My heart raced and sweat trickled down my face as I slowly made my way through the darkened corridors of a once bustling space station. Sidestepping the corpse of a once living person who had been savagely killed, I could hear something moving in the vents above me. I stop for a second out of sheer terror but know that idleness will no doubt leave me in the same state as the body I passed.
I see a locker nearby and get inside it as quickly as I can. No sooner do I do this than I hear the sounds of what I can only describe as “death.” As I press my back to the locker and try not to breathe too hard, I see a glimpse of the terror that hunts me. A black, menacing figure, whose features invoke my nightmares. It stops by the locker, as if it knows something is inside. I hold my breath while it sniffs the air for any signs of life. Just as I’m about to lose consciousness from air deprivation, it turns around and begins to walk away. I let out a breath of air in relief and stay in my not-so-safe sanctuary until the creature jumps back into the air vent to continue its hunt elsewhere. After a while, I leave the locker and continue… hoping that I won’t see this monster again but knowing that I inevitably will.
What I wrote above is the basic experience of Alien: Isolation. Unlike most games in this franchise which take their cues from the action packed Aliens, this title does something different by getting its inspiration from the original Alien movie. You aren’t some bad-ass space marine who can kill dozens of Aliens after breakfast. You’re a regular human being who must put aside her fear and try to outwit a cunning foe who is all but invincible. Cunning and stealth are what this game emphasizes and I find it refreshing for this franchise. This is the Alien game we’ve deserved and for the most part it delivers on every level as both a video game and a true sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic.
Amanda Ripley is not unlike her mother, Ellen. She isn’t innately a violent person but she is a survivor and does what she needs to stay alive. Her situation is a bit worse than her mother’s considering that the space station she’s in is considerably larger than the Nostromo. Within the Sevastopol station, Ripley must not only evade an Alien whose singular goal is to hunt down and kill any living thing on the station, but also malfunctioning androids who seem to have forgotten Asimov’s first rule of robotics, and other humans who are so fear stricken that they’ll kill anyone on sight. Ripley has to outmaneuver those who want her dead in order to escape the space station alive.
This is a true survival horror game. Encounters with most enemies will result in your immediate death so staying out of sight and distracting your would be killers is the only way you’ll live. The game facilitates this in various ways. You can hide inside of lockers, drawers, vents, and under tables. You can craft items like noise makers which will divert a foes’ attention as well. If you do need to engage in combat, there are firearms and explosives to use. These are only really effective against humans or robots since the Xenomorph itself can’t be killed. Still, you’ll want to avoid combat as much as possible. Not only are ammunition and crafting supplies hard to come by, but any sort of engagement will result in attracting the Alien. Yeah, it will kill whoever you’re fighting against but it will get you too if you don’t get away in time.
The Alien is a smart hunter who reacts to what you do and learns throughout the game. During the early parts, it’s relatively easy to get away from it since it isn’t exactly looking for you. However, when it starts to make you its target is when things become more challenging. For example, if you hide inside of a locker for too long or if it knows you favor hiding in them, it will eventually just rip the doors off them. It will also try to get around you if it knows you are heading in a particular direction. It really does become a game of cat and mouse. You have to stay hidden but have to risk exposure because any particular hiding spot won’t suffice forever. Lockers, drawers, or air vents, the Alien can and WILL find you if you remain stationary for too long. Knowing that I was being stalked by an intelligent creature was more terrifying than anything.
Alien: Isolation offers up a constant sense of tension which is infinitely more terrifying than the cheap jump scares offered by most survival horror games. You’re never quite sure where danger will show itself even if you’re observant. The sound design does a great job of always keeping you on high alert. You need to use your ears to determine if there is something close to you or if you yourself are making entirely too much noise. I’ve gotten scared off the sound of my own sneakers squeaking. Not the sound itself, but knowing that the sound would probably attract the Alien to me. Yes, the motion tracker is a good device for letting you know if anything is close to you but since it isn’t completely accurate (it can only see what is in front of you) it actually makes the game scarier because you know something is close to you but you can’t see it.
Being that this is a direct sequel to Alien, the design of the game had to match the look of that film’s retro future. Obviously, back in the 70s, this was what they thought the future would actually look like, but to our modern sensibilities, this game’s technology is decidedly old-school. I love how everything in the environment has a bulky and clunky look to it. Things have to be done manually and even the computers, which are about the only digital things in the game, contain ancient monochrome graphics. Every inch of this game was pure eye candy and I could tell that the design team spent a lot of time making this look as authentically 70s future-y as possible.
The same attention to detail went into the score of the game. Not only does the game soundtrack match that of Alien, but it has the same feel that you would expect from a sci-fi movie from the late 1970s/early 1980s. What I found most impressive was HOW the music was used. There actually isn’t a whole lot of music in the game, save for cutscenes, but when it does show up it’s to heighten the tension. When you’re in a room and the music slowly begins, you know that something is about to make your acquaintance. The game also tricks you by not playing music even if the Alien is literally around the corner. The way the music messes with your mind and keeps the tension high is fantastic.
As great as this game is in most departments, it does have some noticeable setbacks. The main one is the inconsistent frame rate of the cutscenes. They will typically go below thirty frames a second and be very jumpy. This is odd considering that the cutscenes are videos and not in-game footage. Thankfully, there are very few cutscenes as most of the story is told in-game. Still, the few times when a cutscene would present itself I would be taken out of the experience by how jerky and bumpy they were.
While the motion tracker and map give you a good general direction of where you need to go, they aren’t exactly accurate. This is most likely due to the fact that this how the technology in this world works. However, it led to several instances where I didn’t have a clear idea of where to go because my objective was on a different floor. Yeah, it’s good that the game doesn’t hold your hand , but getting lost while trying to evade a big-ass Alien got a bit annoying.
As far as saving your game goes, this is decidedly old-school as you have to manually save at emergency call boxes. There are some checkpoints but most saves have to be done manually. This means that if you die (and you will die a lot in this game) you have to do entire sections over and over again from your previous save. Granted that there are many save points throughout the game (all of which make a convenient “beep beep beep” when you’re close and which tell you if foes are nearby) so you won’t be losing too much progress, especially if you’re very adept at hiding.
I have mixed feelings about the game’s story pacing. One of my biggest concerns was that this game would become too repetitive because you’re just evading a single monster the entire time. This is not the case as there are many other dangers to avoid. The story’s pace is actually handled better than I had hoped and towards the end of the game, it felt like I was playing through an actual movie. The only thing that bothered me somewhat was the length of the game. Like I said, I did like the overall pace, but there were certain parts which dragged on a bit and felt unnecessary. Yes, most survival horror games are basically errand simulators but I still felt that some fat could have been trimmed here and there to make it a tighter experience.
Alien: Isolation is a great example of how to do a real survival horror game. Action takes a backseat to genuine terror and outsmarting foes is rewarded. Though it goes on a bit longer than it should, it has an overall great pace which feels cinematic and true to the original Alien movie. It’s also refreshing to play a game where your enemy learns over time and continues to challenge you in new and different ways. Companies should take note here as this, along with Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, illustrate how to create a great licensed game.
I’ll admit that I had my doubts about this title seeing as how most games in this franchise have been pretty terrible and how licensed games in general are of low quality. This one however is easily one of the standout games of 2014. Alien: Isolation is definitely a must own for those who are fans of Alien and for those who want to experience one of the most frightening and harrowing games released in a while.
Alien: Isolation is out now for the PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. This review is based on a PlayStation 4 retail copy provided by Sega.