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Anti-heroic Alien Isolation takes a bite out of gaming stereotypes

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Alien Isolation tears up the famous ‘in space no one can hear you scream’ strapline of its sci-fi film inspiration by conjuring a hide-and-seek nightmare starring the almighty Xenomorph in a game which finally does justice to cinema’s greatest monster and takes a bite out of gaming stereotypes.

Isolation drips with tension the way alien goo drips off the Xenomorph’s fangs, while twisting gaming tropes in cool ways to deliver something gripping and original. This is an achievement considering the source material is four decades old and the lame way video games usually handle the Xenomorph, draining its quintessential menace and reducing this apex predator to cannon fodder.

In a departure from this failed formula, Isolation’s monster is omnipotent and omniscient. This bitch hears almost everything, despite what the Alien movie poster said. The beast is powered by A.I (it says) so there’s no pattern to its behaviour, meaning there’s no way of knowing when she’ll come charging out of the smoke and shadows, or drop from the ceiling. The object is survival; victory is not on the cards. Your avatar Amanda Ripley – daughter of Ellen Ripley from the films – just can’t win. Isolation subverts normal gaming behaviours by having you hide inside lockers, beneath tables or go fleeing down the dark corridors in seriously unheroic ways.

If a Call of Duty veteran behaved like that, their stripes would be ripped off them darn quick. “No more loot crates for you, marine!”

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This is what makes Isolation subversive. There’s no place for a beefy steroid freak like Kratos from God of War. It’s just you hiding under a table from an unstoppable predator you can’t kill, stuck on a collapsing spaceship, also populated by frazzled human survivors best avoided because they’re losing their minds with fright and androids with dangerously high levels of logic and irony, whose circuitry has gone haywire.

By casting the player in the role of a weakling Untethered-But-Doomed-Still goat, Isolation upends the stereotype of gaming as mental masturbation material for losers who want to play at being winners. Feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, pursuit and despair aren’t the common currency of games such as CoD, or Grand Theft Auto, FIFA and others. Or if they occur, it’s usually to spur the player to go win better and bigger.

Not in Isolation.

This game crafts a bleak emotional landscape which opens up an exciting new vista of gloominess for interactive entertainment. It heroically keeps this up all the way through – and very enjoyable it is – before wobbling right at the end by suggesting Ripley might survive after she blasts herself into the dead cold of space to escape the Xenomorph one final time. That’s disappointing.

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The game’s not faultless in other areas, either. Like it’s iconic antagonist, Isolation just doesn’t know when to stop, failing to finish on two occasions when an ending is apt. (But considering the Xenomorph would be as welcome anywhere as lethal weaponry at a kids’ party, this may be apt). The missions never elaborate beyond ‘throw and fetch’ – you pull a lever or go get a thing – which makes it repetitive. There’s no deep skillset to master, making it pretty shallow.

It doesn’t matter. The central premise of Alien Isolation is powerful as acid blood on Marine flesh and developer Creative Assembly executes the game with aplomb, delivering the best rendition of Xenomorph yet in a game and cranking the scares up high. By refusing the player the chance to be a hero, this game innovates by embracing a distinctive emotional palate and being a big-ticket release which dares to be different. An essential experience.

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Doom review: Nihilism is great

Doom is the photo-negative twin of those ‘relaxing’ ASMR videos on weird YouTube: it does trigger tingles, but that’s due to this game’s angry, overheated intensity. As for chilling out, well it’s about as soothing as being caught outside naked during a Blitzkrieg with only an umbrella.

I actually made a no-Doom-before-bed rule because I’d be lying there after a session with eyeballs twitching beneath their lids like poprocks fizzing in two dishes of nuclear Coca Cola. I had no choice: Doom is the enemy of sleep.

This game by id Software didn’t exactly make me cry, but it did come close by being the meatiest, loudest, seizure-inducing speediest, most relentless slab of home entertainment I’ve played in ages. Doom is an overdose of everything essential about first person shooters.

