Tag Archives: Sega

Alien: Isolation – Hands-on at E3 2014

Alien: Isolation - Hands-on at E3 2014

“How was it?” He asked eagerly, already knowing the answer this his hilariously nonchalant query. He stood guard over the curtained hands-on demos Sega was showing off at this year’s E3 convention, watching as people went in slowly, cautiously and came out…different. I had just spent the past half hour playing Alien: Isolation and I knew there was only one answer.

Alien: Isolation is intended to be the Alien game we always wanted. While there have been decent games based on the storied sci-fi franchise (see: 2011’s Aliens Infestation and 2010’s Aliens vs. Predator), many have gone the way of last year’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, which is to say terribly. Granted, Colonial Marines is deliberately more Aliens than Alien and thus more action-oriented, but it’s still pretty awful.

Isolation is, as its name suggests, about being alone against both the Xenomorph and other unsavory threats. In it, you play as Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, searching for her mother in the time between the films Alien and Aliens. The alien cannot be killed, forcing you to hide as it begins to learn how to more effectively hunt for you.

However, in this demo, instead of playing any of the game that we were treated to in a hands-off theatre demo just prior, I am dropped into what appears to be a challenge mode. Or at least that’s what it most likely is. In the upper left corner is a clock tracking the time it takes you to complete your objective, and it starts off by listing off three optional goals to take 20 or so seconds off of your final time. This includes collecting ID tags and locking down a stairwell and not using your motion tracker.

That last one seems absolutely ludicrous. Taken directly from the films, the motion tracker is a little handheld device that plots moving objects near you which you can pull up by holding down R1, forcing your focus to slim down to the tracker itself, reducing everything else to a fuzzy shroud of danger and darkness. It’s a neat little addition to the mechanic that really highlights how empowered the Xenomorph is and how little knowledge can do to stop the inevitable.

Let’s talk about the inevitable. The challenge starts off in a single room, completely devoid of anything save for a few supplies and a flamethrower. I end up seeing this room a lot. Like, a lot. Towards the end, as sweat simultaneously fuses my hands to the controller and slips the sticks from my thumbs, I skip picking up even a single item. It’s a fruitless exercise.

Alien: Isolation

Your goal, as far as I could tell without completing the challenge, is to make your way from one area to another, start a generator, and then escape as alarms sound and lights flash all around you. It is a wholly terrifying experience. On cue, every time, the alien crosses your vision as you first exit the safety of the starting room. Immediately, I always crouch behind a crate and wait for it to meander away, intently watching the dot on the motion tracker flicker this way and that way as I unintentionally hold my breath.

The way the first area was laid out was such that it formed something like a squared-off tennis racquet with two small air vents connecting small alcoves around either lower corner and the interior expanse taking the form of a room filled with towering server-like structures. My go-to move here was to dash to one of these air vents (which eerily and automatically open aperture-style when anything moves near it, including the Xenomorph), wait for it to settle into an area, and dash along either side to the middle room.

This worked about 80% of the time with the other 20% resulting in the alien catching sight of me, letting loose a bloodcurdling scream, and smashing and clamoring its hardened claws against the clattering and tinny metal ship interior as it sprints straight for me. It is no less scary the twentieth time than the first. It’s pretty great.

Alien: Isolation

In the room, there’s a chance for you to dash to the next area, but the safer bet is to hide in one of the nearby lockers, offering you one last moment of solace before embarking on the next half of the challenge. Oh, did I say solace? I meant regret. When the alien comes by and you see it snarling—dripping its gloopy drool from its shimmering fangs—through the vents, you can pull back on the stick to move further away, implementing an in-game representation of a natural reaction, one akin to leaning in a shooter to dodge an incoming headshot.

More than that, you can also press a button to hold your breath, something we see in the hands-off demo just before, with your vision blurring and your heart thumping with a vengeance as you keep holding. Unfortunately, there is no tutorial prompt telling you how to do this in the challenge, so I just pull so hard back on the stick that I fear I’ll snap it right off, holding my own breath instead of this unfortunate Ripley’s.

Luckily, the one time the alien chooses to hover around, incessantly crossing back and forth before me, he doesn’t quite smell the probably fragrant human fear emanating from my and Amanda’s body. But crossing into the next area does little to reduce my constant paranoia. There is just about no time to which I am not crouching and not seeking a table or locker or something to hide behind or beneath. It’s a largely open corridor with slightly segmented rooms making up its length, the one furthest away housing the generator (obviously).

Alien: Isolation

Needless to say, I never quite make it to the end. I manage to turn on the generator quite a few times, but then the whole place seems to go into Freak The Fuck Out mode, where every alarm and every light ever made in the history of the universe goes off and draws the alien into what I can only assume is an increasingly soured mood. First he spots me under a table. Then he catches me trying to make a run for it. And then he somehow sneaks up behind me. And then and then and then…

I set the controller down, truly impressed with what I’ve played of Alien: Isolation, which comes out later this year on October 7. The overbearing threat, though singular in its number, is entirely unsettling. You can thrive on the only tools you are given and nothing more, though the supplies will probably come in handy in other encounters. The sound design is crucial, shaking every part of you when you hear that shrill cry and the floor-crunching stomps coming your way.

