefully demonstrates, having your eyes glued to it for anything more than a quick glance can prove to be a very costly mistake.

During the early hours of the game, I spent a great deal of my time hiding in lockers, like in that humiliating clip above, peering through the slats and not daring to come out (not by the hairs on my chinny-fucking-chin-chin) for fear of bumping into whatever is out there making those chilling incessant blips on the tracker.

However, you quickly learn that if you just hang around waiting for the coast to be clear, that you’re going to be waiting an absolute eternity, and most likely picked off if you repeatedly stay in the same location or the same types of hiding spaces. Much like Outlast, hiding in the specific button prompt hiding places such as the lockers or storage boxes isn’t ideal, and they are kind of a false economy in many ways. They’re often located in awkward places, leaving you with a severely restricted view of your surroundings and, crucially, a reduced audial awareness; not to mention that just the basic animations of entering and leaving your hiding spot can eat up precious seconds of valuable hiding time, as well as creating more unwanted noise. Not only that, the alien will actually tend to pick up on the sorts of places where you most often try to hide; consistently make a bee-line for the lockers and the alien will get the impression that you like to cower in them Otacon style, probably also with a patch of urine soaking through your trousers.

As a result, I found using cover by manually crouching behind environmental props (with desperately crossed fingers), or crawling under obstacles such as desks and hospital gurneys when possible to be a much safer bet. These allow you to potentially correct your manoeuvres through tricky to cross open spaces if threats are extremely close by, and offer you altogether better vantage points from which to lob items and stage diversions so you can better escape.

Regardless of when and where you choose to do your cowering, once you pluck up the courage to leave your hiding place, you need to use both your eyes and particularly your ears if you’re going to make it out alive.

They’re In The Goddamned Walls!

Crouching

Speaking of those lovely sound receptacles we call ears, sound in a horror game is, of course, an absolutely crucial facet of the design. It’s a pleasure to say that Alien: Isolation has a meticulous level of attention to detail in the audio department. The run-down Sevastopol station is a faltering, rattling fortress of metal, plastic, wires and fibreglass being torn apart at its seams, and the care and attention that Creative Assembly’s audio engineers have lavished on making this dilapidated space station sound appropriately broken and battered is incredibly impressive.

Machinery clanks and groans as you squeeze through ventilation shafts, steam pipes (that are often sneakily designed to look like the alien’s sleek cranium) explosively hiss at your passage at the most inopportune times, and the distant muffled booms and the bumpy decompressive thuds of the station being violently buffeted about in it’s orbit can easily be mistaken for the muscular thuds of the Xenomorph closing up on you.

To invoke yet another comparison to Outlast again, like that game’s player protagonist Miles Upshur, Amanda has a fully rendered body and limbs, further adding to the simulation immersion, and she will also get startled, cry out in shock and pain and whimper in fright when things are getting unbearably frightening or painful onscreen. Her voice actor, Andrea Deck, does a great job of imbuing the character with a believable and empathetic persona, a scared but determined survivor. She’s much more frightened and spooked by events than her more cool under pressure mother Ellen in the films, which allows players to feel total empathy with her (as they are probably just as scared and stressed as she is).

Of particular importance is being able to tell when the Alien is wandering around in the vents above you (usually not an immediate threat), thudding along a corridor (an extremely immediate threat), or, most mischievously, when it’s sneakily camping in ceiling ducts and waiting for you to nonchalantly stroll underneath it. If you can play with a decent set of headphones or a quality surround-sound speaker set up, you’ll have a significantly improved experience from both an audio and gameplay perspective (and you’ll probably live a lot longer too). If you don’t…well, let’s just say you’re in for a world of pain. Especially if you haven’t saved in a while…

Manual Override

Pay Phone

You see, your greatest fear in Alien: Isolation, apart from the hulking black eyeless monster mercilessly stalking you, the hordes of glitching android goons going berserk and eager to squeeze the life out of you, and the other scared, twitchy and trigger-happy human survivors hiding in the darkness of the Sevastopol station, is that of losing progress. Alien: Isolation uses an old manual saving system – you can only save your progress at designated in-game save points, the Sevastopol’s payphone boxes. This means no automatic checkpoints or continuous autosaves running in the background; if you get killed in Isolation, you have to go right back to your last save. Considering that these pay phones are few and far between, and often pretty spread out at the best of times, this means that a death can cost you an awfully big chunk of time. Particularly in the earlier hours of the game, it’s often at least twenty minutes of lost time you’ll have to make up when killed, or longer if you’re unlucky.

