Something evil's lurking in the dark.
If you only take one thing from this review let it be this – the Alien is a bastard.
You’ll shout, you’ll cry, you’ll invent all-new profanities just to belt at the screen as the scaly-skinned nightmare drops from a ceiling vent and chews your face off just as you get near a save point. If ever there was a game capable of making you throw the controller at your TV screen, it’s this one.
Alien: Isolation is set in 2137, fifteen years after the events of the Alien film and sees Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, as the game’s protagonist. Amanda is approached by Weyland-Yutani synthetic Christopher Samuels, who informs her that the flight recorder of the Nostromo was recently located by a ship named the Anesidora. The recorder is being held aboard Sevastopol Station, a remote free port space station owned by the Seegson Corporation, which is orbiting around the gas giant KG348. Samuels offers Amanda a place on the Weyland-Yutani team sent to retrieve it, so that she can have closure regarding the fate of her missing mother.
Ripley, Samuels, and Weyland-Yutani executive Nina Taylor, travel to Sevastopol on board the courier ship Torrens. The group arrive at Sevastopol to find the station damaged and its communications unreliable. Ripley, Samuels, and Taylor attempt to spacewalk over to the station to investigate, but their EVA line is severed by debris, and Ripley is separated from them and forced to enter the station on her own.
From there things get decidedly unpleasant. The game makes the smart choice of not showing the titular Xenomorph straight away, opting instead to build up the tension by showing how utterly terrified the station’s inhabitants are. Sevastopol is in a complete state of disrepair, all failed lighting systems, steaming vents and shuttered store fronts. Bullet holes line the walls. Blood lies spattered across corridors. Suitcases and personal possessions are strewn everywhere, as if their owners suddenly ran and left them behind. Panicked graffiti warns of a monster in the walls and the few survivors who haven’t been driven mad with fear gibber about a “killer” that can’t be fought. By the time the Alien appears the tension has been ramped up so high it’s almost a relief to see it just so you can stop obsessing over when it’s going to appear. For a while, after its first appearance, you’ll only see it fleetingly but before long it’s stalking you around the station, following your every move and appearing when you least expect it.
Cleanse all thoughts of the turd that was Aliens: Colonial Marines from your minds, this is Alien done right.
And it’s utterly terrifying. Cleanse all thoughts of the turd that was Aliens: Colonial Marines from your minds, this is Alien done right. Creative Assembly have wisely chosen to make Alien: Isolation a survival horror game as opposed to an action shooter, designing the game more in line with Ridley Scott’s Alien as opposed to James Cameron’s more action-packed Aliens.
Much like the original film, the game features a single Alien for most of its duration that cannot be killed, requiring the player to use stealth tactics in order to survive. It’s impossible to fight back, and while the game does feature weapons, only the flamethrower will push the Alien into temporary retreat. Weapons are only truly effective against other humans and android “Working Joes”, a poor-man’s Bishop that straddles the uncanny valley in a decidedly creepy manner. Their pale, lifeless faces are off-putting to say the least but if you’re going to pick a fight with one you’d better be prepared – they’re stubbornly tough and surprisingly strong, able to snap Amanda’s neck as if it were a wafer biscuit. It’s entirely possible to finish the game by not killing any humans at all, which requires a lot more stealth and patience but has the added bonus of not attracting the Alien’s attention.[yt_video id=”4ZFYqpWNiZs”][/yt_video]
Instead of following a predetermined path, the artificial intelligence of the Alien has been programmed to actively hunt the player by sight, sound, and smell, so the sound of a gun firing or even the scream of a fallen opponent will bring it running. The Alien’s AI is both utterly terrifying and stunningly complicated. The creature has been programmed with a complex set of behavioural designs that unlock as it encounters the player, creating the illusion that the Alien learns from each encounter with the player and appropriately adjusts its hunting strategy. This includes the ability for the Alien to investigate “secondary sources” of disturbances. For instance, if it notices a locker or air lock is open, the Alien will search for who opened it. The Alien also emits specific sounds depending on its intentions, for example screaming when about to attack, or hissing when it’s searching an area.
The player to hold a button in order to make Amanda hold her breath so that the Alien won’t hear her.
Much like Outlast, the key to surviving the savage beastie lies in hiding, creeping and avoiding. Amanda can crouch behind objects to break the line of sight with the Alien, and the player can then covertly peek over or lean around to gain view. She can also creep under tables or hide inside lockers. If the Alien comes close when doing so, a prompt will appear on screen asking the player to hold a button in order to make Amanda hold her breath so that the Alien won’t hear her. On the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game, the player can use their own microphone and the game will pick up the audio in their room, so if the Alien walks past a locker you’re hiding in, you have to remain absolutely silent. Make a sound and the microphone will pick it up, relay it to the game and the Alien will know you’re there. It’s an immersive and effective feature but certainly not one for all you screamers and shriekers out there.
The player can also run and possesses both a flashlight and a motion tracker to detect the Alien’s movements. Using any of these functions creates light or noise which increases the chances of the Alien finding you. The motion tracker is an essential piece of kit in determining where the Alien is but don’t rely on it too heavily – the device can only show the Alien’s approximate location when it’s moving and can’t show exactly where it is, nor can it show the Alien’s location when it’s standing stationary.
Further adding to the tension is the game’s minimal use of music, relying instead on ambient sound to draw the player’s attention to things and to create a greater sense of atmosphere. It really makes you notice how much you rely on music for company in most games, and taking it away only adds to the escalating sense of isolation.
The level design is wonderfully non-linear, with multiple entry and exit points for each room providing alternative routes for the Alien to attack or the player to escape. You’ll never know where the menace is coming from but the range of escape and hiding options available in each area never makes it feel overly unfair.
Fumbling In Fear
Adding to the immersion is the game’s use of a minimal heads-up display. There’s next to nothing on screen in terms of HUD, with tasks such as bringing up the motion tracker or equipping weapons being done via the inventory. Thankfully you can assign a limited number of items to hotkeys or scroll through your items by pressing the shoulder buttons so changing kit while on the run doesn’t involve opening up the entire inventory menu.
The game also features a crafting system which allows the player to create weapons and tools to defend themselves. Crafting objects appear in randomised locations, forcing players to explore the level on each playthrough instead of memorising the locations of previously found tools. Computers can be hacked and security devices tinkered with to further aid your progress, for example turning lighting on and off or redirecting jets of steam to reduce hostile humans’ visibility.
Visually the game is astounding to look at. The dev team have recreated the look of the original Alien perfectly, with 70s inspired computers that beep, boop and whirr evoking nostalgic memories of the Nostromo at every turn. Visually Alien: Isolation may be a very dark and moody game but it’s no less beautiful to look at.
That said, the lip synching is a little off on some of the characters, which does tend to jar the experience somewhat. The game’s story also drags a little toward the end and really should have ended several chapters before it does, with one chapter’s culmination serving as a better ending than the real conclusion. It’s not enough to ruin the experience but it does hold the game back from becoming a true masterpiece.
Alien: Isolation was reviewed on PlayStation 4.
Alien: Isolation is, quite simply, the best use of a film license ever. It’s a scary experience that truly gets under your skin and shows survival horror at its absolute best. The Alien has never been so frightening. Ridley Scott would be proud.