As I step out from the darkened area, I manage to reply to the sadistic fellow.


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The Love Letter That Is Wreck-It Ralph

The Love Letter That Is Wreck-It Ralph

So I finally saw Wreck-It Ralph. Yes, over a month after its release in the United States, I finally saw the most video gamey movie of the year next to Indie Game: The Movie. But while one was about the world surrounding video games and the struggle to create them (and really, just the struggle of creating things in general), the other was about the world within games and directed itself towards one singular question: what if?

What if…what? Of course it asks the What If of what happens when you aren’t playing games à la Toy Story and questioning what happens when you don’t have an eye on your toys, but Wreck-It Ralph addresses something deeper than that, something that goes beyond the movie screen, just as Ralph went beyond his own game.

If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s a computer-animated film from Disney about a ridiculously large fellow named Wreck-It Ralph. He’s about nine feet tall and has hands the size of wrecking balls, which isn’t as strange as it sounds because Ralph is actually a video game character. He and a whole slew of other digital folk reside in an arcade and once it closes up each night, everyone stops pretending to be whatever they’re supposed to be and just become normal people.

Except for the bad guys. You see, all the bad guys have trouble being accepted in a world of sidekicks and heroes and the townsfolk that need saving because they’re the ones that the townsfolk need saving from. And I guess it’s hard for the inhabitants of Niceland to forgive Ralph every day for wrecking their homes as Fix-It Felix repairs everything, but it’s harder for Ralph, an all-around nice guy who just happens to play the role of a bad guy, to go on not being appreciated. After all, the good guys win medals.

And from there we go on a wacky whirlwind of an adventure, a nice family-friendly romp that I actually quite enjoyed (though it definitely does hit its slumps in the pacing department). But it’s also full of, well, my childhood. And my teenage years. And my everyday life. Wreck-It Ralph spans an incredible breadth of callbacks and references that anyone that has ever played a video game can appreciate on some level. Hell, even living in the world and soaking in pop culture will do it.

Just within the Bad-Anon group, a self-help group for characters coping with being the villains of games, we have Bowser, Zangief, Doctor Robotnik, M. Bison, Clyde, Kano, and an axe zombie from House of the Dead who apparently is named Cyril. And that’s just within the opening scene of the movie. You have a headlining Nintendo character sitting with a Sega staple next to one of the most recognizable orange ghosts ever known to man. It’s impossible not to get a little giddy over just the concept of Wreck-It Ralph.

But that’s all surface level stuff. That’s just for the people who probably at some point in their lives actually paid attention to video games, at some point resigned themselves to falling into some digital realm and reveling in their intangible victories and very real defeats. That doesn’t mean, though, that that’s where the creators of the movie stopped. Just from the kart racing, you can tell (like, for instance, that it’s a kart racer and not just some racing game); there are triple projectile power-ups, boost strips, and goofy drifting. The jump noise that Fix-It Felix makes is almost a dead ringer for Mario. The long-lost Q*bert makes an appearance, replete with Coily and company. The bartender from Tapper is taken to his logical conclusion and it is wonderful.

And you quarter-up. This, beyond anything else in the movie, really hits hard. When that little girl in the arcade puts her quarter down on the occupied racing machine, it felt like someone had reached into my core, grabbed onto whatever was in there, and just squeezed. A lifetime’s worth of gaming in dingy, poorly lit arcades to sitting on the floor of my friend’s room to standing among the unwashed masses at E3 all overwhelmed me in an instant. Years of dealing with cynics and trolls has deadened me on the inside, but that simple little action melted me.

It spoke to the genesis of my being and thus shook the entirety of my timeline. I was shattered and rebuilt as I once was, timid and scared of not only the sights and sounds overwhelming my senses but also the people engulfing me. I was back in that sea of people, drowning as I held onto my quarter. It was a raft that allowed me to survive there, but I knew I had to wield it as a weapon if I wanted to thrive there or that raft would turn into an anchor. All it took was a quarter to propel me, to instigate me to believe and act. That little insignificant moment that flew over so many other heads as either an unknowable mystery or just another of many other homages made me remember.

Walking out of the theatre, mind atwitter with knee-weakening nostalgia, I overheard a conversation. A grandparent—presumably—had taken his granddaughter to this particular midday showing, and walking out, she asked him, “what’s an arcade?”

Wreck-It Ralph isn’t a What If of what happens when you don’t keep an eye on your video games or a What If of what happens when you decide you can’t go on doing the same thing ever day or even a What If of what happens when Disney convinces a bunch of companies that it’ll do their brands proud in an animated movie. It’s a What If of what happens when you want to remind people of where we’ve been and where we’re headed. It’s a What If of enabling a grandfather and a granddaughter generations apart to connect over the simple idea of playing games around other people.

