Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun (2016) review

shadow tactics

Rated: 3.5 / 5

I question how much I actually enjoy stealth games.  Aside from Thief I and II, I don’t normally go out of my way to play these sorts of games.  On the other hand, certain RPGs like Deus Ex, while not primarily a stealth game yet can be played as one, do end up causing me to take the stealth-tactic route.  Mainly because it seemed more logical to me to not try and be a one-man army, since games like those try to have a sense of realism.  Plus they subtly encourage you to try more pacifist tactics, lest you risk causing hostages to be butchered or something.  I don’t know, maybe it’s because of some subliminal shit that causes me to take the stealth approach in those games.  Or because I’m not that great of a shot (at least compared to online players), so I just play like a pussy.  But since this game was getting rave reviews, I thought I’d try it out.  And overall, it’s not too bad.

There are 13 missions in the game, each one getting progressively longer, complex, and challenging.  First mission is a great intro to the game system, the 2nd mission is a decent progression.  But from the 3rd mission and onwards, it doesn’t pull any punches with the difficulty.  You have to learn the capabilities of the characters inside and out, just as you’ll need to learn to utilize the controls for quick maneuvers to get the timing right, plus to utilize the ability to see the line of sight of specific soldiers/samurai/civilians.  Shadow mode for simultaneous character actions, each of their special abilities, knowing when to move by quickly, or crouch and move; when you should kill someone, when you should just try to avoid them, etc.

In other words, I strongly recommend using a controller for this one, rather than a mouse and keyboard.  This game seems more designed for control pads.

If it wasn’t obvious, this takes place in medieval Japan, during a time when the way of the samurai was ending.  So of course there’s going to be some challenge to their traditional ways, especially with the questions asked to or about the Mugen character (one of the five party members you’ll have through much of the game).  And, of course, they have to throw in a bit of women power (mainly with this one character who can disguise herself to blend in with the enemy), but they thankfully don’t go overboard with it.  It’s the same kind of thing you get with the film The Last Samurai, except the war-mongering samurai are given a more antagonistic light this time around.  Two significant events happen in the game to thematically represent this way of life coming to an end, signified by two major characters having their lives ended.

Theme aside, the game controls fine for the most part.  I found myself frustrated at points for not being able to pull off these plans I had in mind to get through a section, but that’s mostly on me.  Overestimating the capabilities of my characters, underestimating the number of enemies and their patrol routes (I needed to learn more patience, even if the whole thing seems like trial and error), and just getting angry knowing that, in hindsight, there was a better way to go about completing a portion of a level (if not the entire thing).  However, there were a few times where the NPC movement seemed glitched, with one or two guys being stuck together or to some object on the map and being unable to move.  This was rare, and I think it only happened at 3 points throughout the entire game, but it was noticeable when it did.  Nothing game-breaking, thankfully.

There are some caveats though, which I noticed during the last 3 missions.  Sometimes there’s a portion of the map that juts out just enough to stop you in your tracks unless you go around.  I’m not talking about a section of a cart or something, I’m talking about one or two fucking pebbles that your character should be able to just fucking walk/run across, but can’t, so you have to learn to go around these things and not hug the walls too much or else you’ll get stuck and then get caught by the asshole NPC you thought you were about to avoid until that shit happened.  So, you know, little frustrations like that, which again aren’t game-breaking, just irritating.

After the first 2 levels, I’d say each stage took me roughly 2 hours each to beat (on Hardcore difficulty mind you, I’m not that much of a pussy to settle for normal mode, especially when it felt like the game was pulling it’s punches, let alone beginner mode).  Which gives this game a playing time of roughly 25 hours.  A solid enough length for a game of this type.

And even after you finish a level, you can replay it again to complete challenges (of which there are 9 per level).  If you beat a level on hardcore mode, there’s a chance you will have completed at least 2 of the 9 challenges on a first try.  For the first level, I completed 8 of the 9 challenges (including a speed-run of beating the level in under 11 minutes).  I enjoyed them, at first.  But then I came to realize some of these challenges are just downright stupid.  For instance, one of the challenges in the first level is not to kill anyone.  You can knock them out, but they’ll come-to after about 40-60 seconds (I never timed it).  And it seems impossible to get through a level only by knocking people out.  But then I figured out the trick.  Knock someone out, dump their body in a well (I think there’s only 2, at most, in this level), rinse and repeat for everyone else in the way.  But this gets really fucking tedious when you realize there’s only 1 well that you can use for this purpose for a good portion of the level, so you’ll be knocking guys out, carrying their fatasses for up to a minute at a time trying to get back to this cocksucking well, dumping them, and doing it again and again, having to travel further and further distances while doing this.  When a challenge gets that tedious, I tend to stop giving a shit about them.  Seriously, don’t worry about the challenges, at all, during your first playthrough.  Don’t go back to those missions and repeat them just to do those challenges until you’ve completed the game.  These challenges have the potential to increase the amount of times it takes to complete a mission exponentially, sometimes for ridiculous reasons.