This decision to go with a manual, in-game saving system, is, in my opinion, an absolutely genius move, as it pairs up so beautifully with the type of atmosphere and story the game hopes to immerse you in. Although it is understandably a point of intense contention amongst players – checkpoints and autosaves are second nature for many younger gamers today, so having those safety nets taken away is quite a startling contrast – I for one thought it was an essential feature, one that is deeply fundamental to successfully anchoring and absorbing the player in the simulation, fully plugged into the matrix if you will.

Losing your progress is the video game equivalent of death for the player, and at the heart of it, this is a large part of what you actually fear most when playing a game, no matter the genre or difficulty. Death is the closest thing to a punishment you can pretty much get in a game. You desperately don’t want to die, as it means that you’ll have to replay and redo everything you’ve accomplished since your last save. As a result, modern games try and minimise the amount of replaying you’ll have to do – using features such as the aforementioned checkpoints and autosaves to stop players getting frustrated at having to replay large swathes of the game again after a death/failure.

However, one of the few genres in gaming where a developer can really push the difficulty level beyond what’s typically comfortable for the majority of players and cultivate an attitude of perseverance in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds is the horror genre. By its very nature, it’s a design choice that appeals directly to the hardcore survival horror gamer first and foremost.

Consequently, you’ll either love or hate the manual save system. Much like Marmite for that matter. I for one love the savoury tang that I get when I crack open a fresh pot of the tasty toast condiment, and incidentally I also love the feeling that I know that I absolutely have to get to the next phone booth without being eviscerated, otherwise I’m going to lose everything I’ve done since my last save.

It’s a double-edged sword (much like any sword when you think about it actually) from a design perspective; do you cater to players who want greater handholding and friendly checkpoint safety nets in their experience, or do you balance things to better accommodate the hardcore masochistic horror game audience who want a punishing challenge with plenty of risk along the way? Although it might prove problematic for some, on the whole I think that the decision to strip away the autosaves and checkpoints that proliferate modern games was totally the right one for this experience, and it compliments the story and gameplay extremely well.

Alien: Isolation‘s brutal combination of a cunning alien AI, a weak vulnerable player protagonist and limited saving opportunities is thus the closest and most direct way of getting you to truly empathise and roleplay as Amanda Ripley. Yes, it can be controller-destroyingly frustrating when you’re seconds away from getting a save when you’re hoisted into an air vent or phallically impaled with the alien’s tail from behind, but that’s kind of the whole idea. You’re meant to be scared; you’re meant to be feeling vulnerable and you’re meant to be constantly dreading being discovered and killed at any moment – just like Amanda in the reality of the game. This design choice to go with a manual save system perfectly aligns the player’s desires and goals with that of the protagonist, and it does an incredible job of really pulling you into the world and universe of the game. She’s only got one chance, and whilst you’re playing, it’ll feel like you do as well.

Yes, this is a hard game. Yes, you will pull your hair out in controller-destroying levels of frustration and scream in annoyance rather than fright when that Xeno yanks you clean out of a wall vent, or bites through your cranium for the umpteenth time. But eventually…eventually, you’ll start to improve.

In a similar fashion to the way Dark Souls players always harp on about that franchise’s rule-driven gameplay, Alien: Isolation has its own important rules to learn. What at first might feel like a futile game of punishing chance will, with a bit of practice and patience (not to mention strong nerves), eventually feel like an intricate and pulse-pounding game of space cat and mouse. Only with a massive shiny black cat with sharper claws and retractable inner-jaws, and a mouse that can cobble together rudimentary gadgets on the fly, but you get the idea.

Once you’ve submitted to the inevitable masochistic hazing of fright and frustration that is the first few hours of the game, you’ll soon have your own rules and mantras drawn up in your head that you will religiously stick to, in order to prevent becoming alien food quite so frequently. Never Run. Avoid hiding in lockers if possible. Always keep your eyes peeled and your ears open. Never ever run. Attract the alien with noisemakers to deal with hostile human threats. Never ever, ever run. Hide in the vents to lose the synths. NEVER FUCKING RUN. NOT EVEN ONCE. NEVER!

As you get more familiar with the way the alien AI in particular works, the less you’ll find yourself being killed over and over again. After sinking a good few hours into the game and getting to grips with its mechanics, most of the times when I’d be killed would be my own fault; a momentary lapse in concentration here, a foolish mistake there or an incredibly basic no-no every now and again – such as RUNNING! NEVER EVER DO IT!