And what if we went back to that? What if we still lived in a world where we quarter-upped? What if all it took was a quarter to push a kid towards confronting the frothing sea and finding a passion amidst the waves?

What if we all loved something so deeply that it was impossible not to share?

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Playing With The Box: The Unfinished Swan

As my days fill more and more with people either with child or having raised a child (an inevitable effect of growing older), a few things stand out. First, I’ve become less tolerant of discussions revolving around the weather and what’s for lunch. Second, babies aren’t really qualified to be alive until another three or so months after birth, or so I’m told. Third, children still love to play with the strangest things.

For me as a kid, that was especially true. As much fun as I would have playing on my Sega Master System and later my SNES, playing with what was ostensibly trash was the best. From building dioramas to turning pipe cleaners into super posable action figures, I rarely became as entranced with the real thing as I would with corrugated cardboard. This big box that the new TV came in can be my fort and the box that my new Power Ranger came in can be his fort. Sometimes the TV’s remote control would get involved and be a wrestler or something, but whatever. It was fun!

And apparently that’s still a thing among children today. “They’ll always have more fun with a handful of rubber bands and some paperclips,” one friend would say. “Just give them an empty box and you’re set for the day,” would say another. And it’s not hard to see why. As children, we basically know nothing about the world we live in. Like, at all. We know hot things are hot and cold things are cold, but aside from that (and, despite what your mother told you, that most things are lickable), we just know that things can simply exist. If we can dream it up, we can believe with all our hearts that it is real because knowing nothing, we have nothing to contradict our proposal of a fountain that spews out churros or every forest has a treasure chest hiding somewhere deep inside it or a mammal that lays eggs—oh wait, never mind on that last one.

Either way, it’s our imagination that makes these throwaway, everyday things that seem extraordinary. It’s our literally limitless creative minds that fill in these gaps of practical knowledge with the fantastical and it makes adults envious. They know the truth. They know that some things just are not meant to be and never will be and they envy the fact that children still have no clue that physics will always dictate that Clifford the Big Red Dog simply cannot exist.

But if you play The Unfinished Swan, the longtime project of former comedy writer Ian Dallas and his development studio Giant Sparrow, you can reach that point again. The fairy tale narrative sets the somber stage (a young boy chases after an unfinished swan that escaped a painting his late mother left behind), but the gameplay is what really brings it home. Starting out on a stark white background, you see nothing—literally nothing—before you except a pale limbo, a wan purgatory in which you know and see nothing.

And then you paint. You press a button and a glob of paint shoots forth from you and it hits…something. It splatters, but not against anything flat. It converges. You fire again and it splatters again, this time filling in more of the picture. It’s a corner. But a corner to what? A room? A box? Perhaps where that incomplete avian ran off to?

Then it dawns on you, slow in its approach but fast and hard once it lands like a slap in the face minus the conviction. You are awakened to the notion that there is an entire universe in this blank white canvas and you just can’t see it. In an excited frenzy, you begin to blanket the world around you, revealing the walls surrounding you. It’s a nigh macabre scene of black revelations erasing the white unknown. But then the pattern breaks. The wall isn’t there.

It’s a door, or so it seems. You walk through it and paint a hallway. Curious. You take a turn and another turn and finally another before you are greeted by a recently darkened bench. A bench? Painting further, a pole is revealed. A lot of them. A forest! And to the right, a (black) picket fence. An entire countryside is hidden in the blanked out scene and you are just discovering it.

These opening moments of The Unfinished Swan are more than just about discovery but about a moment of clarity, albeit a disingenuous one. Much like a child, you have the same realization that, crudely put, things exist. In fact, so many things exist, that nothing is really stopping every conceivable thing from existing. Just moments before, that wall and that bench and those trees didn’t exist, so what’s stopping the next splash of black from revealing a rocket ship or a platypus-bear or anything else you can think of?

Which, given some thought, is a sobering notion. Much like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we are merely ascribing meaning to these shapes. What we know in this monochrome environment is what we see. If it’s all white, we see and know nothing. If throw our paint around, we see forms in the dichotomous haze, but nothing is certain. It is merely a silhouette of something unknowable to us. Keep painting, and we’ll soon know nothing once again.

Our tool for knowledge can just as easily be our tool for ignorance. As soon as we realize that we are limited to applying something uncertain to something unknown, the illusion of infinity shatters, but paint it all black, and we can try to believe again, but it is fruitless. It is the return of Plato’s prisoners to the cave. We’ve seen and understood the intangible truth and we can’t go back to our ignorance feigning knowledge.

And so we grow up. Tying Spider-Man to a helium balloon you got from a super market fruit stand no longer seems all that much like saving the world and more like ruining a perfectly good albeit lazy marketing display. That realm of possibilities begins to feel more like a pen than a wide open sky, no more boundless than the letters of the alphabet or the cherries in a sundae. There’s a finite number of things under the sun. Would it be selfish to want to see it all? Would it be to hope that there’s more to the world? That everything you wished for exists somewhere?

That this box is more than a box.

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