Or so I thought.  But then it turns out there was a way to do this quickly without needing to KO all that many people.  This hot shit Korean gamer (you fuckers and your god-mode Starcraft skills) makes me look bad:

So it’s watching this video that made me realize I’m nowhere near close to being a master at these types of games.  I may be capable of beating them, but I’m not capable of being great at them, at least not on my own without looking up how someone else “did it.”  This is one of those games that every stealth game ultimately ends being in a glorified sense: a puzzle game.  It’s not just about figuring out a way to progress though a stage, it’s also about figuring out the best most efficient way to do it.  And I will admit, I am not the best at figuring out that stuff on my own.  It infuriates me, but that’s on me, the game isn’t to be faulted for that.  You hearing me you asshole game journalists who bitched about the difficulty in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice!?

But anyway, if stealth games like these seem right up your alley, I say go for it.  It seems like one of the better ones released in recent years that I’ve learned about.

 

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System Shock (1994) and Quake (1996) review

So in celebration of cocksucking California passing bullet legislation, I figure I’d talk about the best defining first-person-shooters ever made, outside of Doom (made after Doom).

Surely everyone has heard of Doom being the first major defining first person shooter game, which is still awesome to this day.  True, Wolfenstein came before it, and was made by the same company (iD).  But let’s face it, Doom in superior to Wolfenstein in every way.  But there are at least 2 other first-person-shooters which have defined the genre and made it what it is today (well, one would hope; plenty of today’s games could take lessons from these).  Recently played through both these games.  So let’s start with the earliest one.

System Shock (1993)

Rated: 4 / 5

While Doom may be the first major first person shooter, it was limited in how the player could move.  In that the player could only turn on a 2-dimensional plane.  They couldn’t look up or down, only side to side.  Well, System Shock not only allows the player to look up and down, but also to crouch, to lay flat, to lean left or right, and even enter a virtual world where they basically get full 360 degree freedom of movement.  All this just one year after Doom hit the market.  Quite a feat, even if the controls were clunky as hell (this has since been mostly rectified thanks to the Enhanced Edition which grants the ability to play in a fashion more similar to shooters of today; believe me, you’ll want to play it this way).

And what else did this game accomplish?  It’s arguably the first FPS game to have narrative immersion.  You aren’t just playing the game just to get guns and ammo, and rack up a body count, and discover secret rooms, gain a high score, etc.  In this game, you are actually involved in a developing plot, with a flawed protagonist (you) against an antagonist partly made because of your past misdeeds.  It has warnings of the future, about AI, about cybertechnology (in the same vane as the Cyberpunk universe, except in space, on a space station).  And it’s also likely the first game to have “logs” littered throughout to give you insight as to what happened on sections of the space station prior to your arrival (just about every FPS game nowadays incorporates this).

And I’ll be damned if I wasn’t invested into what was going on.  The last third of the game is quite a ride.  And it’s great when you’re first starting out, because it’s like a survival horror.  Especially when you learn of the fate of the crew, and what SHODAN did to them, and what the origin of these mutants are.  But you get stronger as the game goes on, becoming more of a threat to SHODAN (the AI), which initially thought of you as insignificant in the grand scheme of eliminating all human life from the world, and replacing it with a new race of machines.

Honestly, when it came to the “Grenade” and “Patches,” I don’t think I even used half of all the available options throughout my entire playthrough.

If there’s any fault I can give this game, aside from the clunky control scheme and interface, it’s the level design.  Don’t get me wrong, it works just fine, but you can’t help but think that it was designed more for gameplay-sake than narrative sake.  In that the designs don’t make all that much sense in terms of how one would want to design a space station.  Alien: Isolation did a much better job by comparison (to make a more recent example).  That, and you could find yourself lost on what to do and where to find something if you miss it early on (like some notepad that has a passcode on it, or the numbers on certain screens).  That being said, the stuff that you can get stuck on isn’t anywhere near the worst I’ve seen from FPS puzzlers, especially from that time period.  Even Doom and Duke Nukem 3D had levels which players would find themselves stuck on for a while.

