Jaime Cross Interview – Team Junkfish (Monstrum)

Brute Attack

If for some tragic reason you’ve been locked in Davy Jones’ sub-aquatic locker for the past two years, then you might not be aware of Monstrum, the brilliant and brutally addictive horror game from Dundee-based Team Junkfish. Let me fill you in on the details while you splutter up all of that rancid seawater.

In development since 2013 and approved for Steam Greenlight program in March 2014, Monstrum has proven popular with horror fans since the game left Early Access in May of this year. The game is essentially a massive nautical nightmare; you find yourself trapped on a decrepit 1970s cargo ship, with the rest of the crew nowhere to be found. Well, sort of – it depends on what exactly you classify as ‘the crew’. Unfortunately, it soon transpires that you’re actually stuck on board with a monster who is only too happy to make your acquaintance…before it mercilessly crushes/eats/twists your head off, naturally.

Your goal then is pretty simple; repair one of the three escape vessels by collecting the necessary tools and get the hell out of dodge. So far, so Slender, you might say – but wait, there’s a twist. What sets Monstrum apart from the majority of its creepy collectathon rivals is the fact that it’s a roguelike with extensive procedurally-generated systems in place. Every time you fire the game up, you have no idea what the interior structure of the ship will be, no idea where the specific items you need are located and, perhaps most importantly of all, no idea which of three different monsters is currently hunting you. With no one layout to memorise or a single strategy to master, the pressure can quickly ratchet up to ridiculously high levels as you desperately try to make your daring escape. In the words of Scooby Doo‘s Shaggy, “Zoinks Scoob!”

Monstrum is a harsh, demanding but incredibly rewarding game of hide and seek on the high seas, and one that’s had me gripped (like a monster slowly crushing the life out of a frightened, isolated sailor perhaps) since release. Keen to learn more about the game and its dastardly delightful design, I reached out to Jaime Cross, Team Junkfish’s Director and Audio Designer to talk about monsters, audio design and the exciting multicultural future of the horror genre.

How did Team Junkfish originally form as a studio, and what’s the story behind the cool name?

Team Junkfish came together in 2011 at Abertay University. In the third year we had to do a big group project – they have a lot of big briefs from Microsoft, Sony, Disney etc., but students also have the opportunity to form their own team and present their own idea. They can pitch it to the lecturers and if it’s good they’re given the go-ahead. Back then, there were currently nine members of what would become Team Junkfish, and they wanted to do this big idea but they were told they were probably not going to be able to do it unless they got a sound guy. So they pitched for a sound person in front of the entire year, and I just said “I’ll do it, aye!” and that was kind of it. There’s been ten of us ever since, and it’s coming up on four years now in total that we’ve been working together. It’s scary when you think about games companies and the way they can come and go, but yeah we’ve been doing this for four years and we officially became a company two years ago now. The Team Junkfish name came from when we did our first big prototype, and it was basically a giant flying mechanical whale, and we just went “Yeah, let’s call it Junkfish!”

Your previous projects FooFoo and DinerSaur were aimed more at children and younger audiences. What prompted the shift to darker, more adult material, or was it just a natural evolution of the team’s creative urges?

Originally the FooFoo game was part of the Samsung Student Developer Challenge, so we put it together mainly for that competition. We did quite well – we got a lot of press out of it, which was very cool. DinerSaur was made for the Dare to be Digital competition a couple of years ago, it was a cool augmented reality arcade shooter. The game itself was technically made just by six members of the team (then known as Prehistoric Spatula) over a period of nine weeks. That included three programmers, two of the artists and me doing the audio. We had thousands of people come by and play it, and after that we sort of decided “So what do we actually want to do now?” Everybody pitched in with ideas, and the one that we thought seemed the most interesting and doable was Monstrum. It was more of a diplomatic way of moving forward rather than an impulsive choice of “Let’s just do horror games”.

Where did the original idea for Monstrum come from, and what were the main influences throughout the game’s development?

The original pitch was basically what would happen if you mixed The Binding of Isaac with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We ran with that concept for a roguelike horror game, something that would be replayable over and over and where you’d never get the same jumpscare twice or anything like that. That was the main emphasis that we were working on – to make a really replayable horror game.

What was the reason for situating Monstrum in the 1970s? What is it about that time period and aesthetic that was crucial to the look and feel of the game?

With regard to the game’s setting, the designer decided that with landlocked locations – such as the usual horror game tropes of hospitals and asylums – not only are these environments overused, but theoretically you could also just break a window, escape and you off they go. However, if you’re stuck on an abandoned ship out at sea then you have to escape in a more specific way, because otherwise you’re probably just not going to meet a great fate otherwise! (Laughs) As far as the ’70s aesthetic went, it was down to a mixture of things. In the original concept for the game, the player was supposed to be exploring an old ship but one that’s set in the current time period. It’s since shifted from that obviously, but generally we just thought that it was an interesting aesthetic that hasn’t really been done all that much. We thought it would be something that would make the game stand out that little bit more.

Hunter StairsYou’ve previously described the Monstrum experience as ‘Alien on a boat’ but interestingly you suggest that the player’s experience is more closely aligned with the character of Captain Dallas rather than Ripley. Can you elaborate a bit more about this distinction?

It was one of those weird things where we thought yeah, ‘Alien on a boat’, that’s a really great way to describe the game. Then Alien: Isolation got announced and we were just like “Fuck!” It kind of put a bit of a dampener on us all; we thought we were screwed. This new game is coming out, it’s going to look amazing – we’re done. However we gradually started to pick ourselves up after that and reminded ourselves that actually no, Monstrum is probably going to be quite different from Isolation – we’re aiming at different markets, let’s just keep going. We were at EGX Rezzed in 2014 and Creative Assembly were also there with a big Alien: Isolation booth set up with VR headsets, so we got a good chance to compare the two games there. That was quite reaffirming, as it showed us that they were different enough.

The focal point of the Ripley/Dallas character comparison was based around that sense of impending doom that surrounds your character in Monstrum. Namely that Ripley survives her alien encounter and makes it through the film as a survivor, whereas Dallas doesn’t! We wanted to apply those feelings to the players; that you’re not Ripley, that you’re probably not going to make it out of this. You’re just going to have to get out of there as best you can and try. I think that was the basis for comparing the two characters.

I understand that you prototyped Monstrum as a board game first before moving ahead with the bulk of production. How was that as a testing experience, and did it highlight any issues about the game that you hadn’t previously considered up to that point?

It was very, very loosely tied into the game and really strange, but it did give us a feel for how the real game would eventually play out. Essentially it was a singleplayer board game where you had to move through the randomly placed corridor pieces and rooms to find the random items potentially hidden in them. We had all these different systems going on, but some of them didn’t carry across all that well because they were based on dice rolls and stuff like that, but in terms of generally planning out whether all this would work as an actual game, it really helped us look at different issues we might not have properly considered before. How should things be placed? What speed should this monster travel at? How easily should it be able to find you, or chase after you? Little concerns like that eventually become much bigger things once you actually start to develop the game and are really important, so having that sort of stuff trickle down into the final thing was pretty useful. It’s stuff that we’re doing again now as we’re prototyping new ideas – paper prototypes are still very important.

Did you ever have any ideas about including randomised sea conditions in with all the other procedurally-generated elements of the game, or would that have been just a technical nightmare or simply not fun for the player?

Yes we did speak about having different environmental conditions as part of the experience. Things such as large-scale environmental fires – you can manually set small fires in the game with the fuel cans, but we wondered what if they could break out around the ship itself? Or what if you had some decks which were flooded and now underwater? We even talked about small things such as whether to have the ship rock back and forth, but ultimately it was one of those things where in the end we decided that it would be a nice idea, but it really wasn’t that important and far too much work for the little return it might give. They were all good ideas, but ones we couldn’t really make viable. Also, on the topic of having choppier seas, because we started Oculus Rift integration very early on, that was one of the big things that made us think having a rocking ship wouldn’t work well and potentially might just make people feel even more sick! (Laughs)


Speaking of Oculus, how is the VR integration coming along? With the game already out at this point, how do you plan on making VR functionality feel like an integral part of the experience rather than just a bolted-on extra?

We’ve been working on the VR integration right from the beginning of the project, developing for Oculus Rift alongside the game since we started in September 2013. It’s not like we finished the game and just decided to stick the Oculus stuff on it and then start again from scratch. So in that sense it’s been really good, we’ve been aware of any issues that we need to address, and we’ve been going back to fix them as we’ve been moving along.

Our programmer Stephanie has been getting all the VR stuff sorted; there’s a lot of weird things that you might not consider when designing for VR, such as user interfaces and post-processing effects. Elements like that don’t really work the same way in the Oculus because of the stereoscopic screen. Getting that sort of stuff working has been quite difficult, so she’s done a lot of iteration on the UI systems and solved some weird clipping and animation issues. It’s all these little weird problems that you might not consider all that much until you run into a wall and you can suddenly see through the entire ship – that is a bit of a problem!

The concepts of player agency and responsibility are particularly well implemented in Monstrum – how did you manage to balance the game’s difficulty so that it works well for both brand new players as well as expert ones?

A lot of this stuff came about from simply doing lots of playtests to see if people wanted another shot – yes or no? If players came from a background of having already played roguelikes such as The Binding of Isaac and knowing how those sort of games work, then they could quickly adapt, learn and experiment through dying. The main issue came from people coming in from the opposite end of things who hadn’t played a roguelike before. They would go “What do I do? I don’t know what to do with this thing! Nothing is telling me anything!” We didn’t want things to be hand-holdy; Monstrum is very much a difficult game, and we say up front that it is hard and you will die quite a lot. So we iterated quite a lot on the initial tutorial room which basically just says “Here’s some stuff, this is what you use it for, press these buttons for interactions”, but beyond that you’re on your own. You have to explore, you have to check your journal to see “How do I solve this situation? Ah, I need to need to find X, Y and Z to escape – okay, got it.” The main thing that we were looking to build into the game was that as long as the player learns something from each death, it doesn’t feel like a complete failure on their part. It’s stuff like that where if you’re new to the game and run into a new monster, you don’t know what it’s going to do so it’s about picking up on its behaviours. On your next run, if you get the same monster again, you’ll then have a better idea of how to deal with it. Picking up important information like that is very cool, and interesting to see how different people do it.

Hunter Attack

Have you been surprised by the ways in which players go about tackling the various monsters and escape routes? Have there ever been instances where you’ve seen players do something totally unexpected?

Yeah, there’s been quite a lot of those instances just because of the way the game is built. The procedural generation is one thing, but the monsters are all AI-driven, so there’s no real pre-set things or scripted things that happen as a result. There have been a few instances where I’ve seen players carefully following a plan, and then suddenly BANG! A door suddenly just flies through the corridor and you see them freak out! This also goes on in the Team Junkfish office itself, especially with the Oculus Rift testing. You just see people go jumping right out of their chairs! It happens at trade shows as well, so it’s been fun to see how people take to that and all the different instances that can happen. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody have the same exact runthrough, which has been our main thing, our overall objective. It’s a very emergent experience; we hear people telling their own stories about how they would be trying to find a particular item, and then out of nowhere this intense chain of other events kick off. I think that’s an interesting thing in games in general. Being able to give people that opportunity to have their own version of the same game is pretty cool.

Brute Grab

The way you have designed the monsters according to various forms of fear is a really interesting concept; the animalistic rage of The Brute, the claustrophobic paranoia of The Hunter and the cruel psychological mirth of The Fiend all come across really effectively in their designs. Can you talk about the inspirations behind each monster and what went into designing their unique AI behaviours?

