October 03, 2014
The concept of Alien: Isolation seems too good to be true. Proper survival horror, drawing on arguably the best of an iconic film series, in which you’re not a gun-toting soldier but a vulnerable engineer facing off against a single xenomorph? It’s a tantalising prospect.
But I was scared. Scared that the previews shown to press were the best bits of the game, scared that we’d end up with turret sequences and shootouts, scared that Alien: Isolation would squander its promise just like Aliens: Colonial Marines. We’ve been burned before.
Yet all those worries were misplaced. Aliens: Isolation isn’t just a scary game, it’s a great game. In a climate of conservative AAA titles too frightened to stand out, Creative Assembly has dared to make something utterly uncompromising. The result is one of the best survival horror games in a very, very long time.
Alien: Isolation follows Weyland Yutani engineer Amanda Ripley, whose mother Ellen went missing aboard the space freighter Nostromo fifteen years ago. When Amanda finds out that the Nostromo’s flight recorder has been recovered, she sets off to a remote trading station called Sevastopol, in order to discover her mother’s fate.
But that’s not all she discovers. All is not well on Sevastopol. When Amanda arrives she finds a space station in disarray. The few remaining human inhabitants are scared and highly dangerous, malfunctioning synthetics roam the hallways and something far more sinister lurks in the shadows.
Creative Assembly’s xenomorph is a truly terrifying beast, capable of ending you in seconds for the smallest of mistakes. Largely unscripted, it appears with little warning to punish you for running, shooting and just being alive. You can’t learn its patterns because it doesn’t have any. Nearly every encounter is different.
This is good because you’re going to be dying. A lot. Creative Assembly says the game is 15 hours long and maybe it is if you breeze straight through. But expect to retry sections over and over in an attempt to survive, with the creature’s movements and reactions playing out differently nearly every time. Just like the alien itself, the game is utterly unforgiving.
In fact, Alien: Isolation is refreshingly free of hand holding. Not only are you going to die, but you’re going to get lost and you’re going to struggle with puzzles that seem impossible, before realising the solution was right in front of your face. Alien: Isolation can be incredibly, controller-bitingly frustrating at times. It’s old-school.
This uncompromising approach is exemplified by its save system. In Alien: Isolation there are no auto-saves. Instead you have to find a save point, plug in a key card and wait for a few agonising seconds - during which time you’re vulnerable, desperately scanning left and right for enemies - before your progress is saved.
At its best this system works in a similar fashion to Dark Souls’ campfires, the relief of making it to a save point - and surviving those few seconds - making it all worthwhile. But at its worst it’s an annoyance, as you’ll occasionally have to sit through the same short story sequence again and again when you retry sections.
So Alien: Isolation isn’t perfect, but I’m willing to forgive its frustrations because it excels in so many areas. The Sevastopol is such a well-realised environment; a floating space city that’s been ripped apart. It’s Rapture, the USG Ishimura and Westworld combined, brought to life with chunky retro-futuristic technology - fuzzy CRT screens and big chunky buttons - that feel utterly reverential to the original movie.
Even the synthetics, an earlier, inferior design to those featured in the movies, feel utterly at place within the universe. With glowing eyes, unsettling robo-monotone voices and loose rubbery necks, they’re creepy as hell. Plus their walking! Whoever paced their walking speed is a genius. The synthetics may seem to be dawdling, but turn around and they’re always there, closing in relentlessly.
Amanda’s adventure takes her all over the ship; from its graffiti-daubed civilian sections, to its blood-drenched bowels and beyond. For the most part you’re going to be exploring; finding keycards and codes to open doors, reconnecting electricity supplies and hacking consoles - all while keeping an eye and an ear on the iconic green blur and heartbeat bleep of your motion tracker. But there’s more to it than that.
Creative Assembly knows how to keep things fresh, mixing the tension-filled, terrifying alien encounters with quieter, more reflective moments, huge, booming set-pieces and some strong storytelling. With the exception of a section around two thirds of the way through the campaign, during which time you’ll hope to never see an electricity generator again, Alien: Isolation is paced beautifully.
What you won’t be doing too much of is fighting. There are weapons in Alien: Isolation, but in true survival horror fashion they’re slow and inaccurate and ammo is really sparse. More than that, they’re worse than useless in most situations. If you fire a revolver in an area where the alien’s lurking, you may as well spread yourself in Nutella and shout “free lunch!” Weapons are your absolute last ditch option.
Far more useful are your crafting abilities. Picking up items from around the ship, you can cobble together distracting noise makers, explosives, smoke bombs and more. The vast majority of these things buy you time to escape, respite from the predators on your tail, but you can also pervert their intentions for your own means.
Most significantly, a couple of sections allow you to lob a noise maker into a group of humans and watch as the alien steams in and rips them to pieces. It’s as near to powerful aggression as you’ll get. The rest of the time you’ll be hiding under tables, leaning out from around walls and sitting in a little puddle of your own wee quietly sobbing to yourself.
So yeah, Alien: Isolation is scary. Right up to the final moments, you’re going to be on edge and fearing for your life, something aided by the frankly astounding sound design. You will jump and flinch and want to hold your hands in front of your eyes. But it’s also a great game in its own right, one that will frustrate and annoy but also thrill. It’s a game you absolutely have to play.
Survive through the - let’s say 16-19 hour - campaign and Alien: Isolation will dish out about 65 per cent of its achievements. The rest are dedicated to specific challenges to test your survival skills. Making it through the story without killing a human is a good one. Completing the game without dying (on anything but easy) will be a struggle. It’s a decent list.
Waiting for you once you’re done with the story is Survivor Mode, which boils down the experience into self-contained challenges, then lets players compare their scores with others. It’s a good opportunity for Creative Assembly to show off the strength of the core gameplay and a chance for players to get more value out of the game.
But the main campaign is the real draw here. Scary and defiantly difficult, Alien: Isolation represents the triumphant return of proper survival horror to AAA gaming.
Alien: Isolation’s sound design is fantastic, ensuring that you’re constantly on edge. Building on the score from the original movie, it also offers up some sparse but perfectly executed orchestration.
Sevastopol is a wonderfully well-realised location, with brilliant lighting and a consistent, uniting visual theme of retro-futurism that ties it all together. It’s a good looking game.
Alien: Isolation can be frustrating, really frustrating, but that’s rarely due to a failing of the game. Nicely varied and well-paced, it’s a tough, challenging experience you’ll want to struggle through.
The story mode is the main event and it’s a whopper, around 16-19 hours of strong story-telling and largely excellent pacing. There’s also a Survivor Mode that adds value once the story’s credits have rolled.
A decent list, the majority of which is dedicated to progression. During the campaign you’ll unlock around 60-65% of the list. The rest is peppered with interesting challenges to test your skills, as well as standard collectible hunts.
Alien: Isolation is a tough, terrifying and ultimate thrilling game that’s defiantly old-school in its approach. The result is one of the best survival horror games in recent memory.