As one of the most anticipated titles – horror or otherwise – of 2014, Alien: Isolation has a lot of hype to live up to. True to form, it looks like an exciting game and represents a return to what made the original film a classic.
We here at Non-Fiction Gaming have previously joined in singing the praises of Creative Assembly’s venture into the horror genre.
Why then am I nervous about it? Everything seems to be shaping up nicely. I’ll tell you for why: as my belated playthrough of Outlast trundles on, I am seeing negative patterns that may resurface in Alien.
What do Alien: Isolation and Outlast have in common?
Not all horror titles are created equal. There are many different sub-species within the one genre. The puzzle-heavy Silent Hill, the FPS mix of F.E.A.R., and the gory Dead Space. So what is it about these two games that lets me draw such ominous conclusions?
Both Outlast and Alien: Isolation have taken to minimising enemies and utilising them cleverly rather than send wave after wave of zombies after you.
Although Amnesia: The Dark Descent also subscribes to this paradigm, the time-limited approach to patrol (the enemies often spawn, patrol for about a minute, then vanish) is what separates it from the other two.
When Outlast places the player in a situation where he/she is required to collect a series of items or flip switches (e.g. the generator in the watery basement), the same enemy patrols indefinitely. While this does have obvious advantages in terms of prolonging tension, it warps the protagonist-antagonist interaction.
The no-recourse stealth gameplay promotes overly-cautious strategy and slows the game down. Outlast struggles with pacing issues as a result. In fact, these pacing problems are the result of my slow progression through the game. I found I struggled to maintain focus in any extended session playing.
Given there is only a single Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation, the only option for any sort of patrol scenario is to keep the alien on a continuous pattern. In the same vein as Outlast, this sort of interaction can box the player in and prevent progress.
While Creative Assembly have said that each area will have multiple entry/exit points – in order to facilitate the player slipping past the Xenomorph (or the Xenomorph sneaking up on you) – I cannot help but be concerned. The range of the alien’s senses effectively shrinks the distance between it and the player even at the farthest point of its patrol.
The problem of stinted pacing is exacerbated by both games’ emphasis on story. A strong narrative and world design is something I have cheered for but in the case of Outlast it worried me. Because these games require you to identify with the character, often there is no meaningful progression.
As such, most of the exposition comes in the form of hidden documents or such. Which, in turn, creates a problematic dichotomy: either you take part in several small versions of the cat-and-mouse game or you lose access to the narrative. Given the issues discussed above, these cat-and-mouse games really impede your path through the game.
What Have Creative Assembly Done About It?
From what I can gather, the level design in Alien: Isolation is an open one. Creative Assembly have said that each area will have multiple ways to get in, get out, and hide. An open design would work wonders for the interaction between player and Xenomorph if the entire world is open to both parties.
The cues given off by the player should be what keeps the enemy nearby, not limitation in the game. If, however, only the level that the player inhabits is relevant, it will fall into the same pitfall as Outlast.
Ultimately, my concern about Alien: Isolation is not that it will not be scary, but that it will be plagued by the same pacing issues that a number of horror games fall into. Dead Space is another game that struggles with smooth progression despite not limiting the number of Necromorphs.
Although the slaughtering of countless monsters is what fills in the slow periods nicely. Without that sort of interlude, Alien: Isolation may fall victim to the same troubles as Outlast.
My worry is not that the games are not scary (except Outlast can be extremely predictable at times), it is that they become tedious when a player is stuck in the patrol cycle of a particularly difficult level.