In terms of the monster designs, we’ve always had those three basic archetypes in mind. The Brute is big and chunky, triggering your primal fear response when it’s chasing after you. Then you’ve got The Hunter which is the thing lurking in the dark making creepy noises, and then The Fiend which is the sadistic psychological one. Even when we didn’t know exactly what the monsters were going to look like originally, we’ve always had these design concepts in mind; we basically thought about what each one’s going to do, and then expanded out from that. The Brute was the first one we built because technically he’s the simplest. We built a lot of the backend AI work around him, and then adapted it for the other monsters to make sure that it worked for each of their unique behaviours. It was interesting to see it change up, especially when it came to stuff like The Hunter, because he’s completely different from the other two monsters in that he’s not really available on the ship and instead he pops out at you from the vents. It was interesting to get those systems all working together, especially from the audio perspective, to make sure that they all tied into the ship and the environmental sounds. You might hear a rumble and be able to identify it as the monster, or you might not and think “Oh no what was that? What do I do now?”

The Fiend

On that topic of encountering a new monster, you ingeniously put The Fiend into the game disguised as part of a routine lighting update. I’m guessing you must have heard some crazy horror stories of people encountering it for the first time?

We snuck it in just to basically beta-test it and see what we thought. Then we saw people on forums just going “Why are the lights going weird? What the hell is this thing?” and all that sort of stuff. We saw videos where people were just freaking about this strange new thing that had just killed them, and calling us sneaky bastards – we were just like “Yes, yes we are!” So yeah, it was pretty cool and it gave us a decent opportunity in Early Access to see how people took to it and tighten it up a bit more before release.

The in-game notes dotted around the ship allude to a spawning ground from which the monsters were presumably collected – is there a possibility that we’ll get to see this area in a future game?

We’ve talked about future stuff, and even if we’re not necessarily doing a direct sequel, it’s something that we’d like to keep continuity wise. It’ll be interesting to go back to it in a future game, even if it’s not the next one. We’ve created this little world, now how can we expand on it? We’ll see.


Any chance we’ll get to go up against the original test monster Sparky?

I’m not sure! It’ll be interesting to see if we can polish and change him up a bit more, and see what else he can bring to the table. I’ll mention that to the team – “Hey we’ve got a half-finished monster here!” (Laughs)

You’ve been using Ableton as your primary digital audio workstation throughout the project. What is it about that program in particular that appeals to you over Cubase/Logic/Pro Tools etc. and what VSTs and plugins do you tend to favour when working?

Ableton was one of the things that I was taught when I was at college alongside Pro Tools. I was mainly using Pro Tools going into university but it just kept crashing too much, so I decided “No, go away I’m using Ableton!” That was basically it, there was no big overarching decision to it and since then I’ve been using Ableton for the past four years nearly exclusively. As far as VSTs and everything goes, for a lot of the sound design in both the music and the game itself, I basically used a lot of Ableton stock stuff. Their granular delay is really cool – I’ve used it quite a lot on various different things, and it’s just a really weird sounding delay which stretches the sounds out – it’s weird to describe without letting you hear it, but it was one of the ones I’d always go back to. It was just basically a lot of the standard Ableton tools that I used, nothing super fancy or expensive. I’ve got some Waves stuff that I’m sometimes using in newer projects, but when it comes to stuff like EQs or compressors, I’m still find myself going back to Ableton because I know their tools so well. I know exactly how they affect sounds so I can get them to work really quickly. I suppose that’s me being lazy and not learning new tools to a degree, but it’s also down to familiarity of speed. There’s a trade-off there I guess.

The game’s soundtrack is an interesting blend of atonal textures layered with creatively melodic noises and effects. How did you approach the composition process for Monstrum?

A lot of the music wasn’t necessarily instrumentation as much, but rather a lot of sound design and manipulating samples. All the monster themes were built around that idea.

For example, with The Brute’s theme, I really wanted to focus on it being driving and pulsing because he’s this big physical thing charging after you. That’s a lot of percussive elements with a strong drumming pulse going on, which also ties into the creature’s fire elements too. There’s actually an engine loop playing on the track which I basically warped out of time, then pitch stretched it in Ableton to make it into a constant triplet rhythm. So you’ve got these two pulsing rhythms running through the track which give it this chaotic chase feeling. Then there’s other sounds like steam screeches and stuff like that going off in the background which are basically samples where I was pitch shifting them to have them sound melodically in tune.

Another VST I made use of was Camel Audio’s Alchemy. That one was really cool, but unfortunately it doesn’t really exist anymore. It allowed you to sweep through various presets, and it had the two XY pads which are similar to Ableton as well so it meant you could do really quick automations and stuff like that. It was very handy, especially for The Hunter’s themes where I used it quite a lot.

For The Fiend’s themes I ended up using one of the Max for Live plugins called Granulator. It’s an interesting granular synth that reads little bits of a WAV file which you can then stretch out and control how many times they’re repeated. Once I’d composed the Wander theme I simply dragged it into that synth to use it as an instrument. I ended up using the Wander and Chase theme as three separate instances, so that was interesting.

You’ve mentioned before that Silent Hill‘s composer Akira Yamaoka was a big inspiration for the soundtrack. What is it about Yamaoka’s music and compositional style that appeals to you?

There are a few different things which come to mind. Looking just at his music on its own, it’s the way he uses sound and samples to create that signature feeling of his. Like with the original Silent Hill soundtrack, it’s dark, gritty and very industrialised, whereas the later ones sort of become slightly more melodic. You can sort of see a different musical feel in the other games from that point on, but he still keeps that familiar really oppressive feeling across the whole series. When you’re hearing his music in the context of the game, it just works so well with all the stuff that’s going on. One of my favourite Silent Hill moments is the final Pyramid Head encounter from Silent Hill 2. There’s those big screeches and crunching sounds playing which mirror the movements of his knife and helmet, but then you’ve got this eerie choir coming in behind all that which gives the scene this sort of otherworldly, god-like feeling. It’s moments like that where he uses those sounds and contrasts really well together which I find pretty cool.

When designing the diegetic sound effects, did the procedurally-generated room reverb systems make your mixing process easier or more complicated?

It was a mixture of both really. Some things we made quite dry, such as footsteps, but because of the way our system worked, in some cases we had to pre-bake the reverb onto specific effects. The reverb in the game engine is mainly for spatialisation – making an effect sound like it’s actually in that area and space you’re currently in. There were some sounds which didn’t play well with our in-game reverb system, such as the environmental rumbles I mentioned earlier for example, so in those cases we had to pre-bake all of the reverbs onto those sounds and give them all different distances and drop-offs and things like that. Sometimes you just have to do one or the other really! (Laughs)

I particularly enjoy the small changes you make to the music as the game progresses, such as the way the main Wandering Alone on a Ship at Night theme will irrevocably change once you’ve encountered the monster for the first time.

It’s one of those things where I didn’t think it felt right for the music to sound the same after the player experiences the monster for the first time in a game. The way you’re now perceiving the game world is different, and so the music should reflect that change. It was one of those things where musically you’re almost starting from a blank slate, but then after the first monster encounter it should change and morph into something else. You know what you’re up against now, and you want to carry that feeling across in the music even when it’s not there onscreen. That’s what I wanted to accomplish with changing up the wandering themes.

You wrote a really interesting blog post which explores the fallacy of the ‘game audio as 50% of the experience’ adage. Why do you think that audio design is overlooked in a lot of games design, and what can be done to better integrate the process with the other design disciplines?

I have this personal philosophy about world building when it comes to games. I think everybody should work together to make a cohesive role as opposed to everybody doing their own little thing separately and hoping it’ll all come together and work somehow. In other words, there needs to be plenty of back and forth on everything – conversations like “What’s the monster design in terms of the art team’s perspective? What does it do design-wise?” I see what I can take from those discussions and make music from them basically. Rob Bridgett talks a lot about this design approach in his book, Game Audio Culture, which is definitely worth reading. He writes about this sort of stuff and how we should improve game audio workflow, and just game workflow in general. It’s a really interesting concept and I really hope it carries forward.

It’s one of those things where people will have a lot of appreciation and nostalgia for things like game music, but they might not necessarily understand how it actually works in the context of a game. A lot of the time, other members of the team might just say we need a sound effect for a specific thing, but it’s very much a black box situation. They’ll tell the audio designer what they need, but not talk about what they’re doing, and the audio designer will just make the effect and say “Here you go, does it work?” Again, communication is the big issue, and it’s essential in order to have programmers, artists and designers understand audio designers workflows and vice versa. It’s about seeing how you can come in from the audio side of things and how you can influence your fellow designers, how they can influence you, and making sure that when you’re trying to explain stuff to them, they’ll actually understand what you’re saying and not get confused with really weird technical jargon. I think that’s where a lot of the issues lie. With artists and programmers and designers, they have this shared lexicon where they can probably speak to each other roughly but they might not know the technical nuances of everything. However if I started speaking about things like parametric EQs, they’d all just be like “What is that? What does muddy mean? I have no idea what you’ve said…but okay!” (Laughs)

Yeah I suppose it’s hard to express some of those sonic qualities accurately from a linguistic perspective. It’s similar to trying to describe the minutiae of a particular part of the colour spectrum to another person; what might appear as a bright red to my eyes might look more like a reddy-brown to yours.

Yeah, it’s all about understanding the implementation process. When it comes to getting the right ‘feel’, a lot of people will say they really want an element to feel a certain way, but getting it to that point is not necessarily down to just making the right sound effect. You can make the effect so that it sounds good on its own, but when played in the game, it might jar with everything else that’s going on. Things are getting a bit easier with middleware programs like FMOD and Wwise, which are opening things up a bit more. We actually didn’t end up using anything like that in Monstrum for the final game, but we did use it for prototyping early ideas, which made it a lot easier for me to explain the various systems to programmers. I just had to set up all the logic and explain that this is how it works; these are all the music things, if you trigger this element, then this will happen. Even using it for non-traditional methods like that, it’s still really handy, and learning those tools is really useful for anybody who wants to do game audio and game music.

How do you see the future of Monstrum going forward? You’ve successfully released the game through Steam Greenlight and it’s now out there in players’ hands – do you consider the game to be a completed project now that you’ve left Steam Early Access, or as more of a platform you can go back and add new content to over time?

Well we did say we’d get the Oculus stuff out, so once that releases then the game’s technically ‘finished’, but it’s one of those things that’s never really finished as such. There’s lots of stuff we’d like to add in, or maybe even things we could go back to and patch up, but it’s just a case of having limited time and resources to actually do these things. That’s the unfortunate reality of the situation which has kept us from just going “Yeah let’s keep working on this and adding loads of extra monsters” and stuff like that. It’s a shame really, but we’ve got other projects that we’re trying to do as well, and I suppose we have to make sure that we can keep roofs over our heads!

As far as future plans go, I’m not entirely sure right now. We’d like to add more stuff, even if it’s just smaller things, but we’re just sort of seeing how things pan out. We’ve got a few bits and pieces of work that we’re doing just now to keep us ticking over while we’re sorting out new prototypes and all that sort of stuff. We’ll see how it goes, but we’d like to anyway.

Any thoughts about porting Monstrum to PS4 and Xbox One?

We’d really like to, but it’s another question of resources, and figuring out all the necessary backend stuff. If we speak to somebody at Microsoft for example, it’s working out whether they actually want the game on their platform and all those sorts of other hurdles. Hopefully though – it’s one of those things where if we got the greenlight to do it we probably would, but getting there is still quite a lot of work. Maybe!

Nightmare BonnieWith the rise of streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, do you see traditional horror games becoming something of a rarity in the future? In other words, do you see traditional solo horror experiences giving way to more community-based spectator sport experiences?

