Adam infrequently reviews games weeks after they are released because he has a job and can’t complete them fast enough. Potential spoilers included.
Last month I finally moved on to a next-gen console, as two games I had been looking forward to all year finally came out. Alien Isolation was the first of these games, and one that has proved fairly divisive with regards to various review sites and their opinions on the game. I finished it a couple of weeks ago, taking a bit longer than I usually would with a game and then struggling to find time to write up what I thought about it due to currently having a huge workload (I miss the days of having a job that I could leave at work). Anyway, here are my somewhat belated thoughts on the game.
Alien Isolation takes in the year 2137, fifteen years after the events of Ridley Scott’s Sci-Fi horror classic Alien. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the film’s main character Ellen Ripley, as she searches for answers to what happened to her mother and the crew of the Nostromo all those years ago. This search takes her, as part of a team from Weyland-Yutani, to the space station Sevastapol, where a recent salvage ship has brought aboard a flight recorder from her mother’s craft. By the time Amanda arrives however, things have gone awry. The station is in chaos, with a relentless and murderous lifeform on the loose, leaving the remaining populace scared and violent and the station’s AI ordering it’s creepy synthetics to enact strict quarantine rules that largely revolve around choking people to death or dashing their brains out against a wall.
Amanda must find the flight recorder, reunite with the rest of her boarding party and try and reconnect with the Torrens, the ship they arrived on, all while trying to avoid the xenomorph, the ‘Working Joes’ and the looters. This takes you through the whole of Sevastapol, and in standard video game style you are beset by as many set backs as possible. Every time you find an ally they are liable to be murdered horribly, every time you try to use a machine it is broken or on low power, and every time you trust Weyland-Yutani and their high level employees… well, if you’ve see the films then you probably know where their priorities lie and it isn’t with the preservation of human life.
Your first encounter with the iconic xenomorph is a tense experience, and it marks the start of a lot of heart-in-throat sequences as you try and creep around without it hearing or spotting you, with absolutely nothing you can do to actually kill the damn thing. If it gets you, that is it. Game over man. There are no autosaves or checkpoints either, so saving regularly is very much necessary (you can be killed while saving) and if you find that you have made a lot of progress and haven’t saved in a while, an encounter with the alien becomes that much more stressful. And ‘stressful’ is really what this game is, especially at the start, because you creep around hiding in vents or cabinets, slowly making progress (I noted at one point that I had made it through four rooms in two hours) and then you make a mistake and pay for it. As everyone else seems to have noticed, you die. You die a lot.
Supplies are very limited, and whatever tools you do have are merely distractions. Even the limited firepower you do get either doesn’t faze the xenomorph (revolver), stops him very briefly until you have to reload (shotgun) or makes him scuttle away temporarily (flamethrower). Making any noise when encountering other enemies just brings him roaring back, so guns are redundant for a large portion of the game. The motion detector actually manages to up the stress element in a big way, not only because the proximity beeps come out of the speaker in the controller, but the noise actually attracts the very monster you are trying to detect. It is a useful tool for figuring out how far away he is, but later in the game I all but abandoned it in favour of suicide runs clutching the flamethrower. Suicide ‘runs’ is misleading, as I spent almost the entire game crouched. Suicide sneaking? Suicide waddling? Suicide something.
A lot of the criticism levelled at this game centres around the difficulty and repetitiveness (also that the campaign is too long, which I completely disagree with). The first point I think depends on how casual a gamer you are, because I imagine the difficulty and punishingly unpredictable AI would turn many away. I’m fairly stubborn, I can probably count the number of games I have started and haven’t completed on one hand, and they were probably all due to boredom rather than failure to complete them. I’m not saying I’m particularly great at games, I’m saying I don’t have a lot going on and will happily plug hours into doggedly retrying boss fights. The issue with the xenomorph is that the AI is (usually) very clever and acts differently each time, so you can’t really use trial and error to get round him if you fail. I can see why this would frustrate people, especially as there are times where it seems like you’ve done nothing wrong, but I personally quite liked the challenge. The first few levels are pure suspense, but maintaining that level of stress for too long isn’t the most enjoyable experience. This is when the repetitiveness does start to close in, but when you get the flamethrower you can afford to be a little less careful and gameplay starts to speed up.
Then comes the obligatory story section when you are rid of the alien (definitely not temporarily), where you get to play as a different character as he tells Ripley how they found the Nostromo beacon, about his team’s excursion down to a familiar looking planet and encounter with alien lifeforms which went pretty badly. It’s like Prometheus, but not terrible. You then have to turn your attention to the station in turmoil, the APOLLO AI and the legions of creepy Working Joe synthetics who are also trying to kill you and everyone else on the station. This serves as a very welcome break in the stealth and hiding aspect of the early game, coming in just before I actually started to find it repetitive. You get a decent few hours when you can actually use all your loud weapons, that earlier would just bring about your grisly doom within seconds.
At it’s core, Alien Isolation is basically a love letter to the first Alien film. The atmosphere is haunting and perfect, and the retro–futuristic environments completely nail the aesthetic of the film series. The feeling of helplessness, particularly in the first half of the game, sells the terrifying aspect of the creature you are facing, making him a credible threat rather than something you can just take apart with enough bullets. Amanda Ripley is an interesting and driven character, much like her mother despite the terror she finds herself in. Most of the supporting cast are decent in their own ways too, though a few fall a little flat as merely ‘next person to die’ fodder.
The story is strong if a little predictable, but that stems really from the medium of video games and the need for a certain length of experience. The number of times your best laid plans fall apart becomes a little comical, and the Alien is constantly with you and no one else. Maybe it wants a hug and you’ve just misinterpreted it’s actions. Regardless, it would probably seem out of place if his hunting pattern was so truly random that you didn’t see him all game. One of the only issues I actually had with the story in fact, was that knowing the eventual fate of Amanda (revealed at the start of Aliens), you know that she will ultimately survive this experience and so having any sort of cliffhanger ending doesn’t really mean a lot. Unless of course, you factor in the fact that historically Weyland-Yutani have been fast and loose with the truth. Then her whole potential future becomes completely open. So long as it doesn’t get to Issac Clarke levels of ‘wrong place, wrong time’, I’m on board for seeing where her story goes.
It may have been because this was the first time I played through an entire game on a next-gen console, rather than a few demos and snippets with friends, but I found the gameplay incredibly smooth while playing this. There were very few instances of the game glitching, aside from a couple of time when guns were either floating above or in corpses, and a few times where the alien acted like a T-Rex and couldn’t see me because I was perfectly still and yet metres from his face, but these were hardly game-breaking. Graphically I thought this looked great. There were some choppy framerate issues in the early cutscenes, but I think this was because the game was actually still installing when I started. Other than that, the surroundings were gorgeous. If this is early next-gen/cross-gen graphics, I can’t wait to see what we get in a couple of years. Though at that point we may be so far into the valley of the uncanny that even playing sports games and dating sims will be terrifying.
Creative Assembly and Sega have made a truly faithful Alien game. I really enjoyed it, and if you are a big fan of the Alien franchise then I really recommend you pick it up, with the caveat that it is fairly challenging and pretty scary and stressful for most of the game. I know there are some who find that when the horror is actually happening to a character you are controlling, rather than passively to a character on screen, it feels too real and much scarier. If survival horror is your sort of thing though, this is a great alternative to the standard zombie-fare that usually comes along with that genre. You’re never wanting for revolver ammo in the game, but you also never want to use it and barely need to. This was in fact probably the closest to true survival horror I have played in years, and that was exactly what I was hoping for.
Score – 8.5 Xenomorphs out of 10