This is the Alien we have been waiting for for years now and it is stunning to look at, sublime to play and ultimately satisfying for any fan of the film series or horror fans in general.
Alien: Isolation is about more than Amanda Ripley looking for her mother. It’s about more than shooty-shooty, bang-bang “let’s kill aliens” and it as about more than the gimmicks shown in trailers to entice people into buying the game.
Alien Isolation stands for many things and not one thing in specific. While it tells a tale of adventure and survival upon a decrepit space station, it also has lessons to teach and wisdom to impart for gamers and developers alike.
Like mother, like daughter…
Fifteen years after the destruction of the Nostromo at the hands of Ellen Ripley, her daughter Amanda is now a grown woman. Amanda has been searching for her mother for years, taking an engineering job with Weyland-Yutani, in order to get closer to the areas she disappeared around to try to find the truth. After being approached by Samuels, a representative of Weyland-Yutani, she is given the opportunity to retrieve the flight recorder from that fateful voyage all of those years ago.
Amanda seems confident and capable, like her mother. Soon, you see how like her mother Amanda really is.
Amanda boards the Torrens with Samuels and Taylor, who works in Weyland-Yutani legal, and the crew set off. Upon reaching the space station housing the flight recorder: the Sevastopol, the crew find themselves trapped on-board after their space walk goes bad, trapped inside a crumbling hell of vicious organisms and dangerous people.
From the outset, Amanda is shown to be resilient, strong and intelligent, like her mother. Her resourcefulness mirrors Ellen’s own, as demonstrated by her capacity to build things out of seemingly nothing. Amanda is a deeply interesting character, and although some have cheaply written her off as Ellen Ripley 2.0, she is her own entity while embodying everything that made Ellen so admirable.
As the story develops and relationships are made and severed, you see Amanda grow from single-mindedly pursuing her goal of finding her mother to placing incredible burdens on her shoulders to see others safe or to stop incredible threats. While the rest of the crew in the game often lack punch and dimension, Amanda never fails to be a likeable protagonist.
“I admire its purity.”
At first, Alien: Isolation seems like a garden variety exploratory shooter. You pick up some tools, a melee weapon and a gun and are politely pushed from objective to objective as displayed by your motion tracker and map.
However, the game then gives you the opportunity to craft defensive and offensive items like noisemakers and smoke bombs for distractions and EMP mines and molotov cocktails to defend yourself. I actually didn’t find myself using these very often at first as I was facing human opponents which were very easy to overcome with some very simple stealth and bludgeoning techniques. Then, you are introduced to the Alien (or xenomorph for series fans) and then everything changes.
The xenomorph is single-handedly the most impressive enemy I have ever faced in a video game. Its tenacity and intelligence are commendable accomplishments on behalf of Creative Assembly, and they deserve endless praise for what they have done.
To put it bluntly, the xenomorph does not screw around. It will hunt you, reacting to every little noise and sneaker squeak and door opening. It can hear you and if you think you’re hidden under a table it can also smell you if you are close enough. It will stalk you through conduits and pull you into vents and you will die over and over again. This death was utter bliss. I really felt hunted and this evoked such a delightful tension out of me that I was immediately hooked.
Video games are a power fantasy and when you take the power away, you have to rely on something else. How do you overcome such a vicious beast that is faster and stronger and more agile than you?
This is where Alien: Isolation displays its pure genius. Alien: Isolation makes you tap into something primal and instinctual. The xenomorph is strong and fast but it is still an animal. Fire repels it and if you show it something shiny, it will want to go and see what that shiny thing is. You need to learn how to use distractions and strategically turn on speakers and use smoke and fire to your advantage to get the upper hand.
You absolutely have to think and plan and fight tooth and nail to get away and stay away from the xenomorph. It may be the superior life-form, but humans evolved as far as they have for a reason. If you can tap into that and engage a part of our brain we rarely need to use anymore to survive, you will find Alien: Isolation to be an incredible triumph of gaming.
“Punch it, Bishop!”
You aren’t always sneaking around and evading near death every second of Alien: Isolation. Creative Assembly have expertly paced the game to not wear out the presence of the xenomorph. Around the Sevastopol are “Working Joe’s”. These fellows are Seegson androids that are far less advanced than Weyland-Yutani models.