I’m not too sure. An interesting game to watch out for, especially in that regard, would be SOMA. I’m hoping it does really well and it does still prove a point that you can make these horror games that are primarily singleplayer experiences that you’ll want to really immerse yourself in and go through by yourself. At the same time though, I don’t think group/spectator-orientated horror games are necessarily bad. Things like Five Nights at Freddy’s have done really well, and every time I’ve seen [creator] Scott Cawthon speak about the games he’s basically said look, this is my work – if my games don’t appeal to you, they will to someone else. A lot of people complain about the rate at which he’s producing his games, but from a game developer perspective I think it’s really clever, because he’s got all this extra stuff that he adds in with each new game. It’s not just another churned out sequel with the same content, there’s more things going on in each new one; he might need to develop extra systems and stuff like that, but a lot of the same signature backbone is there every time. In that respect, I think he’s done really, really well off the back of it, and the way he’s kept the continuity across all four games is impressive as well. Reading all he’s posted about the series, he comes across as very humbled by it all and grateful for his fans – a genuinely nice guy. People are obviously engaging with that series and really enjoying his games, so there’s room enough for all types of horror games to co-exist. So Five Nights at Freddy’s might be a great horror game for one audience, whereas Silent Hill, Amnesia, or say something like Clock Tower might be more to the tastes of another. They’re all different horror games but they’re all horror games in their own right.

I suppose they aren’t mutually exclusive categories are they really – like you say, horror is now such a broad genre that there’s now games available for pretty much every particular niche.

I think the more interesting thing to look at is the different types of horror that will come in to the genre from other cultures. Japanese horror games are obviously quite big and they’re based on their own culture’s thoughts and considerations of what horror is, and the same goes for their films too. When films like Ring and Ju-on get remade as for American audiences, they didn’t really have the same sense of horror to them. They still work as basic horror films, but not in the same way; there’s this feeling that some crucial part was lost along the way. It might just be people insisting the Japanese versions are better because they were the originals, but other people might say that there’s slight translation issues and influences that aren’t as apparent culturally to western horror audiences as they would be to Japanese ones. That’s why those films might be way much more terrifying for Japanese audiences than western ones. In that respect, I’m sure there are horror things things we have in British culture which aren’t necessarily applicable to America or anywhere else in the world.


Seeing new horror games exploring different cultures of horror will be really interesting, especially with the advent of major game engines like Unity now going for free. This democratisation of game engines allows smaller teams or even individuals to make their own games – Digital Happiness, the Indonesian developers who made DreadOut are a good example, and seeing titles like that coming out of countries you might not expect is very exciting. There might already be a really thriving scene there, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s going to be really cool to see all these different aspects of horror, or even brand new genres coming out of these different cultural elements. A lot of people moan that this means we’re just going to get a load of random people flooding Steam trying to sell a load of random crap. While it’s kind of true on one hand, on the other it enables people who might never have had the opportunity to make their own games now have the means to get stuck in. Instead of just rushing something half-baked out, they could take years working on their magnum opus before finally releasing it; it might be this really good game. Look at people like Tom Happ with Axiom Verge for example. He was doing everything himself on that game, and when it came out people just thought it was absolutely amazing. People always seem to look at the negatives rather than the positives when it comes to things like an abundance of Unity games appearing. We used Unity for Monstrum, and other companies much bigger than us have also used Unity to great effect, it’s a powerful engine. Lots of people don’t seem to consider that however, instead just writing off anything on the engine as just another random Unity game. It’s a shame. I guess it’s one of those things – if you don’t like these games, then don’t play them – but people like complaining I guess!

What’s next for Team Junkfish then? Any plans to revisit Into the Sky perhaps?

Right now, we’re prototyping two different projects. One of them is completely different to Monstrum, while the other one has a couple of similarities, but is still quite a bit different. I’m not entirely sure which one we’ll be pushing ahead with, but hopefully we’ll have that sorted out in the next month or two. Into the Sky would be interesting to go back to, but it’s one of those things where we’d have to start from scratch again and look at the core idea and ask ourselves can we rebuild it. If these prototypes pan out then we’ll hopefully announce something next year. One of them is very similar to Monstrum, so hopefully we can capitalise on our success as well as learn from our mistakes.

Hunter Sub Escape

Are you looking at going through the Steam Greenlight process again for these projects, or have you considered crowdfunding it through Kickstarter etc.?

Greenlight is a weird thing, in that Valve have been saying for a long time that they’re planning to get rid of it, so we’re not really sure what the deal with that would be. It might be a case of having to go through the Greenlight process with new projects anyway, or it might already be gone by that point – we just don’t know. It’s the same with Kickstarter – we don’t know if we need to do a Kickstarter, and if we did that then there’s so much planning that needs to go into that. Now that’s a scary thought! (Laughs)

Fiend Attack

Monstrum is out now for PC, Mac and Linux.

Alien: Isolation – Review

Title Picture

(Reviewed on Xbox One)

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream…With Joy!

You’d have thought that after the release of the pretty much universally accepted train wreck that was Aliens: Colonial Marines back in 2013 that it was a very real possibility that we might never see another game set in the Alien franchise ever again, let alone get a spectacularly good one in the near future. However, within approximately the space of two years, we were collectively proven wrong. Creative Assembly delivered Alien: Isolation in November 2014, and it’s one of the freshest, most inventive, and cruelly difficult survival horror experiences to hit PC and consoles in recent years. To cut right to the chase; I absolutely love it.

The fact that we even have a decent game set in the Alien franchise following the toxic aftermath of Gearbox’s abortion makes Creative Assembly’s excellent efforts even more incredible in my opinion; fair enough, Creative Assembly’s game had already been long in development when Colonial Marines launched, but Gearbox’s game left such a sour taste in fan’s mouths that it seriously felt like it had totally killed off any remaining appetite for another game in the Alien franchise.

That was before Isolation had chance to punch out of its incubating development chest cavity and terrorise the survival horror crowd.

But before we delve under the lovely smooth, sleek, glistening carapace of Creative Assembly’s excellent experience, let’s take a few moments to further explore the toxic context the game launched in. That’s right, the aforementioned big white elephant (or Xenomorph) in the room, Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Game Over Man! Game Over!

Gearbox Logo

Back in February of 2013 when it launched at fan’s wallets like a money-grabbing Facehugger, Gearbox Software’s Colonial Marines delivered on none of the overblown and overhyped potential it promised, and displayed a disgusting level of dishonesty and deceit in the process. The game became the go-to industry standard example of appalling bait and switch tactics, underhand last-minute day of release review embargoes and before the glut of broken and unfinished games that washed up in the latter end of 2014, it was one of the most universally derided games in recent memory.

Whilst it’s by no means the worst game I’ve ever played (hey, wouldn’t that be a fun piece to write), it certainly isn’t anywhere near what I’d consider a good game, and certainly not one that lives up to the pedigree of the Alien franchise or the James Cameron film it’s supposed to follow (yes, you read that right, follow – it’s actually considered a legit part of the Alien cannon – fuck knows why). What made it so offensive in particular was down to the way the game was marketed; how drastically different the finished product was from all the pre-release footage and gameplay sections that Gearbox kept excitedly trundling out for both press and fans to see.

With the pre-release materials showcasing fantastic looking lighting effects, intelligent Xenomorph AI, awesome looking powerloader combat scenes and, can you believe it, lifelike marine squadmates to fight alongside, the game looked great. It was basically everything you could ever hope for in an Aliens game, and it looked like one that appeared to show a great respect for its source material. Yeah, I know, from what we saw in the E3 demos prior to release, that the game was not exactly doing anything drastically different or breaking new ground per se. It probably wasn’t going to be redefining first person shooters anytime soon or providing anything other than a cheesy rehashed plot of the film with even cheesier characters and dialogue. But all of that didn’t matter; it simply looked like a great marriage of a decent first person shooter experience mixed with the Aliens franchise in an exciting and respectful way – something fans had been clamouring to get their hands on for years.

With Gearbox at the development helm, things were looking very exciting indeed. A development studio with a strong history stretching back to the early ’90s 3D Realms days of Duke Nukem, and with a known pedigree for quality most recently affirmed with the highly-acclaimed FPS shooter/RPG looter Borderlands 2 which released mere months before Colonial Marines‘ launch, they seemed like the perfect choice of developer to finally do the Alien franchise video game justice.

In particular, it was the studio’s early work on the Half-Life expansion packs that garnered them a reputation among gamers for treating external franchise source materials with the utmost respect, diligence and care it deserves. In fact, Gearbox Software’s very first major project was 1999’s Half-Life: Opposing Force, a great expansion to the original Valve classic which basically was Aliens: Colonial Marines in all but name; you play as a soldier of a crack US marine platoon who drop into the Black Mesa Research Facility of the main game to wipe out the alien invaders running amok. Sound familiar?

With all these advantages behind it, what on earth could possibly go wrong with Colonial Marines?

Unfortunately, the answer was a lot. Things went very fucking wrong indeed. FUBAR, you might even say if you were a colonial marine.

Motion Tracker

In the end, Colonial Marines, for all its hype and hyperbole, was nothing more than a clumsily cobbled together series of Alien-themed shooting galleries, with mediocre…well, everything really. Aside from a couple of decent one-off horror/stealth themed sections, the game was a gloopy mess of poor writing, hopelessly inadequate AI, weak Call of Duty corridor shooter sections, massively mis-represented graphics, dull lighting effects and poorly-implemented co-op features to name just a few of its plethora of faults. Finally, to top it all off, if you did manage to heroically slog your way through the entire campaign, an unfinished bolt-on DLC tease ending was your final reward; adding yet another insult to a by now very much gangrenous injury.

Overall, there was just this great big lacklustre feeling of disappointment permeating every aspect of the game’s design. The final game looked nothing like what had been previously shown; in fact, it was a hell of a lot worse than anything we’d been previously shown. Amazingly, the short E3 2011 demo looked more entertaining than the final game, and it actually looked like progress had been going backwards between that demo and the finished product, with many features and scenes that had been stripped out completely.

Obviously, things are of course subject to change during the course of a game’s development – it’s why it’s called development after all – and tech demos and E3 presentations are typically small, highly polished vertical slices of the finished thing. But when there’s such a huge divide between the final game you buy in the shop or online and the work-in-progress materials that the game was shown off with – worse, the game looks far worse than the work-in-progress materials – then you know something has gone horribly wrong.

What made the whole debacle so offensive to fans though was the way that Gearbox appeared to have been blatantly lying through their teeth as they falsely advertised a product they knew was nowhere near what they had so eagerly promised for so long – they pulled the classic day of release review embargo trick, which is almost always a sign of something rotten afoot.

Today, if you go back and revisit some of the Gearbox Vidocs and PR interviews that were filmed during the development of the game, they’re just laughably bad and downright dishonest. Perhaps most amusingly, the Wii U version of the game, which was heavily promoted in the run-up to release as the ideal way to play the game (using the Wii U’s gamepad as a tactile motion sensor), and was purportedly going to be the “the best-looking console version of Aliens: Colonial Marines” was quickly scrapped only months after the negative reception of the PC and other console releases. The benefit of hindsight eh?

Unsurprisingly then, much like the wild spray of the Xenomorph’s acid blood from a close-quarters 12-guage shotgun blast, Gearbox Software’s Colonial Marines burned a deep bitter hole in the hearts and minds of many Alien fans; leaving a sizzling wound that can still be felt in the gaming community’s collective consciousness to this day.


It’s true; ask any gamer today what they think about Aliens: Colonial Marines, and they will likely hiss loudly at you, Xeno-style, before trying to scurry off into a nearby (because they’re always nearby) ventilation shaft. Okay, maybe not the ventilation shaft bit, but you get the idea. It’s really not a good game by anyone’s stretch of the imagination. Admittedly, all of this pain could have been avoided by fans holding off to read the reviews before purchasing, but as the press sites were embargoed until the actual day of release, many gamers (including chumps like me) excitedly (read: stupidly) rushed to pick the game up or had it pre-ordered like the fools we are. It became an industry standard reason why pre-ordering games is not a good idea.

