nowPlaying: Alien: Isolation

Full disclosure: I’m a staff writer at Cubed3. The reviews I post here on my blog don’t reflect the opinions of Cubed3 and are written on my own time.

All pictures taken by me using the PS4’s share features.

The horror genre is very close to me, and nothing has ever scared me as deeply or profoundly as the titular creatures from the Alien franchise.

I couldn’t tell you when the first time I saw Alien was, but I know it was a long time ago. I’m sure I watched it with my parents, and most likely, my dad had me cover my eyes every time the alien appeared. (Looking back, I wonder if I imagined things far worse than what appears in the movie. More likely, this is the one series that I couldn’t.)

H. R. Giger’s iconic aliens have a beauty and an aesthetic that remains unmatched. No reboot or redesign has ever been needed (or, as far as I know, so much as wanted); the aliens are as ethereal and frightening today as they were when they were first brought to life by designer H. R. Giger, writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, director Ridley Scott, and actor Bolaji Badejo. Nothing has ever starred in more of my nightmares, and those are always the worst; I’ve had dreams where the creatures are only mentioned and they’ve caused me to wake up sweating and afraid.

As connected as I was to the films growing up, I never really played any of the games. As a big fan of Borderlands, I was excited to hear that Gearbox Software would be making a video game set in the Alien world: Aliens: Colonial Marines. Then the game actually came out, along with a firestorm of controversy, finger-pointing, and disappointed gamers.

I eventually rented the game after a few patches and updates had dropped, and it was more or less playable. While a few parts were fun in their own right, it wasn’t exactly the Alien experience I was hoping for.

Along came Alien: Isolation. Sega took a big risk in even planning another Alien game so soon after the disaster of Colonial Marines, but it’s one that paid off. Just by looking at the game, you can tell it’s something special.

Alien: Isolation

The game looks like something right out of the movie. Just about everything aboard Sevastopol is faithfully recreated, from the clunky, 70’s-inspired vision of future technology to the oddly invasive manual input, like huge levers and parts of the ship that have to be physically cut away to gain access to certain areas.

The concept of the game is an immediate winner for me: Set on a space station called Sevastopol, Alien: Isolation ditches the more action-oriented concepts behind the previous game in favor of the more subtle horror the first film had.

I was so excited to get into this game, but playing in a dark room with headphones was almost too much. Here was the creature from my nightmares, presented to me in an interactive format like never before. At times I found myself hiding just to catch my breath, afraid to move like when I first played Outlast. In some ways, Alien: Isolation almost feels like an Alien mod for that game.

And, as much as I loved the game at first, things quickly went south. By the fifth mission, I was getting tired of rushing from locker to locker, wasting most of the game just hiding. It seemed like as soon as I lost the alien, it was right on my tail again, and I could spend an hour just traversing a hallway.

Alien: Isolation
Not to mention dying again and again. And again.

The game’s fifth mission almost sank the ship. Taking place in Sevastopol’s medical bay, which is a huge, multi-room area, it seemed absurd that the alien would follow me from chamber to chamber, hallway to hallway, supposedly unsure I was there but somehow miraculously always within a few yards of me. The motion tracker seemed like it was toying with me—at one point I watched the alien enter a room across from me, and I pulled it out only to see the thing tell me the alien was somewhere behind me. It was clear the game’s mechanics weren’t quite up to the task with its presentation. This culminated in nearly two hours of winding my way along this hall, only to have the alien come down from the vents overhead right as I was about to reach the door that led to the end of the mission. I quickly ducked under a table to wait for it to leave, and watched as the alien rounded a corner only to somehow spot me, despite absolutely no input on my part, and return from around the corner and kill me. And this was on easy mode!

At that point I swore I was done with the game, but I couldn’t keep myself away from it. It felt like I had come too far to just give up. It was personal now: That alien had to die. No way was it getting the best of me.

I went in with a new mindset. I decided the game was most likely not as logic-based as I was assuming, and it appears I was right. For example, the ambient noises aren’t always the alien, and even when they are, they aren’t often indicative of its position. A noise to the left doesn’t mean the alien is over there. The same was true for distant footsteps; as soon as the alien rounds a corner, there’s a good chance he’s not even there anymore. Assuming he’s prowling that same hallway is an exercise in futility, and a great invitation to spend the rest of Amanda Ripley’s life in a locker.

Alien: Isolation
Get used to this view.

 

I still died a time or two in the medical bay, but this new philosophy proved fruitful, and I made decent progress through the game. The cat-and-mouse bits still caused me anxiety, and sometimes were more annoying than they were frightening, but I was having fun again, and a lot of it.