However, on the flipside, it is also possible to encounter glitches where the alien seemingly has a stroke and pauses mid-game, or gets stuck for some reason in the environment. I did encounter one annoying glitch where the alien ended up being stuck paused in front of a panicking gun-happy survivor I desperately needed the beast to eviscerate so I could move past, only for some reason it didn’t want to play ball anymore so to speak. It was pretty much the only instance where I actually wanted the creature to be even more lethal than it already is…or perhaps as this particular clip below shows, was.

Thankfully, a quick pipebomb throw soon sorted out all my troubles in one fell (but messy) swoop.

Happiness Is A Smoking Door Handle

Coffee Machine

Long before I was chucking high explosives at the alien’s shiny phallic head however, a great deal of my enjoyment of the game actually came purely from just exploring the Sevastopol station in a Gone Home open-ended manner, and getting caught up in the game’s beautiful design and art direction. The simulation-like focus of the game, combined with the work of Creative Assembly’s environmental artists and their impeccable attention to detail, have made the game not only a fantastic piece of Alien fan service, but also an engrossing and intricate metroidvania-style adventure.

Blue Corridor

In fact, CA have subsequently released a patch for the game which updates it with two more difficulty modes – an even harder Nightmare mode with a nigh-on sentient alien AI and even fewer resources, plus a Novice mode, which makes the alien much less curious and absent minded, with more resources in the environment to scavenge and more health for Ripley. Whilst you can’t exactly just doss about in Novice – the alien, even though it’s significantly lobotomised and less cunning, will still end you just as rapidly if it finds you – this is a great mode if you just want to go and explore the station at your own pace, and immerse yourself in activities that you really can’t afford to do on higher difficulties (such as reading the extended computer logs) without having to worry too much about a surprise abrupt head hole-punching to interrupt you.

Cutting Door Panel

The attention to even the smallest of details make Isolation‘s most basic mechanics incredibly enjoyable moments to be savoured at every opportunity. I never thought I’d say this, but the quick time events in Isolation when interacting with tech in the game are incredibly satisfying, tangible and weighty, and some of my favourite moments in the game. It’s true – I’m being deadly serious. Removing a heavy door clamp, pulling door release levers, charging generators, diverting power switches or hoisting out and priming nuclear cores all feel like appropriately stiff and bulky manoeuvres on your controller, ones that feel ever so appropriate in the Alien universe. They make navigating the Sevastopol a real joy, with each new door panel to cut open and bulky 1970’s style computer terminal to hack genuinely feels like you could be doing it yourself. It’s incredibly immersive, and attention to such minute and mundane operations like these really provide a fantastic contrast to the really stressful and horrific moments when everything is kicking off.

Pulled Lever

What tops off all these lovely interactive sequences is that the entirety of the Sevastopol is explorable throughout the vast majority of the game. It’s essentially a deep space version of Spenser Mansion castle, only much bigger, with a nightmarish alien stalking your every move, and murderous androids in the place of zombies. New tools that you acquire along the way, such as improved blowtorches and higher clearance hacking devices allow you to access new parts of the station, and completing the on-going objectives will usually unlock new areas for you to explore as well.

Windows

This is a great move, as it allows you at pretty much any point to return to a previously explored area to pick up any supplies you may have missed on your first go through, get to a hidden secret spot you might have clocked earlier or to try and find a safer alternative path to your next objective. As a result, there’s no level structure as such when playing, just different missions and objectives to carry out as you progress through the game. The interconnectivity and permanence of the various structures and departments of the Sevastopol really help to give the station a concrete and realistic sense of place.

What’s more, just because you’ve ‘beaten’ or completed an area doesn’t mean that it’s safe. Upon returning to a previously explored location, you might now find that a bunch of scared humans are hiding out there, the Working Joes might be doing routine patrols through there at the time, and you can bet your bottom dollar that your friendly neighbourhood Xeno is never too far away, only too happy to scuttle out of an overhead vent to give you an impromptu cuddle. You can never afford to relax or drop your guard, even in familiar or previously safe spots.

Hug

Frighteningly, that also includes whilst in those satisfying interactions with items and doors in the environment. In a lot of other horror games, you are often typically granted a temporary period of invulnerability when performing mandatory actions or activating gameplay specific objects, such as opening doors or activating a save point. These features are so ingrained into some games that it’s really easy to take them for granted without realising it, and it can actually be really hard to recognise them after a while.

In fact, quite often, these transitionary moments can usually be exploited to the player’s advantage in a lot of cases; in Resident Evil: Revelations for example, you can often temporarily avoid a multi-tentacled blow to Jill Valentine’s face by quickly opening a nearby door, as you are briefly invincible throughout the door opening animation. We are so accustomed as players to assuming we’re safe when performing the more ‘gamey’ parts of a title, that it takes a game like Isolation to tear down some of these long held adages we hold to be true and shred them to pieces.

