Search for signs of your mother aboard an alien-infested space station.
PC Release: October 7, 2014
By Ian Coppock
It’s been a long time since I’ve played a big-budget horror game as enjoyable as Alien: Isolation. You don’t see many true horror games from Triple-A companies these days; big-name developers too terrified of isolating their audiences water down what might otherwise have been good terror titles. The result is less a horror game and more a generic shooter with some creepy sound effects. Dead Space 3 and Resident Evil 6 are prime examples of this.
But, the guys and gals at Creative Assembly don’t seem to follow this policy. Alien: Isolation is not a perfect horror game, but it’s probably the best mainstream horror title we’ve seen since the first Dead Space. It has its problems, no doubt about that, but its adherence to true survival horror is uncommon in this era of cynically wrapping your game around audience sampling.
Alien: Isolation has nothing to do with that god-awful Aliens spin-off that Gearbox put out a few years ago. What we have here is a direct sequel to the first Alien film, which seeks to embody all of that movie’s spooky motifs and then some. It focuses not on the military action featured in Aliens, but on Alien‘s suffocating atmosphere and sense of dread.
Isolation takes place fifteen years after the events of the film. Player character Amanda Ripley, the spitting image of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, takes engineering jobs from all over the region her mother disappeared in. Unaware of the events that transpired aboard the Nostromo, Amanda holds out hope that her mother is alive somewhere, and jumps at the chance to find out when she learns that her mother’s flight recorder has been found.
Accompanied by a polite corporate android and a frigid attorney, Amanda takes off for Sevastopol Station, a partially decommissioned space station on the fringe of civilization. Amanda comes aboard looking for the flight recorder, but instead beholds a space colony in the throes of chaos. Bloodstains, flickering lights, and the sense that something is terribly, terribly wrong.
Separated from her team, Amanda moves deeper into the station by herself, and right away I took note of Isolation‘s excellent atmosphere. Creative Assembly is to be commended for so closely recreating the feel and visuals of Alien. We have a full suite of assets either borrowed from or inspired by the film, used to create a new setting that is also familiar to Alien fans. Alien: Isolation goes beyond mere object usage in its quest for Alien‘s atmosphere. The game includes old-school lens flares and a plethora of atmospheric effects mimicking a video cassette. These effects compliment the film’s visuals without taking away from its graphics, which, by the way, are top-notch.
Isolation and the universe it draws from are an excellent study in retro-futurism. Every device and object in the Alien universe represents what people in the 1970s thought space travel would be like. Even though the technologies are impressive, they’re still powered by green monochrome computers, paper documents and boom boxes. It’s a delightfully charming and refreshing take on futurism, though most of the credit for that goes to the film rather than the game.
After encountering some bloody wall-writings and a few people who are scared out of their minds, Amanda realizes that something on the station is systematically exterminating its populace. Suspecting a serial killer or malfunctioning androids, nothing prepares her for what’s really out there, what she finally beholds.
It’s at this moment that Amanda’s mission becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Retrieve the flight recorder with her mother’s last-known location? Sure! So long as you elude a fifteen-foot-tall, invincible nightmare creature from the depths of hell?
Amanda’s got her work cut out for her on what was supposed to be a routine mission. There’s only one alien on Sevastopol Station, but it’s got your number, and it is hungry. In true survival horror style, the alien is invincible; even the giant shotgun you find early on won’t do shit against its hide. Your only hope for survival is stealth: hiding, running, and being quieter than a mouse. You have no recourse if this thing catches you, except a one-way ticket to a Game Over screen, and then grief counseling.
The alien isn’t the only threat Amanda faces on the station. Terrified human survivors dot the station in small camps, and they’ll shoot anything that moves. As if that wasn’t enough of a compounding issue, someone has reprogrammed the station’s android workforce to kill any human on sight. These spooky wax dummies roam between their work posts in search of intruders.
Isolation‘s gallery of freaks would leave any sane person feeling outmatched, but the game brings a suite of mechanics to help you beat the odds. Amanda is an engineer, and she can craft anything from health packs to alarm clocks from the components scattered all over the station. Most of the items are useful, but three or four of them serve the same purpose of distracting the alien. While unintentionally redundant, it’s handy if you have parts for one type of noisemaker but not the other.
Amanda also finds guns on the station, but every decision to pull the trigger must be weighed carefully. Loud noises will draw the alien to your position, so the only situation precipitating gunfire must be one in which an alien chasing after you is the preferable option. You can craft smoke bombs to elude the alien, and even it has fears that you can exploit to your advantage. I was fond of using noisemakers to lure the alien into gunfights with human opponents. A useful, if macabre, distraction technique.
