I loaded up Estranged: Act One for the first time knowing nothing about it, and had no idea what to expect. Luckily I was surprised to find myself quickly captivated by the fantastic game that began to unfold before me.
Estranged tells a tale wrapped in mystery. The player begins the game being shipwrecked on an isolated island, where of course all is not as it first seems. You will have to try and escape, with occasional help along the way, and occasional danger in the form of some new foes. The first thing that hits you is some great attention to detail in level design, from the ship swaying violently around you to the moonlit shoreline. There is some extra technical wizardry at play here too, but I’ll get to that later. It’s clear that the creators are striving for atmosphere above all else. The locations themselves all feel grounded and part of the world and optional extras like newspaper cuttings and even usable computers add more pieces to the puzzle. (So you can read all about the local scarecrow competition if you really want)
To that end, the gameplay is carefully constrained. Rather than going all out, the game moves slowly to fantastically build the apprehension. There is a lot of exploration in this mod, broken up with environmental puzzles which work very well for the most part. The player, a shipwrecked fisherman, is obviously no Gordon Freeman; he can carry only one weapon and takes damage pretty easily. These limitations have the potential to frustrate, so combat is levelled accordingly. Encounters with enemies, mainly the somewhat zombified inhabitants of the island, are quite rare and this makes things more interesting when they do happen. It is perhaps a bit disappointing that these zombies are so similar to Left 4 Dead’s Common Infected so it was wise not to make them the sole focus of the mod.
The game does well to create its own universe. Despite some reuse of HL2 content (the most obvious being the Kleiner NPC for one character) the new assets set Estranged apart. Rather than just being there for the sake of it, they often serve to add to backstory and further improve the atmosphere. From a technical standpoint the mod is superb, and although it is an oft-used phrase, parts of it do “push the boundaries” of the engine. An extensive use of projected textures (think Wheatley’s flashlight) can make environments look far more dynamic and cause creepy shadows, and allow some neat effects like a slideshow projector that can cast onto enemies. There are also a lot of more subtle changes under the hood, such as better reflections on the world, which give a more modern polish to the overall product. On top of this a lot of lens-flare and “dirt” are applied over the screen, but unlike many modern games the effect is not too obnoxious and can be disabled in a helpful options menu. A slightly unfortunate side-effect of all this gloss is that a few common Source engine issues, such as being to see the edge of the map, are made more glaring by comparison. Of course this is probably just nit-picking compared to the excellent overall presentation, especially given that this is unbelievably just a beta release.
Estranged: Act One was released a couple of weeks ago (following an Alpha earlier in the year) and has already gathered acclaim for its intense atmosphere, interesting characters and slick presentation. This part ends quite abruptly and, as is often the case with such stories, raises many questions and gives few answers. Let’s hope the next Act arrives soon to shed some light on them.