Whilst the Alien franchise might have been recently tarnished by the latest videogames’ efforts, that hasn’t put Creative Assembly off in attempting to create a truly terrifying Xenomorphic experience. And whereas the past slew of games in the franchise have been more akin to traditional shooters, Alien Isolation makes you feel like what you actually are, a feebly fragile, tasty human.
You play as Amanda Ripley, an engineer working in the back end of the galaxy alongside people she’s not entirely keen on. Years of outer space arc welding pays off however, as rumours of the Nostromo’s black box are brought into light. It’s not long before the decision is made to retrieve it from a rival company stationed on Sevastopol, a run-down space station that undoubtedly houses more than just answers regarding Amanda’s mother. Inevitably, it’s not long before things take a turn for the worse. A somewhat routine spacewalk, complete with jittery co-worker, ends in predictable disaster, bringing the game’s namesake into play.
The interminable tension mounts as you take baby steps towards the darkness and away from the sanctity of your ship. Lights unceremoniously flicker as you prepare for the unavoidable encounter; you attempt to savour feeling of dread knowing deep down, that this is what an Alien game should feel like.
Alien Isolation plays to its strengths confidently, knowing that any slight movement will panic you for the foreseeable future. I won’t spoil any scares for you, but you are safe for a while; letting the game lead you around its slowly introducing mechanics is about the only hand holding you’re going to get. Straight off the bat, areas beg to be explored for salvage, med kits and flares; it’s worth keeping this in mind as several, almost necessary, items such as blueprints for schematics are entirely missable should you not scour each area. At the beginning, this isn’t so much of a problem due to the relative safety, yet later on, it can often prove to be a fatal decision.
At some point on your travels, you’ll come across enemies; whether they’re angst ridden survivors, androids or ‘that other one’, it quickly becomes obvious that fighting enemies head on is often a risk not worth taking. Due to Isolation incorporating aspects of stealth alongside its deeply rooted survival-horror nature, escaping confrontation at any cost is advisable. You get the feeling you aren’t supposed to fight, but survive; nothing brings that sensation around than when you encounter the Alien.
Exquisitely rendered, its movements are as mesmerising as they are terrifying. It will stalk you, search for you and scare the hell out of you. No videogame enemy has made you feel so helpless and weak since the glory days of Resident Evil. Your weapons and crafted paraphernalia serve only to distract it, and buy you a few seconds to scuttle to your next hiding spot. Lurking inside a vent, wincing under a table and cowering inside lockers will become a consistently uncomfortable routine. Leaning further back into locker as it prowls the room you’ve unerringly declared ‘safe’ is no guarantee of survival.
The gloriously familiar motion detector will become your best friend as you skulk the many corridors of Sevastopol; it not being able to differentiate between friend and foe is a lesson you’ll learn quickly too. Raising your weapon at a seemingly responsive survivor could well cause them to become hostile, whereas shooting the wrong person on sight in a skittish action can easily cause a game over. These are quintessentially the parts which make Alien Isolation a dreaded joy to play, the constant tension, the unwelcoming atmosphere and the fear of instantly dying at the Xenomorph’s ‘hands’. There are sections where simply crossing a room becomes a challenge due to the enemy presence. The fact that the Alien never quite behaves the same way keeps the pressure on too. At some points, between the manual save stations, you may never see it; other times, he’ll surprise you again and again.
Despite the sluggishly reloading weapons not making a dent on the Alien’s hide, your tools can be used to cunning effect at times however. In sections where both the Alien and humans reside, you can lure it towards the enemy in the hope that he’ll do your dirty work for you, letting you slip by (optimistically) unnoticed.
For all the unbound greatness the Alien sections of the game provide however, there are also sections which drag on a little longer than necessary. Save for a few vaguely taxing puzzles, there are a slew of videogame clichés to work through that come across a little like filler and seem to exist solely to pad the games length out.
There are some odd design choices too; holding your breath whilst hiding in a locker for example hurts you after a short while, instead of say, letting out a loud gasp. Mechanics introduced fairly late on into the game aren’t necessarily drawn attention too either.
Apart from certain aspects of the gameplay, the overall presentation of the game is an enormous selling point alone. Outstanding graphics aside, save for some small framerate issues during cutscenes, it’s the fashion in which Creative Assembly have lovingly captured the essence of Riddley Scott’s universe. Quasi-futuristic computer terminals adorn the space station on top of other futuristic, late 70’s design. The audio also deserves a special mention too, with surround sound or a good pair of headphones being a must. Tracking the Alien above you through ventilation shafts is as distressing as it is rewarding; the clarity of the sound effects play well into the game’s design. If you do happen to own a PlayStation Camera, it can also be used, rather devilishly, as a microphone for another way of attracting undue attention’ as well as a tool for peeking and leaning.
Despite some pacing irregularities and the odd graphical issue, it’s all worth it when you come up against one of the most iconic film ‘stars’ in sci-fi history. Creative Assembly have finally created a Xenomorph to rightly fear; and one that Alien Isolation delivers in spades. It’s relentless, terrifying and capable of punishing each and every mistake you stumble upon. Be prepared to relish the game over screen.