Monday, October 20, 2014

Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation Logo

I feel the hypocrite for playing Alien: Isolation. Not only did I recently announce publicly that I was done paying $60.00 for new games, I specifically stated that Alien: Isolation was definitely not a game worth spending that much money. Yet here I am, just a week later having broken both vows.

To be fair, it is an Aliens game; though individual titles of the series have been of mixed quality, at heart it is a very appealing franchise. So it was never a question of whether or not I would acquire the game, only of when and for how much. Anyway, even if it was a stinker I knew I would buy it eventually; I mean, I've played Aliens: Colonial Marines  multiple times so it's not as if quality were the deciding factor in my purchases. Anyway, I blame the Internet for my backsliding. Not only was it being loudly praised by all but they also had the gall to post videos of their gameplay online. And if those videos made any one thing clear, it was that graphically this game was outstanding.

Okay, I admit it; I'm a little bit of a graphics whore too. A game based on the Aliens franchise and drop-dead gorgeous? Goodbye $60.00!

So, seeing as the visuals were one of the main criteria to my purchase, what's the verdict? Is the game really as beautiful as the trailers, screenshots and Let's Play videos suggest? In a word, yes. It is not just the awesome lighting and textures, though those send a clear announcement as to the arrival of "next-gen" graphics than any press-release from Microsoft or Sony. There's still room for improvement (my test is always whether or not I can clearly read the memo and sign textures on the walls; I can in Alien:Isolation but it's still blurry) but it's nice to play a game that isn't stuck in a 256MB texture budget. But more than that it is the overall artistry of the graphics; I don't think there was ever a moment in my play-through that I thought "that doesn't look right". The levels are chock-full of details, with all sorts of gadgets and clutter occupying even the most isolated corner; I'm pretty sure there are more polygons used in a single hallway in Isolation than a whole level of Aliens: Colonial Marines. Clever uses of light, smoke and depth-of-field also give the game a very realistic-looking effect. It is very reminiscent of the movies, especially when the lights start flashing and steam bursts out of nearby pipes.

The animations and character models aren't quite up to the high standards set by the level design; they aren't in anyway bad but we've seen better in other games. The best of the bunch are the intentionally uncanny-valley androids; a more primitive model than that seen in the movies, their slightly stilted movements and rubbery skin mesh well with the less-than-stellar animations of the game. Anyway, in Alien: Isolation, the goal of the game is usually to avoid the NPCs and monsters as much as possible, so the flaws are less noticeable anyway.

The levels are also very accurate in movies' aesthetics, from its pixelated introduction to its padded walls, and fans of the franchise will find much to appreciate; I know the fanboy in me went "Squeeee!" in delight at every reference I found. Having said that, the game often plays it too close to film, and I would have appreciated not only a little novelty but also some variety; the engineering section looks remarkably like the mall which looks pretty identical to the hospital which isn't that much different in appearance to the communications tower. How about a romp through the hydroponics section or some faux-wood paneling in the fancy executive suites? But no, it was all raw industrial-grunge-sheik; all amazingly well rendered, sure, but very samey in the end.

Some praise should be given to the sound design; although the voice-acting is merely par for the course (and that of the original actors decidedly sub-par) the Foley effects are very well done. The clattering of the ancient computers and other effects are true to the movies, and the thumping of the alien as it clambers through the vents are terrifically spooky. The music highlights exciting moments, but was just a little too subdued for my taste; the game is already very quiet and a bit more background sound would have been welcome.

The controls are workable for the most part, although a bit stiff in a few specific areas. The tool selection is a bit too cumbersome for its own good (I'll say more on that later) and my character moved a bit too much like a tank; getting her to run - at least on the gamepad - was less smooth than it could have been. Elsewhere, especially with the hacking mini-games, the controls are a touch too twitchy. I'm sure this is all intentional to some degree - it helps to enhance the feeling of vulnerability - but it often came off more as annoying.

Much hype has been made about how this game is a interquel between the original Alien movie and the Aliens sequel, and how this game owes more of its tone and pacing to the former rather than the latter. I took the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of the heroine of the movies as she scrambled through the semi-derelict space station Sevastapol in search of evidence of her mother's passing. The game does indeed capture the slower measured timing and drama of the haunted-house-in-space feel of the original. It also, unfortunately, has the same flat and rather uninteresting characters but - again - since I spent so much of the game is spent on my own this wasn't that big of a problem. Worse is the actually story itself, which simply has too many climaxes; there were at least a half-dozen suitable places to end the story long before the rather sudden and unfulfilling actual ending. Then again, who really plays these games (or watches the movies) for the story?

