Review: Alien: Isolation
Alien: Isolation is not a game of compromises. The famously despised Aliens: Colonial Marines was a boring, under-developed disappointment that sacrificed all depth from its design for a shooter that played by the numbers. Isolation however, is a bold, unique and sometimes incredibly challenging new approach to a series of licensed games with a troubled history. RIP Colonial Marines, let us never mention you again. Inspired by the tense cat-and-mouse encounters of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original Alien, you are placed in control of the daughter of famous series protagonist Ellen Ripley. It plays as a first-person shooter, but the term survival horror is more applicable here: especially considering the main threat to you in the game is invincible to all conventional methods of combat. Amanda Ripley channels the same sci-fi heroine badassery of her mother and playing as her we are pitted against H.R Giger’s iconic monster – known as the ‘perfect organism’.
The surreal and enigmatic design of the xenomorph is captured authentically: both in its terrifying appearance and in the way we are routinely made aware of its constant presence and foreboding threat throughout the entire game. The core experience of Isolation is about encountering, avoiding and outsmarting this un-killable enemy and developer Creative Assembly makes sure that you know that it is always nearby. Vents above you hiss and patter, your motion tracker beeps out of your controller unexpectedly to indicate its movement and the long, barbed tail of the creature follows ominously around the corner of a corridor as it slowly stalks its prey. Never before have I so greatly admired the physics of a tail in a game. Outsmarting this threat is no easy feat (especially on harder difficulties) and it is the way you approach each situation that forms the excitement of the experience. You wander the corridors of the massive space station Sevastapool without drawing attention to yourself and so there are many methods of movement and interaction with your surroundings. Lockers and small cupboards are used for hiding, desks can be crouched under, while air ducts provide a more inconspicuous method of travelling. Just don’t let it spot you or it’s almost certain death.
A motion tracker forms a key part of avoiding this, where a press of the R1 button instantly brings it up on screen. In a game where resources are limited and malfunctioning Working Joe androids patrol your route it’s important to know exactly what is going on around you. The motion tracker is an instant design classic – looking like suitably clunky tech, with a nice green glowing screen and crackling through the PS4 controller speakers whenever in use. Small hardware features like this can often be seen as a gimmick, but here it feels like each small touch works in subtle but captivating fashion together and genuinely contributes to a better sense of player engagement. I regularly found myself holding my controller in one hand whilst I hid breathlessly in the safety of a locker. Two notable PS4 camera features also add to this – the ability to turn on external audio recognition, as well as head movement tracking. The former can become a nuisance, where careful planning and well executed sneaking can be undone in a second of household vacuuming, but the head tracking is very useful: allowing you to peer around corners and over crates with just a slight lift of the head.
Everything has its liabilities though (even the tracker’s lovely beeping can give you away if used carelessly), but it is in the range of uses in each tool and gameplay mechanic where the strategic depth of Isolation presents itself. Doors can be sealed for safety and radios used for distraction – and the intricate gadget system can be used to your advantage. A simple equipment wheel allows you to seamlessly choose between different tools: like the distracting flare and noise-maker, or the aggressive EMP mine and flamethrower. The latter is the only effective weapon against the Alien; causing it to flee up into the nearest vent when given a good blast of flame, but it only becomes available about half way through the game and has limited fuel. Even this useful tool can be identified by the enemy though, who will quickly learn to recognise its fiery stare and out-manoeuvre it in response. Equipment must also be scavenged from the environment and crafted from scrap-metal and useful items: forcing you to explore properly or face a lack of supplies when you really need them. It’s a demanding part of play, but this element of design clearly contributes to that important sense of survival horror. It challenges the player to think carefully about their actions, but its slow pace and swift punishment on those who try to play it like a typical FPS will certainly put some people off.
Alien: Isolation is a brave and much-needed foray into survival horror for a series plagued by bouts of banality. While there are these frustrating elements, they are part of the intent of the design rather than mere developer sloppiness. There is limited auto-save and manual save-points are occasionally irregularly placed, but this only serves to enhance that sense of vulnerability. In a game about paying attention to the environment, keeping an eye on the small details and struggling to survive against an ultimate threat, diligent saving certainly ties well into the theme. Equally, there are a few issues with pacing. Isolation is definitely longer than your average-FPS and you will certainly spend a lot of time hiding in lockers. The Alien is a vigilant bastard and it will sometimes feel that it is neccessery to keep having a sniff around while it waits for you to make a sound and reveal yourself. However, this is usually just a case of trial-and-error and having the guts to make a move at a risky moment. It is easy to wait until the Alien disappears, but through these tense encounters it forces you to use ingenuity to find a way of escape.
It might be easy to criticise these challenges with the game, but it is far more fair to praise the utterly brilliant attention to detail, authentic reimagining and the fact that such a big budget game has been so brave and confident in its design approach (it takes almost two hours before the Alien even appears – allowing some excellent world-building). It is therefore a game made for all fans of the Alien franchise – from the thrill-seeking horror lovers who screamed at John Hurt’s chest exploding in the original, to the lore-hunters who understand and enjoy the niche details of Alien’s wider narrative. Each encounter is a deadly thrill-ride of adrenaline fuelled fear, but the aesthetic of the game is absolutely nailed by Creative Assembly. It looks both like the classic film and also succeeds in further adding to that 1970s vision of what the future might look like. Computers are incredibly basic looking and have an atmospheric green glow to them, while switches and systems all click noisily like a vintage modem booting up. It’s an environment that demands to be explored – and even if the challenge begins to drag you down, you can always simply enjoy it as an explorative adventure game.
To sump up
Tense, engaging and dripping in depth, Alien: Isolation is one of the most perfect horror experiences in gaming; as well as both a fan’s dreamscape and an admirably brave example of video game design.
Version reviewed: PS4
Alien: Isolation is out now on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC.