Greetings from Earth Part II: Memorable first contact moments in video games

Welcome back! This is our continuation of interesting first contact scenarios in video games. Sorry about the impromptu nature of these posts. I literally had no idea I’d be stretching this out into such an unwieldy beast. It seems that I have a lot to say on the subject, and it can only be covered by a rash of articles! Whether that’s better than a single novelette sized mother, is yet to be seen. I might try that approach later… Thanks for your patience as I get the hang of this blogging thing. It’s all still very new to me – which goes without saying, really!

To the main event: We’re back with the subject of alien incursion in video games. The possibilities when star-crossed consciousnesses collide are truly limitless. Though we all have a good idea what we’d do in a situation, mainstream popular opinion would suggest that our Eatee visitors would undoubtedly have something dastardly in store for us. Video games wouldn’t have it any other way. Nine times out of ten, anything with extra appendages, a disc shaped ship, or a collection of shiny probes on standby doesn’t necessarily have your best interest at heart. (Or whatever equivalent nutrient sifting organ they might have evolved.)

This next installment is in the same vein. (Wow, forgive me for that!) Horrible pun aside, this next game presents a compelling case for why aliens equal bad news. It’s done in such an entertaining and above all else memorable way, that you’ll find yourself wondering why most games don’t handle the subject half as good! This is a tangible take when a super soldier runs afoul of an ancient intelligence as it awakens from a centuries long dormancy.

I promised more detail on this go-round and you can’t get much more of a stark jump in technology than by comparing the Sega Genesis to the heights of modern PC graphics. (Okay, you could say Atari to modern day PC graphics, but you get where I’m coming from.)

Breaking out at our number two spot is the action-oriented first person shooter, Crysis.

Crysis

You begin as a United States Special Forces Operator whose code name is Nomad. Resplendent with a sweetly decked out nano suit that basically gives you every power that the greatest military technology can provide, such as lightning speed, super strength, crazy agility, bullet absorbing armor, and (my favorite) a Predator-esque cloaking field. The first half of the game’s focus is mainly on facing human opponents. Which is perfectly fine, as in the beginning it is you who feels like the outsider. Early missions involve saving hostages from North Korean terrorists, high exploration across an open island environment, infiltration of enemy encampments to gather intel and a slow build up of what promises to be a thrilling story early on. Crysis was renowned for its graphics engine on release, and I was mighty impressed myself as I played it four years later. This game has aged beautifully.

But all is not well in ‘made-up-island-land’ when Nomad and his team are systematically hunted and tracked by unknown forces. The first reveal that things are not quite as they seem and the subsequent scramble propels you to the inevitable conflict that truly ‘made’ the game for me. For someone who is something of an archeology nerd, the idea of finding the remains of an ancient (and decidedly squidy) mystery creature struck all the right nerves. I found myself yearning to learn more about these things, intrigued by their origins, and wondering just what their mores might be. That, coupled with the systematic attacks on my squad made me both wary and totally hyped for what was to come.

And what better place for that confrontation than that looming mountain at the center of the island?

The Ceph spaceship is revealed after the remnants of the mountain have fallen away.

When Nomad finally investigates what is called “The Temple” by the locals, he promptly deals with his human adversaries. He’s too late to stop the inevitable, however. The mountain crumbles around him as whatever is inside begins to awaken. Now trapped, Nomad is faced with his only possible choice. He must push forward into the eerily lit and equally alien looking entryway, leaving the devastated chamber behind. It’s that unknown that Crysis manages to capture so well.

Inside the ship. I enjoyed how limited you felt as you tried to pick your way through the alien craft stuck in your gravitationally locked two-dee horizon that humans are so used to. It’s only when you escape the earth’s pull that you can fully explore the ship.

