Licensed games have, at best, a spotty record. For every Tie Fighter and Arkham Asylum, there is an ET and a Warlock. While the Alien franchise has seen some great games – notably Aliens vs. Predator 1 and 2 – the cancellation of the very promising Obsidian Entertainment Alien roleplaying game and Gearbox’s hideously bad Aliens: Colonial Marines, have left Alien fans feeling more than a little dejected and despondent. While Creative Assembly is revered for their Total War strategy games (well, mostly – Total War: Empire was pretty terrible despite scoring highly with reviewers, and Total War: Rome II arrived in a pretty sorry state and mostly disappointed), they’re certainly not known for survival horror, which makes what they’ve accomplished with Alien: Isolation all the more remarkable. Not only is it one of the best licensed titles ever made, it stands on its own as a beautifully rendered, terrifying horror experience that deserves to be enjoyed by all Alien and survival horror fans; and yet, it’s a game that I can’t give an unqualified, universal recommendation.
Alien: Isolation introduces us to Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda Ripley. Haunted by the disappearance of her mother, Amanda has been taking jobs in the region of Ellen’s last reported location. Weyland-Yutani employee Christopher Samuels informs her that the flight recorder of the ship she crewed on, The Nostromo, has been found by the Anesidora, a salvage vessel, and taken to Sevastopol Station, a freeport and commercial outpost in the Zeta Reticuli sector of space. An opportunity to accompany Samuels and a crew to recover the flight recorder is offered, and Amanda accepts, eager for closure. Of course, this being an Alien game, closure doesn’t come easy.
Environments in Alien: Isolation are rendered with exceptional care to accurately represent the world of Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien. PC terminal user interfaces are monochrome, computers grunt and click while booting, there are boom boxes and tape recorders. Steam roils and hisses from vents and pipes and slime glistens and drips. Sevastopol Station and The Torrens – the ship Amanda and crew take to Sevastopol Station – exemplify the lived-in sci fi world of Alien, and present some of the best videogame environments ever. Stalking your every step in this retro-future is, of course, the titular freudian nightmare, ever hunting the corridors, ducts, and crawlspaces. Keeping track of the alien is of the utmost importance to survival, and your best tools are a combination of motion tracker and your own two ears to listen for hisses, bumps, and thumps. In addition to the alien, Isolation also forces you to contend with belligerent humans and second-rate Seegson androids; the latter are particularly frightening with their floppy, ill-fitting silicone skin, expressionless approximations of human faces, glowing eyes, and immutably calm voices.
While you have access to a fairly typical arsenal to contend with the aforementioned threats in the maintenance jack, revolver, shotgun, and boltgun, the actions a player will be employing most often will be sneaking, hiding, and utilizing improvised devices for diversion or destruction – it seems Amanda has a bit of MacGyver in her. By acquiring a number of named parts such as charge packs and sensors plus the generic resource scrap, Amanda can craft a number of essentials, such as noisemakers and EMP mines.
Which leads us back to why I can’t recommend this game to everyone: sneaking and hiding is the vast majority of what you do in this game, outside of a few lever-pulls and the odd discharge of a firearm. This is, at its core, a survival game, very much a bigger budget product of the Amnesia/Outlast mold (and in some ways, the underrated Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth) – a game designed to make the player feel anxious and vulnerable; and so, your combat abilities and your constitution are sorely lacking, notably so in comparison to modern action games. The alien itself is invincible, at best shaken off for a short time until it descends in a goo-covered fury to hunt you all over again. It roams about, and outside of a few scripted events, it’s cut loose of any directed strings, left to the whims of its own inscrutable AI routines. The Seegson androids are relentless Michael Meyersesque murders, gladly taking shot after shot point blank in the face. Humans are certainly much more fragile, but if you get clipped a few times by bullets, it’s game over. The path to victory is one of hunching under desks, ears wide, tracker at hand, moving only as fast as crouch will allow. Toss a flare to distract an android, sneak by, hack a system (or disengage its lock, or plasma-cut a hole, or yank a lever), and be happy you survived to make the next save station. Yes, this game has distinct save points rather than checkpoints in order to increase the tension. If you don’t quite make the next one, be prepared to reload and replay sections again and again, although it was rare that I found that more than five minutes of game would need repeating. Despite my deep love for the title, I also found it a little long, and a little buggy. I think perhaps the length wouldn’t have been worthy of mention as a negative if the endgame changed things up a little, added a few more puzzles or tasks to accomplish, rather than just cranking up what you’ve just been doing for fifteen hours or so to 11. As for the bugs, well, they’re there – I can’t comment on other platforms, but the cutscenes on the PS4 version are oddly choppy, I’ve seen guns left floating in the air, and I suffered one hard crash. Long stretches were eventless on the bug front, and none were too egregious (other than the hard crash, which is, admittedly, pretty terrible, but it did only occur the once), but it’s important to note that despite the technical accomplishments on display here, there is still a little jank to the game.
Beautiful, tense, and huge, Alien: Isolation is a love letter to Alien, filled with wonderfully frightening moments and callbacks to the films that don’t feel like cheap fan-service, wrapped in a fantastically moody adaptation and extension of the iconic Jerry Goldsmith Alien score. Creative Assembly understands Alien, and they have delivered a game worthy of its name. It’s not perfect, and in its bold, uncompromising approach, it’s not for everyone, but it certainly is great. If you know what you’re getting into, if survival horror is your thing – if you feel you have what it takes to survive out there where no one can here you scream – turn off the lights, crank up the sound, forget the bonus situation, and get your ass to Sevastopol Station. This is one of the best horror games ever made.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Platform played: PS4