Looking to the future, I don’t know if we’ll ever see a decent standalone tribute to Aliens in video game form, and, quite honestly, I’m not sure that we even need or really want one nowadays anyway. So many of the popular gaming franchises we have today have already borrowed so liberally and successfully from the Aliens action film blueprint – Halo, Quake, Gears of War, and Doom to name a few – that a specifically tailor-made Aliens shooting/action game feels almost unnecessary by this point.

Plus, like it or not, it’s kind of been largely done already in the Aliens Vs. Predator games. Unlike the AVP films that were released, some of the Alien Vs. Predator series of games were actually pretty good, usually on the human marine side of things at least (Aliens Vs. Predator 2 being my personal favourite). While not a dedicated Aliens game per se, the marine campaigns usually manage to offer some fun shooty-shooty bang-bang Xenomorph sections, which although they don’t exactly re-invent the shooter rulebook, are nonetheless entertaining if you’re a fan of either of the two mega Fox franchises.

Anyway, to wrap this prelude section up, that’s enough about my stupid spendings for today, but on a final point, I’ll leave Angry Joe’s humorous and spot-on review of the game here for more of the disappointing details (and, to be fair, some of the things the game did get right):

Get Away From Her You Bitch!


So a whole year before Isolation had even been announced, the damage had already been done to the Alien franchise in the gaming space; both to Colonial Marines itself and any lingering hopes for a future Aliens-themed game had been effectively nuked from orbit by critics and fans alike.

Not exactly ideal conditions for making a brand new creative endeavour in the Alien franchise then. However, much to everyone’s surprise, Creative Assembly were able to facehug the massive writhing body of disappointment and cynicism that was left in the wake of Colonial Marines, incubating a brand new experience in its predecessor’s still warm corpse (I know Facehuggers don’t attach to dead bodies, but just work with me on this one okay?)

Out from that mass of uncertainty ripped forth something amazing and new; a plucky and triumphant Hadley’s Hope in the dark looming shadow of the crashed promethean wreck of Gearbox’s failure. Developed by Creative Assembly, the game is, in my humble opinion, the finest game in the Alien franchise to date, and without a doubt the best Alien game you can play.

After such a commercial and critical failure, fans and critics needed an awful lot of convincing that Isolation wasn’t going to be just more of the deeply disappointing same. Far from it; Isolation is, if you will, the hulking jet black phoenix of claws, teeth and acid blood that’s risen from the carcinogenic flames of Colonial Marines, and in my opinion, it’s easily the best game of 2014, hands, claws and vicious spiked tail down. In a way, Isolation is like the hybrid Newborn creature at the end of Alien: Resurrection; it’s the dark and brooding sci-fi of the Alien franchise mixed with the tense scares of the survival horror genre – but unlike the Newborn, it’s a beautiful mix of styles that compliment each other so well.

If, like me, you get your masochistic kicks from being locked in what’s essentially a giant game-long horror house, then you’re in luck. In the words of the late great Donald Duck, “Boy oh fucking boy!” – you’ve come exactly to the right place. Alien: Isolation is an absolutely incredible game, and absolutely essential playing if you’re a horror game fan. The game is exceptional; in its vision, in its design, in the way it really manages to pull you in and really makes you feel right there and part and parcel of its horrifying universe. Whilst there are some aspects to it which I found to be slightly problematic, and places where the glossy finish of its finely polished exoskeleton fall away a tad, overall, my thoughts on Alien: Isolation are…well, I think some crude paraphrasing of the words of Ash are in order: It’s a damn near perfect organism, and truly one of the most unique and exhilarating horror experiences available in gaming today.

Perfect Organism

Alien Game Republic

“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor…”

Purity is exactly the right word to use when describing the brave vision Creative Assembly had for Alien: Isolation, and just how well they managed to pull it off.

The game is a first person horror simulator, aimed at delivering a hardcore horror experience chiefly centred around the hardcore horror player. It’s a bold and risky move, particularly considering that this is Creative’s first go at a horror title, especially in an era when most mainstream horror titles tend to opt for tried and tested action/adventure gameplay simply dressed up in a horror skin to make it somewhat visually scary – i.e. The Evil Within.

It’s a risk that was well worth taking however, as Creative Assembly have not only managed to create a fantastic experience in Alien: Isolation in its own right, but also repaired a lot of the colossal damage that Colonial Marines wreaked upon the franchise in gaming circles. Like I say, I’m of the opinion that a straightforward Aliens first person shooter is probably a bit uninteresting and unnecessary by this point, but for those who do want such a game, Isolation will have definitely removed a great deal of the horrible aftertaste that Gearbox’s effort left in both fan’s and publisher’s mouths last February.


Anyway, enough about that piece of hot mess, and let’s talk about the awesomeness that is Isolation. In a bold divergence from previous Alien video game efforts, Isolation by and large strips you of the atypical space marine power armour and pulse rifles you’re familiar with, and plants you firmly in the cream coloured Converse Hi-Tops of a civilian engineer. But not just any engineer – and no, it’s not Isaac Clarke in his civilian attire before you ask. You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley – incidentally the same Amanda Ripley that you see as an old woman in the photograph at the start of Aliens. And no, as entertaining as the thought might be to square off against the alien as an elderly OAP, Alien: Isolation thankfully takes place quite a number of years before Amanda starts drawing her pension and clattering about on her zimmerframe.

Set fifteen years after Ellen destroys the Nostromo in Alien, the twenty-six year-old Amanda (who now works for Weyland-Yutani as an engineer) is sent along with a recovery crew to retrieve the Nostromo’s flight recorder, which has been picked up by the decrepit Sevastopol Station (operated by a Weyland-Yutani competitor, Seegson, who deal primarily in second-rate synthetics), and hopefully find out what happened to her missing mother in the process.

Naturally, things quickly spiral out of control, and Amanda and her team discover that things have been going horribly wrong on the Sevastopol for quite a while. There’s frightened and dangerous humans scuttling about, terrified out of their minds and ready to shoot anything that darts out of the shadows. A multitude of murderous, malfunctioning Seegson synthetics – a cheaper line of synthetics that are of a much lower quality than Weyland-Yutani’s models – are strangely going berserk and coldly killing off survivors and anyone they consider to be breaking Sevastopol ‘protocols’. Last but certainly not least, there’s something else thudding around the cold, dark corridors of the Sevastopol…something not right, something…alien.

Not Just Another Bug Hut


In a refreshing change from past games based on James Cameron’s gung-ho sequel film, the design and creative vision for the game is an overtly big love letter to Ridley Scott’s original film. Rather than the objective being to shoot your way out guns akimbo, your aim in Isolation is beautifully simple; survive.

Alien: Isolation is designed to be an incredibly stressful survival experience, a painstakingly crafted virtual simulation of just what it would be like to be in that awful nightmare of a scenario yourself – trapped, alone and afraid whilst totally stressed out. As a result, it’s an extremely immersive and especially enjoyable gaming experience, one that’s full with horrific tension and dread pervading every moment.

The game is exceptionally difficult, and this is coming from someone who masochistically (read: idiotically) plays a lot of horror games on their top whack difficulty…well…when I’m feeling particularly brave that is. I’m not saying that trying to come across as some boasting dude-bro douchebag, it’s rather that I find that horror games in particular usually benefit from being played on the highest difficulty you feel capable of tackling, as you’ll often have an experience closer to the developers original intentions. For example, playing through something like Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within on the Nightmare setting makes that game significantly more challenging and fun to play than on the easier difficulties, and, to draw from another Mikami example, Resident Evil feels like an entirely different game depending on what difficulty you play on.

The same can’t really be said for Alien: Isolation. For the most part, the game still sets the bar pretty high when it comes to difficulty, no matter what setting you pick (although technically there is now a recently patched in exception to this, but I’ll discuss that mode a bit further in).

Ripley Side

In this sense, I consider Alien: Isolation to be the Dark Souls of the horror genre (okay, look, I know that’s a rather hackneyed expression these days, but just go with me here). It’s punishing, frustrating, and at times, seemingly impossible. But, just like how From Software’s acclaimed series has become evangelised in the eyes of its devoted fans for its unforgiving difficulty, I can’t sing high enough praises for Creative Assembly’s bold decision with Isolation to focus on delivering a hardcore Alien experience for diehard fans, potentially at the cost of losing the casual audience’s interest. Creative Assembly were determined to make their game the most fiendish and realistic simulation of being stalked by an Xenomorph; it’s a nightmare gauntlet of stress, tension and blind panic – which to be honest, is certainly not for everyone.

The gameplay takes the shape of a first person survival/exploration horror game, very much in the style of games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast. While some first person shooter elements are thrown into the mix from time to time, the emphasis is firmly on stealth, hiding and exploration over shooting. Amanda is an engineer, therefore not combat trained and armed to the teeth for extensive intergalactic combat like your average colonial marine, no, instead she relies more on her wits and technological wizardry to navigate the crumbling Sevastopol Station in one piece.


In fact, at times, it’s almost helpful to try and forget that you’re playing a survival horror game, and to pretend that you’re, once again, donning Big Boss/Solid Snake’s skin-tight sneaking suit, and playing a first person stealth title. Only without the cardboard boxes, chaff grenades and risqué adult magazines to distract the alien with, unfortunately. However, being an engineer, Amanda is rather good at MacGyvering together rudimentary devices to help her survive, such as smoke bombs to blind humans, EMP mines to short-circuit Working Joes and noisemaker grenades to lure the alien away from her current position.


As a result, whilst playing, you’ll need to be constantly collecting scrap and machine parts and cobbling together the right devices to survive each perilous situation the game throws at you. The games resource system has a similar feel to The Last Of Us, where the same sets of resources are required to build multiple devices, requiring you to pick and choose the right item for the right context. Just like in Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, where gambling with the short term needs versus long term strategy was vital to getting through Joel and Ellie’s journey, it’s essential to help Amanda survive her’s as well. Do you save those sensors and blasting caps you’ve been hoarding for a bigger, more costly specialised projects such as pipe bombs or EMP mines, or is it better to make more of the smaller, cheaper throwables which are a bit more generally suited against all enemies?

Unlike Metal Gear Solid or The Last Of Us however, detection in Isolation is practically synonymous with death. Get caught by the alien and you’re absolutely screwed, but even just getting cornered by a synthetic or even spotted by a gun-toting human is still very bad news, and it’s practically lights out. In particular, the early hours of the game, where you’ve practically got no actual firearms and usually not enough resources to make an abundance of jerry-rigged survival items pack some of the most intense and pulse-pounding panic-inducing experiences that I’ve experienced in a horror game for a long while.


On this note, one of the common misnomers about the game that I think is worth pointing out early on is that though it’s marketed as a scary and really frightening game, it’s not really. If we’re getting nit-picky, I’d personally describe Isolation as more of an intensely stressful yet exhilarating experience rather than as a prototypical spine-tingling fright-fest.

While there certainly are moments in Isolation (both dynamic and scripted) that will make you leap out of your skin, personally, I don’t think that it is a particularly scary game. Not that that’s a bad thing by any means, it’s just that it’s simply not designed to be your typical monster-closet party or jump scare fright-a-thon, nor a brooding dark psychological horror mind-fuck. It’s pretty special in this regard I reckon, as it feels quite unlike any other horror game I’ve previously played.

Alien: Isolation is extremely good at being able to quickly ratchet the tension up to absolutely unbearable levels, making it both nerve-rackingly uncomfortable and electrifyingly exciting to play. The way Isolation manages to whip you up into an unbearable pressure cooker of stress is nothing short of incredible. As I mentioned above, its closest counterpart is probably Red Barrels’ excellent Outlast; both games rely on creating an overwhelmingly powerful build up of dread, one that’s so intense in its execution and release that you end up getting so worked up and stressed out that you actually stop being scared and just start blind panicking. Isolation makes you panic to such a degree that you’re having to fight your screaming instincts and reflexes just as much, if not more so than the horrors pursuing you.