Regarding the difficulty (at least on Normal mode), it started out challenging, but after a while the game mostly feels like a breeze until the last couple levels.  If you spend enough time picking up ammo from each enemy you take out, and each crate that you find, you’ll have more than enough for whatever meets you later on.  Especially once you get the lightsaber (yes, this game has lightsabers).  You’ll be using bullets, and energy (the latter of which can be recharged through one-time use batteries, or an energy core located in various areas).  Every now and then, there will also be a first aid station that fully recharges your health (and you’ll be provided consumables for health as well).  Overall, it took me roughly 15 hours to beat.  That being said, there is a hard mode where you are given a time limit for beating the game.  7 hours.  Go longer than 7 hours, you lose.  Good luck with that.

Aside from the historical impact this had on gaming, it’s still a solid experience to this day.  Though it does end a little too abruptly once you beat the final boss (I mean, there’s no epic explosion or anything; it literally cuts to the epilogue after you hit SHODAN with the last bullet).

And did I mention they’re remaking this game?

 

And for the next step in the evolution of FPS games:

 

 

Quake (1996)

Rated: 4 / 5

This was the game that set the standard for every FPS game made afterwards, in my opinion.  Especially if you play with the HD graphics.  That’s a bit tricky to do though, for a few reasons (more on that later).  You move around like a normal modern FPS, shoot guns and collect ammo like a normal FPS (none of that “press a button to pick up the ammo pack” bullshit, you just walk over it to collect it), etc.  And it doesn’t try to be as ambitious as System Shock control-scheme-wise.  There’s no laying prone, or leaning left or right.  It’s just move, run, and jump, and that’s it.

Source

While there is a story, it’s not something that will be at the forefront anymore than it was in Doom (made by the same company, iD).  This game is all about the gameplay and shooting the shit out of demons, pure and simple.  Over the course of the game you get more guns to shoot, and more enemies to shoot at.  However, it’s not as diverse as Doom.  By comparison, the variety of enemies will seem limited.  In Quake, you get 8 weapons and 7 enemies.  In Doom, you basically got 8 weapons and 10 enemies.  But what it lacks in diversity compared to Doom it makes up for in some of the best level design (and enemy placement within said levels) I’ve ever seen in an FPS.  The design is tight, every door, hallway, secret, platform, enemy; it all seems designed with intent, with everything very well thought out.  Masterminds designed the levels for this game.

And while there isn’t a story per-se, you do get the sense that you’re in a sacriligious place.  A place outside of your world, your own dimension.  Why are you even there?  Why even visit a place like this?  Well, reading the instruction manual, pretty much for the same reason you visit Hell in Doom: demons are invading through a portal, so it’s time you return the favor and invade their world, and throw them a very big hello party, courtesy of humanity from Earth.  Our protagonist doesn’t like illegal aliens invading his fucking turf.  So, naturally, he decides to gear up and blow some of them away.  It’s a challenge of his manhood and masculinity, which is why the gun is always front and center, like it’s your massive erection, blowing out bullets and beams and shells and rockets.  And if you’re into it enough, you might also get a stiffy and cream yourself in the ecstasy of all the carnage.  At some point you’ll probably scream like you’re having an orgasm.  Like Trent Reznor does.

And to stand apart from most other shooters, this is more of a gothic horror.  It’s like you’re in a fucked up medieval castle that’s out of time in some hellish realm with hints of sci-fi thrown in.  It’s rather unique.  And to make it even more unique, the soundtrack was done by Nine Inch Nails (NIN).  And to make their presence even more significant, there’s a Nailgun, with ammo packs containing the NIN logo.  It’s more atmospheric rather than in-your-face; it conveys a more subtle horror and disturbance that slowly seeps into your skin.  The music is every bit as important as everything else contained within the game.  It would feel incomplete without it.

Unfortunately, incomplete is the standard version people tend to get nowadays with this game.  Whether you purchase it on Steam or GOG (I prefer the latter), the soundtrack is missing (because of rights issues).  Well, that’s no completely true.  GOG did manage a workaround, though you are forced to play it with the inferior graphics (more sprite-based than 3D model based).

So on that note, here’s the 3 main ways you can play it once you purchase it on GOG (assuming you’re not using an alternative method):

Quake GIF
Quakespasm mod, which allows the music to be played, with tweaks (see below).  Full 3D models.
Game GIF
Standard GOG version, with no music.  Sprite-based models.
Quake GIF
Horrendous GOG workaround that doesn’t look great at all, but does allow the music to play.

Otherwise, if you can manage to play a version of it with the best graphics and the music thrown in, it’s a great experience.  The only downside to it is that there’s only 2 boss battles, when clearly there should’ve been 5.  There’s basically 5, uh, “dimensions,” with each dimension having a certain number of levels.  Only in the first dimension is there a boss at the last level, and the fifth dimension is basically a glorified (get to the final boss of the game) level.  There were some production troubles that prevented them from having the time and budget to program in the other bosses, so they scrapped them and made the last levels of dimensions 2-4 basically be like any other level, except progressively more difficult.  Not necessarily bad, as the challenge is still great and the level design is impeccable as always.  But it’s just tragic to think of what could’ve been.

