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Alien: Isolation Review—Authentic But Not Perfect

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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.

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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.

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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.

Alien: Isolation was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Sega. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
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17 comments
  1. Cy
    Cy
    December 9, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    Yep, you have the exact same problem with the game I had. It’s way too damn long for what it expects you to do, not to mention all the tedious things you have to do over and over again because there’s only one save point anywhere near your three objectives. And dear god all those cocktease “nope not over yet!” points drove me insane. Especially considering the fifteen second “ending” you get as a reward for finishing it.

    Two things that didn’t affect me, though, were the glitches (I was playing on Xbox One and I didn’t notice any glitches, and I’ve been watching my boyfriend play through it and I haven’t seen any on his playthrough either) and I didn’t think the plot was bad. It’s the same amount of plot Alien had, just with less pre-xenomorph time to establish characters.

  2. BeholdMyPower
    BeholdMyPower
    December 10, 2014 at 1:55 am

    Ha, I very much enjoyed all the negatives pointed out in this review. My playthrough was bug-free too, so it’s a shame yours wasn’t. I often see similar complaints about the save system and I have to strongly disagree with them. If Alien Isolation handed out checkpoints with the frequency that most games do nowadays, there would be no tension/atmosphere. You would have little reason to fear the Xeno. Personally, I loved the save mechanic and thought that all things considered it was fairly generous.

  3. Cody Long
    Cody Long
    December 10, 2014 at 2:35 am

    My problem was that it was less being afraid of the Xeno, and more just not wanting to lose a bunch of progress. It got to the point where I wasn’t afraid of death itself, but was instead worried about getting killed because I hadn’t saved in awhile.

    The game ended up revolving around these save stations, and I think that broke the immersion a bit in itself. I should be worried entirely about surviving and escaping the alien, rather than worried about the last time I saved.

    You are entirely welcome to your opinion, however, and I respect it. A review is essentially one’s opinion anyway, so it’s good that you have differing views, as I would hate to have everyone in the world agree with me. That would be terribly boring. However, saving was a mechanic that frustrated me greatly, and I don’t think that opinion of mine will change.

  4. Random45
    Random45
    December 10, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    I completely disagree with you on the save system. If you’re going 30~ minutes without saving, then you undoubtedly missed a save station, probably more than one actually, because they’re all over the damn place. Occasionally they’re a little out of the way, but they’re almost always around right before a really difficult section or an intense set piece.

    Though I definitely agree with the glitches, oh BOY was this game glitchy! On my first game, I couldn’t even get pass the beginning, because for some bizarre reason there was a locked door where there wasn’t supposed to be, so I had to restart the game. Fortuantely I lost only like 10 minutes of progress there. I also had a LOT of guns just randomly floating around, and I also had issues when the button prompts wouldn’t show up occasionally. Never enough to get frustrating, but just enough to be annoying.

    Also, the plot and characters were all weak and boring. The ending in particular is a horrible piece of crap that is clearly baiting a sequel. For a game I was enjoying so much to end on a note like THAT was just so damn annoying. And YES, holy crap does this game drag at the end. There are like four times when you THINK you’re about to beat it, only to be thrown back in. The first time it happens I was cool with it, because I wanted more, but when it started happening over and over, I just – again – started to get annoyed.

    My biggest piece of advice for someone playing this is to not stop playing until you get the flamethrower. The first few hours you’re absolutely defenseless, and while that was cool, it gets kinda boring once you start to figure out the mechanics. With the flamethrower, the game becomes more of an action/thriller, and it’s SIGNIFICANTLY improved because of it. Being able to confront the alien instead of it being a stupid one hit kill was really damn awesome.

  5. Cody Long
    Cody Long
    December 10, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    I think my main gripe was that it was a little bit of an immersion-breaker. Like, why is Ripley using these random phone stations? Is there a particular reason for it that makes sense in the context of the story? Maybe I missed something, but I don’t think so.

    The glitches were pretty horrendeous, yeah. I mean, I heard the PC version was a bit more stable, but the floating weapon glitch was pretty common in my playthrough.

    Yeah, dat ending. Not gonna post any spoilers for people who are interested in buying it, but it’s, uh. It’s something! All those false endings were indeed annoying.