It is simple: Get all the guns (and the chainsaw) and then keep going until you mince every last thing on the screen. They come in waves and you spend a lot of time running around low on health and ammo with huge, very aggressive demons howling at your heels.

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You play a dude who teleports between Hell and an industrial faculty to stop the legions of the damned which your corporation has accidentally unleashed during the course of its important work. What work? ‘Weaponising demons for the good of humanity!’ according to one chirpy hologram guide.

As and when Doom gets the Virtual Reality headset treatment, expect hospitalisations. On the other hand, if the ASMR community on YouTube ever gets bored of borderline creepy role-play videos ranging from the bizarrely avant-garde to naff titillation, then Doom is the surprise new way to get those tingles. And it’s only marginally more disturbing than some guy from the internet mumbling in your ear.

It’s a very well put together game. Every audio / visual detail combines to create an atmosphere which is the macabre equal of a tense horror movie. Factor in the explosive jump scares which signal another wave of attacks, the game’s sense of humour and its blistering pace, then Doom’s cup (of blood) truly does runneth over.

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The attention to detail is excellent, not least in the rich backstory and narrative which is there to be discovered, but is so easy to overlook because you’re constantly blasting your way through horde after horde of hell-spawn.

Special mention for the depiction of Hell in Doom. It’s a Games Workshop-style fever dream of skull piles on top more skull piles, rotating pentagrams and nightmarish architecture, set to a soundtrack of satanic choirs chanting in the bottomless pit. Basically, it’s Brexit Britain circa 2030. And excellent fun it is.

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Doom on PS4 is the distillation and the epitome of gaming as pure nihilistic fun. If you own a current gen console, then it belongs in your collection.

Abzu on PS4 Review: A druggy aquarium

Abzu is the gaming equivalent of taking magic mushrooms and spending two hours staring at your fish tank: just because it feels profound doesn’t mean it is.

You play a swimmer in a wetsuit and flippers dropped into a vast ocean on a mission to stop an army of upside-down Toblerone triangles stealing all the energy, or something. You dive down to the depths in search of sea creature spirits to free and windlasses which open doors to the next level.

It’s unchallenging gameplay that provides plenty of time for socialising with the sea-life, of which there is plenty. Captain Birdseye could confirm if the species are all genuine, but they behave the way you’d expect on a snorkelling trip.

What’s unusual about Abzu is that this underwater safari seems to be the whole point.

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Developer Giant Squid wants you to engage with its sea creatures. Your character can perform only a few actions – and none which harm the creatures – so the choices really are to hang out with the fishies, or play another game. Appreciating nature on its own terms in its natural habitat, in a peaceful way, is a pretty novel ecological message which gets sledge-hammered home when you buddy-up with a huge yet benign Great White Shark. There’s even a ‘meditation’ function for bonding with the fauna.

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But being woke about the life of fish doesn’t cover up that Abzu is thin fare. Storytelling is entirely absent and it’s up to the player to patch one together from ancient Egyptian-style murals on the walls of drowned temples. Confusingly, you share the waters with dinosaurs from 80million years BCE, while the no-good Toblerone thingies seem to have arrived from a grim far future in outer space. Ancient Mesopotamian creation myth is in there, too.

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Basically, it’s a right old jumble. If Hulk Hogan appeared riding a Megalodon, the picture wouldn’t be more mixed up. There’s a bold bid to explain things here.

Discovering Abzu’s Babylonian influence involved reading up on Mesopotamian creation myth and Sumerian etymology, (er, thanks Wikipedia). With left-field sources like these, why not do more with the storytelling in-game? Requiring a encyclopaedia for the full story simply ain’t fair and it smacks of laziness by the developer.

Abzu is sweetly gorgeous game with interesting depths it never dives into and gameplay that’s shallow as a puddle. It seems like there’s secret treasure in the fish tank, but the ‘shrooms soon wear off and you find yourself gurning hard with your nose pressed up against the glass. A great show it is, though.

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I played Abzu on PS4.

