Alien: Isolation; DLC

Alien: Isolation has a surprising amount of DLC, and it's both actual game content and sufficiently different from the main game as to merit discussion.

Two of the DLC are straight-up homages to the original Alien, where you get to essentially play through a section of the movie. That's... not inherently a bad idea, but movies have different needs from games so it's something that has to be done carefully, if at all.

In Alien: Isolation's case, these two DLC missions primarily serve to illustrate exactly how not to design an Alien: Isolation mission; the Nostromo recreations are made heavily of narrow corridors with no branching paths or objects to hide behind or within, offering little ability to actually sneak around the Alien in any meaningful sense, and in turn the game heavily constricts the Alien so as to minimize the problem this presents. And of course there's no human or android hostiles to deal with in either segment, and while the Alien is the core of the gameplay the game isn't really designed to make sneaking around the Alien by itself all that strong of gameplay. The overall result is that unless you're interested in exploring a loving recreation of the Nostromo in explorable video game form, there's not really anything to do in these DLC missions; most of your 'playtime' is empty space.

Frustratingly, the 'survivor' maps are in some ways worse. The maps are less ill-suited to the core gameplay of Alien: Isolation, providing the ability to evade the Alien and hide from it on a reasonably routine basis, but there's still no human hostiles or android hostiles, and the 'survivor' maps have as their core conceit that you have a series of secondary objectives you can complete for additional score. The secondary objectives part is actually a nice idea, so naturally the game immediately sabotages it by making it so secondary objectives have a continuously diminishing score tied to them where you get however much is remaining when you complete a given secondary objective. This runs strongly contrary to the core gameplay: if you want to score well in a 'survivor' map, you need to memorize where everything is and move as fast as possible as consistently as possible, with minimal lip service paid to the notion that you're supposed to be sneaking about.

Even worse, 'survivor' maps have no in-game map for you to consult, and the Motion Tracker ranges from unreliable to utterly worthless at pointing you to any of your objectives. You're expected to simply trial-and-error your way to figuring out what your objectives even mean, with no ability to work out an efficient route or the like unless you've played a given map so much you outright have it memorized. That's a lot of up-front time sinking demanded before I'm allowed to have anything resembling fun, and even once you've done all that it's not like they actually become fun. They just become less miserable to try to navigate.

Lastly, there's a 'scavenger' map, which has a better core concept than the 'survivor' maps, but is still making the same fundamental mistakes and is also making new ones. The concept in this case is that you have a core safe room where you pick from two tasks, go out to accomplish them, and then come back to pick a new pair, iterating through up to 10 tasks this way to beat the map. You slowly accumulate blueprints, crafting materials, and according to the wider internet you'll even eventually encounter human and android enemies to properly complete the core gameplay of Alien: Isolation.

I say 'according to the wider internet' because I lost interest after my fifth death without even completing the second task once. It simply has too many dire problems in its design, right out the gate, and I have difficulty imagining the later portion is a big enough improvement to be worth the slog getting there.

First of all, the map is only slightly less bad than the Nostromo maps about employing tight corridors with limited ability to evade or hide. This makes survival pretty heavily down to luck in the early parts, particularly since you have extremely limited resources; no, you are not scaring off the Alien with a Molotov or something. You don't start with the materials to make one, and supplies are extremely slow to accumulate.

Second, the game still uses a timed score system where you're encouraged to go as fast as possible instead of actually sneaking about.

Third, the game actually charges you points to save. This heavily encourages simply doing a couple of segments fast and recklessly and then saving, and then repeating that process until you win -you'll get a higher score than if you successfully never save but take things slowly and carefully.

Fourth, you have an overall time limit of 2 hours. Particularly irritating is that the clock is ticking even while you're in your safe room, with the only exception being that it doesn't start going down until you first leave the safe room. So even when you don't have a task and are outright in your safe room, the game is still pushing you to go-go-go, more speed, MORE SPEED!!!!

None of these DLC are good or interesting. They're all badly-designed messes with fundamentally broken decisions underlying them and horrid execution. The core campaign has something worth experiencing at least once: the DLC do not.

This is particularly amazing since they all ought to benefit from their focus on avoiding the Alien, given that one of the main problems with the core campaign is how little time the Alien gets on-screen. You'd think the DLC would be a step up.

Alas, they're probably not worth the time it takes to play them, let alone the money it takes to buy them.

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So, in summary, Alien: Isolation has a strong core concept, executes a lot of mechanical elements of the Alien-hunting-you experience fairly well, and then drags it all down by minimizing time spent on that element, further sabotaging it with serious general game design problems, and then doesn't even have the decency to have an even marginally decent story in it. This should have been an instant classic and the start of a new genre of game, and it's just... disappointing what we got instead.

Also note that these posts have primarily focused on major failings of the game. If I wanted to go over everything the game did wrong, I could probably wring it for another dozen posts' worth of content. The narrative, in particular, has a massive catalogue of bad decisions I simply never felt the need to delve into because the core plot is too broken and nonsensical; what's the point of saying 'Sevastopol could've been presented less nonsensically' when I've already said the game really shouldn't have taken place on a space station in the first place? Similarly, what's the point of delving into the problems with Amanda's handling in detail when she really shouldn't have been used as the protagonist in the first place?

On a related note, it's worth explicitly stating that I didn't really leave out anything the game did well. The music, when it's even present, is unmemorable and, aside the music that follows the Alien when it's stalking you, not particularly effectual at evoking... anything. The visual direction as far as 'artists slaving away to make these objects look real' is competent, I suppose, but it's not particularly impressive except in the sense that modern technology allows for shinier visuals than ever before... and the visual direction as far as making the world comprehensible, navigable, etc, is, as I've touched on before, impressively bad. The UI ranges from 'functional enough using established conventions' to 'actively terrible and counter-intuitive'. And on and on.

I'm pretty bad about getting focused on criticism and forgetting to acknowledge the positive, but that's not why I had such a narrow list of positive things to say about this game. It really is that poorly-made.

Such wasted potential.

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