Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In Space no one can hear you shriek like a child

There have been precisely three occasions when I have been known to shriek whilst using a computer or video-game console.

Incident #1: It's the summer of 1987. A pale-faced teenage David Court squints at the lines of a computer program on an old portable colour television as a shaft of sunlight dares to penetrate this fortress of solitude from the gap between thick curtains.  He's approaching the end of a marathon nine hour programming session and decides he needs a cup of tea. In an incredible demonstration of dexterity he manages to get his foot caught in the power cable and manages to both crash into the closed bedroom door and switch the ZX Spectrum+2 off. A shriek is heard, and a valuable lesson is learned. He never programs without saving regularly ever again.

Incident #2: It's very late on a summer evening in 1998. A pale-faced and long-haired headphone wearing David Court squints at the post-apocalyptic Raccoon city on a new portable colour television as he plays Resident Evil 2 on his relatively new Playstation. All seems quiet – too quiet, in hindsight - as he picks up the ROOK PLUG from a small room inside the Raccoon City Police Department.  A licker suddenly bursts out through the one way mirror inside this room, a shriek is heard and the  heart rate of David returns to normal roughly six hours later. He never plays a Resident Evil game late at night ever again.

Incident #3: It's early one morning in the Autumn of 2014. David Court is sitting way too close to his 40" telly and playing Alien Isolation. Ripley has spent the past five minutes hiding inside a closet and the motion detector isn't returning any signal. The alien can't be heard – through either the familiar sound of it stomping around searching in frustration for prey, or the echoing metallic clanging of it wandering around in the vents.  Ripley throws open the closet doors and it's standing there in the doorway having waited patiently for her to emerge. David gives a shriek just as the alien is on him at the same instant as Tara is walking into the living room with a cup of tea. She sniggers.

So, after nearly thirty hours of gameplay I've just finished the new game Alien: Isolation (developed by the British software team Creative Assembly and distributed by Sega).  I'd say how it's one of the best uses of the Aliens license in an age but if you've ever been unfortunate enough to either play or watch somebody else play Aliens: Colonial Marines (and I use the term "play" loosely) then you'll know that’s not exactly difficult.

Set 15 years after the events of the first Alien film, you play Amanda (the daughter of Ellen Ripley).  Having never watched the movie Alien or having read the tie-in comic or the novel by Alan Dean Foster, she's trying to find out what happened to her mother on board the ill-fated Commercial Towing Vessel "The Nostromo". She hears that the flight recorder of that self-same vessel has been located and is being held at a remote free port space station ("Sevastopol"), so Ripley Jnr. and her companions travel to the space station to find it damaged and communications dead and they space walk over to the station to investigate.

To say that there's an alien on board the space station is as much a spoiler warning as letting you know that the new Call of Duty game contains guns, killing and nine year old American children calling you a faggot. This game is even scarier than those nine year old children.

It's no secret I'm a huge fan of both Alien and Aliens.  Alien³ and Alien: Resurrection not so much, but at least Alien: Resurrection made Alien³ seem brilliant by comparison (Much as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom suddenly stopped being the worst in the series when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released).

It's clear that the game was made by fans. It oozes atmosphere and everything about it feels spot on – from the worn-out and lived-in environments to the technology that looks modern but still has a definite seventies vibe.  Big clunky CRT monitors show green-screen displays, tape reels whirr on their spools and everything bleeps and flashes lights to remind you that it's still on.  Even the loading icon is a tape cassette.

The Sevastopol is a huge space station with three main towers and you'll often find yourself retracing your steps as newly discovered equipment opens avenues previously closed to you. You'll scavenge for equipment to construct makeshift pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails, noisemakers and medical kits and your movement through the station will be slow and terror-filled because of that bloody Alien.

Alien: Isolation is an outstanding "hiding in cupboards and hiding under tables" simulator. You'll become very familiar with certain walls of the space station as you stare at them from behind the narrow slots in a locker door as that hiss is heard.

This game has made the Alien scary again after ColonialMarines turned the acid-bleeding razor fanged and clawed xenomorphs into nothing but cannon fodder. It's smart and if it spots you you're dead. You can't outrun it and you can't hope to fight it – all you can do is avoid or distract it.  I've never known a game quite as terrifying – the sound design is exemplary and you're forever straining to listen for the tell-tale signs of its movements - either the creatures heavy feet stomping across the floor of the complex or the sound of a vent opening or the familiar hiss as it desperately searches for you.

The Alien isn't the only threat on the station – huddles of survivors and  SPOILER  will confront you as you make your way around the claustrophobic environments of the station. 

If I have any issues with it - and this a tiny gripe - it's that it drags on a little too long. This may feel like an odd complaint from somebody who regularly moans about the brevity of single player campaigns in games, but the endgame goes on for ages and also features my arch-nemesis of a quicktime event to conclude everything - but at least that's still infinitely better than a boss fight, eh?

So, Alien: Isolation. Buy it, play it, be as shit scared as I've been. It's a survival horror game done right.

Final report of the remote free space port Sevastopol, third officer reporting. The other members of the crew are dead. I should reach the corridor in about six weeks once I've summoned up the courage to come out of this locker.   This is Court, signing off.

Hang on, it looks relatively safe. I'm coming out n-

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