For years, gamers have clamored for a perfect Alien game. The trials and tribulations of Ellen Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo, trapped in a floating capsule in the empty vacuum of space with a murderous organism, has all the markers of a potentially excellent game. Instead, gamers have been treated to titles such as the abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines from last year. The search for a game which could match Ridley Scott’s original horror classic seemed to be a fruitless one – at least it was, until Sega and developer The Creative Assembly gave us Alien: Isolation.
Set 15 years after the events of Scott’s film, and 42 years before James Cameron’s Aliens, Isolation places players in control of another Ripley: Amanda, Ellen’s daughter, who was previously only referenced in a photograph in Cameron’s film. Here, Amanda is an engineer working for Weyland-Yutani who is invited to join a team that is heading to Sevastopol Station, owned by Seegson Corporation, which has the flight recorder of the Nostromo in its possession. Seeking closure for her mother’s disappearance, Amanda accepts, and sets into motion a harrowing chain of events.
When the team reaches Sevastopol aboard their ship, the Torrens, they find it unresponsive and eerily lifeless. Amanda, Christopher Samuels – a synthetic – and Nina Taylor, a W-Y executive, attempt a spacewalk to the Sevastopol which goes horribly wrong, separating Amanda from the group and leaving her alone, inside the station, for the first of what will be many hours spent by herself exploring Sevastopol.
It’s clear from the outset that Creative Assembly have crafted the most faithful recreation of Alien’s world ever seen in gaming. Every detail, every surface, every possible minutia has been analyzed to ensure it gels with the constraints that the designers were working from in 1979. “If a prop couldn’t have been made in ’79 with the things that they had around, then we wouldn’t make it either,” the game’s head of Art Design, Jon McKellanm told GameFront – and boy, does it show. CRT monitors adorn desks and walls, flickering into green-and-white life with their ASCII graphics and accompanied with chunky keyboards. Voice recorders and boomboxes are scattered around living quarters and offices, with cassettes (remember those?) waiting to be played. Video recordings flicker and distort, as if watched on an old VHS, while every computer and electronic item is accompanied with numerous “bleep” and “bloop” sounds to remind you that, yes, this is a future designed some three decades in the past.
Sevastopol itself is a large-scale extrapolation of the Nostromo. Its exterior and interior place form over function. It’s an industrial spaceport, a far cry from the luxury liner aesthetic of Star Trek’s Enterprise D, and its corridors and rooms are adorned with exposed pipes, manual levers, ventilation shafts, maintenance hatches, ladders, polystyrene panels, metal brackets and big, square buttons with instructions written in multiple languages to reflect the stations international crew. Every inch of the world has been specifically crafted to look and feel and as though it has been ripped straight from Alien, and that slavish attention to detail makes it an utterly engrossing experience for any fans of Scott’s original horror epic.
Sevastopol, however, is a station in disarray. Scattered throughout the station are the bodies of its former residents, mingling with makeshift barricades, temporary beds, burst pipes, exposed wiring, untamed fires, ransacked cupboards and storage lockers and the debris and detritus of a people struggling to survive in the midst of utmost panic. The reasons for this immediately become clear as the player navigates through the game’s opening sections – human survivors are distrusting, shell-shocked and eager to shoot first and ask later as they scavenge for supplies. Ultimately, though, the player meets the reason for the complete breakdown of society in Sevastopol: Amanda’s nemesis for the next 20 or so hours, the alien.
Designed to resemble his counterpart in Alien, this black, nightmarish bastard will ensnare you in a terrifying game of hide and seek as you desperately try to regain contact with your crew. Isolation’s core gameplay strips away the action of later installments in the film series and instead focuses on the panicked running and hiding of Ellen Ripley as she desperately tried to evade the original alien. Amanda is powerless to stop this brutal creature – she finds basic tools and weapons, including smoke bombs, a stun baton and a revolver, but none are powerful enough to cause the alien to stop his advances. Create Assembly tout the alien’s unscripted AI, and for the most part they nailed it. As you advance through an area, the alien will be hunting you. He can use the vents and crawlspaces to move around, before dropping down near you and stalking the sounds you make. Amanda’s initial encounter with him in an abandoned medical facility quickly establishes the tone: if you run, you will die. If you are seen, you will die. If you make a loud noise, you will die. If you don’t hide quickly enough, you will die. Particularly on higher difficulties, most of your time in Isolation will be spend dying at the hands of the alien, who just can’t seem to get enough of eating your face or slicing your intestines.
