Alien was released on an unsuspecting audience in 1979 by director Ridley Scott. The beginning of the movie moves at a glacial pace, setting the stage for the feast of incredible cinematic storytelling that fills the third act. Everything from the slow descent and landing sequence of the Nostromo to the dinnertime conversations about pay shares builds the story of each character in a subtle and believable way. This futuristic sci-fi thriller had laughably bad technology, complete with tiny screens and pointless flashing lights, but somehow it all works. Why? H.R. Giger. Ridley Scott created a fantastic world for the Swiss-born surrealist’s vicious and unrelenting horrific creature. From the uncomfortable realization that this creature survives by laying eggs down the throat of a living host that would gestate inside until it burst from the victim, to the dripping saliva from both pairs of vicious jaws, every aspect of the alien made your skin crawl. Alien has defined the horror genre for 35 years.
It’s just a damned shame the games have been terrible.
You might recall that last year we were more than a little unkind to Aliens: Colonial Marines. When I heard that Creative Assembly, a company that has made some of the best strategy games in the world but without a single shooter under their hat, was making a new Aliens game I was very, very worried.
I had no reason to be.
Alien: Isolation kicks off 15 years after Ellen Ripley launched herself into space with the hopes that she’d be picked up after just a few weeks of being adrift. Her daughter, Amanda (revealed in a deleted scene of Aliens) has become a bit of a space jockey herself, working as an engineer in the sector where her mom disappeared. When Weyland-Yutani approaches with a statement that they may have found her, obviously she had to jump at the chance (because we all know Weyland-Yutani is the most trustworthy corporation in the galaxy). Calamity strikes and Amanda is soon stranded on the space station Sevastopol. Despite the name Isolation, Amanda is anything but alone.
“It’s very pretty, Bishop, but what are we looking for?”
The opening 20th Century Fox logo comes straight out of the 70s, and a film grain is applied to the purposely antiqued map system. The retro-future world is given the full fan service treatment, from the 70’s style magazines, right down to the couch cushions on the wall computer rooms with the pointless blinking lights. And ohhh…the lights.
Alien: Isolation may have some of the best lighting I’ve seen in a game to date, and it is a crucial, if not the most crucial, player in building the horror in this game. More than once I found myself sneaking away from a foe only to dart into a nearby locker because I saw a shadow I couldn’t identify darken a nearby corridor. Was it the titular beast stalking me? A synthetic hell-bent on ‘helping’ me to death? Or maybe another stranded soul so scared of being killed that they’ll lash out at anyone they don’t know? In most cases it’s a piece of trash swirling around after the atmosphere scrubbers kick on, or a piece of space flotsam floating past the station window. It’s in these moments that Alien: Isolation shines brightest.
The first movie in this venerable franchise is very unlike any that came after. James Cameron put a heavy action spin on the series, and that’s been the go-to-motif for video games ever since. Alien was scary because of how little it showed the beast, relying less on leap-out scares and instead leaving the viewer mentally braced for long stretches of time. It’s the kind of movie that kept you on your toes and struck when you least expected it. Alien: Isolation draws heavily on that movie, but throws in a dash of its successors as well.
The difference between a shooter and survival horror is typically about asset restriction. Medical supplies, ammunition, weapons, and crafting materials are rare, and when you do get them it will be in short supply. You won’t be running around with more than a clip and a half of anything, for the most part. They say that in space nobody can hear you scream, which is good because nearly everything in Sevastapol station is out to kill you.
“Do you have any faith, sister?” “Not much”
The Alien franchise is an absolute gift. The sounds needed are boxed and ready to go. The universe is completely developed, as is the lore. The folks at Creative Assembly have selected something outside that box, creating a space in between the first and second movie, and built a whole new character to inhabit it. Strong female leads are rare in games, but Amanda is no damsel in distress. Certainly, she’s not equipped to handle the situation, but who would?
Throughout the course of the 16 or so hours needed to beat the game Amanda will find blueprints and crafting materials. These pieces of scrap, bonding agents, and other goodies can be combined with a simple system to create autoinjector health kits, noisemakers, makeshift flashbangs, an EMP, and more. Unlike most games where the progression is pistol, SMG, shotgun, rocket launcher, as example, Alien: Isolation instead parses out tools needed to unlock side areas or to help escape a beast that can kill you instantly. Eventually you’ll find a motion tracker straight out of Aliens, nab a flamethrower with hardly any fuel, and eventually a bolt gun and shotgun. When the enemies are fleshy or android, you may stand a chance, but if we’ve learned anything from the movies, the only thing Xenomorphs fear is fire.