The game changes pace once the player gets the flamethrower. No longer entirely defenseless, the alien still can’t be killed, but it can be scared off, so long as you see it before it sees you.

On the whole, this might be the most frightening video game I’ve ever played. I found myself dreading it, hoping each thing I had to do would be the last. There are very few ways for the alien to “get” you, only a few death animations, and while they’re very well done (and expertly touch on the franchise’s body horror elements) they also become repetitive. Still, I was constantly afraid of the alien, especially at times when my flamethrower ammunition was dwindling.

I had an odd determination to finish the game, akin to facing my fears. Alien: Isolation is well-crafted and gave me the perfect opportunity to do that. Xenomorphs have always been indestructible to me, especially in my nightmares, and I respect how much effort was put into this game to recreate that aspect of them.

Alien: Isolation
Oh dear.

Alien: Isolation has its flaws. Sometimes it seems like the writers had no idea where to take the story next, so they just borrowed scenarios straight from the films. I appreciate longer games, but this one has a very select few enemies and ways of dealing with them, so more diversity in mission objectives, enemies, or avoidance techniques would’ve done it justice. On the whole it was fun, terrifying, and gorgeous. Unfortunately, the ending seems like it looked great on paper, but passes by as a ten-second long cinema, and just looked weird and unfulfilling.

I don’t know if I’ll ever play this game again. I think once was enough. That weird ending did leave things wide open for a sequel, and I’m conflicted about that. I’d love to see this team expand on their ideas, but I’d prefer to see them do it with a new story instead of painfully dragging out the one they have. If nothing else, Alien: Isolation proves that there is a treasure trove of storytelling and scares to be had in this franchise, something that hasn’t been successfully tapped into in a very long time. In a lot of ways, this game is a true successor to the films, and is better than most of them. The last thing I want is for it to careen down the same path that brought us the likes of Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem and Colonial Marines.

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nowListening: Cope by Manchester Orchestra

My favorite band is Brand New. I have a list of reasons far too long for this blog post, but one of them is their tendency to introduce me to other great bands, through covers, tours, or the occasional “This song is called ‘Go See Explosions in the Sky.'”

One of Brand New’s most famous tours was a series of shows they played with Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine. You can find some high-quality videos from this tour on YouTube, and I recommend doing so. All three artists and their opening acts gave fantastic performances.

Kevin Devine and members of Brand New and Manchester Orchestra covering “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel, another of my favorite bands.

That’s how Manchester Orchestra appeared on my radar. Eventually I would hear their song “Wolves at Night” on the radio. I thought it was okay, but my second radio experience with Manchester Orchestra fared much better: It was the song “Shake it Out”, and from then I was hooked. Fast-paced guitars and explosive vocals culminate in a noisy but still melodic refrain, before the song suddenly drops into a quasi-acoustic, quiet interlude:

I felt the Lord begin
To peel off all my skin.
And I felt the weight within,
Reveal the bigger mess
That you can’t fix.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Shake it Out”

The loud-quiet-loud structure of the song reminded me of something off of Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, and not long after, the band released the title track of their then-upcoming album Simple Math for free. It was another quiet-loud-quiet introspective song, so I picked up a copy of Simple Math (and went back and bought Mean Everything to Nothing and I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child as well).

The three albums (four if you count the unreleased Nobody Sings Anymore, which I do, since “Slow to Learn” and “Girl With Broken Wings” are some of my favorite songs) were enough to cement Manchester Orchestra as one of my favorite bands. Between Andy Hull’s angelic voice (and legendary beard; you have to mention the beard), drums that aren’t afraid to leave the hi-hat and snare, bass you can actually hear, guitars that get noisy but never reduce themselves to noise, and Chris Freeman playing like a dozen instruments at the same time, the band has everything I love about music.

The wait for new material after Simple Math was a long one. Now and then a new song came up during a live performance, and the band released a handful of singles, but after two years, Manchester Orchestra played a set featuring several new songs. For a few months nothing else happened release-wise, and during a show Andy Hull even joked that their new album was “apparently never coming out.”

Thankfully, their new album did eventually come out, incidentally enough, on April 1st.

cope

The first thing I noticed about the album was that I wasn’t fond of its artwork. While I’ve since come to accept it, at first it struck me as bland, almost lazy. That’s a superficial part of what makes an album, though, and didn’t deter me from pre-ordering the album, much less listening to it as soon as it arrived.

I was already familiar with the opening track, “Top Notch”, as the band released it on the internet months before the album’s release. The song sets the tone for the album to follow: Loud and angry. Where Simple Math gave way to orchestral instruments like strings and horns, “Top Notch”, like many of the songs on Cope, instead offers flavoring with sporadic guitar shreds. Lyrically, the song is classic Manchester Orchestra, blending storytelling and metaphor into a message that is cryptic but oddly relatable.

