You’re out of ammo, medkits, and molotovs. You cower in a locker, watching your motion tracker as a nightmare creature from the far reaches of space prowls around, its entire purpose for living to hunt you down and murder you. You look on with fear and trepidation while it creeps closer, its ghastly features glistening in the dim light as it looms over your hiding place. Should you falter in holding your breath, you’re dead.
Terrifying moments like this abound in Alien: Isolation, a survival horror game developed by The Creative Assembly, and published by Sega. In it, you play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the titular protagonist of the Alien film series. She is made aware that the flight recorder of the Nostromo (the ship her mother went missing aboard) was recovered, and is now on the space station, Sevastopol. Naturally, being curious about the nature of Ellen’s disappearance, she decides to find it, in order to hear the message contained within. The narrative takes place 15 years after the events of Alien, and 42 years before Aliens. I have to say, it’s a bit refreshing to play a movie-licensed game that is actually canon, and not just an inferior retelling of the events of the movies themselves.
It’s also great to experience a game that is so very faithful to its source material. 20th Century Fox provided Creative Assembly with 3 terabytes of information relating to the original Alien film, in an attempt to have them craft a truly authentic experience, and Creative Assembly really outdid themselves. Alien: Isolation is a truly unadulterated love letter to fans of the films, recreating the feel and atmosphere of the Alien franchise, with astonishing attention to detail.
The sound design is undeniably superb, creating a harsh and oppressive atmosphere almost effortlessly. In fact, many of the scares in A:I are triggered by sound cues alone. The Xenomorph itself has its own soundscape, from screams while attacking to decidedly less terrifying vocalizations when it is occupied with other activities, such as knitting, or hopscotch through the air vents. Coupled with minimal amounts of music, this amounts to a very distinctly Alien mood, making you feel anxious and afraid at every step.
The visuals in Alien: Isolation are an additional treat. Every bit of environment is lovingly rendered, from the interior of the various parts of the ship, to the myriad space segments. The Xenomorph looks absolutely terrifying, and I loved that the various computers you would use in your adventures had that ’80s-futuristic look to them. (Why does Prometheus have more modern-looking computers, despite taking place before Alien?)
The gameplay is quite good as well. Mostly centered around stealth and avoidance of danger, rather than blazing guns and bald space marines, the game does not skimp on tense, edge-of-your-seat moments. The developers really succeeded in capturing the feeling of being hunted by a very capable predator, and the AI of the Xenomorph was quite good. It seemed to learn from its encounters with me, seemingly becoming less frightened by my flamethrower and Molotovs as time went on. I can’t say I’ve experienced competent AI in many recent AAA games, so it came across as a real treat.
Enough singing of Alien: Isolation’s praises, however. Let’s sink our teeth into the negative aspects of the game. Unfortunately, it is plagued by a host of bugs. Some are minor, such as floating weapons or bizarre clipping issues. Others are game-breaking, such as the inability to draw your weapons or use the scroll wheel at all, or the game not allowing you to enter a vent to escape the Xenomorph, as the button prompt refuses to appear. I’ve heard there are fewer bugs on the PC version, and would like to clarify that I was playing on the PS4. Still, the amount of glitches present is quite staggering.
One of my main gripes with A:I is the save system. The way you save your progress is via emergency phone stations, by slotting your keycard into them and waiting a few moments. This is all well and good, but I find that too much of the game is spent seeking out save points, and they become an integral part of the experience, especially toward the later sections of the game. Saving becomes a genuine source of frustration, as the stations aren’t exactly plentiful, and do not exist in safe rooms. This means that the Xenomorph can still get you while you’re saving, which may not sound like the worst thing ever in a horror game. However, when you’ve spent thirty-or-so minutes making progress, only to be killed just as you’re about to save, the system goes from being nifty, to a cause of controller-destroying rage.
The complaints continue, unfortunately. Alien: Isolation suffers from the unique dilemma of simply being too damned long. The pacing is fine for the first several acts of the narrative, but as the game appears to be drawing to a close, it adds some random plot twist that causes completion to require a few more hours of play. This happens about three or four times, and it became quite frustrating. Additionally, most of what Amanda does involves rewiring junction boxes or restoring juice to unpowered sections of the ship. This is fine for a while, but begins to grate on you terribly around the tenth or so hour of gameplay when you realize that’s all you’re doing, the whole game. Literally all you do, in 15-20 hours, is fiddle around with machinery and open doors. It’s horribly repetitive and, even with a bloodthirsty alien chasing you, it becomes tremendously dull.
The plot is quite weak, as well, consisting of a bunch of unexciting characters giving you menial tasks to do, for vague reasons. At times, it feels like you’re playing an MMO, doing countless fetch quests for characters that make wood seem compelling. The voice acting is just poor. Some performances are quite a treat, such as Sigourney Weaver reprising her role as Ellen Ripley for a short bit of dialogue, or William Hope (the voice of Lieutenant Gorman from Aliens) voicing a colonial marshal named Waits but, apart from them, the dialogue is quite dull and uninteresting, much to my dismay.
Alien: Isolation is a frightening, atmospheric experience, and a perfect example of how to properly adapt an Alien game. However, it is not without its pitfalls. Abysmal pacing, a thin plot, bugs aplenty, and a frustrating save system are just a few of the many snags in an otherwise faithful representation of the franchise as a whole. Even with those drawbacks, I’d recommend A:I wholeheartedly to fans of horror, or devotees of the series. If you’re not either of those things, however, you may find more aggravation than fun in the 15-20 hours of gameplay the game has to offer.