When Alien: Isolation was first announced the gaming world collectively shook their heads, still unable to overcome the abomination of the license that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. Well, turns out we were all wrong. Alien: Isolation isn’t a perfect game by any means, but it’s the closest thing there is to a playable version of the Alien universe.
Alien: Isolation is billed as a survival-horror game, and to some extent it does a fairly good job of throwing the scares at you, though without the fantastic art of the game, it just wouldn’t have been the same/ The setting is just a big a character as the titular monster, giving Alien: Isolation a strong foundation and one of the most pleasing locations I’ve had the pleasure of playing in for a long time. The game follows Ripley’s daughter Amanda as she tries to discover the fate of her mother, Ellen Ripley, but she’s being constantly hunted by the Xenomorph alien.
It’s not the best story in the world, but it does start out strong and is clearly influenced by the source material in Ridley Scott’s original picture. The main attraction of Alien: Isolation – for me at least – was the possibility of a great story that continued on from the film, but instead it falls a little flat and ends up ridiculous towards the end, spoiling what was already an average tale of horror and suspense.
So, what about the gameplay? Well it plays out pretty nice actually and looks a ton better than I expected and really does capture the essence of the original film. The ambient sounds, the way the environment creaks and groans around you – it just drips Alien. Then it drops an Alien on you, almost literally.
On your quest to find mother Ripley, the powerful, smart and cunning Xenomorph tracks you around the ship, actively hunting its prey – you. The real horror and tension comes from being hunted by the alien. You literally never know when it’s going to show up, or where. Instead of using traditional artificial intelligence, Alien: Isolation doesn’t give the Xenomorph pre-set routes and actions to take against you, instead it’s completely random. You could be moseying along, having yourself a nice little stroll through the space station when suddenly you hear the dreadful heavy pounding of the alien in one of the air-vents. The panic this induces is extreme, at least for the first few occurrences. You can’t actually kill the bugger outright, you must hide and move around to avoid your predator, though it is possible to piss the alien off enough to make it back out, but it could be back within a matter of seconds.
It’s an interesting design choice and forces you to use your head rather than rely on twitchy trigger fingers. You can track the Xenomorph using the tracker, but when you focus on the tracker you lose sight of what’s around you, potentially leaving you to the mercy of the Gods. It’s not easy either. I lost count of the amount of times I was found hiding under a desk, or just killed for being too slow to find a good hiding spot. If you’re frustrated easily and have grown accustomed to having all the information for you in a lovely heads-up display, you’re in for a bit of a shock.
The grounded realism dictates that you must manually check everything. How many bullets you have, what your current health status is and more. It’s hard, damn hard, but at the same time a refreshing change of pace from todays gratuitous games that allow you to magically heal so long as you’re ducked behind a wall. It’s not for everybody, but old-school gamers will understand the appeal to the purer gameplay.
Unfortunately that’s where the good comes to an end. Whilst the encounters with the Xenomorph are at first a genuine thrill, they become a bit more tiresome and serve only as an interruption to the long and drawn out exploration of the Sevastopol. Much of the games playtime is spent meandering around then space station with nothing to do other than fulfill some classic video-game tropes. Go here, go there, open this door, take this item – you get the idea. They’re not bad at first, but they soon become repetitive and the constant trudging through the endless passageways eventually nullifies any entertainment. Sure you’ll occasionally come across an enemy that you can actually kill, but the encounters, especially with the Synthetics, are more of a frustration than anything, displaying some poor design choices, throwing away the rulebook and caving into the standard “blast in head with shotgun” gameplay.
The game is long too, in fact, for the first time ever I’m going to say this is a game that could have done with a shorter play time. The long stretches of down time were too frequent for my liking, though they could have worked well as tension-building breaks if the game was around 7-8 hours long, instead of the strung out 15 hours or more.
Graphically it’s confusing. The environments look great, you can really see the labour that been put into recreating the visual art style from Scott’s classic, from the retro-futuristic computers to the way smoke seeps through the air vents, it’s all been done fantastically. Then we have the character models which are at times decent enough from a distance, but once you get up close and personal, you can see the last-gen effects clearly on display. Faces seem to have a glisten to them, suggesting they’ve all been oiled up for some sort of inter-galactic space-orgy. The Xenomorph does however look pretty good, and gruesome, though you’ll only ever be able to really appreciated the detailed features of the terrifying model when you’re moments from deaths door, as that’s when you’ll be able to get a few seconds to gaze upon the beast.
It’s not a terrible game, in fact it’s pretty damn good, but it could have been improved with some trimming here and there as well as a stronger story to keep you hooked in and interested in Ripley’s plight. Still, it’s a ton better than previous attempts to create a game based on the Alien franchise, so for that I take off my hat to The Creative Assembly and say bravo chaps, bravo.
Alien: Isolation is available on the PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC from October 7th. This review was carried out using the PS4 version of the game.