So the first kid says in his temporal tone,
“I don’t think there’s a way to resolve it.
We should wrap up these towels around our blistering palms,
And wait it out in the closet.”
His brother looks him up and down and prophesies how all of it should end,
He says, “We’re buried underneath the yard, and no one ever listens.
Or visits.”

—Manchester Orchestra, “Top Notch”

Before “Top Notch” has a chance to exit the stage, “Choose You” comes in with feedback leading to a fast-paced chorus of guitars, eventually giving way to one of my favorite opening lines on the record: “The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck. I tried to find out who I was by jumping off the deck.” This song is more upbeat than “Top Notch”, but just as loud and angry, and many of the songs on Cope will follow its example.

The third track, “Girl Harbor”, quickly became one of my favorite Manchester Orchestra songs. One of the band’s signatures is their ability to be loud without sacrificing melody. I’ve touched on this already, but “Girl Harbor” is one of the best examples of this talent. Andy Hull’s brutal but somehow not unkind honesty shines in the song’s lyrics.

You always talk so loud,
And you never notice.
I don’t mind the sound, but you
Have re-arranged the pieces of your life
So many times, you’ve burned out the parts.

I don’t want to believe, but I want to believe you.
I don’t mean what I say, but I say what I mean to.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Girl Harbor”

Following this is “The Mansion”. One of Manchester Orchestra’s greatest influences is Built to Spill, and this song makes it easy to tell. I’m a sucker for songs with palm-muted verses that explode when they get to the chorus, and the trippy lead guitar and catchy chorus made this the first song from the album to get stuck in my head.

“The Ocean” is another great example of the angry-but-upbeat tone embedded in Cope, and the following track, “Every Stone”, is almost like the other side of the same coin. I don’t know what it is, but the two songs strike me as being related to each other. Where “The Ocean” is more flat and angry, “Every Stone” is calmer and more melodic, and both songs touch on the subject of letting things go.

That boat will not float,
It’s the last in its class, I’m the first one to know.
That bed is never made,
I’m the last of my kind, fucking tricked by my training.
I, I’ll give it to the ocean.

—Manchester Orchestra, “The Ocean”

 

You might just miss the mark
If you’re keeping everyone away
You didn’t mean to, you didn’t want to.
Well it might just leave a mark
If you don’t give anyone a say
You never want to, you never mean to.
Every stone I’ve thrown has gone away, it’s gone away,
It’s gone away.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Every Stone”

“All That I Really Wanted” is another showcase of that brutal honesty I mentioned before, while “Trees” almost feels like an epilogue to it. “Trees” has some cool moments, but I don’t love either song. I feel bad writing that, because Manchester Orchestra’s songs have a habit of creeping up on me and becoming favorites out of nowhere, so I can’t exactly set an opinion in stone, but for now I find the two underwhelming.

“Indentions” offers a welcome change of pace. It’s another fast favorite of mine. The bass and keyboards stand out on this one, the second verse has a really cool pre-echo effect on the vocals, and the last chorus is followed by a brief but very cool electric guitar riff. The chorus is simple but powerful: “I won’t leave indentions of me. I won’t leave intentionally.”

“See it Again” is probably the most unique track on the album. It starts off dark, with a faint vocal chorus to accompany heavy drums and a palm-muted guitar track, and the lyrics offer another storytelling session. This one isn’t so cryptic; the song deals with the narrator losing someone he cares about. The verses take us from the narrator’s front door before his loss, to uncertainty in a hospital waiting room, to deciding what does and doesn’t matter in life once he gets to the morgue.

Every Manchester Orchestra record contains at least one song that conjures a vivid depiction of some stage of death and grief. “See it Again” takes on this task for Cope, and it does a fantastic job.

The album closes with the title track, “Cope”. It’s another of those loud-quiet-loud songs I like. “Cope” is one of Manchester Orchestra’s shortest closers (“Colly Strings” and “The River” clock in at almost 6 minutes each, and “Leaky Breaks” ends up over 7) but it’s one of their strongest, in my opinion.

If I do echo, I hope you never see
There is no one there who’s waiting after me.
And I hope if there is one thing I let go,
It is the way that we cope.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Cope”

All of Manchester Orchestra’s albums have a unique sound, but Cope exists on an entirely separate plane. Sometimes, the album reminds me of the cover: Plain in black and white. There isn’t a lot of color here, but somehow, the band made it work, and with a few exceptions, each song becomes its own entity and stands out. Cope isn’t the album I asked for and it certainly isn’t the album I expected, but it’s one I welcome gladly.

All lyrics and the album artwork belong to Manchester Orchestra, not me.