No, it's all about the gameplay and this is paradoxically both Isolation's greatest strength and biggest flaw, and once again it revolves all around the pacing of the adventure. If taken moment-by-moment, the game is intense, exciting and memorable. This is unequivocally a stealth-game, more so even than any of the Thief series. The main character is weak and powerless and in any confrontation with the monsters she is at best going to come out beaten and bloody; far more likely she will end up dead, and quite suddenly too. Even late in the game, when she is armed with flamethrowers, shotguns, and grenades, battle is better avoided even against the weakest of enemies (and against the eponymous alien, there is no question: if it catches you, you are dead).

The game very expertly reminded me of how ineffective my character was in combat and guided me to use the stealth option whenever I could. Stumbling through a dark hospital with only the sounds of the monster crawling in the vents above can be terrifying; I was well aware that the beast - guided only by its unpredictable AI - could appear at any moment and toss me back to my last save-point. As I crept past flickering lights and open doors, I always kept an eye open for the nearest hiding spot, be it a comforting locker, vent or even some boxes to duck behind: anything to keep me from being seen. I always had the option of running if push-came-to-shove, but that just generated more noise and anyway, I knew there was no way to outrun the alien. No, it was creep-or-die, and so I pretty much crept everywhere.

Save-points are fairly liberally placed, although I regretted each death because every inch of progress was hard-fought for. Having to go back and re-do the same sequence was heartbreaking, not so much because I was covering the same ground but because even just sneaking across a room can require several minutes of adrenalin-filled, heart-pounding tension. Anyway, the semi-random nature of the AI means that encounters rarely happen the same way twice; death is sudden but rarely repetitive.

This all sound great on paper, but where the game fails is in the overall rhythm of its gameplay. Although it may be hard to imagine during the first hour or so of gameplay (during which the alien is notably absent except for a few brief glimpses), once it does appear the eponymous monster is just too frequent an opponent. It was  constantly haunting me, which not only robs the beast somewhat of its terrifying aspect, but turns those heart-clenching encounters into almost tedious chores. I would escape the creature only to enter an entirely different section of the station to find it there ahead of me. "Didn't I just leave this party?" I would quip, but in my head I'm already looking at my watch and wondering how long it will take to get past this obstacle. It becames even worse in the late game when (SPOILERS!) I started to face off against multiple drones and face-huggers. Each encounter remained as intense as ever, but it changed from being a fun, self-inflicted horror to a sort of hyper-focused, migraine-inducing work. The best way to play, I found, was in short bursts - twenty or thirty minutes at a time - but that came at a cost to the game's overall atmosphere. Worse - I mentioned this bit before - the game also doesn't know when to end, so each success just required me to go on another quest into the bowels of the station, often revisiting areas already cleared. The further the game progressed, the more effort it required to continue and the less reward I was getting out of it.

Alien: Isolation also featured the requisite crafting system that is now apparently mandatory for every game (on the plus side, there is a happy absence of any skill-leveling system). This is particularly unexciting addition but does provide impetus for risky exploration of the levels. Alas, the reward for this are a handful of tools of the likes of noisemakers and flares. In all honesty, these tools were amazingly useful in keeping me alive, but my use of them was hampered by the controls; often by the time I had readied one of the gadgets, the opportunity to use it come and gone. Even when I did have the right tool at hand, the controls to throw or place the gadget were finicky and far less responsive than they could have been. This made the game more difficult, I think, than the developers intended but - based on my watching others people's play-throughs - I'm not the only one with this problem.  New tools discovered later in the game also unlock previously blocked sections of areas visited earlier, making the game somewhat like Castlevania; myself, I just saw it as an excuse to make me retread territory I had already explored.

So in the end, Alien: Isolation was a very mixed bag. As far as its production values go, it is a stupendous achievement, and fans of the franchise will really appreciate all the homages to the movies. Its gameplay is undeniably exciting at times and any one individual encounter exceeds all the hype you may have heard. The problem is that the overall design just does not hold up over multiple hours of gameplay, with poor pacing and an unexciting story. 

I am sure that some gamers (die-hard fans of the movie series and people who love the particular genre of survival horror where you are powerless and hunted)  will think this one of video gaming's greatest achievements, but for the general audience it is hard to recommend this title. It is a far better experience to watch than actually play. Frankly, if you are really interested I can't help but suggest you save your $60 and load up a Let's Play of the game on YouTube and maybe just rent the damn thing for a weekend if you are a graphics-whore (like myself) and need to see the textures close up for a bit. If you like what you see, then wait for the game to inevitably hit the bargain bin. I think it's a game worth checking out - at least for a while - but not worth the investment of full-price or a thorough play-through.

