Alien: Isolation Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, PC, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox One
Every so often, the creepy Seegson androids that populate Sevastopol station will run on the spot, as if gearing up for a hundred metre sprint. Looking like the front cover of Radiohead’s album The Bends, it’s bemusing why these automatons would do such an incongruous jig, amidst the monotony of their programmed patrol cycles. It was upon rewatching Ridley Scott’s masterpiece – commentary on – that I noticed Ash, Ian Holm’s murderous android, did a little run on the spot too. It happens before he’s revealed as an android and would be otherwise entirely missable, a split-second quirk by the actor in a scene bristling with ominous tension. Instead, Ridders explains how this is a means for androids to stop seizing up, to keep the white blood flowing – revealing the glorious attention to detail that Creative Assembly has put into Alien: Isolation. Even for someone who has seen Alien repeated times this detail passed me by – it took the game to highlight a behavioural curio, a gem of insight that managed to inform the source. For an experience so incredibly faithful to its source material, you’ll do well to find better than this.
As Amanda Ripley, daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s iconic heroine, the game opens fifteen years after her mother signed off the Nostromo with that famous closing dialogue. A salvage crew have discovered the flight recorder from the Nostromo and Amanda is sent to retrieve it by everyone’s favourite, not-sinister-at-all company Weyland-Yutani. Upon arrival, wouldn’t you know, the Sevastopol is having a spot of bother; androids killing humans, a rogue AI, systems broken or at breaking point and the general dissolution of humanity. It is into this maelstrom of creepiness that Amanda is thrust, unarmed and – for most of the game – alone.
A good few hours pass before the titular xenomorph rears its disturbingly suggestive head. Alien: Isolation has pacing both good and bad. The beginning is incredible – an unsettling introduction to the universe, allowing you to admire the environment, absorb lore from logs and scavenge a few rudimentary tools. Androids serve as an introduction to the critical stealth mechanics you’ll need once the Alien enters the frame – hiding in lockers, underneath tables or in vents, with a limited selection of IEDs to distract and dispatch the plastic-faced creeps. When the Alien does arrive thus begins a prolonged game of cat and mouse – moving from objective to objective, doing the utmost to stay as quiet as possible. Loud noises will alert the Alien to your location so combat against hostile human or android enemies is inadvisable, but you can’t control the two parties when they come across each other.
The Alien is initially petrifying, retaining the lithe deadliness from the film, as it stalks the corridors, footsteps booming away. Any sound from a vent will cause you to think twice – dripping saliva from openings on the ceiling and a rasping breath both clues that walking underneath that spot might be inadvisable. As you progress through the game you’ll eventually be given a handheld motion tracker – almost exactly the same in form and function as the famous movie prop. Should it catch you, you’ll be subjected to a very in-your-face close-up, nasty enough that it’s quite likely you’ll have to glance away.
On harder difficulties the AI can be infuriatingly persistent – a game of popping in and out of lockers, waiting for the Alien to poke about before leaving. This is the same on lower difficulties but the Alien will be less thorough in searching. Still, there are some wonderfully tense moments – two that stood out rewrote initial thoughts about the depth of the AI. Crouched underneath a table, the Alien patrolled the other side of the room. I didn’t move, but should the Alien have looked my way it would undoubtedly have seen me. It suddenly stood stock still, silent – had it eyes they would have been staring straight at my hiding place. In panic I slowly backed further under the table – a mere inch or two. That tiny movement was enough – the Alien scrabbled right towards me, pulling me from underneath the desk. The other time was when I realised that the Alien can indeed use the same vent you happen to be in. While you may think you have the AI sussed, it always has a few tricks to keep you uneasy.
This is what Alien: Isolation does best – engender a sense of powerlessness and heightened fear. Amanda is wholly empathetic – seeing through her eyes really does place you firmly in the world of the Sevastopol and is likely why each death feels more gut-wrenching. This is no hero, no space marine blasting away enemies. This is one person against everything, with the foibles and righteous fear that you, as a player, will likely share.
Creative Assembly have evidently studied the set designs to the smallest detail – every square inch is a testament to the retro sci-fi designs of Ron Cobb, right down to the signage and assorted detritus. This makes for one of the most immersive games in a long while – HUDs are minimal, instead asking you to rely on your tools and senses. When menus do appear, they perfectly match the low-fi wire-frame graphics of the 1970s, complete with distortion as if watching them via VCR. For a fan of the films this is a dream come true – even more so if you’re lucky enough to play this via the Oculus Rift mod.
Where the game does falter is in the mid-section, where objectives feel arbitrary. Powering up generators is a routine operation and the game even goes so far as to ask you to backtrack on occasion, to switch a previously running generator back on. Perhaps it’s the stress of playing that you want things to be resolved as quickly as possible, but less backtracking would mask some of the repetition. Nevertheless, the game throws enough plot twists and contrivances to keep things engaging, as well as a few new – recognisable – tools that shift the power balance a little in your favour.
If Alien: Isolation proves one thing it’s that games do not need constant action to entice the discerning player. Isolation has some absolutely excellent pacing, notwithstanding that occasional filler, similar in effect to the first Dead Space game. The two share certain traits – both set on a stranded vessel in space, both dealing with an otherworldly threat and both reliant on terror.
Aside from the lengthy campaign there are also Survivor Mode challenges – isolated locations with objectives and a timer. They add longevity to a campaign that doesn’t harbour a great deal of replay value, while also allowing you to play as other characters. They aren’t as enthralling as the main game but are a nice bonus and far more welcome than anything multiplayer-related would add to Isolation.
The Alien property has long been one misused by developers with little clue as to what made the film so iconic. Alien: Isolation taps into the primal fear so imbued in Giger’s monster and wraps it up in a story that is reverent, tonally accurate and intriguing. Wrapped in the grainy trappings of detail-perfect environments, Creative Assembly have done devout fans proud, managing to create a game that fits the right tone. It’s a love letter for the fans – one so delicately written that it’s fun to imagine what the studio would do with other films. Blade Runner? Battlestar Galactica? James Bond? One can only dream but thoughts as these are a testament to the fact that Alien: Isolation joins that small list of brilliant film-to-game adaptations. When a game reveals details unnoticed in the source film, you know the studio behind it were doing more than jogging on the spot; they were making sure they were ready for anything.