15 years after the disappearance of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda learns about the discovery of the spaceship’s flight recorder on the remote space station Sevastopol, but the group accompanying her soon finds the station devastated, full of frightened human beings, frightening androids, and an even more frightening alien life form that are out to kill them.
Back to original cinema terror
The plot and characters share the original Alien DNA, and unlike Ridley Scott’s Prometheus or Alien: Covenant, there isn’t any underlying philosophical or religious theme that would distract the player from exploring and surviving the decrepit space station. While the characters are forgettable and even Amanda Ripley isn’t very memorable, either, one still feels for these people because of all the dangers and catastrophes they’re put through, especially in Ripley’s case. It’s only too bad that most of the background story of what happened on Sevastopol is told through emails, reports, and audio recordings, with too much downtime before some actual plot development takes place. However, fans of the franchise will be happy to revisit the planet LV-426 where it all started, complete with a storm raging around the huge alien spaceship the crew of the Nostromo first discovered and the interior of it looking exactly as one remembered it. Even if this might seem like pure fan service, the flashback ties both Ridley Scott’s movie and Creative Assembly’s game together quite nicely, evoking the same feeling of wonder, mystery, and dread the original sci-fi horror was so apt to create.
Back to true survival horror
Speaking of dread, this is a truly terrifying survival horror experience that leaves the player close to heart attacks in tense stealth segments and the adrenaline rushing in memorable set-pieces. The most impressive ones can be found outside the space station, as walking around in a spacesuit that only provides a limited view due to the big helmet and slow movement because of gravity captures the sense of being in space perfectly. It would be unfair to give away too much of these segments, but suffice it to say that the Sevastopol offers enough ways to put Ripley and the player through an emotional roller-coaster ride with everything that can go wrong going wrong. Even before the alien shows up (which is a heart-stopping moment, to say the least), one has to worry about human and android opponents, the former trying to survive and shooting everything on sight and the latter choking everyone in their path with a deadly determination that is reminiscent of Terminator. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the station and the reliance on these three enemy types result in a drawn-out playtime and lack of variety.
Back to backtracking and crafting
The game is simply too long. Even if it might sound ridiculous in a time when many FPS or survival horror games are criticized for their short playtime of 10 hours or less, 15-20 hours is just too much for what little the story and gameplay have to offer. Avoiding the identical-looking human or android beings while crawling through airlocks is tense for the first time, but 10 or 20 times later, there is only so much one can take. There are a few puzzle segments, but these are more annoying than engaging, e.g. with an almost rhythm-action-calibration mini-game. A much better if very frustrating example is when one has to disconnect power station cables in a room that is ready to explode, closely following the instructions of a team member, which is just as exhilarating as hitting the switch to close an escape door just before the alien reaches for Ripley. If only more of these sequences would have made it into the game…
Another problem is that it’s easy to overlook certain items, e.g. level maps that are pretty essential to have an overview of where mission-critical points of interest or formerly closed doors are. Collecting blueprints for crafting better weapons, medi-kits or defensive tools is all well and good, but these can just as easily be missed. So it’s a good thing that the game usually offers alternative routes and strategies to overcome most situations. Fighting is an option, but as one rarely has enough ammunition and firefights always attract the attention of the alien, it’s best to create distractions or look for ventilation systems to go around enemies. Of course the alien also uses these ways, so it’s a thrilling risk-and-reward system.
Saving one’s life once
In theory, it’s a great idea to slowly find more tools (like a welding torch and a hacking tool) to open doors and therefore gain access to previously closed locations, but there simply isn’t enough variety in the mission goals that usually involve getting from one place to another. It might seem strange to say that the alien itself can become more annoying than frightening later on, but it’s true, as exploring areas always means walking very slowly, stopping, and going back because the deadly organism suddenly decides to have a look around. While it’s obviously the whole point of the game to be on constant alert, the gameplay can become very frustrating, especially since there is only one savegame.
Being able to save at phone stations that are often far apart already adds to tension, but doing this close to an enemy (often the alien) can often mean loading a savegame and immediately being attacked. This leaves the player in a potential dead end loop, as one hit from the alien usually means game over. Granted, there is a warning when an enemy is nearby, but as the alien moves pretty fast and some appearances are triggered without previous knowledge, a backup savegame would have been nice.
Cinema looks and sounds
The presentation of the game is simply amazing, with the whole art design of the station, androids, and especially the alien staying very true to the sci-fi horror movie franchise in all its often disgusting and violent glory, which can also be seen in the 70ies-style computers and other gadgets lying around, creating a sense of place that only the best of immersive games achieve. Granted, the facial animations of the characters could be better, but the alien is detailed and looks terrifyingly real, which is also true for the androids. Even more impressive are the lighting and smoke effects that add to the horror of only seeing shadows and shapes moving about. Flickering lights and explosions have rarely looked this good. The cinematic cut-scenes are also very well done in terms of editing and pacing, showcasing the high production values that could easily be used for a new Alien movie.
Something that is even more important for creating that sense of dread isn’t only the original Jerry Goldsmith music, but the whole sound design. Voice acting is generally good and it’s nice to have most of the old Alien cast reprise their roles for audio recordings, but it’s nothing compared to the sound of the alien moving through air ducts or the increased speed of the motion sensor beeping to make the player aware that something is moving towards him. The suppression of sound in space because of the helmet one wears also shows the high attention to detail.
A true Alien experience
Alien: Isolation is the best Alien movie in gaming form one can imagine, as it stays true to Ridley Scott’s original vision of playing with the audience’s fear of the unknown and the claustrophobia experienced in deep space. Encountering the titular antagonist for the first time is an unforgettable experience and the finale is as explosive as one expects it to be, even surpassing the movie the game is based on in terms of spectacle and heart-stopping tension.
However, the gameplay can become very repetitive after a while, with stand-out set-pieces being kept apart for too long. Frustration due to only one savegame is as common as meeting the same enemies and going through often identical-looking areas. There are probably few titles in the modern gaming industry that have played with the savegame function in this way, and either one applauds the developer for being so brave to punish the player for recklessly running around without a care in the world or one simply gives up. One should persevere, though, as the claustrophobic atmosphere and cat-and-mouse game between the alien and Ripley have rarely been done this effectively with a perfect symbiosis of graphics and sound.
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