By Andrew Dodson on October 29, 2014 at 2:13am
The "Alien" series is one that is very close to my heart. I was allowed to see the Alien movies before I was seven years old, and those shadowy, acid-filled monsters covered in claws and teeth were very fundamental to how I perceived horror. I have devoured just about every "Alien" or "Alien vs. Predator" game that I've come across. And they've all basically followed the same formula: the aliens come in drove, and you gun them all down. Rinse and repeat until the game is over.
"Alien: Isolation" is an entirely different animal from its predecessors.
This game is a call back to the original Alien movie, which makes sense because it occurs immediately after that first movie (and before the second movie). But the real difference between "Alien: Isolation" and any other game in the franchise is atmosphere.
In "Alien: Isolation," you don't get a Colonial Marine M41A Pulse Rifle and a trash bag full of ammo. You don't have body armor, and there aren't health kits around every bend. It is dark and claustrophobic. You are painfully mortal.
And you are being hunted.
You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley - the hero of the the Alien movie franchise. The game starts with Amanda being informed that Nostromo's flight recorder had been picked up and was currently on Sevastopol - a commercial space station. Amanda goes with a couple of Weyland-Yutani executives to pick it up and try to give Amanda some closure about her missing mother. Once at the station, and without giving anything away about the plot ... well, things go down hill.
The game defines itself as "survival horror," and I believe it really sets the bar for the genre. The atmosphere aboard the the failing Sevastopol is masterfully executed - every shadow and sound are perfectly crafted to keep the player on the edge throughout the game. Sevastopol is a labyrinth of tight, metal corridors with a claustrophobic (and Alien-sized) system of ventilation shafts connecting it all. The station was being decommissioned and in severe disrepair, so you're subject to every creak and groan as it falls apart.
I was nervous roaming the station even when I knew the Alien wasn't around. At this point in its "life," Sevastopol is not a welcoming place.
The theme of "fear" is ever-present in the game; the Alien isn't the only threat. Other bands of survivors have holed up in different places around the station, doing their best to survive - and firing on anyone that they don't recognize. A malfunctioning AI controls a small army of "Working Joe" androids. And the mostly-abandoned, decaying space station provides more than a few environmental dangers.
As the title of the game would suggest, the Alien plays a significant part in this game. It is the main threat, and also the only threat that you can't kill. Gunfire just makes it angry. Fire scares it but only for a short time, and explosions aren't much help either. In the first Alien movie, the android Ash calls the Alien a "perfect organism," and in "Isolation" it very much lives up to that title. It is a perfect hunter.
It's hard to tell if the Alien only becomes active at certain points or it'll descend into your area simply to investigate a noise (or even just randomly). It is probably a mix of both of those, which makes it all the more frightening. Compared to the other threats on the ship, the Alien has better senses, moves faster, and if it catches you ... well, you're done.
Unlike other games in the Alien franchise, this is not a beast that you can just turn into a puddle of acid with a blast of automatic weapon fire. No, "Alien: Isolation" makes you play a different game with this monster. It is a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, where Amanda plays the mouse and the only way that you can advance in the game is by outsmarting the cat. Throwing flares or noisemakers gets its attention. If you're really good, you can get the other threats aboard the ship (other humans or the androids) to make noise and draw the Alien towards them. Once it's attention is away from you, you have to know where you're going and move fast.
But not too fast. Make too much noise, and it'll be right back on you.
You simply can't kill everything that you come across, so stealth is the only way you can survive in this game. This is where being on a half-abandoned, decaying space station actually works to your advantage - it is dark and there is cover everywhere. Empty boxes and lockers, tables, little nooks and crannies from collapsed portions of the station ... the less you can make yourself seen, the better. The game seems to learn your tricks, though. The Alien will start looking for you in places that it hadn't looked before. You will start to wince at every sound you accidentally make, and you will almost feel like you deserve it when the Alien yanks you out of your seemingly clever hiding place. "Alien: Isolation" constantly makes you rethink your survival strategy.
Amanda Ripley is an engineer, so it makes sense that the game includes a crafting system ... not that it helps you that much. While I was playing through, I always seemed to be one item short of making whatever it was that I needed - which might have just been a mean trick by the game: providing the player with an easy solution to a problem, but keeping it just out of reach. While it does provide useful items, such as noisemakers, EMP bombs, and med-kits, it does add an extra element of optional exploration to the game. I was surprised how often I hung out in the same room as the Alien, just because I was pretty sure I saw a charge-pack or a blueprint laying on a table.
"Alien: Isolation" is a stressful game to play through, which is kind of the point. The second that Amanda Ripley sets put on that decrepit space station and you hear the moans of the metal in the walls and hear the movement in the vent, you know this game isn't going to be a quiet journey full of rainbows and root beer. There is real danger in the confines of Sevastopol, and all you want is to get away. But you can't just walk away - you have a purpose, and it was never going to be easy. Your heart will race as the Alien paces right outside your locker and you will (silently) cheer when you manage to sneak through a section of the station and into the relative safety of an elevator.
Even when you feel safe, though, you always feel like you're still being hunted. "Alien: Isolation" is a fantastic addition to the Alien franchise, and even those who might not be too familiar with the series, "Isolation" does a wonderful job of capturing the horror of that original movie.
"Alien: Isolation" truly is a perfect organism.
Screenshot Credit to Chris Scruggs. Check him out on Twitter (he's hilarious), and catch him on his Twitch. (Again, he's hilarious.)