 

Mods (for Quake only)

Ok, so first things first.  While there are a couple bits of software out there that basically do the same thing, this is the one I used.

Quakespasm

Download this, put in the files/folders (from the GOG download) needed in the Quakespasm folder, and you’re good to go.  Will run in the best quality.  However, it still won’t include the music, not right off the bat.  Still needs some tinkering to get that to work.  You’ll need to either copy-paste over the mp3 music files the GOG game has stashed away in one of the folders and put them in the Id1 folder; each music file should be titled track02.mp3 or track02.ogg (.ogg is the best format), with the “02” number being anything from 02-11 (there is no track01, there isn’t supposed to be).

how to use quakespasm

And honestly, that’s really the only mod you’ll need.  However, if you want more levels out of quake, there are several fan-made campaigns which add a crapload of content, including cutscenes (in a similar vane as Red vs. Blue, except these guys try their best to take it all seriously).

 

Nehahra

This is a fan-made campaign that is absolutely massive.  If you want to check out fan-made content, this is the absolute best place to start (though the cutscenes do run for too long in my opinion).  There are others in existence, to be sure, but this is the best starting point.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it works with Quakespasm (at least I couldn’t figure out a way to make it work with it), so you’ll be dealing with the more sprite-based graphics.  It’s still good.

 

 

PS: And yeah, I know, I didn’t really have much to say about these games other than just recommending them.  I’m not the best when it comes to video game reviews, I’ll admit.  Difficult to summon the willpower to discuss the graphics, audio, gameplay, story, and replay value.  I tend to be more about philosophical aspects, or food for thought, when it comes to my reviews, and games tend to be difficult about that stuff because they’re more about challenging yourself, and seeing if you can take on that challenge and succeed, and have fun along the way.  Adding a narrative is a bonus.  If you want a solid review for each game, I provided videos to LGR.  He is second to none when it comes to reviews for games like these.  So consider this article a recommendation for the games and the LGR reviewer.  That being said, there may come a day where I come across a game that is so narrative dependent, so devoid of any real gameplay, that I may just end up reviewing it like a movie.

 

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Doom (2016) Review

Rating: 3/5

“It’s a glorified arena shooter.”

This is a review of the single player campaign only. This review does not cover the multiplayer aspect. I played through this on Ultra Violence difficulty until I beat the game (about 12 hours), and played a couple more hours on Nightmare mode.

What qualifies me to review this?  I beat the game on Hurt-Me-Plenty mode, played a bit on Nightmare difficulty, and have played and beaten Doom I and II (the old 90s games).  I’m familiar with the franchise, and have my expectations set accordingly.  So, how does this new FPS game stack up to FPS games in general, and to the older Doom games?

Well the enemies are certainly more aggressive. In the older Doom games (I’m referring to Doom I and II here) had enemies that didn’t move all that fast (you could outrun anything and everything in 90s Doom). Here, you can’t outrun everything without getting fancy with your maneuvers, and enemies can and will flank you. For instance, the Imp doesn’t just walk towards you anymore, now it runs and leaps, and sticks to the walls and shoots fireballs at you from there. The Pinkies are more fearsome than ever. They can and will outrun you, charge you like a Rhino, and gore you. Cacodemons, well, they honestly seem the same. Summoners are upgraded in a fantastic manner, though I still think they are more terrifying in Doom I and II with how they can do near-insta-kill damage to you if you stay in the open for too long. Here, it’s a matter of dodging their attacks, and filling them with lead and plasma when they appear. Barons of Hell are also great, seeing as how they can rush at you and leap at you, being able to close the distance much faster than they could in the old games, never mind that they can still absorb a lot of damage and shoot green shit at you. Oh, and most important of all, the enemies look good with their graphic update. These effects should stand the test of time more than Doom 3’s graphics.

Many would say the level design is as fantastic as ever in this edition. In fact, that’s the reason I believe the 90s Doom games hold up as well as they do, the level design. And Duke Nukem 3D. The level designs. Those are what give games that old their replay value. That and their pacing. The rate at which new enemies are introduced, the level design tricks they can pull to give the enemies a (fair) advantage over you. And the rate at which you are given new weapons, and the ammo to keep blasting with them. In this 2016 game, that rate is as good as ever, but I’m not so sure I would go that far for the overall pacing and level design. Don’t get me wrong, the levels are very well made for what they are, where hidden items are placed and how they can be accessed, the multiple paths to maneuver when dealing with enemies in each area.