In other words, from my own point of view, the age old fear of the unknown is what typically (and predictably) gets my teeth a-chattering in horror games, and with a creature like the alien, which has become such an increasingly popular cultural icon over the years since it’s debut, I actually find it quite hard to be genuinely afraid of it to the same degree that I originally was when I first saw Alien. Plus, the clue is in the title, so it doesn’t exactly come as a shock to find that you’re going to be spending a lot of time being stalked by H.R. Geiger’s beloved creation. However, the first few hours of your Isolation will definitely test your survival horror mettle to the extreme.

But just why exactly is the game so hard, stressful and intense then, I hear you ask? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s because of that ingeniously devious Xenomorph AI. In fact, that’s a slightly wrong distinction; all the AIs in the game run under the same umbrella system as it were, and therefore they are all impressive in their own special ways. But it’s that damn Xenomorph AI that will naturally have you the most worried and on edge as you play.

Clever Girl

Clever Girl

The alien is, of course, the star of the show. From the second you first encounter it, you won’t believe just how clever and cunning its AI is. In fact, the first time I came across the Alien in the game, I was extremely cocky and naively unprepared.

To put it another way, I didn’t last long.

The first time that the creature gracefully unfurled itself from the overhead vents of the Sevastopol, I was absolutely spellbound with dread. Instantly freezing to the spot, I watched its sinuously sleek black musculature ripple and slide out from the vent and pad gently down onto the cold metal floor. Pausing for a brief moment under the harsh strip lighting, as if to admire its own liquid grace, the creature slowly raised up off its ribbed haunches, its elongated head rising as it let out a long sustained sibilant hiss. It was an utterly terrifying moment that I’ll probably have burned onto my retinas for the rest of my gaming life.

As it took in the cold dark environs of the Sevastopol, it started to prowl around the room in search of its prey. Despite my silent horror/reverie a few seconds earlier, foolishly, I wasn’t all that immediately concerned, thinking that with it being so early on in the game, I’d be okay if I didn’t do anything stupid. Being a rather precocious bastard, I shuffled further forward into the brightly lit open waiting room in a stupidly nonchalantly manner, loosely hugging nearby walls and cover all the while confidently assuming that the alien couldn’t possibly have sensed me yet.

That was, until I heard a loud rasping hiss, followed quickly by a piggish squeal of delight; an animalistic announcement that the alien had indeed seen me, and I felt the cold rush of fear flood into my hands and feet. It was only then that I realised (altogether far too late at this stage) that I wasn’t looking at this specimen down the iron sights of a trusty pulse rifle…at which point I tried to run, thinking it couldn’t possibly have seen me yet. How wrong I was…

This is the first Alien­­-based game that I’ve played that I feel has truly managed to adequately capture the proper size and scale of the Xenomorph. She towers over you at a colossal eight feet tall. It’s a genuinely terrifying sight to see the alien in its accurate proportions up close, and the early hours of the game easily provide some of the strongest and most memorable moments, as you’re able to do little other than simply just hide from this towering monstrosity. You feel woefully outclassed by this towering apex predator fright from the word go…or, perhaps more appropriately, the word “Arrrrgh!”

Unlike the vast majority of other games in the franchise where the aliens slither about on the walls and ceilings, this monster stalking you throughout the Sevastopol walks upright on its legs. Hearing its heavy thundering footsteps thudding loudly on the metallic floors creates unbearable tension. Watching the creature’s vicious tail rasping along the off-white walls when you’re hiding, often with it being only mere inches away from brushing your face and legs, can make you want to run screaming for your life. Fighting the urge to not completely freak out when the alien is nearby takes an awful lot of practice and some seriously steely nerves, but it’s something that will have to be done if you want to make it through even the earliest missions.

In addition, learning just what the alien picks up on and how it tracks you is all part of the frightful fun. Much like in Resident Evil 3, when the shock of Nemesis breaking into the room behind you snarling “S.T.A.R.S.!” felt like a massive and horrifying invasion of player privacy, trying not to panic when you hear the beast thud down in the same room as you is a similarly petrifying experience.

Tracker Tram Lounge

Of course, this wouldn’t be an Alien game without the trademark motion tracker in your sweaty panicking mitts, and it’s your primary method of keeping rough tabs on the serpentine beast stalking you, not to mention other undesirables strolling around the Sevastopol. Quite possibly one of the scariest noises heard in a horror film/game, the minimalistic pings on the grainy screen of the motion tracker are your only way of keeping track of whatever threats are crawling or thudding around out of your line of sight.

The tracker also handily doubles up as your objective waypoint navigator, giving you an approximate sense of where you need to be heading at a glance. When it’s equipped, you can choose to focus on the tracker’s display, which cleverly blurs your long-distance vision as a trade-off, or you can glance upwards from the display by pressing the left trigger to shift the focus back to your environment, but in turn this now blurs the tracker’s display. It’s a clever balancing act, as it means you can never visually cover all the bases at once.

Tracker Blips

Crucially, the motion tracker is diegetic; in other words, it means that your enemies can hear its quiet pings too if they are close enough. This makes hiding even more of a nail-biting buttock-clenching fright fest; naturally I found this out the hard way…

What I found particularly interesting about using the motion tracker’s design is that if you rely on it solely as your main observational tool, you are most likely going to end up as a human shaped donner kebab on the Xeno’s tail in next to no time. Unlike in the films where the characters almost constantly have the trackers out and beeping away, as my above clip hopefully demonstrates, having your eyes glued to it for anything more than a quick glance can prove to be a very costly mistake.

During the early hours of the game, I spent a great deal of my time hiding in lockers, like in that humiliating clip above, peering through the slats and not daring to come out (not by the hairs on my chinny-fucking-chin-chin) for fear of bumping into whatever is out there making those chilling incessant blips on the tracker.

However, you quickly learn that if you just hang around waiting for the coast to be clear, that you’re going to be waiting an absolute eternity, and most likely picked off if you repeatedly stay in the same location or the same types of hiding spaces. Much like Outlast, hiding in the specific button prompt hiding places such as the lockers or storage boxes isn’t ideal, and they are kind of a false economy in many ways. They’re often located in awkward places, leaving you with a severely restricted view of your surroundings and, crucially, a reduced audial awareness; not to mention that just the basic animations of entering and leaving your hiding spot can eat up precious seconds of valuable hiding time, as well as creating more unwanted noise. Not only that, the alien will actually tend to pick up on the sorts of places where you most often try to hide; consistently make a bee-line for the lockers and the alien will get the impression that you like to cower in them Otacon style, probably also with a patch of urine soaking through your trousers.

As a result, I found using cover by manually crouching behind environmental props (with desperately crossed fingers), or crawling under obstacles such as desks and hospital gurneys when possible to be a much safer bet. These allow you to potentially correct your manoeuvres through tricky to cross open spaces if threats are extremely close by, and offer you altogether better vantage points from which to lob items and stage diversions so you can better escape.

Regardless of when and where you choose to do your cowering, once you pluck up the courage to leave your hiding place, you need to use both your eyes and particularly your ears if you’re going to make it out alive.

They’re In The Goddamned Walls!


Speaking of those lovely sound receptacles we call ears, sound in a horror game is, of course, an absolutely crucial facet of the design. It’s a pleasure to say that Alien: Isolation has a meticulous level of attention to detail in the audio department. The run-down Sevastopol station is a faltering, rattling fortress of metal, plastic, wires and fibreglass being torn apart at its seams, and the care and attention that Creative Assembly’s audio engineers have lavished on making this dilapidated space station sound appropriately broken and battered is incredibly impressive.

Machinery clanks and groans as you squeeze through ventilation shafts, steam pipes (that are often sneakily designed to look like the alien’s sleek cranium) explosively hiss at your passage at the most inopportune times, and the distant muffled booms and the bumpy decompressive thuds of the station being violently buffeted about in it’s orbit can easily be mistaken for the muscular thuds of the Xenomorph closing up on you.

To invoke yet another comparison to Outlast again, like that game’s player protagonist Miles Upshur, Amanda has a fully rendered body and limbs, further adding to the simulation immersion, and she will also get startled, cry out in shock and pain and whimper in fright when things are getting unbearably frightening or painful onscreen. Her voice actor, Andrea Deck, does a great job of imbuing the character with a believable and empathetic persona, a scared but determined survivor. She’s much more frightened and spooked by events than her more cool under pressure mother Ellen in the films, which allows players to feel total empathy with her (as they are probably just as scared and stressed as she is).

Of particular importance is being able to tell when the Alien is wandering around in the vents above you (usually not an immediate threat), thudding along a corridor (an extremely immediate threat), or, most mischievously, when it’s sneakily camping in ceiling ducts and waiting for you to nonchalantly stroll underneath it. If you can play with a decent set of headphones or a quality surround-sound speaker set up, you’ll have a significantly improved experience from both an audio and gameplay perspective (and you’ll probably live a lot longer too). If you don’t…well, let’s just say you’re in for a world of pain. Especially if you haven’t saved in a while…

Manual Override

Pay Phone

You see, your greatest fear in Alien: Isolation, apart from the hulking black eyeless monster mercilessly stalking you, the hordes of glitching android goons going berserk and eager to squeeze the life out of you, and the other scared, twitchy and trigger-happy human survivors hiding in the darkness of the Sevastopol station, is that of losing progress. Alien: Isolation uses an old manual saving system – you can only save your progress at designated in-game save points, the Sevastopol’s payphone boxes. This means no automatic checkpoints or continuous autosaves running in the background; if you get killed in Isolation, you have to go right back to your last save. Considering that these pay phones are few and far between, and often pretty spread out at the best of times, this means that a death can cost you an awfully big chunk of time. Particularly in the earlier hours of the game, it’s often at least twenty minutes of lost time you’ll have to make up when killed, or longer if you’re unlucky.

This decision to go with a manual, in-game saving system, is, in my opinion, an absolutely genius move, as it pairs up so beautifully with the type of atmosphere and story the game hopes to immerse you in. Although it is understandably a point of intense contention amongst players – checkpoints and autosaves are second nature for many younger gamers today, so having those safety nets taken away is quite a startling contrast – I for one thought it was an essential feature, one that is deeply fundamental to successfully anchoring and absorbing the player in the simulation, fully plugged into the matrix if you will.

Losing your progress is the video game equivalent of death for the player, and at the heart of it, this is a large part of what you actually fear most when playing a game, no matter the genre or difficulty. Death is the closest thing to a punishment you can pretty much get in a game. You desperately don’t want to die, as it means that you’ll have to replay and redo everything you’ve accomplished since your last save. As a result, modern games try and minimise the amount of replaying you’ll have to do – using features such as the aforementioned checkpoints and autosaves to stop players getting frustrated at having to replay large swathes of the game again after a death/failure.

However, one of the few genres in gaming where a developer can really push the difficulty level beyond what’s typically comfortable for the majority of players and cultivate an attitude of perseverance in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds is the horror genre. By its very nature, it’s a design choice that appeals directly to the hardcore survival horror gamer first and foremost.

Consequently, you’ll either love or hate the manual save system. Much like Marmite for that matter. I for one love the savoury tang that I get when I crack open a fresh pot of the tasty toast condiment, and incidentally I also love the feeling that I know that I absolutely have to get to the next phone booth without being eviscerated, otherwise I’m going to lose everything I’ve done since my last save.

It’s a double-edged sword (much like any sword when you think about it actually) from a design perspective; do you cater to players who want greater handholding and friendly checkpoint safety nets in their experience, or do you balance things to better accommodate the hardcore masochistic horror game audience who want a punishing challenge with plenty of risk along the way? Although it might prove problematic for some, on the whole I think that the decision to strip away the autosaves and checkpoints that proliferate modern games was totally the right one for this experience, and it compliments the story and gameplay extremely well.

