In many ways, this review is very redundant; by this point, I’m sure that everyone has heard everything there is to say about Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly/SEGA, 2014). The title has been heaped with praise and accolades and, since it’s been out for a while now, there’s been plenty of reviews and opinions out there in the world so I guess this would now qualify as a retro review?
Anyway, Alien: Isolation does a lot of firsts for the Alien franchise (Various, 1979 to present); like many standard Alien-branded videogames, Alien: Isolation adopts a first-person perspective and, rather than controlling a marine or series protagonist Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the player is put in control of Ripley’s daughter, Amanda. Also, not only does Alien: Isolation take place fifteen years after Alien and therefore closely resemble Alien’s low-tech, seventies-sci-fi aesthetic, it also emphasises survival over combat.
As I said, the player takes control of Amanda Ripley, who has grown up most of her life wondering what happened to her mother, who went missing fifteen years prior when all contact was lost with the Nostromo. When the Nostromo’s flight recorder is recovered, Amanda heads to Sevastopol, a massive space station in orbit around a gas giant, to investigate and find closure. However, a few catastrophes have befallen Sevastopol; many of the systems are offline or busted, the synthetic Working Joes are malfunctioning and attacking humans on sight, and an all-too-familiar alien organism is loose on the station and picking off the few human survivors. Quickly, Amanda is left alone (isolated, you might say) and with only her wits and a few resources to survive the ordeal and make it to safety.
Like Ridley Scott’s original classic, Alien: Isolation is all about atmosphere; sampling the movie’s look, feel, and soundtrack, the player is immersed in an unnerving silence or the ominous sense of hidden dread. A lot of the time, nothing especially engaging is really happening; you’re simply investigating, collecting items and gear, and making your way towards various objectives. Soon, though, Amanda encounters armed humans, who are liable to shoot you on sight or if they feel threatened, and the malfunctioning Working Joes, who make a bee-line for Amanda and attempt to choke or pound the life out of her. This is the player’s first taste of Alien: Isolation’s purposely-limited combat system; Amanda can pick up a pistol (but there is very limited ammunition and its not very effective against the androids), hit enemies with a wrench, or craft other useful items (pipe bombs, EMP mines, etc) to help take out or disable her opponents.
However, most forms of attack will make a lot of noise, potentially attracting more enemies, and all of them are very hit-and-miss. Try and beat a Working Joe to death with a wrench, for example, and you’re gonna have a bad time; shoot a human and you better make sure to aim for the head and you have to consider whether it’s worth wasting your extremely limited ammo. Therefore, it is far more beneficial to distract enemies with a flare or a noisemaker and slowly creep past, using a vent if available, rather than engage in direct combat. This is quite a creative approach as not only does it make every encounter feel like a real struggle for survival and make the player carefully weigh their chances and inventory, but it also prepares you for your first and subsequent encounters with the Alien. Once the Xenomorph makes its grand debut, you’ll be relying more on your motion tracker and the various lockers and cover mechanics to hide because the Alien is completely invulnerable to harm.
The Alien also has its own independent artificial intelligence, meaning that, while it does follow certain traits, it acts differently each time to encounter it and appears to learn the more you engage with it. In the early going, it will stalk around trying to sniff you out and give up pretty soon and is easily chased away by a burst of flamethrower but, nearer the end of the story mode, it will stick around for quite a while and shrug off the flamethrower’s blasts. You can use flares and noisemakers to distract the Alien and lure it towards your human enemies, and it is very satisfying to watch/hear the Xenomorph slaughter a bunch of people and clear the way for you, but you must remain hidden or else it’s liable to sneak up behind you.
Additionally, as you progress further, you have to make your way past or battle Working Joes while the Alien is nearby. Any noise made by running or attacking, or from your other enemies, will instantly alert the Alien, drawing it out from a vent or other area. You may find, as I did, that you spend agonising minutes hiding in a locker, holding your breath, and sporadically checking the motion tracker, only to have to dart right back into hiding despite the coast appearing to be clear. Using the motion tracker also attracts attention if enemies are nearby and it doesn’t make a distinction between floors; so, if the Alien is above you, you get a blip and waste a lot of time in hiding but, if you venture out, it’s likely to drop down on your ass from above without warning.
In addition to picking up pre-made weaponry and tools, Amanda can collect various bits and pieces to craft items; blueprints will allow the player to create more effective items but you can’t afford to waste any of them. Pipe bombs, for example, are extremely effective at scaring off the Alien or blowing up the androids, but they have a high craft cost; Molotov cocktails will also scare off the Alien and burn most other enemies but are also likely to explode in your face if you throw them too close. Crafting is quite fun and really puts you on edge; Amanda relies on crafting to create medkits and, when you don’t have enough gear to create one when you really need it, it can be extremely tense.
One of the best aspects of Alien: Isolation is how well it re-enacts the look and feel of Alien; the attention to detail in the locations is amazing and everything looks exactly like it did in Alien. There’s even a great part where you flashback to LV-426 and investigate the crashed Engineer ship, which is recreated in astonishing detail. Later, when you venture into the Alien’s nest, the game wisely draws inspiration from Aliens (Cameron, 1986) and the latter parts of Alien to recreate the slimy, biomechanical look associated with Xenomorph lairs. The game also hints at the presence of an Alien Queen somewhere in the station’s reactor and/or the idea of “eggmorphing” from a deleted scene from Alien. This, accompanied by the fantastic use of Alien’s unnerving soundtrack, really makes the player feel absorbed in the narrative. However, this is almost to the videogame’s detriment; Alien: Isolation is a draining, occasionally frustrating experience. Every encounter is tense and a struggle; every time your motion tracker beeps, you’ll be on edge and scratting around to craft necessary items of find a suitable hiding place; and every time you think you’ve reached a mission objective, a door or path will be blocked and you’ll be redirected elsewhere or have to either hack or cut through doors, clamber up ladders while the room explodes around you, or space walk while the station disintegrates. As someone who grows increasingly paranoid when my resources are low, the path ahead is fraught with danger, and no save points are nearby, this as a constant source of frustration for me but even I have to admire how completely it immersed me into the experience.
In the end, all the praise that has been heaped upon Alien: Isolation is completely worth it. You’ll be constantly on edge when the Alien is about, and probably die more than once, but this is easily one of the best attempts at recreating the look and feel of a movie while still logically and smartly continuing the narrative in a dead zone between movies. Parts of the game are annoying, tedious, or repetitive but it all adds towards the atmosphere of the situation; Amanda is at her wit’s end and with very little resources or chances of survival, so obviously the game shouldn’t be a cake-walk, and there’s nothing like the cathartic feeling of reaching a save point or, even better, flushing that Xenomorph bastard out into space!