Journey on PS4 shows it’s not always better to travel than arrive

Five days a week I commute from east to west and back again for work and I’m adamant this is one journey with as much gaming potential as doing the washing up. But what do I know? Journey is a game in which you must complete an epic commute – and it won a pile of Game of the Year awards a few years back.

So what was all the fuss about?

Journey on PS4 – it originally came out on PS3 back in 2012 – involves walking, some sliding and jumping. And that’s about it. Completing the game took around 3 hours max and it involved bashing just two buttons. It is possible to cruise through this game with ease. That’s not meant as boasting, the gameplay is just thin.

There’s nothing wrong with simplicity, but the storyline is every bit as stripped back as the gameplay. For example, there’s these giants in robes which appear at the end of each level. What are they doing looming ambiguously over our wee protagonist in the cut-scenes? It’s never revealed and that is an issue. Are you invited to join the dots, to use your imagination. It just comes off as lazy.

So where’s the award-winning magic?

The storyline’s minimalism reflects in the graphics and colour. This does work well and is lush at times – as in the screenshot below. There’s a sense of grandeur with the large scale environments and there’s plenty of originality on display in the fantastical living dragons and floating jellyfish-type creatures made of enchanted cloth which help you progress through the levels. At one point you travel through a cloud tunnel at warp speed and then burst into some kind of heavenly plain. I guess this is meant to be some kind of transcendental moment. Well, it didn’t work on me.

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Maybe my soul’s turned to wood without me noticing, but this flighty-poetical-dreamy stuff achieved nowt. You spend AGES trudging up hills and along dunes which are near empty of almost anything to do, except press on ahead.

But the soundtrack is great. It’s highly responsive to what’s taking place on screen and the sparse and exotic instrumentation is highly atmospheric. It’s a minor triumph and sure helps make Journey less boring. The snooze-athon reaches an er… climax in the finalé, which is so anti-climatic you wonder if you’re witnessing heroic obstinacy on the part of developers refusing to indulge gaming’s tropes. But an anti-climax it remains.

All I got from Journey is FOMO. Like, surely I’ve missed out on something here. But the thing is I don’t really care to replay it and find out. Journey disproves the old saying that it’s better to travel than to arrive.

The Last Guardian is a slow gaming classic

The Last Guardian is original, gorgeous to look at, a bit repetitive and pokes you in the feelings.

Emotional depth is the stand-out feature of this game, which has at its beating heart the relationship between a small lost boy and a giant, flying feathered creature named Trico.

The Last Guardian wants you to care about its characters and it succeeds. Sony’s Japan Studio have recreated that bond between a boy and his dog. Call Of Duty this game ain’t. It’s slow gaming.

You navigate a cloud-capped complex of crumbling old towers, dark chambers and rooms pulsating with luminous energy conducted by mysterious technology. The environment is stunning. It’s nice to just linger among the towering, plunging ruins while flocks of birds fly by far below. Graphics are unfussily effective, right down to the rendering of Trico’s feathers, which flutter in sunlight in a way that’s god-darn poetical.

In this fantasy adventure game, teamwork is essential: you can’t get anywhere without your big beastie companion. You must feed Trico and pull spears out of its body when it’s hurt. The gameplay isn’t varied; it basically adds up to pulling levers and lots of platform jumping. Some people might even call it dull: there’s no boss battles, no weaponry to speak of and you do spend a bit too long trying and failing to get Trico to follow commands. Occasionally you must battle castle guards which are nothing but possessed suits of armour full of blue smoke.

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It’s a sign of how well the developers succeed in creating a bond between the player and the characters that I caught myself cheering when Trico survives one particular moment of jeopardy. It’s the first time I’ve responded like that to a game. I couldn’t pull out the spears out of the poor thing’s bleeding body fast enough.

My personal experience of gaming’s Landscape of the Passions is that it’s not a lush place. It’s normally a visceral hell-scape with just a single fuming volcano spewing out raging fury, feverish glee and nothing else. The Last Guardian is very different. It’s a meditation on companionship and is well worth a look.

It took me 23 years to complete Prince of Persia