After the abysmal waste of time that was last year’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, the prospect of playing yet another title based on the famous film franchise filled me with dread. Thankfully, Alien: Isolation makes it clear out of the gate that this isn’t some action-based shooter that makes poor use of the license, but instead a tried-and-true homage to the original Ridley Scott classic, complete with a slick retro vibe and a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere that conjures the spirit of the timeless science fiction-horror masterpiece.
Fans who have been waiting to see Alien translated into a proper videogame finally have what they’ve been looking for; while Isolation is at times almost unbearably frustrating, its adherence to survival-horror game play and its dark cyberpunk setting make it a must-play for anyone craving some effective Xenomorph scares.
Isolation makes a concerted effort to meticulously craft a genuine Alien experience: old-looking “futuristic” computers scream 1979, while the default “film grain” visuals create a sense of watching an old VHS tape. It totally nails the original movie’s aesthetic, right down to the green-and-black CRT monitors, harsh lighting, and ominous rotating fans.
The score brings this home even further by providing intense orchestral numbers, complete with violin screeches and haunting noises that bring forth feelings of unease. It’s one of the most brilliant gaming soundtracks to date, familiar and comparable to the music of the movie franchise while also standing apart just enough for this story to feel like an independent addition to the universe.
Players take the role of Ellen Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) daughter Amanda, a technician who joins a Weyland-Yutani team sent to retrieve the flight recorder of the Nostromo (the spaceship from Alien). Amanda’s mission takes her to the decommissioned Sevastopol space, where roving bands of trapped occupants scavenge for food, unpredictable androids have been let off their leash, and a predatory Xenomorph Drone lurks in the rafters, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. The confined, unmaintained space station is a perfect setting for a game that forces players to survive, and its array of environmental hazards and dangerous baddies makes exploration an enjoyably dangerous feat.
Playing the game is as simple as making it to the next objective without becoming a statistic, but accomplishing that goal is easier said than done. Every enemy you meet is powerful and apt to kill you, while your weapons – shotgun, pistol, or EMP mine – have a limited effect.
The game is linear, but the way you approach objectives is not. Sometimes the best course of action may be to jump into a firefight head on, but most of the time you’ll find yourself crouching in the shadows, using a combination of distractions and sabotage to safely overcome the station’s myriad of trials. Typically you do this with your motion tracker out at all times, which is the only way to keep proper tabs on unseen enemies while keeping yourself properly oriented.
In my first hours of playing, I felt too scared to move. Since it is very hard to shake off a murderous android once you’re spotted, making brave dashes from shadow to shadow to stay hidden was always accompanied by a racing heart and a tight grip on the controller. Once the Alien enters the picture, the basic goal of sneaking remains the same, but since the Xenomorph cannot be killed by your weapons and cannot be outrun, its presence ups the terror ante by putting your human frailty into a dramatic new perspective.
I frequently found myself hiding in a locker as the monster tried to catch my scent through the cracks, unable to move until it vanished since discovery is met with instant death. With no check points, and death forcing the load of a previous save, failure feels like a legitimate setback, and reaching a new save point is a miniature victory worthy of celebration.
You can even be killed while saving your progress, resulting in a feeling of total helplessness. Never has a game made me feel so weak and powerless over my primary enemy. It’s a brave creative choice, one that developer Creative Assembly should be commended for making.
As you dodge enemies and complete objectives, you’ll have to salvage ammunition and scrap parts that can be used to craft a variety of helpful distracting devices, bombs, and med kits, all of which must be rationed properly if you hope to maximize your chances of living. You have to accomplish this without much tutoring, meaning that players will have to be creative and learn from trial and error, a refreshing change of pace from the hand-holding trends of modern gaming. Teaching yourself the ropes will result in an unprecedented number of deaths, but will also produce some feelings of true accomplishment when things work out in your favor.
For example, typically firing weapons and making excessive noise will result in the Alien dropping from the rafters and eating your face. However, more than once I was able to let off a stray bullet, causing the Alien to emerge and feast upon nearby human enemies who were pinning me down. Watching this type of un-scripted handiwork come to fruition is unbelievably satisfying, and it’s these moments that make Isolation a truly one-of-a kind experience.
But while Isolation’s unscripted approach means a unique sense of fulfillment, it isn’t always a good thing. An unpredictable, murderous menace sometimes results in intense vexation. Too often the Alien emerged when I was sitting in complete silence, leading to numerous cheap deaths that do nothing except harm the overall experience.
With the Xeno’s senses randomly becoming too sharp for any prey to escape, you have to constantly redo sequences over and over again in order to move things forward. Fun will turn into controller-throwing bouts of cursing, and fear will transform into rage as you’re impaled to death countless times through no fault of your own. Sadly, this often makes the Alien seem more like an impassible glitch than a terrifying nemesis, which in turn harms the immersive tension that the game works so diligently to craft.
All frustration with the Alien’s haywire AI aside, the beast is still Isolation’s greatest strength. Nothing shocked me back into the game like seeing a blip of motion from the rafters and knowing I was being hunted. Since only a well-placed explosive or a burst from a flamethrower can keep your stalker at bay long enough to regain some composure, most of the game’s other enemies feel weak and boring by comparison. During chapters where the Alien is missing, I noticed my attention waning. Without it skulking around, challenges lose their luster. When I’d approach a door to cut or hack it open, the associated mini game that felt like it had real stakes with death looming overhead quickly turned from asset to annoyance, since the creepy androids and dumber-than-bricks soldiers are far easier to displace than the extraterrestrial killer.
I said above that developer Creative Assembly deserved praise for making the player feel powerless against an un-stoppable force, but I wish they had been braver and seen the human-vs-Xenomorph battle of wits through to the finale. Towards the end of the 20 or so hours it takes to finish Isolation, the game devolves into a gauntlet mode, with the Sebastapol station throwing every android and plot twist it can muster at you in order to compensate for a third act that’s light on vicious monsters. While some of it is still fun, I found myself shooting more and sneaking less, which left the final missions falling flat as it all lapsed into action-gaming convention. It bums me out to have to say that, because when Isolation is working right and focusing on creating unbearable anxiety, it’s downright addictive.
Once the story is over, you can try Survival Mode if you feel so inclined. It’s essentially the same gameplay as the story, minus the victory of narrative progression. Since the ending already left me feeling exhausted, I had little desire to play this obvious afterthought. Skip it and be confident that you missed out on nothing. It adds no value to the overall package, and could have been eliminated entirely.
All issues aside, Alien: Isolation sets the foundation for what a proper game in the series would look like, even if it doesn’t always score high marks. Sure, at times I wanted to give up and let a Facehugger take me to hive, but the high points of this duel with a Xenomorph are so memorable that it keeps the whole thing from falling out of orbit. When you consider the authentic presentation, surprisingly good corporate conspiracy story, and legitimate sense of chest-bursting fear that Isolation is able to evoke, it’s hard not to love it.