While not necessarily a unique experience, Alien: Isolation delivers a coherent horror experience fans of the franchise
The Alien franchise has been a venue for some pretty terrible games. Yeah, I’m talking about Aliens: Colonial Marines and the pretty love it or leave it Aliens: Resurrection. And let me tell you, I leave Alien: Resurrection with a can of gasoline, matches and a middle finger to both the tie-in game AND the movie. Though I did like Alien Trilogy along with that Alien 3 arcade game.
After playing the demo at EGX Rezzed (Granted it was an alpha), Isolation felt like just another hide and seek horror game. Upon playing it, I realized it was something more. While not necessarily a unique experience, Alien: Isolation delivers a coherent horror experience fans of the franchise will appreciate.
For the story, I won’t go into spoilers, but I will give you the premise and my thoughts. Isolation takes place fifteen years after the events of the original Alien. You’re Amanda Ripley, the daughter of the then-missing Ellen Ripley, protagonist of the Alien films. As Amanda, you receive word that the flight recorder of the ship your mother went missing on has been found and is being kept on a station called the Sevastopol. The search seems finally over, right? I mean Amanda can hit up the Sevastopol, listen to her mother’s final message and bounce on out to continue her life, right? There's an alien on the ship.
Isolation’s story is a mostly solid package. It can feel padded at times and stumble with some less than interesting characters, but Creative Assembly did a good job of creating a story true and respectful to the original Alien, while keeping unique with its own twists and turns. There are some nods to the first film in the surroundings, but the game’s story doesn't give in to any obnoxious call-backs to the film and feels like its own story the whole way through.
Now, with story stuff out of the way let’s focus on gameplay. Let’s start with the thing I personally wanted to see done best: The Alien. The Alien is the sole reason you feel tense almost the entire way through the game. It’s unpredictable in when it will decide to mess with you. Sure, you’ll see it on your motion tracker crawling through vents, but at any time it feels like it, the little tyke drops down and starts to skulk around looking for you. If you’re not careful, A.K.A. if you’re a clumsy ditz that clomps around, the alien is going to see/hear you and rush to give you a hug and kiss through your skull.
There are multiple ways to survive encounters with the alien, such as your trusty motion tracker, flares, crafted items that cause distractions or deterrents and other weapons you find on the space station. None of the items you use against the alien can actually kill it, but more just temporarily turn the odds in your favor and that’s what Isolation hits so well. There’s a trial and error framework to the interactions with the alien that really teaches you when the alien notices sounds and what will warrant its exit from the vents to stalk the corridors and try to find you. It feels believable in the context of the original Alien; Remember how the creature from the first film “investigated” the racket Parker and Lambert were making when they were gathering coolant for the Narcissus? You’ll run into other survivors making that same sort of noise whom meet the same fate as those on the Nostromo. It really makes you question your actions when interacting with enemies other than the alien. Sure, I could blow away a few looters with my revolver to clear my way, but then the alien is going to hear the gunshots and come take a look at the commotion. You can even use that idea to your advantage, like throwing a noisemaker in the vicinity of the hostile survivors, have the alien show up, butcher the survivors and all is well and good right? Nope because now you have to deal with the fact you brought a Xenomorph to a gunfight. A Xenomorph whom will kill you just like the others if they catch you. The game allows you to gain the upper hand while basically cutting off the other one and keeps things interesting.
When you’re not hiding from the alien or other enemies on the Sevastopol, you’re almost certainly doing two things: Scavenging for items and materials and looking for save stations. Let’s talk about the latter. The game has stations scattered throughout levels that you can use to save your progress and the catch about Isolation is its strictness in that these are the only way you can save your progress. This can somewhat hinder the obviously needed trial and error aspect to the gameplay as it can put you back some amount of time progress-wise. It has the potential to put you behind some cutscenes and quick time events, which can be frustrating, but I will say this was a rare occurrence for me. Save stations were pretty abundant in the areas where it mattered, and at least the developers put in an auto-save that puts you at the entrance to new areas you arrive to, whether by elevator or tram.
Now on to scavenging. There are items, materials and components throughout the Sevastopol that you can utilize in your fight to survive. For example, you can combine crafting materials you found scavenging to create a noisemaker which will distract the Alien or flashbangs you can use to blind human enemies. I will say for until let’s say the last third of my time with the game I usually only found myself so be short in one particular material, which was odd considering how every time you go through an area the materials on dead bodies and in crates are supposed to be randomized. The randomization is a really nice touch, and while it can work if you’re replaying the game or having a hard time in a certain area, for as many times as I did die in certain areas, this one item was NEVER found. All of this said, I fully acknowledge that this is a survival horror game. Key items are supposed to be rare and make exploring secondary areas instead of progressing a more worthwhile endeavour; I just felt it was something I found odd when going through an entire level without finding a single particular item but being maxed out on scrap and every other material.
If you’re a long-time fan of the Alien franchise, I really think Isolation is certainly worth your time. Creative Assembly really weren't joking when they said they painstakingly created a world that looks incredibly authentic and believable in the context of the first film. They did a great job making that 1970s sci-fi look visually stunning in video-game form and is full of small references to the first film that I think fans will really appreciate. The gameplay is dynamic, tense and has some really impressively designed sequences.
If you haven’t seen any of the movies before, it’s still a good game, but I’d strongly suggest at least watching the first movie before even considering picking Isolation up, Director’s cut if you can. If you’re not bothered to watch the movie, hey it’s still a good game, you might just not get a lot of the references and the world’s jargon.
Creative Assembly have shown that the Alien universe still has potential for great games and Isolation is really the proof I’m sure a lot of fans have been waiting for.