Indisputably (I won't allow it), 2014’s game of the year was horror masterpiece Alien: Isolation, with its suffocating atmosphere and a sense of dread so palpable I frequently needed to step away for the sake of my own poor heart. Creative Assembly’s successes lie not only in their ability to terrify, but in their ability to create environments and in-game technology that feel like it they have been ripped straight out of Ellen Ripley’s first two adventures. From computer terminals, to save stations, to the risky motion tracking device; every interactable object has a beautiful, mechanical, and tangible feel to it. Y’know that feeling of typing on a mechanical keyboard? Alien: Isolation is drenched in those clicky, physical interactions, which form the backbone of the game’s incredible sense of place.
Alien: Isolation is a rare example of a game with such a well-developed and detailed world, to the point where living in that space is exhilarating, even without the constant Xenomorph threat. Observation, No Code’s space station thriller, is a game somewhat focused entirely on those mechanical interactions that brought Isolation’s Sevastapol Station to life. It’s no surprise to learn that many people who worked on Isolation also worked on Observation.
A gripping space mystery, a wonderfully written and acted protagonist, plenty of atmospheric dread, and a conclusion that left me stunned; in short, Observation is sensational, and you should finish reading this spoiler-free review and head to your local digital store immediately. Observation is worth it.
Observation is very difficult to write about without spoiling what is a fantastic space mystery with a great pay-off. You play as S.A.M., an onboard AI that operates the Observation space station, alongside you on this journey is central protagonist Dr. Emma Fisher, an astronaut and your companion throughout the 6-hour space-faring experience. Following an ‘event’, the space station essentially shuts down, with S.A.M. losing nearly all of its knowledge and capabilities in the process. Emma Fisher, confused and unable to locate her crew, manages to reboot S.A.M. to some level of normality, at least enough to help her navigate around the station and check on the health of vital systems. From the ‘event’ onwards, Fisher helps S.A.M. to re-learn the ropes, with the AI getting progressively smarter as the game goes on, alongside a mystery that captivates from beginning to end. Sadly, that’s all I’m going to give away in regards to Observation’s excellent narrative. It’s certainly an experience that will be most rewarding with no knowledge of the game going in.
SAM, the onboard AI and player-controlled character, operates via multiple cameras in each module of the space station. Each module has on average three cameras that S.A.M. can easily switch between with a press of the D-pad (PS4). Every camera has a full range of movement, with a long-range zoom to inspect objects at a distance. Eventually, S.A.M. will be able to take control of a Sphere, a fully manoeuvrable camera-bot that will use to whizz around the station. You’ll spend a lot of your time switching on laptops, unlocking doors to unexplored modules, and listening to mystery-revealing audio logs from the crew.
The narrative plays out by the player listening and reacting to Fisher’s instruction as she tries to get the space station’s systems up and running once again. Each task she asks S.A.M. to complete leads you to a reasonably simple puzzle situation which usually begins after inspecting a machine of some kind. One puzzle tasks you with redirecting the power from a fusion reactor to ensure it is operating safely. To do this, you are required to find the ‘safe’ point of six magnets which will contain the reactor. Each puzzle is simple, but may take a few tries to get right, especially as most have a time limit. Another puzzle sees S.A.M. asked to reboot the coolant network hub, this requires switching three separate nodes online in three different modules, and then finally initiating the hub.
Each task seems like tedious busy work, and it is, but that’s what makes Observation so special. Just as saving your game in Alien: Isolation required you to slowly and dangerously place your authorisation card into the slot, then wait for the system to recognise you, all while the xenomorph is still on your tail, Observation doesn’t gloss over menial tasks in favour of getting the player to the action quicker. No Code allow the player to sink into their world with the kind of mechanical, tangible technology interactions that made Alien: Isolation’s world all-encompassing and brilliant.
My favourite of these interactions in Observation requires you to engage the hatch clamps on the space station by holding down X and triangle on the Dualshock at the same time, then releasing them one after the other. This needed both of my hands to pull off, and again emphasised the tangible nature of your tasks. It really felt like I was operating machinery. Some players may bounce off these tasks which essentially require you to click buttons to reboot a system, but I wholly appreciated the drawn-out attention to detail. I wanted to feel like I was affecting change in the space station, and the realistic-feeling minutiae of each task ensured my time spent aboard the station as S.A.M. felt like I was genuinely there, enveloped in this gripping world and its mysteries.
Observation doesn’t just feel great to play, it looks the part too. Through the fairly grainy camera lenses through which the entire game is viewed, the space station looks magnificent, with an impressive level of detail in each and every module. Realism is an enormous part of what makes Observation so appealing, each environment wouldn’t look out of place in a line-up of genuine International Space Station photographs, it looks that good. It’s a shame then that the sense of disbelief is shattered each time the human faces, like Emma Fisher’s, appeared close to the camera. They’re not awful by any means, but the wonky facial animations feel out of place in such realistic environments that they are difficult to ignore. This is even more disappointing due to the absolutely stellar voice acting from Kezia Burrows, the voice behind Emma Fisher. It would just have been great for the human faces to have a bit more life behind their eyes, especially when the player character is an AI who only really interacts with other machines.
A waypoint system is embedded in the game, and I would have used it a whole lot more had I not realised it existed half-an-hour from rolling credits. When using the Sphere, which is occasionally your only option, getting lost is entirely likely, though this only really became an issue for me towards the back end of the game. However, the waypoint system is useful and I would recommend using it when you can, you could save a lot of time.
If you appreciate doing menial tasks in your video games, but also love a well written, captivating narrative with a conclusion that is bound to blow your mind, Observation will be a title you enjoy and think about for a long while afterwards. Questionable facial animations don’t detract from what should be considered a dark horse in the race for your ‘game of the year’ vote. Oh, and it gets creepy, real fast.