They are almost featureless humanoids that are incredibly eerie with their glowing eyes and monotonous utterances such as “You are hysterical” as they strangle you to death. They evoked a sense of dread that I haven’t felt since I played through Looking Glass’s seminal System Shock 2 and that is saying a lot.
Working Joe’s are incredibly strong and can kill you in a couple of hits. They also like to play possum, and some of the more unexpected frights I got were from them grabbing my ankle while moaning “I found you.” They are not invincible though, as a few well placed revolver shots or shotgun blasts to the head can send them to Calculator Heaven.
Additionally, Ripley can deploy EMP mines and an electrified stun baton to stop them in their tracks so she can beat them into a white, goopy mess. Some of the most tense portions of the game came from being stuck in corridors with aggressive Working Joe’s that I had no way of killing. EMPs were doing nothing at this point and neither was my stun rod. I had to really think about my environment and create traps in order to kill them. The game is incredibly cerebral and far more satisfying when you can’t rely on guns to forge a path.
“I haven’t seen anything like that except, uh, molecular acid. “
Matching Isolation‘s sublime gameplay is its sumptuous aesthetic. If you know me personally, you know I have a weakness for obsolete technology. If it buzzes, whirrs, runs off of batteries or only displays in two colors then I love it. Naturally, I ate up every second of this visual delight.
On top of a smooth graphics engine led by incredibly realistic light and shadow, Isolation captures the feel of late 1970’s technology perfectly. Displays are monochromatic or display in two colors with block fonts and mysterious keys with all sorts of esoteric symbols on them. Screens flicker and even the Fox logo looks like it has been transferred from about a billion beta-max tapes before being mastered in HD.
The sheer scale of the game is breathtaking at times with an awe inspiring view of a sun and gas giant outside while inside we have incredibly detailed hallways riddled with wires and sparking conduits and switches. Everything has had so much detail taken in making it as authentic as possible from the labels on food containers to drinking bird you will see absolutely everywhere. Alien: Isolation looks absolutely stunning on PS4, and it is a visual delight from start to finish.
“Bones are bent outward, like he exploded from inside. “
While I wish I could sit here gushing all night about how much I love Alien: Isolation, I do have some pretty big bones to pick with it.
To begin with, the acting in Isolation is very patchy, with some players sounding convincing but a whole bunch not. This compounds the already flimsy pretexts that you end up doing a lot of things on. While they make sense at their conclusion, at the time you are scratching your head and wondering why you’re backtracking for no obvious gain. Communicating more effectively why you were doing what you are doing at the time would have solved this issue.
Additionally, humans generally don’t pose any sort of threat and are more often inconveniences that end up alerting the xenomorph when they’re around. While the inclusion of survivors on the Sevastopol makes sense, had their interactions been more meaningful, I would be more enthusiastic about them. Instead, they are generally just plot devices inserted at convenient times that loops around to my first issue.
Finally, while I generally enjoyed the hacking mini-games scattered around the space station, I found a few of them to be a little too vague in their solutions. For instance, there is one where you are asked to simply “Select the circuit when it is on,” without any instruction on how to do this. Sure, there are commands down the bottom of the screen, but there is no cursor or clue on how to select them. It turns out, you have to hold a directional button corresponding to the command on screen and then hit X.
“This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off. “
My time with Alien: Isolation has really opened my eyes on what we have been missing in AI until now. I don’t want generic patrols anymore and scripted encounters. I want to be hunted, I want to be challenged and I want to feel accomplished when I overcome my foe. That is how this game made me feel every single time I squared off with the xenomorph. I overcame it, I overcame a thinking hunter that wanted nothing more than to impale me with its tail and drag me off to some dark corner of that forgotten station in the middle of nowhere.
I felt primal, gut-wrenching tension playing this game and that is something every single horror game should strive for. This is the Alien we have been waiting for for years now and it is stunning to look at, sublime to play and ultimately satisfying for any fan of the film series of horror fans in general. Submit to the hunt, you will not regret it.
+ Sublime gameplay that forces you to adapt to a new generation of AI.
+ Incredibly tense, authentic atmosphere.
+ Stunning, awe-inspiring graphics.
+ Great enemy and challenge variety that is very well paced.
– Somewhat flimsy jumps between plot points.
– Interactions between people feel generally inconsequential.