Alien is one of those movie franchises that transcends the era it was created in and still holds high value today in 2014. Friends and acquaintances that have seen it over the years will be adamant that you, at the very least, watch the first film and some may possibly tell you to stop there for this or that reason. The first film, Alien, is arguably one of the best science fiction films of all time, and set the path for many films in the genre to follow. The issue with Alien, though, is that it’s hard to replicate, not only in film, but in gaming media as well. To date there have been multiple attempts at games based in the Alien universe, and none (including the fiasco that was Alien: Colonial Marines) have been very good overall. The reason might just be that none of them went the route of the first film, a sci-fi survival horror tone, and instead decided to make the series about shooting as many aliens as possible (which is a reason some may not like later films in the franchise as well). I’m happy to say that if Alien Isolation gets one thing right, it’s that it is true to the first film in most every way. Even with it’s numerous (albeit small) issues, the game is less run-n-gun and much more run-n-hide than previous attempts. Launching recently on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, Isolation throws you right into the middle of an Alien situation, and not one you can just shoot your way out of.
The main storyline behind the game is that you are playing as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley from the films. The game is set some 15 years following the events of the first movie and the story begins with Amanda receiving word that the flight recorder from the Nostromo (her mother’s ship from the movie) has been located and is being held on Sevastopol Station, a massive space station orbiting a gas giant. This sets things in motion and within ten minutes you’ve been introduced to the few characters in the game and dropped in the space station by your ship, the Torrens, and so begins the investigation. Immediately you find that things are not right on board the station, as it appears to be largely deserted and torn apart. You stumble upon a few bodies, some live humans, and eventually learn that there is a “creature” on board hunting everyone (and we all know who that is don’t we!). Overall the story is fine and does more than enough to fit the fiction it came from. It’s not grand and amazing by any means, but it’s most certainly not bad. It keeps you interested from the moment you get into the station all the way to the end with a few small twists and turns to keep you pushing through. If you’re a big fan of the movies and overall Alien lore you’ll learns some cool facts along the way that help fill in the official timeline of what actually happened after the first film while Ellen Ripley was sleeping.
The story of Alien Isolation is solid but the best part of the game might just be the atmosphere it produces. Sevastopol Station oozes Alien atmosphere, and developer The Creative Assembly has done an amazing job at re-capturing the feel of the movies within the game. There have not been many games in the past that I’ve played that have been able to replicate the feel of the world and the overall mood from a completely separate media and pull it into a game with such precision. The overall look of the station is one of old-school tech. CRT monitors are everywhere, green-screen computer terminals pop up randomly, tape decks whirr and push-buttons pulse with an eerie glow in the low light. Some of the tech might not make much sense for a space-faring race of humans (storing things on tape wheels still?) but it all does a great job of adding to the overall atmosphere. The lighting is especially good in the game and the smoke effects are great. In the beginning parts of the game when you are first introduced to the station you get a bit of time to explore, and coming across broken pipes with fire shooting out, it’s light dancing on the walls like a fireplace on a cold winter night, just sucks you right into the Alien world.
With the story and atmosphere out of the way let’s talk about what you’ll be doing most in the game, playing it. Overall, as mentioned earlier, Alien Isolation is very much about taking it slow and hiding when need be. Even in the early parts of the game when there are few enemies I still found myself crouch-walking around and checking my surroundings often. The game does a great job of making it feel like something could be right around the next corner, or in the vents above you at any time. Survival horror fans will love the game’s pacing and how it conditions you into inching your way forward and searching every foot of the environment for useful tools. There’s bound to be a line in the sand with the gameplay here though. If you love hard survival horror games you’re going to be much more in love with Alien. If you don’t love those games, you may be able to see all the things the games does very well, and enjoy some of it, but it’ll frustrate you at times as well. Take the save system for instance. Gone is the “save anytime” feature of most modern games. Instead, you must find save points in levels that are card readers on the walls. Once you reach one you put in your card and wait a good 5 seconds for the lights to fill up before the save box pops up on screen. The whole time this is happening you can be attacked, so you need to plan your saving ahead. If you happen to save the game right before the Alien jumps down and kills you, you now have an angry alien to try and deal with every time you load from there (and there’s only 1 save file). The good thing is that if you do get into an impossible scenario like that the game will eventually let you revert back to an earlier save, but either way you lose a good deal of progress. Save points are around, but are not in every room. I’ve had a few times where I’d play for 15 minutes sneaking through a room with enemies only to die at the end and have to replay that whole section. Trail and error is key here, though, so each time you have to re-load you do learn more about the encounter. A lot of the game is this way. You must move slow, check corners, use the crafting system to build noisemakers and things to help, and when all hell breaks loose (which it will) you run like there’s no tomorrow, get out of eyesight and hide. You always hide.
Some of the gameplay mechanics and systems are actually very nice as well. The majority of the game is spent with a motion tracker, and this gives you a heads-up if you’re about to stumble upon enemies or a roaming alien. When you have the tracker going the game does a cool depth of field switch depending on if you’re looking at the tracker or looking up at the environment, just another thing that immerses you even more in the world and adds to believability. There is also a crafting system that allows you to build things like health packs and noise makers, but it’s not very deep. It would have been cool to be able to build equipment to turn the environment on your enemy, but the system works as implemented fairly well. Yes, you do eventually get a gun as well, but they really didn’t even need to give it to you, because if you’re using it you are pretty much screwed already. Your best tool in the game are your eyes, ears (use a nice sound system or headphones when playing, trust me), and feet. Typically you’ll be able to hear danger before you see it, so if you’re paying attention to the cues the game gives you, you should be fine.
With as much that this game does right, there are some nitpicks I do have with it. A lot of the game can end up being you hiding in a locker or under a table for a good 5+ minutes just watching an enemy and waiting for them to leave. Also there’s this kind of cool environmental system that you can do things like take power from areas and use it to activate sound systems and air purification systems that is in the game but never really utilized. The AI can also be weird. The Alien itself seems to have a pretty random AI, that can drop in and roam around freely, but everyone else seems to have paths and once you are spotted you’re basically dead.
Overall Alien Isolation is a solid game with a few issues that might keep all but true hardcore survival horror fans from enjoying it to its fullest. It’s a super atmospheric game that oozes mood and keeps you on your toes even in segments where no threats are present. Even if you’re not the most die hard survival horror fan the game does have a lot to offer and see, and is still easily worth a playthrough, it will just be even more appealing to those who love hard survival horror games that punish you for making a mistake. If you enjoy the films you’ll feel right at home wandering the lonely halls of Sevastopol Station, and every time you hear a noise you’ll throw yourself into a locker like the alien is right behind you. Isolation is a game with a few annoying flaws and quirks, but is one worth exploring for anyone that loves survival games or the Alien lore, or even those not as into survival horror but are looking for something other than your prevalent point and shoot games that we see so much of these days. Play at your own risk, dim the lights, and use headphones. You’re in for one hell of a tense ride.