The visuals and mechanics of Alien: Isolation are mostly excellent, but the narrative that they serve to inform is sub-par. Amanda’s mission to find her mother’s flight recorder gets shot to shit almost immediately, and you spend about 90% of the game performing mundane tasks around the station. 2-3 levels alone are dedicated just to finding a first aid kit for your injured teammate, and this causes the game to drag on considerably. Isolation has that unfortunate System Shock 2 habit of giving you a goal, and then setting it at the very end of a kaleidoscope of other goals to complete first.
Additionally, this game’s PC port was bound by a maniac. Even routine functions require bizarre combinations of keys to complete. I was perplexed most by the lock-breaking mechanic, in which you have to press several alternating keys, hold down the mouse button at the same time as the space bar, perform three Hail Marys, make a rooster sound, and light a pink smoke signal.
I appreciate the enthusiasm for player input, Creative Assembly, but the F button is quite sufficient.
Before I got sidetracked with the control problems, the story. Yes, the story. Not great. None of the characters really evolve at all; even with the hell Amanda goes through, her voice actress and the team of writers failed at portraying the change a game like this would force on a person. In fact, all of the voice-acting is mediocre. Amanda only ever sounds like she’s turned into a flat robot or is about to cry, the latter of which is perfectly understandable in a situation like this, but sticks out like a sore thumb in the conversations over pre-mission breakfast cereal.
Again, the main plot of the game doesn’t really strike any deep chords. The quest to find your mother is shunted aside in favor of pure survival, which I would be fine with if Isolation had been marketed as a purely story-less survival experience. I was also disappointed to see that large portions of the game’s story literally copy-paste from the film, including a visit to a certain derelict spaceship. Not a bad story in and of itself, but to stomp around in the film’s storytelling makes this game feel like it’s re-hashing something old instead of being new material.
Casual gamers might also find themselves frustrated by the alien’s sophisticated AI. Easy difficulty on this game is the normal difficulty for most other games. The alien has been programmed to be wild and unpredictable, which I applaud for survival horror value but deride for its tendency to be a bit much. This issue really comes into play with the game’s manual checkpoints. I got frustrated a few times because the alien heard me exhale too loudly from the other side of the station and killed me on my fifth trip to the next save station. I don’t mind admitting that I had to turn down the difficulty a few times, but then again, I’m not the most patient person in the world. Complicating matters is the alien’s ability to hide around corners and in the ceiling.
My final complaint about Isolation‘s narrative is that its simply too long. My playthrough clocked in at about 26 hours, which anyone who plays a lot of linear first-person games will probably raise an eyebrow at. No character development and mundane goals stretched over that length of time made Isolation feel like an occasional grind, but its visuals, atmosphere, and scary gameplay are its saving graces.
The other issue I found with Alien: Isolation is that Amanda braves so many near-death experiences that they all become meaningless. Heroes in action movies can only motorcycle through so many explosions before we start to assume they’re vulnerable, and the same thing happens to Amanda. In one six-minute span, Amanda survives being struck by a train, nearly being hit by an elevator, several close alien encounters, and a huge explosion. When enough near-death experiences happen in that rapid of an order, they lose their significance. They make it hard to believe that our protagonist is vulnerable, and thus turn down the horror.
Unlike most big-box games that come out these days, Alien: Isolation has some quality DLC, that’s actually worth its asking price. Most of the downloadable content is storyless, featuring different challenges to try around Savastopol Station. Some of them are reminiscent of the main mission, where you try to complete goals before the alien gets you. My favorite pack was the mission in which you leave your alien-proof room, gather supplies, and scuttle back in like a prairie dog.
There are two story-driven pieces of content that recreate the events of the original Alien film, and I want to highlight them because it’s almost unheard of to find a movie tie-in that’s actually good. Crew Expendable and Last Survivor, featuring voice acting from Sigourney Weaver, recreate a few key scenes from when the alien is aboard the Nostromo. The first mission is a recreation of the crew’s attempt to trap the beast, and the latter is Ellen Ripley’s race to find the ship’s escape pod. Both are decent missions that are unafraid to tweak a few things to suit a video game format, without damaging the feel of the original movie. I think fans in both camps can appreciate that.
In closing, Alien: Isolation is a decent horror game that’s rough around the edges in every way save its visual fidelity to Alien. I’d recommend only buying it on sale and being patient with yourself if the alien keeps killing you. Story-centric gamers will probably want to move on to other pastures, but the horror fans among you will find a worthy, if unpolished, horror experience here.
You can buy Alien: Isolation here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.