This translates into the design of the alien interior. Dark-lit halls and meandering passageways.. odd plantlike growths tipped with what seems to be bio-luminescent buds waving as you pass. Things really start to get interesting when the earth’s gravity is somehow canceled and you must drift through vast open sections of the ship with no real orientation to guide you. Everything opens up as you navigate in three dimensional space as the ship was undoubtedly built for, but it can be very confusing at times. Yet for me, this fit and only added to the immersion.

The game earns points in modelling their aliens after squid and octopus.

Things get a little hectic when you meet up with the denizens of the craft. They’re called the Ceph after their passing resemblance to cephalopods. And if you know me, you know that is a good thing! Similarly to Ecco’s notorious Giger squids from part one, Crysis’ Ceph aren’t too happy that you’re invading their space. Call me a sucker, but I didn’t want to start slaughtering them wholesale with my shotgun. I was trespassing after all. But when they began swarming me like those frenzied Humboldt squid, I knew it was time to bring the hammer down before they started taking away chunks. It is an action game after all… and I can’t really be trespassing if they’re on my damn planet to begin with!

There was something arresting about wheeling around at the sound of an approaching alien, only to catch a flash of a bio-luminous tentacle disappearing around a corner.. and something extremely satisfying about punching a shell into one and watching it drift in the zero-grav environment, leaking its see-through blood all the way.

What’s not to love about an alien cephalopod in battle armor?

The rest of the game branches out into satisfying battles as the Ceph begin with their plans of world domination. You escape their vessel only to find half of the island flash frozen by subarctic temperatures. The Ceph idea of terraforming, as they evidently require frigid temperatures to survive. It also does gangbusters on the battle front, as you pass by crystalline statues of your fellow homo sapiens.

Things get really fun when you hook up with the remnants of your team. Your leader, codenamed Prophet. The Ceph aren’t going to make it easy on you as you take on squadrons of exo-suited baddies while they pour from the ship, seeking to eradicate all humans who managed to avoid their sphere of chilled doom. In the end, you are forced to evacuate as it’s soon learned that stemming the tide is all but impossible.

I’m almost certain that these exosuits were piloted.

As you could imagine, there are amazing protracted battles against overwhelming forces in the final stages of the game. Troops of Ceph scouts swarming the only fleet of battleships that humanity has standing between them and an upcoming genocide. Huge mechanized monstrosities that have your imminent demise first up on their to-do list. It’s all very exciting and I highly recommend you play this game if you haven’t already.. but for me, nothing will beat those first moments of exploration. Discovering an alien intelligence that could very well have lain dormant for millions of years on your own planet. Everything that happens afterwards is just semantics. We’ve seen it done a million times and while I greatly appreciate how well Crysis tackles the genre, it can’t be overstated how they handled those first moments. It was superb. All of the thought and detail that went into it really shows.

Now, I haven’t played the sequel yet, even though I hear that the Ceph feature prominently. The fact that they have been relegated to humanoid battle suits might have something to do with that. (I have a fundamentalist’s fervor for un-anthropomorphizing our aliens. I’m a hopeless case!) I get it that it makes sense that they would imitate human form and function to better fight us on our own turf. I totally buy into that! I was also so thoroughly impressed by Crysis, that I’d be more than happy to give the rest in its series a try. Though it has stepped away from the aspects that made it so compelling to me; namely its open world gameplay and exploration elements, the fact that Crytek included Peter Watts in production as a consultant (even going as far as having him write a novelization) should make Crysis 2 an instant purchase for anyone with a sci-fi bone in their body!

Screenshots from Crysis 2. And I know… they’ve gone bipedal on us. But! You can clearly see tentacles sprouting from that Ceph trooper’s back. I think I can forgive on those grounds.

Crysis earns its place on this list and I wont be forgetting it any time soon.

Next up is a game with non-swimming/free floating aliens. I promise! Aliens that put the T in ET definitely need their fair shake. I wont give in to the humanoid brigade just yet though. There’s likely a few posts left in me on this subject, and I’ll be sure to put off that pain-in-my-ass as long as possible!

See you next time.

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