Alien: Isolation‘s brutal combination of a cunning alien AI, a weak vulnerable player protagonist and limited saving opportunities is thus the closest and most direct way of getting you to truly empathise and roleplay as Amanda Ripley. Yes, it can be controller-destroyingly frustrating when you’re seconds away from getting a save when you’re hoisted into an air vent or phallically impaled with the alien’s tail from behind, but that’s kind of the whole idea. You’re meant to be scared; you’re meant to be feeling vulnerable and you’re meant to be constantly dreading being discovered and killed at any moment – just like Amanda in the reality of the game. This design choice to go with a manual save system perfectly aligns the player’s desires and goals with that of the protagonist, and it does an incredible job of really pulling you into the world and universe of the game. She’s only got one chance, and whilst you’re playing, it’ll feel like you do as well.

Yes, this is a hard game. Yes, you will pull your hair out in controller-destroying levels of frustration and scream in annoyance rather than fright when that Xeno yanks you clean out of a wall vent, or bites through your cranium for the umpteenth time. But eventually…eventually, you’ll start to improve.

In a similar fashion to the way Dark Souls players always harp on about that franchise’s rule-driven gameplay, Alien: Isolation has its own important rules to learn. What at first might feel like a futile game of punishing chance will, with a bit of practice and patience (not to mention strong nerves), eventually feel like an intricate and pulse-pounding game of space cat and mouse. Only with a massive shiny black cat with sharper claws and retractable inner-jaws, and a mouse that can cobble together rudimentary gadgets on the fly, but you get the idea.

Once you’ve submitted to the inevitable masochistic hazing of fright and frustration that is the first few hours of the game, you’ll soon have your own rules and mantras drawn up in your head that you will religiously stick to, in order to prevent becoming alien food quite so frequently. Never Run. Avoid hiding in lockers if possible. Always keep your eyes peeled and your ears open. Never ever run. Attract the alien with noisemakers to deal with hostile human threats. Never ever, ever run. Hide in the vents to lose the synths. NEVER FUCKING RUN. NOT EVEN ONCE. NEVER!

As you get more familiar with the way the alien AI in particular works, the less you’ll find yourself being killed over and over again. After sinking a good few hours into the game and getting to grips with its mechanics, most of the times when I’d be killed would be my own fault; a momentary lapse in concentration here, a foolish mistake there or an incredibly basic no-no every now and again – such as RUNNING! NEVER EVER DO IT!

However, on the flipside, it is also possible to encounter glitches where the alien seemingly has a stroke and pauses mid-game, or gets stuck for some reason in the environment. I did encounter one annoying glitch where the alien ended up being stuck paused in front of a panicking gun-happy survivor I desperately needed the beast to eviscerate so I could move past, only for some reason it didn’t want to play ball anymore so to speak. It was pretty much the only instance where I actually wanted the creature to be even more lethal than it already is…or perhaps as this particular clip below shows, was.

Thankfully, a quick pipebomb throw soon sorted out all my troubles in one fell (but messy) swoop.

Happiness Is A Smoking Door Handle

Coffee Machine

Long before I was chucking high explosives at the alien’s shiny phallic head however, a great deal of my enjoyment of the game actually came purely from just exploring the Sevastopol station in a Gone Home open-ended manner, and getting caught up in the game’s beautiful design and art direction. The simulation-like focus of the game, combined with the work of Creative Assembly’s environmental artists and their impeccable attention to detail, have made the game not only a fantastic piece of Alien fan service, but also an engrossing and intricate metroidvania-style adventure.

Blue Corridor

In fact, CA have subsequently released a patch for the game which updates it with two more difficulty modes – an even harder Nightmare mode with a nigh-on sentient alien AI and even fewer resources, plus a Novice mode, which makes the alien much less curious and absent minded, with more resources in the environment to scavenge and more health for Ripley. Whilst you can’t exactly just doss about in Novice – the alien, even though it’s significantly lobotomised and less cunning, will still end you just as rapidly if it finds you – this is a great mode if you just want to go and explore the station at your own pace, and immerse yourself in activities that you really can’t afford to do on higher difficulties (such as reading the extended computer logs) without having to worry too much about a surprise abrupt head hole-punching to interrupt you.

Cutting Door Panel

The attention to even the smallest of details make Isolation‘s most basic mechanics incredibly enjoyable moments to be savoured at every opportunity. I never thought I’d say this, but the quick time events in Isolation when interacting with tech in the game are incredibly satisfying, tangible and weighty, and some of my favourite moments in the game. It’s true – I’m being deadly serious. Removing a heavy door clamp, pulling door release levers, charging generators, diverting power switches or hoisting out and priming nuclear cores all feel like appropriately stiff and bulky manoeuvres on your controller, ones that feel ever so appropriate in the Alien universe. They make navigating the Sevastopol a real joy, with each new door panel to cut open and bulky 1970’s style computer terminal to hack genuinely feels like you could be doing it yourself. It’s incredibly immersive, and attention to such minute and mundane operations like these really provide a fantastic contrast to the really stressful and horrific moments when everything is kicking off.

Pulled Lever

What tops off all these lovely interactive sequences is that the entirety of the Sevastopol is explorable throughout the vast majority of the game. It’s essentially a deep space version of Spenser Mansion castle, only much bigger, with a nightmarish alien stalking your every move, and murderous androids in the place of zombies. New tools that you acquire along the way, such as improved blowtorches and higher clearance hacking devices allow you to access new parts of the station, and completing the on-going objectives will usually unlock new areas for you to explore as well.


This is a great move, as it allows you at pretty much any point to return to a previously explored area to pick up any supplies you may have missed on your first go through, get to a hidden secret spot you might have clocked earlier or to try and find a safer alternative path to your next objective. As a result, there’s no level structure as such when playing, just different missions and objectives to carry out as you progress through the game. The interconnectivity and permanence of the various structures and departments of the Sevastopol really help to give the station a concrete and realistic sense of place.

What’s more, just because you’ve ‘beaten’ or completed an area doesn’t mean that it’s safe. Upon returning to a previously explored location, you might now find that a bunch of scared humans are hiding out there, the Working Joes might be doing routine patrols through there at the time, and you can bet your bottom dollar that your friendly neighbourhood Xeno is never too far away, only too happy to scuttle out of an overhead vent to give you an impromptu cuddle. You can never afford to relax or drop your guard, even in familiar or previously safe spots.


Frighteningly, that also includes whilst in those satisfying interactions with items and doors in the environment. In a lot of other horror games, you are often typically granted a temporary period of invulnerability when performing mandatory actions or activating gameplay specific objects, such as opening doors or activating a save point. These features are so ingrained into some games that it’s really easy to take them for granted without realising it, and it can actually be really hard to recognise them after a while.

In fact, quite often, these transitionary moments can usually be exploited to the player’s advantage in a lot of cases; in Resident Evil: Revelations for example, you can often temporarily avoid a multi-tentacled blow to Jill Valentine’s face by quickly opening a nearby door, as you are briefly invincible throughout the door opening animation. We are so accustomed as players to assuming we’re safe when performing the more ‘gamey’ parts of a title, that it takes a game like Isolation to tear down some of these long held adages we hold to be true and shred them to pieces.

While Ms. Valentine can use doors to grant herself temporal invulnerability, there’s no such luck for Amanda on the Sevastopol. Your constant vulnerability as Amanda Ripley is absolutely one of Alien: Isolation‘s many great strengths. You can be killed at any time when trying to navigate the Sevastopol, and you have to be constantly on your guard.

Door Hack

For example, at various points in your sneaking around the nightmarish Sevastopol, you’ll need to cut open door and vent panels with your blowtorch, and hack door keypad algorithms with your hack tool, often while a very real and physical threat is extremely close by. Tracing a cutting outline through a door panel with your blow torch or matching a basic sequence of 8-bit blocky symbols feel like overly simplistic minigames on their own, but when the alien or another threat is nigh, these activities can quickly start to feel like fiendish SAW traps of terror, particularly when you know you have to get that next door open RIGHT FUCKING NOW, or face another deadly disembowelling from behind. It’s a painfully futile and desperate exercise in trying to keep calm under pressure, and the adrenaline rush when you manage to just escape the snapping double jaws of death once again is unbelievably satisfying.

It’s An Animal. Animals Are Afraid Of Fire…


Though Amanda does acquire a fair selection of tools and weapons over the course of the game (in addition to the devices and gizmos that she rustles up on the fly), you’ll still feel vulnerable and defenceless for the most part. Whilst wielding weaponry is certainly a valid and sometimes necessary option at certain points, firing off a gun or using a device usually brings the alien down on your head faster than you can say “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

It’ll also be even faster than you can say “OH FUCK!”

Having no substantial firearms or ammo in the early portions of the game, and ultimately nothing close to hand that can take the alien out of action for good is a really inspired design choice, and one that’s not often explored in the Alien universe; one that’s well known for its muscly hardass marines with fancy pulse rifles tactical smartguns and an unlimited well of gruff gung-ho bravado.

Whilst there are some traditional shooter sections and various firearms that gradually become available to you as you progress through the game (my personal favourite being a meaty bolt gun which is perfect for scalping Working Joes), you quickly learn that combat really isn’t a viable option if you want to survive for longer than five minutes. Five minutes is being quite generous actually; I found that firing my revolver would dramatically reduce my life expectancy to about minus thirty seconds and counting.

This isn’t necessarily a problem when trying to sneak past a rag-tag bunch of humans, or slink past the Xeno as silently as possible, but when you’re directly confronted by a human or synth aggressor when the alien is also nearby, you’re faced with a tricky dilemma. Do you try and attempt to gun down the killable enemies first and try to hide before the alien arrives, or is it better to make a break for it and hope you’re not detected by either party?

Whilst playing stealthily is nearly always the best option no matter the threat you’re faced with, there are sometimes choice opportunities to play the different enemies off against each other, which is both amusing and really helpful to your cause. Fling a noisemaker into a pack of humans and get ready to watch the blood fly as the alien takes them out for you; it’s a dog eat dog (or should that be Xeno eat dog?) world on the Sevastopol.

The main gamechanger that happens in the weaponry department comes when you acquire the flamethrower, whereby the game shifts the balance of power quite significantly more in your favour. Perhaps, just a little too much in your favour. With the flamethrower in your possession, you stand a significantly better chance of surviving the wickedly cunning AI’s antics than before. Delivering short quick bursts of flame to its shiny domed head will often stop the alien in its tracks, usually forcing it to rapidly leave the area via a nearby vent post-haste, allowing you to be a tad more confident as you make your way through the Sevastopol. In fact, if you’re feeling confident and provided you’ve got plenty of fuel and know what you’re doing, then you can actually confront the alien in a restricted sense; rather than skulking around in the shadows, you can brazenly spray your way down a corridor, spurting a fiery onslaught of justice at your interloper if she decides to get too close.

Flamed Alien

Thus, your relationship with the alien becomes less one of predator and helpless prey, and almost equal adversaries. Almost being the crucial word. Flamethrower ammo is sufficiently scarce throughout the game however, so even though wielding the flamethrower can feel like you’ve been granted alien immunity at times, it’s often a fleeting feeling, and the weapon feels much more like a desperate last line of defence in your limited arsenal rather than an out and out weapon as it were. Plus, when you do give the alien a taste of its own medicine in the form of a fuck-you-flambé, it’ll only encourage it to come back and search for you, even more diligently and pissed off than before. Like with the other weapons, having to actually use the flamethrower is nearly always bad news, and something you don’t throw around lightly unless you really have to.

This Is Ripley…Signing Off

HeadbiteSo, after all these pages and pages of verbal gushing from me, it really must be a perfect organism in my opinion then eh?

