Alien: Isolation is not a fun game. Now, let us clarify here: that’s not to say it’s not a good game. Indeed, it’s a much-needed shot in the arm for the Aliens franchise in terms of quality, particularly in light of the recent Aliens: Colonial Marines debacle. But come into this experience expecting to be creeped out, scared witless and constantly fear for your life rather than hoping for ‘fun’. Unless that *is* your idea of fun, you crazy person.
Alien: Isolation is set 15 years after the events of the film Alien, and is principally inspired by that movie. Amanda Ripley, daughter of series heroine Ellen Ripley, is working as an engineer in the backwaters of space, hoping against hope for any information regarding her mother. An opportunity for closure arises when the black box of the Nostromo (the ship that was destroyed at the end of the movie) is reported to have been recovered, and Amanda heads out to the remote space station Sevastopol for what ought to be a routine collection job. Of course, everything rapidly goes a bit tits up, Amanda gets separated from her two fellow Weyland-Yutani employees, and soon discovers that the deteriorating space station is now home to little more than desperate survivors, murderous androids and one big, ugly alien.
The alien is, appropriately enough, the real menace here, its unpredictable AI making it the most dangerous threat. You’ll spend most of your time worrying about where it might spring from next, and when it is in the vicinity, your best chance at survival is cowering in a dark corner or storage locker and hoping it goes away. As in games like Amnesia and Outlast, you’re mostly defenceless against it – there are guns available, but good luck relying on them to get you out of a sticky situation. Aiming is unsteady, reloading is clunky and time consuming, and the sound of gunfire is a red rag to the xenomorph. Gunplay might help you out against hostile humans, but the androids are total bullet sponges, and even trying to take just one down with a revolver will cost you a lot of ammo. Oh, and don’t bother trying to shoot the alien, you can’t kill it – even the flamethrower you find later on in the game only serves to briefly deter it. On the plus side, there is a crafting system that allows you to use scavenged parts to create other useful tools, including noisemakers and flashbangs to distract or disorientate your enemies, or molotovs and pipe bombs to eliminate hostiles and ward off the alien.
From an aesthetic point of view, the game is a resounding success – The Creative Assembly have done a fantastic job. I’m not sure that gorgeous is the right word, considering the nature of what’s being depicted, but the game has been lovingly crafted to be faithful to the film, nailing its retro-futurist style with aplomb. Old fashioned revolvers and grainy computer monitors mean the game has one foot grounded in reality even as it deals with futuristic concepts such as space travel, fully-functioning androids and hypersleep. Sevastopol itself looks suitably creepy, all malfunctioning machinery, flickering lights and hastily-abandoned rooms. The sound design is worthy of special mention – every beep from your motion tracker or sudden creak will put you on edge even as the foreboding soundtrack ties your stomach in knots.
There is a fundamental problem with this style of game, however, and that’s that it’s most effective when it’s not actually killing you – the tension created by the fear of death is far more powerful than death itself. Let’s take an example from early in the game. After a nerve-wracking encounter that involved avoiding a group of androids, we neared the exit of the level – and got jumped by the alien from a ceiling vent, resulting in an instant, unavoidable death and the loss of 10-15 minutes of progress. The fearful atmosphere was shattered, replaced by frustration and disbelief at this seemingly cheap shot. To be fair, we realised on our second attempt that the game was trying to clue us in to the alien’s location via the ichor dripping from the roof – but be prepared to learn these harsh lessons the hard way if you persist with the story.
And you may struggle to persist, given that the story drags its feet, always finding some new contrivance to send you through another gauntlet – add in the punishing nature of failure in this game, and it can seem at times to be an arduous task. This is compounded by the game’s saving system, whose manual save points can often be far enough apart to make death seem like a crushing defeat – and you’re not even guaranteed to be safe while saving your game, as you need to wait for a precious few seconds before the game will let you do so. It’s clear, however, that this isn’t down to bad design, but is instead a deliberate attempt to evoke the high stakes of retro survival horror games – so whether the game holds up to extended play or not depends on your opinion (and tolerance) of these sorts of mechanics.
Alien: Isolation isn’t for everyone, then. The survival horror faithful will be well-served, as will fans of the films, and those in search of a tough challenge will certainly find one here. Anyone else? Well, you most likely won’t enjoy the experience anywhere near as much. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.