This week, Alien: Isolation has been nominated for a lot of BAFTA awards; in fact, that’s an understatement, as apparently the tribute to Ridley Scott’s franchise has picked up the highest number of nominations at this year’s awards ceremony. And I find myself sitting here wondering: WHY?
As a disclaimer, I’m generally not a huge fan of games that rely heavily on stealth, and I’m not going to say it’s a bad game, because evidently a lot of people enjoy it and it has a lot going for it for it to have received so many nominations for awards. However, it’s clear that nominations are not based on quality of game design, as a large number of players have a game-breaking bug not two minutes into the game, completely preventing progression without repeatedly restarting and crossing your fingers and toes in the hopes that maybe this time the door will be unlocked. I encountered this bug while streaming the game and it took 45 minutes of trying various “fixes” posted on the forum before a few game restarts finally seemed to resolve the problem and allow me to progress.
The fact that this has not been fixed, or at least hadn’t when I played a month or so after release, is absolutely astounding. Perhaps it has been fixed now, but the game has left a bad taste in my mouth. Because of my horrid first experience with the game, I just can’t seem to see it being an award winner.
I did persist after finally getting past what my friends have deemed as “Door-Gate 2014”, and honestly my opinion on the game didn’t improve. I feel like the gameplay is pretty lazy, as it seems so far that my entire purpose is to simply avoid vents with acid dripping from them, and walk relatively swiftly in the opposite direction of androids. Don’t get me wrong, I got a few decent scares out of being grabbed unexpectedly, but it was always a case of me not seeing the vent or not knowing an android was coming round the corner, and I corrected it next time I attempted the same corridor.
The one thing that really grinds my gears, however, is the lack of saves. I’ve had a big debate with others who enjoyed the game, who feel that infrequent saves are a good thing and should be preserved particularly in a survival horror setting. To some extent, I agree: the feeling that if you screw this up that’s it is incredibly powerful. However, I don’t feel that punishing your players is ever a good idea, regardless of genre. And frankly, the infrequent save points felt incredibly punishing. If I complete a significant milestone that was difficult for me to accomplish, then enter an elevator and return to my start point to tackle the next task, I expect there to be a save, either autosave/checkpoint style, or a save point for me to use when I’m about to enter or exit the elevator. Several times I accomplished multiple milestones, only to make a silly mistake and have to go back to the beginning where my last save was, which was unfortunately several milestones back because there had been no opportunity to save between.
One might say that it’s my fault for making a silly mistake, and sure, I’ll grant you that. But what if it weren’t? What if I encountered yet another crippling game bug like the door that never unlocked at the beginning of the game and required me to restart? What if my game crashed? Should I be punished for those too despite them not being my fault? To me, as a gamer and not a game designer, it just seems like good practice to include regular save points, at the very least after each major milestone is completed.
I’m not saying that games shouldn’t be difficult, but this practice of withholding checkpoints from players and making them replay long portions of the game if they screw up feels like a lazy way to artificially inflate difficulty, rather than making the game truly difficult and terrifying in itself. There were parts that were difficult, but most of the time I found them frustrating rather than challenging, as I mostly had to hide behind objects or in rooms repeatedly to wait for patrols to pass.
Again, I want to reinforce that I don’t think Alien: Isolation is a bad game. It has been nominated for awards in gameplay, music and design categories, and I know plenty of people who have played it through and enjoyed it immensely. However, that is not to say that it is above criticism, and I feel like there are a lot of areas the game could be significantly improved. I can even see how enjoyable it might be to try and play cat and mouse with perhaps the scariest sci-fi creature of all time. Sadly, from my poor first impressions of the game due to a game-breaking bug plus having to repeat the same 20 – 30 minute section of the game due to making a mistake or getting lost and not having a save to keep me going, one thing has become quite clear: Alien: Isolation just isn’t for me.