Games based on, or around, massive franchises rarely succeed. They’re not necessarily bad games, they just don’t always live up to fan expectations. Since the woeful yet strangely compelling Colonial Marines, fans of the original Xenomorph have cringed at any mention of a new digital foray into that universe. Now it seems Creative Assembly have done the impossible – produced an Alien game without years of previews,hype and failed promises. It’s the game we’ve been waiting for, but is Alien Isolation the game we expected?
This review is the hardest I’ve done since we started Codec Moments, I’ve really struggled with Alien Isolation. This is without a doubt the most nerve wracking experience I’ve had in my many years of gaming. The only thing that comes close is actually Alien Resurrection back on the PSOne – being attacked from all directions by facehuggers whilst playing in the dark on your own is not good for your heart. I think it must be the simple fact that my formative years were punctuated by the film franchise, and my obsession as a teenager has embedded the titular beast in my subconscious as the most terrifying thing imaginable. I should have realised that I wasn’t going to have the most comfortable time here.
You play Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley, which fits nicely within the canon as she’s introduced in the directors cut of Aliens, albeit already deceased. Weyland-Yutani have asked you to make a trip to the Sevastopol space station, named for the famous Crimean city where the inhabitants under siege in the mid 1800’s evacuated and sunk their sea fleet to stop it getting into enemy hands. This is a Seegson Corporation facility in orbit around the KG348 gas giant. It’s being decommissioned and the flight recorder from the Nostromo has made it there… somehow. As you’d guess, the alien has also made it to the station, and things go south before you even make it aboard. The story is written by Rob Yescombe who helped pen Crysis 2 & 3 and also wrote Haze (even if he wants to forget that). It moves along at a decent pace throughout and is exactly what you’d expect from an Alien story – ruthless killing monsters, corrupt corporations, twisted AI, and lots of running away.
Only, you’re not going to be running away. Whilst it’s actually a couple of hours into the game before you encounter the Alien properly, the game sets you up for its stealth/patience action early on when you’re encountering the other survivors on the Sevastopol. Gameplay is first person and reminiscent of the recent Thief update, but definitely more engaging, and this is not an action game even though there are enemies as well as friends whilst you explore. Your role as Ripley is to unravel the mystery of what’s happening on the station, as well as completing your mission to recover the data from the Nostromo, so it’s handy that you’re actually an engineer and well versed in the systems and tools you’ll need to access and use. Layout and design of the whole station is executed brilliantly, with logic and reasoning behind nearly every aspect you come across. Progress is not linear so you end up revisiting sections, though it doesn’t feel repetitive, mainly because you’re too busy listening and looking for danger.
From the point you first meet the Alien you realise exactly how alone and vulnerable you are. It’s an 8-foot predator: you can’t shoot it, you can’t fight it, and you can’t outrun it. This is exactly what you’d expect, and exactly what you get. It will see you. It will catch you. It will kill you. Get used to that idea now. Hiding, sneaking and distraction are your key survival skills, and until you get hold of some hardware that will scare the Alien away (even if it’s only for a few seconds), they are the things you have to master. All the time you’re creeping your way through rooms and down corridors you’re constantly alert for noise and movement, as well as keeping an eye out for hiding places to jump in to at a moments notice. It’s extremely tense, and manages to sap your physical energy with the heightened level of awareness you’re employing.
So it keeps you on edge all the way through, and this is partly where the game lets itself down. It’s too sustained with no let up or points you can relax. I found it can get a bit too much, and whilst I wanted to know what was going to happen next, I couldn’t bring myself to have extended play sessions because I needed a break to calm down. It provided me with something I’d not had from a game before – a physical discomfort. Encountering the Alien usually means death, and there are no checkpoints, only manual save stations. Some sections of the game are quite liberal with them, others are stingy, and the last level has none after the halfway point. The mechanism works to induce further tension and fear of being spotted, and it should be celebrated in the day and age of instant respawns, I just couldn’t help feeling frustration at certain points.
Not wanting to be outdone by other games, there’s a crafting system available to build toys and gadgets that might help you out, though in practice there are only a couple of them you use regularly. This means you’ll also be scrounging components all the way through, taking every opportunity you can. You’ll ask yourself if you should spend time searching drawers and desktops for useful bits of scrap, or is it better to get through the area quicker and without noise? Quietly does it was my prefered option, as well as keeping moving. This is a piece of advice written on a few walls that’s easily overlooked, and will save your life. Moving with the motion tracker out allows you to be going in the opposite direction of whoever/whatever is looking for you; staying still in a cupboard will just prolong the agony. Sound is also key as noise will bring enemies running, and yes, you can use it to your advantage if you need a hand from you local neighbourhood monster. The camera attached to your gaming system also gets used with the options for head-tracking – brilliantly employed to follow your movements so you can peek round corners; and audio monitoring – so that any noise you make gets translated to the game and can alert the Alien. I made sure this was off!
Atmospherically the game is superb, and the overall design is a dead match for the look and feel of the franchise. Maybe this is what instills my sense of foreboding each time I boot it up. The sound mastering is excellent and does just as much to build the feeling of the game as the faux 1970’s futuristic styling. There’s a nice crossover point too because we know this game is set between the events of Alien and Aliens and you can see the move on in technology and design starting to happen in the universe. The ship you arrive on is definitely Ridley Scott’s, the station you spend your time being scared on is becoming James Cameron’s.
Alien Isolation is definitely not perfect though. My major issue with the game is the difficulty. Even dropping it down to easy it’s a challenge to finish, especially when it never seems to end. I’m all for games that last longer than 5 hours, but this does go on too long. Each time you think it’s over… there’s another section to complete, or another twist in the story. There’s the fact that the Alien is psychic at times, able to pick you out through walls; then passes within millimeters at other times completely oblivious to Amanda’s presence. Cutscenes are choppy for no reason whatsoever, and framerate dips every now and again when nothing’s actually happening. I did encounter a game crashing bug about two thirds of the way through where the textures just disappeared and black objects floated around the screen until I got kicked to the desktop. The only way I could get through was to focus resolutely on the floor tiles, run to the exit, and hope I didn’t get eaten on the way. Trophies were a little inconsistent too – I had two ding at points where they should not have (not that I’ll complain too much about that).
I said at the beginning that I struggled with the game, and I’m struggling with the verdict as well. I like the way it’s presented, the tale it tells, and the effort that’s gone into it. I dislike the way it makes me feel. I said to the rest of the team when it was done that I won’t be playing it again, and that’s the truth. It may well be the first time I’ve not bothered with the DLC that comes with a game – I’ve no desire to play Crew Expendable at the moment. Creative Assembly have done a great job with Alien Isolation and if you’ve got a strong heart and can manage creeping tension, this is definitely for you. If you can’t, then don’t even contemplate this. I am hoping there’s a sequel though, I’d love to see what can happen if you threw a pulse rifle into the mix.