But that’s the problem I have with the game. The level design is well made for what it is, but I have a problem with what it is. When it comes down to it, it’s a glorified arena shooter. It’s a well-designed arena fighter, but it’s still just an arena fighter. In this game, all you really do is move from one area to the next, until you move to an arena where enemies spawn either at your very presence, or they spawn after you fist a Gore Nest. Either way, some nice adrenaline pumping heavy metal music starts playing when the action gets going, and goes silent momentarily each time you do a melee kill, which makes it seem as if your actions fit right in with the music. The action is awesome and all, but I preferred the pacing of the older Doom games in this regard.

I’m not a big fan of arena-based games. In the 90s Doom games, and even in Doom 3, the entire level didn’t seem to be composed up multiple arena sections. The enemies are all already on the map, they don’t spawn at different intervals in different locations. You just have to go through it to wipe them all out. Natural progression. In Doom 2016, they’re not all on the map, which probably explains why the game is so efficient;y made from a coding standpoint and is capable of running smoothly across different tiers of PC systems. The action doesn’t get heavy until you’re in an arena, and by then they can focus all the action in a near-secluded zone where enemies spawn left and right out of thin air. I prefer my games where the enemies are already on the map, just waiting for you. In this 2016 one, they can spawn in any which area of the arena to surprise you, which means you will very rarely have the element of surprise.

It’s just not natural, and that is why I don’t share the same enthusiasm for this game as other reviewers seem to have. The pattern got monotonous after a while.

Walking around. Walking around. There’s some health, there’s some armor, there’s some ammo, where’s the secret? There it is! Walking around. This looks like an arena. It is. Run/jump around and kill everything that pops up for the next few minutes. They’re all dead. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the game.

While as in the 90s games, sometimes you open a door and it would be a couple monsters. Other times it would be a whole legion of them. Sometimes you didn’t know which monsters you were going to get, or how many. Sometimes you would think you’re safe, until you get a key or other weapon, and then some walls would come down and a bunch of other monsters would come out that you would have to deal with. It showcased the brilliance of the level design, and always kept the player on edge even when they were looking for secrets (secrets can come with a price if you’re not careful). 2016 version, every arena tends to spawn the same quantity and type of monsters, with the numbers getting progressively larger and more varied as the game went on. For instance, here’s how the 90s games tend to go, which allow for nifty player tricks like speed runs:

As opposed to:

But the glorified arena shooter aspect is the only thing I disliked about the game. It’s big for me, but for everyone else who likes that style and likes to test their reflexes, maneuvering, and knowledge of the environment to their advantage, this is the game for them. While the game does have health packs and no regenerating health, you can recover health in another way that is brilliant. When you get a gory kill (meleeing a monster to death), they drop a certain amount of health (the lower your current health, the more they drop), thus encouraging you to stay aggressive the entire game. This may not be the first game to utilize this idea, but I suspect it will inspire other FPS games to follow suite in the near future.

There is a plot here, but like in 90s Doom, you’re not really going to care. Hell, in Doom 3, there was more emphasis on the plot, and I still didn’t care, so they went in the right direction here. Nicely placed boss fights, especially the last one. Still plenty of gore and violence to appease any fan of the genre. And it ends on a cliffhanger, like Doom I, and like Doom 3 before its expansion was released. Seems like tradition for Doom games to come out in pairs in one fashion or another.

As for the difficulty, quite challenging on Ultra-Violence when it gets to the later stages, but your skills are really tested on Nightmare difficulty. That difficulty level is pretty damn hard.  Haven’t bothered with the easier difficulty levels.  In ultra violence, I never found the need to use “equipment” which composes of frag grenades and holograms.  In Nightmare mode, you need everything at your disposal, no screwing around, and no mistakes to be made.  Kill everything as quickly as you can, or you will be overwhelmed.  You need to kill enemies quickly in Ultra Violence too, but it’s easier since you can take a few hits, while in Nightmare a few hits can kill you.  Enemies do a lot more damage on Nightmare difficulty.  That seems to be the main thing that changes with each difficulty, the amount of damage dealt.  Everything else remains the same.

All in all, it’s a good game, but it could’ve been better if it was less of an arena-shooter.

PS: Personally, I like to think of Duke Nukem 3D being in the same universe as Doom. Duke fought a bunch of monsters and did a lot of shit on Earth, then decided to become a space marine, when hell broke loose on Mars, so he gears up to fight monsters all over again, only this time without hot babes to save, which is why he’s so pissed off and bloodthirsty this time around.