While Ms. Valentine can use doors to grant herself temporal invulnerability, there’s no such luck for Amanda on the Sevastopol. Your constant vulnerability as Amanda Ripley is absolutely one of Alien: Isolation‘s many great strengths. You can be killed at any time when trying to navigate the Sevastopol, and you have to be constantly on your guard.

Door Hack

For example, at various points in your sneaking around the nightmarish Sevastopol, you’ll need to cut open door and vent panels with your blowtorch, and hack door keypad algorithms with your hack tool, often while a very real and physical threat is extremely close by. Tracing a cutting outline through a door panel with your blow torch or matching a basic sequence of 8-bit blocky symbols feel like overly simplistic minigames on their own, but when the alien or another threat is nigh, these activities can quickly start to feel like fiendish SAW traps of terror, particularly when you know you have to get that next door open RIGHT FUCKING NOW, or face another deadly disembowelling from behind. It’s a painfully futile and desperate exercise in trying to keep calm under pressure, and the adrenaline rush when you manage to just escape the snapping double jaws of death once again is unbelievably satisfying.

It’s An Animal. Animals Are Afraid Of Fire…

Flamethrower

Though Amanda does acquire a fair selection of tools and weapons over the course of the game (in addition to the devices and gizmos that she rustles up on the fly), you’ll still feel vulnerable and defenceless for the most part. Whilst wielding weaponry is certainly a valid and sometimes necessary option at certain points, firing off a gun or using a device usually brings the alien down on your head faster than you can say “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

It’ll also be even faster than you can say “OH FUCK!”

Having no substantial firearms or ammo in the early portions of the game, and ultimately nothing close to hand that can take the alien out of action for good is a really inspired design choice, and one that’s not often explored in the Alien universe; one that’s well known for its muscly hardass marines with fancy pulse rifles tactical smartguns and an unlimited well of gruff gung-ho bravado.

Whilst there are some traditional shooter sections and various firearms that gradually become available to you as you progress through the game (my personal favourite being a meaty bolt gun which is perfect for scalping Working Joes), you quickly learn that combat really isn’t a viable option if you want to survive for longer than five minutes. Five minutes is being quite generous actually; I found that firing my revolver would dramatically reduce my life expectancy to about minus thirty seconds and counting.

This isn’t necessarily a problem when trying to sneak past a rag-tag bunch of humans, or slink past the Xeno as silently as possible, but when you’re directly confronted by a human or synth aggressor when the alien is also nearby, you’re faced with a tricky dilemma. Do you try and attempt to gun down the killable enemies first and try to hide before the alien arrives, or is it better to make a break for it and hope you’re not detected by either party?

Whilst playing stealthily is nearly always the best option no matter the threat you’re faced with, there are sometimes choice opportunities to play the different enemies off against each other, which is both amusing and really helpful to your cause. Fling a noisemaker into a pack of humans and get ready to watch the blood fly as the alien takes them out for you; it’s a dog eat dog (or should that be Xeno eat dog?) world on the Sevastopol.

The main gamechanger that happens in the weaponry department comes when you acquire the flamethrower, whereby the game shifts the balance of power quite significantly more in your favour. Perhaps, just a little too much in your favour. With the flamethrower in your possession, you stand a significantly better chance of surviving the wickedly cunning AI’s antics than before. Delivering short quick bursts of flame to its shiny domed head will often stop the alien in its tracks, usually forcing it to rapidly leave the area via a nearby vent post-haste, allowing you to be a tad more confident as you make your way through the Sevastopol. In fact, if you’re feeling confident and provided you’ve got plenty of fuel and know what you’re doing, then you can actually confront the alien in a restricted sense; rather than skulking around in the shadows, you can brazenly spray your way down a corridor, spurting a fiery onslaught of justice at your interloper if she decides to get too close.

Flamed Alien

Thus, your relationship with the alien becomes less one of predator and helpless prey, and almost equal adversaries. Almost being the crucial word. Flamethrower ammo is sufficiently scarce throughout the game however, so even though wielding the flamethrower can feel like you’ve been granted alien immunity at times, it’s often a fleeting feeling, and the weapon feels much more like a desperate last line of defence in your limited arsenal rather than an out and out weapon as it were. Plus, when you do give the alien a taste of its own medicine in the form of a fuck-you-flambé, it’ll only encourage it to come back and search for you, even more diligently and pissed off than before. Like with the other weapons, having to actually use the flamethrower is nearly always bad news, and something you don’t throw around lightly unless you really have to.