Amanda can make use of vent systems, lockers and cabinets to hid in, as well as slide under desk, tables and beds in order to break line-of-sight with the alien. Keeping as much distance and matter between yourself and its murderous claws is the only way to ensure you’ll make it from one area to the next, and it makes every encounter with the alien a tense game of cat and mouse. A rudimentary crafting system grants Amanda the ability to create distractions, such as smoke, light and sound, to draw the creature’s attention, but these are temporary measures at best. Your wits and an ability to spot hiding places quickly are what will keep you alive.
That being said, there is a degree of repetition to the alien that removes a great deal of the fear that comes in the earlier portion of the game. Watching his legs stomp past, tail slithering behind, used to have me reaching for the smelling salts in order to recover. In later sections, though, it became almost a routine. Enter an area, hear the alien drop from a vent, hide somewhere until he had given up looking and retreated, and then advance. It’s also not aided by Isolation’s punishing save system. Apart from a handful of occurrences, the game will not auto save your progress. Instead, you’re left to use manual save points, designed to resemble payphones, in order to save the game. These will become your greatest friend and your single biggest annoyance. The thrill of sneaking through a section of the game, dodging the alien, cowering in dark vents, listening to the sound of pounding footsteps and the creatures shrieks, and finally, desperately making it to the next save point cannot be overstated. I would frequently find myself heaving huge sighs of relief as Amanda slid her card into the phone and saved the game.
However, you are not safe from the alien in these moments. If it’s nearby – which the save point will tell you – it can easily send a claw through your stomach as you frantically scrabble to save your progress. The same applies when Amanda is using a computer, accessing a rewire point (used to change lights, deactivate cameras and open doors) or hacking a terminal, among other actions. She is constantly vulnerable, and it means choosing your moments wisely, but the balance here is definitely more towards frustration. Having to replay the same area over and over because the alien keeps ripping your face off or dragging you up into a vent – hint, don’t walk under any vents that have goo dropping from them – becomes an annoying exercise. It doesn’t help that occasionally the unscripted AI becomes a little too eager to find you. Several times, I’d be hiding in a locker, desperately trying to remain hidden, and the alien would just wander back and forth in front of me, refusing to leave. I had no choice but to jump out and accept my fate.
Of course, the alien isn’t your only foe. Sevastopol is littered with human survivors, who will do anything in their power to murder you should you stray into their environment. All too often, I found sneaking past human opponents to be harder than dodging the alien, as they seemed to be gifted with a superhuman ability to always know exactly where I was, and thus send bullets towards me. Still, at least they could be dispatched with a bullet to the chest or a wrench to the back of the head, but killing survivors feels like a rather cold thing to do – and though it’s avoidable, there are a couple of sections where the game makes it really hard to not simply go guns blazing and take out your frustration at not being able to kill the alien on the fleshy humans who refuse to stop shooting at you.
Lastly, there are the stations androids, known as Working Joes. Built by Seegson to offer a cheap alternative to Weyland-Yutani’s synthetics, they are creepy, humanoid robots with glowing eyes. Their deep, electronic voices are freaky, and their offers of help and assistance feel empty and troublesome. That’s a fear which bears fruit, as once you enter restricted sections of Sevastopol, they will try their darnedest to break your neck or stomp on your face, all while calmly telling you to stop being so hysterical. They are much harder to kill than humans, though not impossible, and they grip onto you should you get too close. Though it’s possible to run past them and evade capture, their autonomous, cold eyes and machined desire to hunt you down and kill you rivals the alien for terror – only there are usually several androids chasing you, versus one alien.