  6. AnarKreig
    AnarKreig
    December 10, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    The save system was the best thing about the game, if you ask me. It made you fear getting caught and failure, not just because you get to see the same animation you’ve seen before, because let’s be frank; It’s already stale by the second time. But there’s a mechanical reason not to, and that’s the impediment of the players progress.

    The worst part was definitely the alien and to some extent the humans you meet; The AI is poor and rarely worked, if at all. I wish I had the files, but there should be some videos circulating the internet, demonstrating just how awful it is.

  7. Anton A. Hill
    Anton A. Hill
    December 10, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    You guys are much more forgiving than other sites. I’ve been back and forth on checking this one out. Maybe I will.

  8. Cody Long
    Cody Long
    December 11, 2014 at 4:55 am

    Yeah, it’s not terrible, just flawed in a few pretty crummy ways, in my opinion. If you’re an Alien fan, I still think it’s a must play at some point. Just maybe wait until it’s on sale.

  9. Cody Long
    Cody Long
    December 11, 2014 at 5:20 am

    I disagree, I think that the fear of losing progress is not an effective game mechanic. Like, games exist for fun. Being scared falls under that category for a lot of people, which is cool. But a mechanic that inherently causes frustration and annoyance isn’t fun for me, even if it’s in the context of a horror game.

    Personally though, I found the Alien sufficiently spooky for the first 5 or 6 hours of the game. After that, a lot of my interactions with it became routine. Oh no, Alien? Spook him with the flamethrower. Calmly finish Sudoku puzzle.

    I think the AI for the Alien itself was okay, despite a few wonky segments. The human and robot AI was atrocious though. I watched humans run right into the Alien and get killed more times than I can count.

  10. Anton A. Hill
    Anton A. Hill
    December 12, 2014 at 1:51 am

    I’m an up-until-Prometheus Alien fan, so I think I’d really enjoy the atmosphere. I agree, wait for sale.

  11. Cody Long
    Cody Long
    December 12, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Man. Prometheus had so much potential. So upset how it turned out.

    I mean, the deleted scenes explain a lot, and clear up some plot holes. But they don’t fix the movie.

  12. Emma Reade
    Emma Reade
    December 18, 2014 at 2:04 am

    I quite enjoyed this game, its a fair review but I would have graded it higher.

  13. NorBdelta
    NorBdelta
    January 13, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    I found that the checkpoint system blended rather well with the game. It forced you to be afraid, to be careful, be aware of your actions. Especially in the beginning where you are dead when the alien sees/finds you.nnIt adds a true survival blanket over the game. Admittedly in some sections the save points where were far apart, but, even then it added to the tension and terror.nnA quick save feature would have removed a good portion of the terror aspect, made a mistake? Quick reload to 10 seconds ago. It would have ruined the fluidity.

  14. Serocco
    Serocco
    January 17, 2015 at 7:42 am

    I think the save system works in that it forces you to realize just how spoiled we are as gamers with auto save. nnYou wouldn’t have found old school gamers complaining about how Donkey King didn’t save their progress.

  15. Serocco
    Serocco
    January 17, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Did you play it on hard? The Alien is incredibly unpredictable, free-roaming, learns your playstyle, spots you quicker, hears you faster, and is the recommended playthrough. That is FAR from poor.

  16. Serocco
    Serocco
    January 17, 2015 at 7:48 am

    The AI for the Alien is at its best on Hard. It’s almost like you’re playing against a person because of how smart it is at finding, countering, and adapting to you.nnOn Normal, it started to learn that I was hiding in the lockers. Every time he appeared in a room, he would check the locker, and he would stay there longer while I held my breath. I had to change my style from hiding to going constantly around, so he’d have to search for me actively. Eventually, with him not noticing you enter it at all, especially on Hard, he’ll just know you’re in the locker and rip open the door without warning. I grew scared of lockers because I knew, eventually, he’d find out.nnIt is also the mode that frustrates players the most. That flamethrower you mentioned? Very limited, so it forces you to use it only as a last resort. Hit it too far and he’ll kill you. Hit it too near and he’ll knock you down. Otherwise, when you’re at the Hive, you’re done.

  17. Axel Villar
    Axel Villar
    February 10, 2015 at 10:34 am

    Frustrating save mechanic. Kill yourself casual scum.