This Is Ripley…Signing Off

HeadbiteSo, after all these pages and pages of verbal gushing from me, it really must be a perfect organism in my opinion then eh?

Well…not quite. The slight gripe that I had with the game was that it can feel a tad too long at times – which personally feels like a stupid point to raise I have to say, but to be fair, it is quite a long sustained ride that you’re in for – my own first playthrough clocked in at about twenty five hours in total. With many games being released these days with story modes that can be finished in a few quick hours, or ones that have entirely jettisoned their story elements altogether in favour of multiplayer mayhem, what’s wrong with a game that relishes telling a longer and more substantial story then you might well ask?

Well, perhaps it’s not particularly the length of the game as such, but rather the pacing of it. Generally, I thought that the game was in fact, paced extremely well. Threats are introduced gradually at first; allowing you to get a feel for each attacker’s modus operandi, before terrifying combinations of human, machine and alien are thrown at you all at once.

Unfortunately, not all of those twenty to thirty hours you’ll spend in Isolation are as thrilling and intense as your early ones. Some sections really drag on for quite a bit, and things can’t help but start to feel quite bloated after a while. In particular, what doesn’t help is the fact that the game reaches an intense climax approximately halfway through, and then there’s subsequently a rather woolly period in the middle in which the alien isn’t a threat for an extended period of time. The atmosphere becomes tense in other ways, but, as you might imagine for a game that’s named after said alien, that things just aren’t quite as gut-churningly stressful without ol’ two jaws stalking you throughout the dark catacombs of the Sevastopol. As entertaining and tense as it is to sneak past just humans and Working Joes for a while, they don’t have a comparable onscreen presence, or elicit anything near the same panic response in the player that the alien does.

Joe Attack

Thankfully, like a ripened Chest-Burster tearing through the fleshy fibres of John Hurt’s chest cavity, your deadly nemesis does burst back onto the scene eventually. I naturally don’t want to go into spoilers here of course, but I will say that fans of Ridley Scott’s original Alien Directors’ Cut may have a good idea of just how far things head south in the later stages of the game.

Combine these pacing issues with the game’s brutal difficulty, and it’s the sort of thing that I can imagine could quite quickly feel like an overwhelming and frustrating obstacle to a lot of players. As you will die over and over again, even on subsequent playthroughs, the game can leave you feeling exasperated when you’re first getting used to everything and learning the rules. Having to replay the same fifteen to twenty minute (if not longer) segment of gameplay over and over again if you’re killed before getting to that crucial save point once again can really sap the tension out of that particular segment.

Shooting Working Joe

What’s more is that despite the long campaign run-time, and the many MANY violent deaths you’ll have experienced along the way, the game unfortunately doesn’t do a great job of tying things up narratively at the end. It unfortunately feels like another classic case of sequel baiting; something directly out of the Colonial Marines playbook if I’m being honest. Rather than a satisfying self-contained ending, you’re left with an annoying ‘to be continued’ sort of ellipsis. Whilst I’m pleased that this hopefully means that Creative Assembly are keen to develop a sequel, it is regrettably a bit of an anti-climax to say the least after what was an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a game.

Ripley Front

However, as a big fan of the Alien universe and the entire experience of Isolation as a horror simulator (can you tell I enjoyed the game an awful lot yet?), I saw the long length of the game as nothing but a positive thing in my eyes myself. You got the impression that Creative Assembly were allowed to write and design their Isolation story exactly how they wanted it to be, with little external pressure or interference from publisher SEGA or 20th Century Fox to make cuts or alterations to their creative vision – which is such a rare and unheard of thing in this industry.

There’s even a delightful bit of extra story fan service included about halfway through the game, that mimics a particular early section of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film (and one of his later ones as well, wink wink), which isn’t necessarily essential to the main gameplay, it nonetheless is a nice touch for fans of the Alien franchise.

The game’s story never feels rushed or condensed, and I found that the longer than usual playtime allowed the plot to unfold naturally, and feel significantly less ‘gamified’ than similar titles I’ve recently played. Apart from the clipped off ending, I found the game’s long length to be an extremely refreshing change; it’s so nice to play a dedicated singleplayer experience, particularly in this era of bolted-on always online multiplayer modes.

So, to conclude, the twenty-five hours it roughly took me to do my first playthrough was such an extremely enjoyable marathon of simultaneous fun, frights and stress that I’ll never forget, and one that I’ll deeply treasure and hold up as a benchmark for future survival horror titles I’ll get my greasy mitts on.

Anyway, this is Tom…the last survivor of Alien: Isolation…signing off.