Friday, June 13, 2014 04:45 AM

Is AAA survival horror coming back?

in Video Gaming by MegaBearsFan
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As any reader of this blog can probably tell, I consider myself a fan of old-school survival horror. There haven't been too many big-name survival horror releases lately, and the few I've played haven't been particularly good. Indie developers have done a decent job of scratching the survival horror itch, but there's only so far that indie games can go. It would be nice to see AAA developers and publishers regain some faith in more traditional survival horror gameplay and experiment with the genre on the newer generations of consoles and PCs. It looks like that might finally be happening, as there are several survival horror titles that I am eagerly anticipating!

Among the Sleep, The Forest, and Dreadout have already been released on Steam, but I have not played them yet. But these are relatively minor titles. The two big-name games that I'm looking forward to are The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation.

The Evil Within

This is a very exciting project for me, and may be one of a handful of games that has the potential to sell me on next-gen consoles (assuming that I don't just play the PC version).

This game is under the creative leadership of Shinji Mikami, the original creator of the Resident Evil series. Despite my well-established passion for the Silent Hill series, I'm also a strong fan and defender of the classic Resident Evil games. Resident Evil 4, however, was not my cup of tea. Despite being a well-designed action game, I harbor a deep resentment towards it for single-handedly killing the survival horror genre and shifting all action games towards third-person shooter gameplay. But that's a discussion for another time...

The Evil Within looks to be a return to more traditional survival horror styles, with a greater emphasis on survival, resourcefulness, investigation, and problem-solving rather than a happy trigger finger. I am concerned that it will be too reliant on gore and jump scares, as that has generally been more the style of Mikami and Resident Evil. But the gameplay demo below does show the potential for the game world to create a genuinely threatening and immersive environment that should [at the very least] provide some suspense and anxiety for the player, even if it doesn't generate any genuine fear.

The Evil Within is currently scheduled for an October 21st release in North America for PC, PS4, PS3, XBoxOne, and XBox360 (sorry Nintendo fans). Just in time for Halloween!

Alien: Isolation

The second horror game that I am eagerly anticipating is part of a franchise that has been a disastrous disappointment. Games based on the Aliens license have a shaky track record. There have been some fun arcade and PC games, but console releases tend to be very crappy, culminating in last year's Aliens: Colonial Marines. I haven't actually played that game. Some pre-release red flags scared me away from a purchase, and I'm glad I hesitated, since that game has been universally panned by game critics and fans alike.

However, this new game isn't technically an "Aliens" game. It's actually based on the license to Alien (singular), the first movie in the series. The core difference here is that Aliens is much more of an action movie, whereas its predecessor, Alien was firmly a horror film set in a sci fi setting.

I am cautiously optimistic. This game looks much more promising than Colonial Marines in both concept and execution. As far as I can recall, this is the first time that any game has been based on the first movie in this franchise. Most games have been based more on the Aliens (plural) movie, with an emphasis on hordes of aliens and machine guns. This is especially true of the Aliens versus Predator spin-offs, which have been very hit-or-miss games. But Isolation isn't looking to be an action shooter, and seems to be completely embracing the horror genre of its namesake film.

This game is being developed by the Creative Assembly, a European studio that is well-known for its Total War games. I'm a big fan of the Total War series, even though its most recent entry, Rome II, was a huge disappointment. Hopefully this developer can get back on track.

There are a few things that can kill a "stealth survival horror" game like this, so I'm curious to know if they are present.

Too many checkpoints takes away consequences from your actions and alleviates any fear of death / failure. Amnesia: The Dark Descent suffered from this problem; although, it still ended up being a good game.

The game also needs to have well-defined objectives so that you don't just lock yourself in a closet, but also needs to be open enough so that the alien can force you to re-evaluate your plan or objective without forcing a "game over". How much of the ship will be accessible? How open-ended will the game be? Will the player be given a chance to familiarize themselves with the layout and functions of the ship prior to being isolated with the alien? If the game ends up just being a series of rigid objectives and linear paths, then it can really kill the suspense and immersion. You wouldn't be free to make decisions, and the game would start to feel like a guided tour rather than a real problem-solving experience.

Hopefully, neither of these problems ends up ruining the game.

Below is a gameplay video complete with some commentary from IGN.

I do have a few criticisms. For one thing, even though the commentators applaud the game's lighting, the actual flashlight effect is pretty crappy. It doesn't seem to be casting realistic shadows on the environment, which can limit opportunities for organic, visual scares, and which can really pull a player out of the experience.

Secondly, the highlighting of specific objects in the environment leads me to believe that the game will follow a rigid set of objectives, effectively turning each encounter into a sort of scripted "set-piece sequence" that requires very little thought or ingenuity from the player (this being one of the two mistakes for this genre that I listed above).

I'm not going to let such criticisms be deal-breakers though. There's a lot to like here. The game looks very tense, the sound design seems top-notch, the aesthetics very faithfully follow the movie (despite seeming archaic by the standards of today's technology), the the possible inclusion of a hostile android character (see 1:01 and 1:14 in the game trailer above) looks to add an additional cerebral challenge and threat beyond just the predatory alien. The game still looks promising, and appears to be a dramatic step up from previous offers based on this license!

Alien: Isolation is scheduled for release on October 7th for PC, PS4, PS3, XBoxOne, and XBox360 (again, no love for the Wii U). Just in time for my birthday!

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