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Unfortunately, Isolation struggles with fitting these three enemies into its story. Pacing is a big issue, and players will frequently lurch between tense moments of sneaking and boring moments of exploration and completing fetch quests and simple puzzles. One flashback mission, which puts the player in control of another character as they discover an alien vessel on a planet, feels laboriously long, and would likely have been better served as a well-edited cutscene than as a lengthy mission. When the player gains the flamethrower, it removes a lot of the tension from encounters with the alien – one blast of fire will send it scampering towards the nearest vent. You’ll feel like empowered, but the tension that makes the earlier levels so enjoyable is gone. One alien-free section in a mall on Sevastopol also smacks strongly of padding, pulling you from the thrills of the game’s other sections and instead putting you in the firing line of humans and Working Joes. It isn’t fun, and it shouldn’t have made the final cut. Indeed, at around 20 hours, Isolation bucks the trend of some recent games with their miniscule campaigns, but I’m not entirely sure it’s better served by being so long. A 10 or 12 hour story with all of the fat trimmed off would have been a much more enjoyable experience.
Still, there is one part of Isolation which I would gladly spend another 20 or 30 hours enjoying: its sound. I’m going to be bold and say that Isolation has some of the greatest audio in gaming. Ignoring the voice acting, which is more than a little phoned-in in places, Creative Assembly absolutely nailed every other aspect. The music, with its shrill violins, keeps the player in a heightened mood as enemies approach, while Sevastopol sounds exactly as it should. Ventilation systems hum and whirr, machines click and bleep, CRT monitors buzz and crackle as they spring into life, cassettes and video tapes distort and hiss as they play. Amanda’s sneakers squeak as she walks over polished floor and squelch as she tiptoes through bloodied corpses. Vents clang and rattle as you clamber through them, gunshots echo down empty corridors and Amanda’s frantic breathing as the alien stalks her add to an atmosphere which couldn’t feel more as if the player were actually here.
Speaking of the alien, Isolation is a textbook example of sound being scarier than sight. You’ll hear the alien before you see it, in multiple ways. I highly recommend a good pair of headphones, as it’ll change the way you experience the game. First, your motion tracker will beep, alerting you to a presence near you. Then you’ll hear it, far off behind your ear, the sound of distant clanging and scraping. The alien is in the vents, coming for you. Pull up the tracker and you’ll see the dot moving towards you – the clanging draws closer. Then, suddenly, it stops. You breathe, sure the alien has abandoned the chase, before the inevitable heavy thud as it drops from a vent into the room next to you. Surround sound makes the most of the creature’s heavy footsteps through rooms and corridors, letting you track its position near you and base your next action on the alien’s vicinity. Sound is as much a gameplay tool as the map and the controller – without it, you’d never know where or what the alien is doing, but with it you’re all too aware that the alien is always, inevitably close at hand. Escaping through an elevator or transit car to a new area, with the brief flicker of safety crossing your mind, it’s tough to describe how disheartening it is to hear that familiar banging in the vents.
Really, from a technical standpoint, Alien: Isolation is a great game. Its obsessive attention to detail in giving player’s another slice of the original film’s world should be lauded – never before has a game based on a film nailed the atmosphere, sound and design of that world so well. Beyond that, though, Isolation is merely a good game – though that’s hardly a reason to disregard it. As a piece of survival horror, it refrains from offering any truly terrifying moments. Instead, it uses its assets to put you in a constant state of panic. By stripping away the power and weapons of other games, and by placing the player at the losing end of a game of hide and seek, it offers tense thrills that are guaranteed to leave your heart pounding as you desperately run towards that next save point. Yes, it somewhat outstays its welcome, and yes, there are some frustrating elements to its design and gameplay, and yes, it succumbs to repetition in later stages. None of that, though, can detract from the primal fear of feeling utterly and completely helpless in the face of an overpowered enemy – and that is what will sustain you in your desperate plight to guide Amanda safely off Sevastopol.
Alien: Isolation is available on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.