Friday, February 23, 2018

With 'Alien: Isolation,' Sega blasts into a world of nostalgia

The latest generation of consoles is here, but this year Sega is banking on a hit straight from 1979.

It's pretty common knowledge by now that the former hardware maker has agreed to publish a tentpole title from developers The Creative Assembly called Alien: Isolation. You get three guesses as to what the inspiration was.

The fourth-quarter release has reached the playable build stage, so the game is all the rage in chat rooms and gaming news outlets. Considering I'm a diehard fiend about the franchise, it's no great leap to imagine my interest rates somewhere between unquenchable thirst and DEFCON 1.

For background, the game is set 15 years after the first film in the series, with Ellen Ripley's daughter, Amanda, desperately seeking the truth about what happened to her mother. Spoiler alert, but it's safe to assume she doesn't find mom, as she ended up drifting through deep space for 57 years until James Cameron found her, with no 11th birthday presents anywhere to be found.

What she does locate is a tip that Ripley's flight recorder from the Nostromo has turned up, so she goes to a space station called Sevastopol. As luck and convenient storytelling tropes would have it, the station has a xenomorph infestation. That is, if you can call a single alien an infestation. The humans aboard the station certainly seemed to think so.

Unlike Sega's last franchise effort — the 2013 Gearbox title Aliens: Colonial Marines, which tried and failed to serve as a sequel to the 1986 film sequel Aliens — this one will attempt to recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Ridley Scott original. While developers promise there will be other human (and android) interactions throughout the game, there is only one alien, and Amanda's bare hands aren't really equipped to deal with the threat the alien poses.

Atmosphere really is the operative word here, because if you'll recall, the crew of the Nostromo had a difficult time dealing with their unwanted guest from LV-426 both because weapons were limited and the creature's acid blood would destroy the ship should it be injured. All the gameplay I've seen shows that interactions with the beast involve hiding or evading in some fashion.

Creative Assembly has taken great pride in pointing out the design of the game attempts to follow Alien production designer Ron Cobb's vision of the Nostromo. That means despite taking place in 2137, the game features analog equipment and feedback noise on video screens. There's not a computer mouse or touchscreen to be found anywhere.

This was done in an attempt to immerse the player in the game world, which is an admirable goal. My initial reaction, however, is that trading in nostalgia can be a dicey game.

Do it right and you really can bring the gamer into a world they want to experience. You expand on a subject and create the ultimate form of interactive fan fiction. Do it wrong and, well, you end up with a rehashed mess like Colonial Marines, complete with plot holes, uneven gameplay and eye-rollingly bad plot devices.

From all accounts, Isolation seems to be shaping up to be in the former category. Reviewers profess to being completely immersed in the single-player experience, which for all intents and purposes sounds an awful lot like 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent. But that's great, because Amnesia was a stellar game, and it's been a long time since we've had a decent survival horror game actually be about surviving horror (I'm looking at you, Dead Space and Resident Evil).

There is a good reason testing and refinement will continue until the fall, though. No one wants a game in which the gimmick gets boring, or looks like it came from the very analog generation it's emulating. That means Isolation will have to be an extension of that fiction, not just an offshoot or worse, a copy.

Because after seeing Prometheus, it's obvious even director Scott was capable of ruining this subject matter.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games for tbt*. Challenge his opinions at [email protected]

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