Alien Isolation Review


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Survival horror is a game genre that has been popularized by games of the past such as Clock Tower, Alone in the Dark, Silent Hill, and Resident Evil. In fact, before such videogames were created, it was a genre defined by film. Films such as Night of the Living Dead, and Alien. It is a genre that draws attention from film-goers and video gamers alike to this day. The science of it involves chemicals in the brain that respond to “potentially” dangerous situations that can result in a small high and an adrenaline rush providing an extra amount of energy and alertness (Cooper-White, 2014). For some, this results in fun, hence the popularity of the above mentioned classics. Which brings me to the game that will be the subject of the study of survival horror, Alien: Isolation.


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So what is it that makes the survival horror genre work? What is it about it that makes it entertaining enough to make gamers want to play and experience such games? The game must be broken down into categories to focus on what makes it work. The first is on the number of bugs the game has, how often glitches arise, and how badly they hinder the experience. The second is on what makes it work as a game. By that I mean how interactive the game is, how well it makes the gamer feel like they are within the world of the game. If a game fails to draw the player into its world, then the player won’t feel any sense of danger or fear that the game may provoke. Third, and last, is how the gameplay causes that fear within players, and why they would keep coming back for more.

Just about every major and minor game release is bound to have bugs in it, and Alien: Isolation is no exception (Reisinger, 2011; Gilbert, 2014; Hernandez, 2014). However, the number of glitches I have found on each of my playthroughs have been minimal. About 2 glitches per play of the entire main game. Even Patricia states, “I haven’t found any bugs like this in my game—I don’t think they’re that common,” (Hernandez, 2014). Because the game manages to keep the number of bugs minimal, they are not a significant factor when it comes to breaking the player immersion. Because the immersion is broken rarely if ever due to a glitch on the average playthrough, the suspense level can be maintained based upon the pacing, atmosphere, and overall design of the game.


Which brings me to the game’s interactivity. For the first hour or so within the game, the player doesn’t have much to do except walk from point A to point B to listen to dialogue conversations, or just to progress to the next point to progress the plot. The player starts on a safe space vessel called Torrens where the in-game character named Amanda Ripley just talks with the other crew members. From a pacing perspective, this allows the player to get comfortable with moving the character around, learn that doors generally open automatically, certain items can be picked up and used for crafting later on, can access computer terminals for more information, learn how save points work, and feel comfortable and safe in the game.

Eventually, the player finds themselves on-board the space station named Sevastopol. There the player options open up some more. Now the player has to learn to crawl through vents, how to open doors that require passwords or hacking tools, how to use flares, flashlights, and other items, that blueprints can be picked up and provide instructions on how to use loot-able materials to craft useful items such as a medkit that can heal the player if damaged, a molotov cocktail to toss at enemies, etc. At the same time, the game is kept in a linear state during the first couple hours. Many paths are blocked but can be opened up later with tools that the player currently does not have, such as an Ion Torch to open up vents and other doorways, which allow access to other passageways and rooms. In other words, the player is shown that as they are now, they are ill-equipped, but can become better-equipped later in the game, which gives them something to look forward to, which is a small incentive to keep playing in addition to how much “fun” they are having.

Regarding “fun,” while no monster has shown up yet in the game during the first couple hours, there is still enough happening for first time players to be on edge. The lighting of the levels is kept minimal to make the player unsure of what else may be in a room with them, if anything. This is in stark contrast to the start of the game where they are kept in a well-lit ship with other friendly crew members. In addition, there are a few small petty jump scares to make the player think for a split second that they are being attacked by something, only to realize a split second later that it was nothing. For example, a burst of steam comes out the side of a wall, or the floor gives out beneath the player to cause them to slide down a level. Eventually the player will come across another threatening crew member, who warns her about other crew members aboard Sevastopol Station who have no problem shooting others on site. In addition to the environmental dangers, now the player knows that other people on the station are a threat and are to be avoided. All of this is made to set the player at unease, to be on edge about the environment, and on edge when near other people, unlike those found at the very beginning of the game. Whether the game is doing its job or not when it comes to putting the player in a state of unrest depends on the players themselves.

When it comes to sustaining that state of unrest, pacing is key. In addition to having potential options open up for the player in terms of gameplay and exploration, something new needs to be thrown in after progressing so far. Eventually, the alien creature does show up, but through use of a cutscene. Once the cutscene ends and the player is back in control of Amanda Ripley, they can hear the alien’s screeching beyond the walls, in the ventilation system above the character. Once the player makes it to a transportation system and hits the call button, they have to wait for at least 30 seconds. During these long 30 seconds, the occasional alien screech is heard, and the music track elevates, giving a rapid pulsing droning sound that replicates a fast heartbeat, emitting the feel that the creature will inevitably show up and devour the player before the transit arrives. But the transit does arrive in time, allowing the player to escape.