Completely Arbitrary Numerical Score (CANS): 2.2178655523678211956757239 (out of something)

Sure, it's better than most games but wait until its on sale.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Taming Windows 8.1 (Part 1)

As you may have gathered from an earlier post, I recently acquired a new laptop that came with Windows 8.1 preinstalled. While generally satisfied with the hardware, one downside was that hardware drivers were difficult to find for anything except Windows 8.1. In other words, if I wanted to use this computer to its full potential, I would have to stick with Microsoft's latest opus.

Windows 8.1 "Modern" Interface
This wasn't my first encounter with Windows 8, of course. I had run the beta for several months prior to its release, and even had a copy of the retail version that came with another computer (fortunately, I had an extra Windows 7 license and the hardware was fully compatible so I didn't have to use it!). Like many, I found Windows 8 uncomfortable to use, largely because of how radically - and poorly - Microsoft had revamped the interface. Nearly twenty years of graphic user interface evolution was flushed down the toilet in order to that Microsoft could present a common interface between PCs, tablet computers, Windows Phones and its XBox game console. The results of trying to mesh the needs of so many varied platforms with one single interface was as disastrous as might be expected. While there have been a few professed fans, by and large the change was met with anger and may have been part of the reason PC sales have plummeted so precipitously in recent years.

None of this was unknown to me, of course; I read the news, I had experienced Windows 8 for myself. I knew what I was getting into. Fortunately, I also knew that - thanks to enterprising developers - a lot of the horrors of the so-called Modern interface could be disappeared with the additions of a handful of software tools. If I had to use Windows 8.1, then I would do so in a way that minimized its worst parts.

This is that story.

First to be installed was Classic Shell. This project is a free, open-source application that can be used to completely banish the horrid Modern Start Screen, allowing the user to boot to a desktop that to all intents and purposes looks like Windows XP or Windows 7. There remain a few areas  -for instance, the screen where you select your wireless network - where a few remnants of the Modern interface remain, but these are not too bothersome.  Installation of Classic Shell is exceptionally easy. Once it is installed, however, you have numerous options you can tweak to your heart's delight.

Classic Shell Start Button Config
The first thing that needed a bit of adjustment was the Start Menu. Although Windows 8.1 had returned the Start button to the desktop, clicking it merely took you back to the dreaded Modern Start Screen. ClassicShell returned the original functionality back to the button, but some of the default stylistic choices were not to my taste. Fortunately, like many open source programs, users are given lots of choice on how to change things. Right clicking on the Start Menu popped up a little context menu; selecting "Settings" allowed me to to get into the guts of the program.

I decided to go with the Windows 7 style menu; you can also choose the "classic" single-column start menu introduced in Windows95, or the two-column menu of Windows XP. However, since many of my other PCs are running Windows 7, I felt it better to have a unified, consistent interface across all the computers. First thing I had to do, though, was replace the default non-trademark infringing Start button that ships with Classic Start; a quick Google search found me a working replacement. I chose the custom option and pointed the program to the downloaded image file (I later learned that this file is not cached anywhere, so if you later delete it the program reverts to the default).

Classic Shell Start Menu Options
With the button sorted out, now it was time work on the actual Start menu. Classic Shell again offers a host of options which allow you to mix and match features from XP, Vista and Windows 7. I like a nice and clean Start Menu, with a minimum of links. After over two decades of using Windows, I know all the keyboard shortcuts anyway. I enabled Computer, Recent Items, Control Panel, Devices and Printers and Run, and told ClassicShell to hide the rest. A nice feature of the program is that you can actually change the order in which these items appear on the menu; even Microsoft's shell never offered that functionality!

Classic Start Main Menu Options

Finally, I needed to clean up the Programs folder. Most important to me, was hiding as much of  Windows 8 - including all references to the Apps and Store - that I could. Fortunately this just required a few button clicks, specifically unchecking "Show Metro Apps", checking "Hide App Shortcuts" and unchecking "Show Recent Metro Apps" in the "Main Menu" section of the program.

With the Start menu taken care of, I was halfway there. Already Windows 8.1 was looking like a useable desktop instead of the abominable bastard-child of a tablet and an XBox. But the job's not done yet.

Windows 8.1 with Classic Start installed