Well…not quite. The slight gripe that I had with the game was that it can feel a tad too long at times – which personally feels like a stupid point to raise I have to say, but to be fair, it is quite a long sustained ride that you’re in for – my own first playthrough clocked in at about twenty five hours in total. With many games being released these days with story modes that can be finished in a few quick hours, or ones that have entirely jettisoned their story elements altogether in favour of multiplayer mayhem, what’s wrong with a game that relishes telling a longer and more substantial story then you might well ask?

Well, perhaps it’s not particularly the length of the game as such, but rather the pacing of it. Generally, I thought that the game was in fact, paced extremely well. Threats are introduced gradually at first; allowing you to get a feel for each attacker’s modus operandi, before terrifying combinations of human, machine and alien are thrown at you all at once.

Unfortunately, not all of those twenty to thirty hours you’ll spend in Isolation are as thrilling and intense as your early ones. Some sections really drag on for quite a bit, and things can’t help but start to feel quite bloated after a while. In particular, what doesn’t help is the fact that the game reaches an intense climax approximately halfway through, and then there’s subsequently a rather woolly period in the middle in which the alien isn’t a threat for an extended period of time. The atmosphere becomes tense in other ways, but, as you might imagine for a game that’s named after said alien, that things just aren’t quite as gut-churningly stressful without ol’ two jaws stalking you throughout the dark catacombs of the Sevastopol. As entertaining and tense as it is to sneak past just humans and Working Joes for a while, they don’t have a comparable onscreen presence, or elicit anything near the same panic response in the player that the alien does.

Joe Attack

Thankfully, like a ripened Chest-Burster tearing through the fleshy fibres of John Hurt’s chest cavity, your deadly nemesis does burst back onto the scene eventually. I naturally don’t want to go into spoilers here of course, but I will say that fans of Ridley Scott’s original Alien Directors’ Cut may have a good idea of just how far things head south in the later stages of the game.

Combine these pacing issues with the game’s brutal difficulty, and it’s the sort of thing that I can imagine could quite quickly feel like an overwhelming and frustrating obstacle to a lot of players. As you will die over and over again, even on subsequent playthroughs, the game can leave you feeling exasperated when you’re first getting used to everything and learning the rules. Having to replay the same fifteen to twenty minute (if not longer) segment of gameplay over and over again if you’re killed before getting to that crucial save point once again can really sap the tension out of that particular segment.

Shooting Working Joe

What’s more is that despite the long campaign run-time, and the many MANY violent deaths you’ll have experienced along the way, the game unfortunately doesn’t do a great job of tying things up narratively at the end. It unfortunately feels like another classic case of sequel baiting; something directly out of the Colonial Marines playbook if I’m being honest. Rather than a satisfying self-contained ending, you’re left with an annoying ‘to be continued’ sort of ellipsis. Whilst I’m pleased that this hopefully means that Creative Assembly are keen to develop a sequel, it is regrettably a bit of an anti-climax to say the least after what was an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a game.

Ripley Front

However, as a big fan of the Alien universe and the entire experience of Isolation as a horror simulator (can you tell I enjoyed the game an awful lot yet?), I saw the long length of the game as nothing but a positive thing in my eyes myself. You got the impression that Creative Assembly were allowed to write and design their Isolation story exactly how they wanted it to be, with little external pressure or interference from publisher SEGA or 20th Century Fox to make cuts or alterations to their creative vision – which is such a rare and unheard of thing in this industry.

There’s even a delightful bit of extra story fan service included about halfway through the game, that mimics a particular early section of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film (and one of his later ones as well, wink wink), which isn’t necessarily essential to the main gameplay, it nonetheless is a nice touch for fans of the Alien franchise.

The game’s story never feels rushed or condensed, and I found that the longer than usual playtime allowed the plot to unfold naturally, and feel significantly less ‘gamified’ than similar titles I’ve recently played. Apart from the clipped off ending, I found the game’s long length to be an extremely refreshing change; it’s so nice to play a dedicated singleplayer experience, particularly in this era of bolted-on always online multiplayer modes.

So, to conclude, the twenty-five hours it roughly took me to do my first playthrough was such an extremely enjoyable marathon of simultaneous fun, frights and stress that I’ll never forget, and one that I’ll deeply treasure and hold up as a benchmark for future survival horror titles I’ll get my greasy mitts on.

Anyway, this is Tom…the last survivor of Alien: Isolation…signing off.

Alien: From Film to Game – Leeds College of Art, 14/11/2014


Sigourney and CA

Xenomorphs and Leeds. The two words don’t often go together in the same sentence…which is probably a good thing, as even though I’m a big fan of both of these things in their own right, seeing H.R. Geiger’s nightmarish organism scuttling up and down Briggate impaling passing shoppers and punching holes in people’s foreheads willy-nilly would probably reduce me to a quivering pile of jelly faster than you could say “Jonesy the Cat”.

This evening however, Alien and Leeds did go together rather well indeed; as part of the 2014 Leeds International Film Festival, Creative Assembly’s Alistair Hope (Creative Lead), Dion Lay (Writer) and Will Porter (Writer) gave a talk about their beloved game, the brilliant Alien: Isolation, at Leeds College of Art.

The hour-long talk was hosted by Game Republic’s Jamie Sefton, who guided the panel of devs with interesting finely-tuned questions through topics covering all aspects of the games production.

The talk was absolutely fascinating, and hearing directly from the developers themselves about subjects such as the game’s design process, art direction, the AI design, the importance of keeping authentic to the original 1979 film, not to mention the challenges and creative/technical restrictions that the Creative Assembly team had to work with was absolutely incredible.

In short, it was great to get a peek under the black slimy vertebrae of this fantastic horror game, and really see what made it tick. Seeing how Creative Assembly were able to translate that authentic Alien experience from the big screen to home consoles was both enlightening and inspiring, and personally gave me an even greater appreciation of their survival horror masterpiece.

I was snapping away with my camera, so of course have a gander at the pictures below. Now if you’ll excuse me, all that camera flashing may have given away my position to the Xeno – time to find a locker and weep…

EGX 2014 – Hands-On Game Impressions


Two weeks ago, Earls Court was home to EGX, also known as the Eurogamer Expo; a four-day gaming extravaganza of game booths, lights, merch stands and devs strutting their stuff on the show floor in all their glory.

I was there for a single action-packed day, so I tried to cram in as much as humanly possible within the limited time I had. Note to self, must buy a four-day ticket next year…

In between making my way round the huge event, taking pictures, queuing up to play games, and of course, buying plenty of Bowser-related merch, I managed to get decent hands-on impressions with four upcoming games – Halo: the Master Chief Collection, The Evil Within, Dying Light, and Alien: Isolation.

These were four of the key titles that I’ve had my eye on for a good long while, so I thought I’d share my initial impressions with y’all as they’re no doubt going to be popular choices amongst those with a taste for sci-fi and horror, like myself.

Next year, however, I’m making a beeline straight for that Oculus Rift tent! In the meantime, here are my personal thoughts on what I managed to get my greasy mitts on at this year’s event.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection


Almost as soon as I got my wristband and infiltrated the EGX perimeter so to speak, I found myself in the queue for one of the biggest guns in the Microsoft arsenal; Halo: the Master Chief Collection.

Time for a bit of a background; I’m the only Xbox One/Halo fan I know who isn’t excited for this game, or planning to get it come November…which probably makes me some kind of freak. Nonetheless, I was keen to get my hands-on an Xbone controller and get a firsthand taste of this year’s Halo offering to see whether I’m just being a cynical old fool, or whether I’ve just totally missed the point of this collection.

It’s not that I think the game’s bad or naff – far from it, it looks fantastic. The Master Chief Collection looks like an exceptional package for those new to the Halo series to jump straight into the action with, and a must-buy for those who need that sugary Halo multiplayer fix to keep them going until the release of Halo 5 next year.

Unfortunately, I don’t fall into either of those two groups. I’ve played, dearly loved, and in fact, still own all the Xbox entries in the Halo series to date, along with their respective Xboxes (not to mention a whole pile of the lore-filled books and comics – but hey, that’s for another post). It’s just that, as someone who’s always been more a singleplayer gamer by nature, I’m finding it hard to justify coughing up another £50-£60 in order to play the same campaign missions that I’ve spent a staggering number of hours of the last decade shooting my way through time and time again…when I already have these old games and consoles sitting right there on my shelf. First world problems, I know.

Developer 343’s #HaloNation booths at EGX weren’t there to extoll the virtues of Halo‘s Master Chief campaigns today though; no, today was all about the multiplayer, specifically multiplayer on the fan-favourite Halo 2 map, Lockout.

Upon getting in the queue for The Master Chief Collection however, I almost changed my mind from naysayer to absolute belieber…I mean, believer, instantly; the game looks really good graphically. I’m not much of a polygon-counting aficionado, but I was really impressed by how the game looks in its shiny new 1080p and 60fps presentation. It’s fast, smooth and gorgeous; everything you’d want a seven-foot tall, alien-fighting, bio-mechanically enhanced super soldier to be.

Getting my hands-on with the controller…was another matter though. Things just felt clunky and awkward right from the off. Before you go thinking I’m just sulking because I got destroyed by the other players, I managed to come in a respectable 3rd place in the free-for-all Rumble Pit game I’ll have you know. But never mind scores and jovial teabagging, overall, the gameplay just didn’t really do it for me. That’s not to say it’s bad – it’s Halo, but it’s vintage Halo, warts and all.

Again, that’s not to knock the game itself; what I mean by vintage is that the controls are designed to work exactly how they functioned back when Halo 2 was live back in the good ol’ days of the original Xbox. It’s just that for me, personally, the gameplay felt very old-hat and sluggish.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved playing Halo 2 multiplayer back in the day, but ten years on, I’m eager to get something new. Having sunk an awful lot of time away from precious sunlight playing all the Halo multiplayers over the years, my vitamin D deprived body is looking forwards, not backwards, for my next Halo hit.

Despite The Master Chief Collection shipping with every Halo multiplayer map in existence, I can’t shake the feeling that when fans fire up their copies come November, where they’ll have this vast smorgasbord of maps to choose from, it’ll be nothing but votes for some variation of Blood Gulch/Valhalla over and over again. Even though lots of Titanfall players (probably Halo players come to mention it) bemoaned the lack of map voting systems in that game, I for one really welcomed the lack of user voting. Having the matchmaking system pick the maps and systematically cycle through all the choices felt incredibly refreshing – it meant that you actually got to regularly play on all the game’s maps, including the DLC maps you’d bought. Try firing up Halo 4 today and see how many times you get anything other than Valhalla. It’s a great map, but seriously, way too much of a good thing you know? Variety really is the spice of life, be it real or virtual.

The main thing that stuck with me from my hands-on was not being able to sprint. Since the introduction of the Sprint armour ability in Halo Reach, later becoming a separate universal Spartan function in Halo 4, not having the ability to quickly run across the map made the gameplay feel unnaturally slow. It feels strange, and something I couldn’t get my muscle memory to accept. It felt like the equivalent of having learnt to walk as a toddler, and then being forced to go back to crawling; in other words, questionable…not to mention cruel.

In addition, having sunk a lot of time into games like Titanfall and Destiny between playing Halo 4 and The Master Chief Collection, this made the game’s movement feel even more laboured and pedestrian. Specifically when it comes to Titanfall, an intrinsic part of what makes that game enjoyable is the effortless grace and skill you have as a Pilot to navigate and parkour around your environment to your heart’s content. I know that I’m comparing apples to oranges here with Titanfall and The Master Chief Collection (to see Master Chief parkour would be amazing, but wrong), but my taste of next-gen FPS experiences have all brought some nice movement tweaks to the standard gameplay shenanigans. Having to devolve back to a time ten years ago when we casually walked around our virtual battlefields like true gentlemen and women, (much like the poor soldiers of World War 1, only with plenty more power armour and much less trench foot) doesn’t feel quite so exciting and engaging to this old Halo nut anymore.