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This is intended to scare the player. If it did its job right, which in my case it did, then this would activate the player’s (in real life) fight-or-flight response. Biologically speaking, this is a general term that references the body’s arousal system when it activates and triggers an abundance of neurotransmitters and hormones such as endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline, which is meant to cause the individual to react to a threat more quickly (Cooper-White, 2014). But when in a safe environment, which the player hopefully is while playing the game, this can become a positive arousing experience for the player (Cooper-White, 2014). If that is the case, then the player will want to continue to have such an experience again.

Later on in the game after the gameplay opens up more for the player (gaining more blueprints to craft more items, gaining a hacking tool to open more doors on the space station, etc.), the player will encounter the alien again, only this time without cutscenes. The alien creature itself will stalk the player around certain sections of the station, usually staying in the ventilation system, but occasionally come out at random or when the player makes a noise. Noises that would draw it out include running, throwing an item, or shooting a gun such as a revolver. And the player will be powerless against this creature, as it can move faster than the player, and will instantly kill the player character if it sees them and rushes in closely. Plus, the creature can’t be killed by anything. This creates a feeling of helplessness. The only way to deal with the creature is to hide from it. Which brings up one of the core gameplay elements, stealth. In my experience, I was crouching most of the time, using the motion tracker device to keep tabs on the creature’s location (though only useful if the creature is moving). Additionally, I was also discovering and using hiding spaces. There are an abundance of places to hide in each section of the game, from closets to beneath desks, going through ventilation shafts, and so on.


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This gives the player options when going through a level while trying to avoid the creature. Which path to take, which hiding places to stay near if the alien shows up, ventilation shafts to crawl through as shortcuts, etc. However, if the player stalls for too long and continues to go back to the same hiding place over and over again when the alien gets an indication that the player is nearby (i.e. it spots the player, but not long enough to confirm that it was a potential victim), and the alien continues to look for the player in the same general vicinity, it will start to take a closer look at potential hiding places. If a player is hiding under the same desk too often, the alien player may take a close look below the desk, spot the player character, and kill her. When it comes to closets, and the alien decides to take a closer look at those, a small mini-game happens. The player will have a small amount of time to “lean back” and “hold their breath” for a certain amount of time. This causes the player to lose a small amount of health if they time this right. If they time it wrong, the alien will hear them and open the closet door and kill the character. There is plenty of strategy and planning that goes into playing through these sections in addition to the constant threat of being spotted and killed, which should once again bring up the player’s adrenaline levels.


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In addition, there are sections where other Sevastopol crew members are around who will shoot the player on site. The player has options when dealing with them as well, such as sneaking past them, or making noise loud enough for the alien to hear, sending the alien down to kill off all the crew members in the vicinity, or killing them herself if she has the ammunition and/or crafted items to do so. There will also be androids called Joes in some level sections where the only options is to sneak past them or kill them. The alien won’t attack Joes, and vice-versa, because the alien only goes after live humans.

So as a game with interactivity, it works because the player will have many paths and options when it comes to getting through sections of the ship to progress to the next objective. The player can craft items that can kill other humans and/or androids, or items that lure the alien to a position to either kill off other humans in the vicinity, or to lure it away from an area the player needs to go through. The threat of failing by being spotted and killed by the humans, androids, or the alien, especially the latter, is what evokes fear from the player. For gamers who respond positively to fear, in that they have fun being scared from a game, this will encourage them to continue to play until the very end.

It should be noted that there are several difficulty settings in the game. During my first playthrough I used Normal difficulty. During my second playthrough on Nightmare difficulty, the most difficult setting in the game, I noticed changes that made the game more difficult. There is no map to use to guide the player through the levels, they will just have to memorize the levels on their own, and rely on the motion tracker to determine the general direction of their next objective in addition to enemy positions. In addition, the motion tracker is less reliable and more glitchy (intentionally by game design), flamethrowers use up fuel faster, the player character takes more damage from attacks, the health bar is not displayed, there are less materials to scavenge for crafting items, less ammunition to find for guns (pistols, shotguns, flamethrower, bolt gun), and the alien is more responsive and intelligent. On this level of difficulty, the alien is more likely to closely inspect hiding places compared to how often it would search for the player in the same room on Normal difficulty.