Isolation is at its best when you reach the “alien” portions. In between engagements with the unpredictable (and incredibly smart and adaptive) Xenomorph the game hands you simple puzzles, a few humans to interact with, and the pesky android menace. For unknown reasons the synthetics have gone nuts (I think Bishop and Call were the only sane ones in the galaxy) and will kill you on sight. Nearly anything you attempt to kill them with, from the door wrench to the powerful bolt thrower will simply piss them off and cause them to beat you about the face. That means it’s best to hide.
There are a shocking number of hiding places in Alien: Isolation. The memorable circular vents allow you to duck out of main corridors, but as Dallas found out in the first movie, there can be unseen horrors around the next corner. You can hide in lockers, but Amanda makes so much damned noise getting in them that it’s surprising they are ever effective. Even small boxes can turn into an escape in a pinch. Unfortunately for you – the Xenomorph is more than capable of spotting you, hearing you from a distance (there is a shocking amount of trash to kick in Sevastapol station) and when it’s close enough it can even hear you breathe. You can hold your breath, but that has a detrimental effect on health, so use it sparingly or perish. As a fun aside, those who have a PlayStation Camera have an option to enable the alien to hear any noises you make in the real world for a bit of additional fun. These tense moments make this the best survival horror title I’ve played in some time.
If there is an area where the game does suffer, it’s the moments outside of the encounters with the Xenomorph. As I mentioned, the synthetics are murderbots, but they have a fairly predictable patrol route and easily evaded AI until you get much further into the game. Avoiding them is tedious work, with manual save points being your only reprieve. When you do run into other humans they are the shoot-first type with some rare exceptions. You can gun them down with the conventional and non-conventional weapons you’ve amassed, but you are as likely to replace a human threat with the Xenomorph. Once you pass a certain point in the game, the hulking beast can (and will) appear anywhere.
The supporting cast in Alien: Isolation are usually showcased in the excellent cutscenes. The animations and graphical fidelity is fantastic, but somehow the lip sync has gone marble-mouthed. It doesn’t matter much as most people you meet are Xeno-chow shortly thereafter, leaving Amanda to fend for herself once again. These cutscenes also have frequent framerate issues that aren’t present during gameplay. For most games, the cutscenes are masking loading in the background, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Alien: Isolation has long load times between levels, and unfortunately after every death. And you are gonna die…often.
“Well, that explains it then. The A2s always were a bit twitchy.”
What impresses most in Alien: Isolation is that all of this dread and fear is inflicted upon Amanda and the residents of Sovastapol Station by a single Xenomorph. Unlike a classic shooter which runs scores of enemies directly at you as fodder, there is no point in the game where you feel like you could successfully challenge the beast and win. The AI behind the beast never feels omnipotent, instead relying on tracking you. It’s unnerving to watch the beast slink off as you hide in a nearby vent only to suddenly hear the trademark hiss behind you. Like other survival horror beasts like Slenderman, The Gatherers, and Pyramid Head, you know you are going to die and quickly should you face them directly. It creates a tense and pressingly claustrophobic game that has you spending as much time hiding under tables as it does slinking through the halls.
In the later Aliens titles, synthetics became the trope that plot devices were hung from, and unfortunately that is the case in the later portions of Alien: Isolation as well. The synthetics prove to be thick as thieves in the later sections of the game, practically requiring that you destroy them to proceed. Since weapons are all but ineffective, and ammunition is rare, it creates entire swaths of game that feel like padding rather than compelling gameplay. Thankfully these sections are greatly outnumbered by the pants-wetting portions with the hulking titular menace, but it doesn’t make them less frustrating.
I can all but guarantee that Alien: Isolation is going to win a U-Haul full of awards for the audio in this game. The music is haunting, swelling into the familiar shrill and bombastic tones when the creature is about to make you into a snack, and laying in the background ready to strike when you least expect it. On far more than several occasions, accidentally kicking an object in the environment caused me to frantically look around to see if anything had heard my foolish clanging. Just like the movies, everything in the environment can betray your position. Since everything else can get you killed, you start to even wonder if the motion tracker or the retro-clanking of the save points could get you killed.
Playing this on the PlayStation 4 meant crackles and beeps from the speaker, flashing from the light in the front, head-tracking via the camera for leaning, and the aforementioned audio tracking. In my case, my dogs bark entirely too much and I’m far too fidgety to use the camera for head tracking, but it’s a pretty cool addition.
I went in with a wary eye, but I was pleasantly shocked by how well this title turned out. It slightly overstays its welcome, but the vast majority of the game is a tense and atmospheric mental battle against a vicious and unstoppable killing machine. We’ve not seen survival horror done this well in a very long time.