But hey, that’s not the point – The Master Chief Collection meant to be the most accurate HD next-gen port of the main Halo multiplayers, and so for the majority of them, sprinting didn’t exist. It’s just not a game for me that’s all, so if old-school Halo multiplayer is your thing, I highly recommend playing it. For me though, I think for the time being I’m going to sit this one out, and finish/resume the fight once we’re in Master Chief/Agent Locke’s bulky MJOLNIR shoes in 2015.

The Evil Within

A very Resident Evil 4-esque piece of booth art for The Evil Within…

If you weren’t aware of The Evil Within before turning up at EGX, you absolutely were by the time you left, due to the abundance of Evil Within cardboard boxes being carted around by the excited attendees; me myself eventually also becoming one of the gleeful cardboard-carrying zombie masses as the day progressed.

By the end of the day, every man woman and child at EGX had one of these Evil Within ‘Boxhead’ boxes to ferry around their loot with – me included.

If you didn’t know, the box is the rather nasty helmet/container/all-round receptacle of whatever makes up one of the game’s antagonists, Boxhead’s…well, head. Luckily for me, the formidable Boxhead didn’t appear in my demo, but nonetheless, there were some intense scary moments to be had in The Evil Within.

After some light playground trash talk directed at the other major survival horror game at the event (clue: it rhymes with Bailen Bisolation) from one of the booth attendants, me and the other queue-ees in my group had a controller and a set of painfully loud headphones thrust upon us.

The demo for Tango Gameworks’ horror game started off with protagonist and Leon Kennedy doppelgänger extraordinaire, Sebastian Castellanos, making his way towards a very familiar looking George Spencer-esque mansion in the middle of a creepy wood. Upon entering the mansion, you see a dubious-looking doctor and a rather frail-looking ‘patient’ heading down a corridor, before a giant safe door slams shut in front of you, blocking you off from them.

You’re totally on your own, which makes a nice change from the co-op trend the more recent entries in the Resident Evil series have gone for. The demo was very hands-off as well; from here, you can explore the mansion as you please. It feels, you guessed it, very Resident Evil-like, which is fantastic. The gameplay definitely feels like it’s positioned at the deep-end of the gaming difficulty pool – in other words, it’s pretty difficult. Enemies can quickly dispatch you with ease if you’re surrounded, and you only need to take a few hits from them to be snuffed out. I couldn’t make much progress with the ten minutes of gameplay I had (I was cocky and went for ‘standard’ difficulty – I can only imagine what ‘hard’ is like), but what I managed to play was great.

Items and resources were in very short supply, even in this demo, so I’m presuming this will be the case in the main game as well. Bodies of enemies need to be burnt with your ever-dwindling pack of matches to prevent them from getting back up – again, another great Resident Evil throwback, which will make for some stressful resource management tactics. I unfortunately couldn’t get my inner pyromaniac on in the demo because I was absolutely destroyed by the zombies I came across, rather than the other way around.

I struggled a bit with the 3rd person camera during my hands-on. Sometimes I couldn’t get it to swing around my environment fast enough during general combat (probably just a sensitivity issue) and at others I couldn’t get it in close enough when needing to aim in extremely close-combat, as in when things are biting great big chunks out of your neck (probably not just a sensitivity issue). Overall though, with the exception of Sebastian having a really visually annoying ‘running’ animation, things felt good, controller and gameplay wise.

The sound design, as you might imagine, is spot on – headshots make that perfect Resident Evil popping noise, things are thudding and creaking all around you, and when the music kicks in, it really ratchets up the tension.

As well as whatever foul horrors are lurking around in The Evil Within‘s dark nooks and crannies, you’ll also have to keep your eyes peeled (hopefully not literally) for environmental and rigged-up traps. These bring a tense SAW-like vibe to the proceedings, emphasising a very present and uncomfortable ‘body horror’ motif. Disarming them is nerve-wracking, and if unsuccessful, very costly. Expect to get caught out by plenty of these fiendish traps along the way…I know I did.

One of the best things about the game was that the enemies will appear in different places each time you die. I encountered two shuffling zombie-like creatures that were ever so keen to make my acquaintance; the first time they were skulking around in the dark recesses of a dank bedroom, and then after being promptly killed by the two mouldy miscreants, I found them nonchalantly eating a corpse lying around in a hallway. Whether the enemies had been randomly reset in a different location upon my death, or whether this was intended to be part of some psychological Eternal Darkness style mind-games (the munched-on corpse was already there on my first playthrough, although funnily enough, I did die pretty close to it), I couldn’t quite tell. Either way, it really sent a shiver up my hunched up spine, which is great. Definitely worth keeping a dismembered finger on the pulse of this game I reckon.

Dying Light

Dying Light.

Speaking of dismembered fingers, that brings us gruesomely to the next game I got to try – Dying Light; one of the big upcoming games to come from developer Techland (alongside its other major zombie game counterpart, Dead Island 2, of course).

Unfortunately, after my time in the demo, I left feeling rather disappointed by Dying Light. I’d been keeping my eye on it for quite some time as a big zombie fan as a potential buy for next year, but I’m a little worried about it from the stuff I got to play. The game just felt too much like Dead Island to me, with not enough meaningful differentiating features to distinguish it from its predecessor.

The first niggle I had was that the jump button is mapped to the right bumper on the Xbox One/DualShock 4. It just feels unnatural, although I can see exactly why it has been positioned there. Parkour is the key feature of the game of course; the whole game is designed to be like Mirror’s Edge with zombies, so as the jump/parkour button is going to be used a hell of a lot, it’s moved up to your other highly frequently pressed button, the right trigger of course. In practice though, it felt ungainly and uncomfortable, although there will most likely be a way of configuring your controls in the final game.

The parkour elements are cool, but perhaps due to my brief time in the demo and my lack of skill, I struggled to pull off anything significantly cool or athletically impressive; the best thing I managed to pull off was to hoist myself over a waist high wall…something that, with months and months of physical training and cardio, I could probably do myself in real life…maybe.

Graphically, the game really didn’t do much for me either. There seemed to be a really grainy filter to everything; I wasn’t sure if that was just due to the demo screen I was playing on or whether that was part of the engine. Either way, it didn’t exactly look great, nor did it look particularly next-gen – again, I’m not a tech person, but I could imagine with a bit of luck and gentle encouragement that my 360 could probably push out those graphics. Combine those grainy graphics with 30fps framerate, and it really doesn’t look too good in the visuals department.

To top it off, the combat gameplay feels exactly like Dead Island. It’s not bad, but just more of the same from that game. The melee weapons felt really clunky and underwhelming, making it easier to just dodge past the most withered and weak looking of zombies, rather than bothering to fight them. The bigger special zombies just take forever to wear down and kill. They don’t feel particularly scary, just frustrating bullet/knife sponges that need to be tediously picked away at to clear out an area or complete an objective.

I didn’t get hold of a gun in my own playthrough, but from looking at other players using them, they seemed really solid, and a massive step up from how the firearms handled in Dead Island. Perhaps sharp shooting is the way to go if you too find that the melee weapons and bladed weapons aren’t really cutting it.

I’m keen to see how the night time PVP scavengers vs. über zombie gameplay works (sadly this wasn’t playable at the event), as that genuinely does look unique and different compared to other zombie games of its ilk. I’m still very interested in Dying Light, but I’ll be looking at it with eyes of cautious optimism rather than unbridled excitement from now on.

Alien: Isolation

Alien Isolation – very scary!

Okay, so I’ve got a bit of a confession to make with this one. By the time I managed to get into the Alien: Isolation booth, a funny…competitive streak in me took hold. Perhaps it was because it was getting towards the end of the day, or perhaps there were some sinister mood-altering pheromones being pumped into the Isolation booth via the fancy smoke machines; whatever the reason, I wasn’t quite myself when I got to the front of the queue.

During an excitedly moody (is that even possible?) pre-game pep-talk from the Isolation team, in which they told the gathered crowd eager scare-junkies about how to best survive our brief tenure on the Sevastopol station, my ears pricked up at the words ‘leaderboard’, ‘competition’, and most importantly, ‘prize’.

It turns out that a competition had been running all day at the booth, to see who could survive longest in the brief demo. Whoever could survive longest would receive goodies…precious, ambiguous goodies. That was all I needed to hear. Suddenly that stimulus triggered off in the dark recesses of my brain a fierce and highly unusual desire to win.

I may be pretty average when it comes to shooters, hopeless at fighting games and shockingly bad at stealth games (sorry Kojima), but when it comes to survival horror games, I think I’m pretty good at screaming and panicking. They’re my virtual bread and butter so to speak.

The gauntlet had been thrown down by the booth team, and I was fool enough to stoop down and retrieve it. I was going to throw away my hands-on at the chance of winning…well, let’s face it, probably not much.

I’m pleased to say that I lasted about eight and a half minutes, which was above the current leaderboard score. However, I spent a great deal of my time just hiding in the lockers, scarpering about in the opening area, trying to set a high score time, and not really playing the game. I’ve been intending to buy Isolation from almost the minute it was announced, and it was the one game that I knew I just had to try above all else that day, but despite that excitement, I somehow let myself wastefully play extremely over-cautiously to get a stupid number on a whiteboard. Rather than actually just, you know, enjoy and experience the demo I’d just spent the best part of half an hour queuing up for. Like any normal person would.

Perhaps due to my cowardliness (read: almost certainly due to my cowardliness), my score wasn’t even remarked upon. Dejectedly, me and the rest of the gaming herd were ushered out of the dark booth and back out into the crowded EGX halls with nary a glance at our times. No prize for my excellent internal locker observations for me then.

From what I did get to play however, I can say that the game is incredibly tense and scary. The atmosphere is both deathly quiet and electrifying; every overhead clunk, metallic rattle or hissing vent opening sets you on edge. You’re never quite sure if what you’re hearing is indeed the Alien creeping up on you, or just some dying mechanical detritus rasping its last breath. The Alien is incredibly smart and sensitive too; although I didn’t get to say hello to it face to perpetually grinning double jaws so to speak, every slight movement I made would cue the Alien in to my position, and the motion tracker would ping like crazy as I swapped from locker to locker.

Oh well, even though my out of character competitiveness cost me the chance to write a decent hands-on piece for Isolation, I’ve actually got the final game in my hands (literally) as I tap this out (yes, really) with one hand. In other words expect plenty more from me on Isolation in the near future; only with more exploration and less – no, actually there probably will still be plenty of hiding and whimpering to come as well.

EGX London 2014 – Photos Galore


EGX 2014 - Earl's Court

EGX 2014 kicked off at London’s Earls Court this week on the 25th September, so yours truly hopped on a train down to the Big Smoke to get hands on with some of the upcoming games I’m most looking forward to playing in the near future…and to buy as much Bowser related merchandise I could possibly carry (don’t ask).

EGX, formerly known as Eurogamer Expo, is a four day extravaganza of gaming goodness; jam-packed with exciting new games to try, cool cosplayers strolling around and heaps and heaps of gaming merch to buy…such as Bowser t-shirts, just saying.

I wanted to play everything, but there just wasn’t enough time – I was incredibly tempted to try and hide somewhere in the massive building and evade overnight capture in order to stick around for another day or two, but alas, I decided against this course of action. Next time though…

I’ll write up a separate piece later with my personal impressions of the games I did get chance to play – Halo: The Master Chief CollectionAlien Isolation, Dying Light and The Evil Within – but for the time being I thought I’d share some of the pictures I snapped whilst wandering around…erm, I mean steadily queuing inside Earls Court in a state of happily maniacal excitement.

EGX ran from the 25th-28th September this year, and I highly recommend getting down to see everything going on at future EGX events yourself if you get the chance. So, without further ado, click on the thumbnails to feast your eyes on these juicy .jpg nuggets!