It was on the more difficult setting that I had to get much more conservative with how I used the items in the game, to the point where fighting was no longer an option. If a player hopes to get through the game on that level of difficulty, just about every fight must be avoided, and crafting should be limited to only a few select item types. This allows for strategy-making more interesting for players. Generally, when a player tries to get through a level using one strategy that doesn’t work, they try to get through it using another strategy. The more difficult the game and therefore the more difficult the levels, the more diverse a player will have to be when it comes to getting through each level. This encourages thinking of methods and tactics that the player hadn’t thought of before. When a player would normally want to shoot at some androids to get past them, but has no ammunition left, they would eventually figure out ways of distracting them, such as throwing flares down one hallway so they can move through another. When a player would normally run to hiding spots, in Nightmare mode they are more willing to try alternatives since the likelihood of the Xenomorph wising up and breaking into the hiding spot is increased, plus the holding breath minigame which does some amount of damage to your health; and there is no observable health bar in Nightmare mode, not to mention less health than normal. Even running out of fuel for the flamethrower isn’t the end for the player when being chased down by the alien, as I learned that just aiming the flamer at the alien makes it flinch and stop chasing me momentarily, because it remembers the other times I burned it. Each time a player tries any of these tactics, there will be a lingering fear on whether or not they will work.

And this is ultimately why this succeeds as a survival horror videogame. It scares players, but at the same time is highly interactive because of the abundance of decision-making it allows them to have. It is also paced well, in that the player gains new items at an acceptable rate to add a little more to the options and gameplay; plus levels where the player is sneaking by the alien, or the crew, or the androids, or all of the above; sections where the player is forced to fight androids; or sections with no combat or stealth at all to give the player a breather. There is a storyline, of course, which is told well enough in my opinion, but that is not where the focus will be for this critique. I will say that the story gave me enough information as to why I needed to get from Point A to Point B, and why it’s beneficial for the character in the long term.

I should clarify as to what makes this game more effective at scaring players than other games. After all, it can’t just be the threat of the player character getting killed, as that happens in just about every action/adventure game as well, from Tomb Raider, to Uncharted, to Metroid Prime, to the Call of Duty franchise, none of which are considered to be terrifying games. I would say the biggest difference between Alien: Isolation and the above mentioned games is the presence of an un-killable enemy whom you can only hide from, along with the use of sound that lets the player know the creature is lurking nearby. Because you want to react to hearing the creature rather than from seeing it, because if it sees you, you will probably get killed. The other main difference is limited resources. The player will only have so much access to items and materials throughout the course of the game that he/she must be careful on how they use them. In the action/adventure games, the player will almost always have enough ammunition to destroy anyone and anything in their path, giving the player a sense of being a one-man army that can handle just about anything thrown at them.


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In other survival horror games, such as the early Resident Evil entries, and the early Silent Hill games, the player has limited resources, making it impossible to kill every enemy they come across. In a game like 5 Nights at Freddy’s, the player can do nothing against the enemies except observe them and try to keep them out of the room they are in, while carefully managing their usage of electricity to observe the enemies and close the doors; in other words, careful and efficient management of limited resources. Lastly, what these popular survival horror games have in common is atmosphere. It is always dark, and the music is always brooding to fit with the paranoia the game projects onto the player. There also tends to be an excellent use of music to destabilize the player. Or even a lack of music to make the sound effects more pronounced, such as the moans of a zombie in the Resident Evil franchise, or the hissing and footsteps of an alien menace, or the beeping of the motion tracker, the movements in the vents, etc.

Good survival horror games will make the player feel helpless at times against the sinister forces that threaten their character(s) in the game. Which is why players usually feel joy and breathe a sigh of relief when they eventually conquer these forces, as if they have conquered their fear. Of course, the game itself is just a fantasy normally experienced within the safe confines of a home, as is any game. Their adrenaline surged at the sense of danger, they ran and fought with their in-game character, and shared in their character’s victories. It’s a different type of adrenaline high achieved from action/adventure games. It’s the reason why games like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and Amnesia The Dark Descent have gone down as horror game classics, as this game may do as well. Because players will eventually either come back for more, or encourage other friends and family members to experience what they have experienced.


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References

Cooper-White, Macrina. (15 October 2014). This is Why We Love To Scare Ourselves Silly. HuffingtonPost.com. Retrieved 9 May 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/15/science-of-fear-why-we-love-to-scare-ourselves_n_5976266.html

Gilbert, Ben. (24 November 2014). Why are so many video games broken at launch?. engadget.com. Retrieved 9 May 2015. http://www.engadget.com/2014/11/24/broken-video-games/

Hernandez, Patricia. (8 October 2014). Alien: Isolation Isn’t As Scary When The Alien Glitches Out. kotaku.com. Retrieved 9 May 2015. http://kotaku.com/alien-isolation-isnt-as-scary-when-the-alien-glitches-1644006514

Reisinger, Don. (8 February 2011). Treyarch: There are no ‘bug free’ games. CNET.com. Retrieved 9 May 2015. http://www.cnet.com/news/treyarch-there-are-no-bug-free-games/

 

Mod Note
Oh, and one other thing. If you’re playing the game on PC, this mod for the game is worth checking out. It makes the alien’s patrol area more spread out as opposed to staying in your general vicinity. Improves the game in my opinion.


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