Alien: Isolation Review: I admire its purity
They say in space, no one can hear you scream. They are wrong. While playing Alien: Isolation, I assure you that everyone heard me scream -- mostly out of frustration.
Given the disappointment experienced by previous games based on the iconic Alien franchise, it’s understandable why one would approach Alien: Isolation with skepticism. Unlike previous attempts at recreating an authentic Alien experience, developer The Creative Assembly has gone in a different direction with their game, ditching the popular action-shooter approach and instead opting for a more survival-horror design -- one that more closely resembles Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien, instead of James Cameron’s more action-oriented sequel Aliens.
Set in 2137 (15 years after the events of Alien), you take on the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, Warrant Officer aboard the USCSS Nostromo which has been missing for years. When presented with the opportunity to uncover the truth behind her mother’s disappearance, Amanda heads to the decommissioned space station Sevastpol where the Nostromo flight recorder has been discovered -- along with something terrifying that lurks within the shadows of the station.
For the most part, Alien: Isolation does a good job at establishing that “Alien” feel. Those familiar with the original film know what I’m talking about: you, trapped on a ship with the “perfect organism” that’s ruthlessly hunting you down. There’s no killing the xenomorph; it's a mechanic that is both brilliant and incredibly frustrating, the latter mostly because of secondary game design choices.
First off, I admire The Creative Assembly’s bold decision to present the player with an antagonist that can not be killed. Not only does it create a tone that aligns itself to the original film, but it also establishes a sense of fear. It’s truly is a terrifying experience knowing that at any moment an Alien can pop out of the shadows and kill you instantly while all you can do is run and hide. Well, mostly hide as running will likely only draw the attention of the Alien.
There are some drawbacks to a design like this, however. For starters, a system like this requires nearly flawless AI and fair mechanics. There are times when playing Alien: Isolation when it seems like neither is present, resulting in what feels like very cheap deaths.
It all starts with a system that really doesn’t give you any indication as to whether you’re safe or not. Yes, you have the iconic motion tracker which lets you know when potential threats are nearby (and also where to go for the objective), but it doesn’t do a good job of indicating whether or not you are actually safe. There are times when playing where I swear I was hidden under a table, only to be discovered by the Alien. And then there were times where I was simply crouched in the corner of a room only to have the Alien walk right by without noticing me. I recall specific instances where the Alien, or another threat, even seemingly looked at me and nothing happened; they just kept on their way. Why in some cases can I be seen and others I was ignored? I have no idea, but it’s impossible to master the mechanics of a system when there are seemingly no clear cut rules.
Perhaps part of the reason why Alien: Isolation can’t really teach you is because there’s no predetermined path for AI. Unlike most stealth games, where enemies typically patrol in a specific pattern, the artificial intelligence of the Alien has been programmed with a complex set of behavioural systems designed to hunt the player by sight, sound, and smell. This sort of unpredictability certainly establishes tension, but it also creates a sense of uncertainty for the player that can result in some feelings of unfair, frustrating deaths. The game never really does a good job of teaching you what you did wrong and why you were discovered. Yes, there are brief patterns you may recognize in the Alien’s movement, but you’ll never truly be able to predict its movement.
Adding to the frustration of death is an archaic save system. Whereas most games these days feature an automatic save feature, Alien: Isolation uses a manual checkpoint system in which you must continuously be on the lookout for Emergency Registration Points where you can save your progress. Saving your game requires you to find these specific points which can sometimes seem far and few between. Should you die without saving your progress, you’ll be brought all the way back to whenever you last saved your game. In some cases, that can be 15-20 minutes worth of progress, sometimes more. I understand the notion of not wanting to dilute the horror experience with autosaves, but having to replay an entire segment of the game because of a death -- and we’ve already established how easy it is to die -- removes any sense of horror anyway. It becomes less intense and more annoying as you’re forced to repeat the same actions you just did. And, of course, once you’ve done it once it’s not nearly as scary the second time around --- just frustrating.
For as unfair as the survival system may seem at times, there are a decent amount of weapons and items at your disposal. Unfortunately, none of them will kill the Alien -- only deter it for the moment. I found the flamethrower to be my favorite of the bunch; the game gets much easier once you have this. Items can, however, prove to be very effective against other enemies aboard the Sevastapol. Just be warned, that one of the primary senses used by the Alien is sound, so firing a gun is inadvisable.
Even though I found much of the gameplay of Alien: Isolation to be repetitive -- go to specific point, find a keycard, access locked area, go to next point -- I do admire the way in which The Creative Assembly approached the game from a design perspective. Aesthetically, the game looks beautiful, but struggles mightily during the cinematic moments. On the Xbox One, the animations chugged, often struggling to hit 30 frames per second. (Note: We only received an Xbox One of the game, so all comments relating to graphics apply only to this version of the game. It’s possible the game could perform better on other platforms).
Alien: Isolation truly captures the tone established by the film, from the sounds you’ll hear to the retro-future aesthetic. Even though the game is set in the future, The Creative Assembly has stayed true to the primary design rule that there should be nothing in-game that couldn’t have been built on the set of the original 1979 movie. The result is a lo-fi vision of the future authentic to what you’ve seen on the big screen. From the blocky crafting user interface to the bulky CRT computer monitors and clunky analogue devices you’ll use, Alien: Isolation looks like you’re inside the set of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Adding to the immersive environment are the eerie sounds of the Alien as it crawls in the rafters, the pulsing of the beeping motion tracker, and the fluttering lights of the decommissioned space station.
I know it sounds like I must’ve hated Alien: Isolation. It was a very frustrating experience for me. It was a game in which I had to take many breaks just to avoid throwing my controller into the screen. Granted some of the deaths were a result of my own stupidity wanting to rush through parts of the game that I’d already played and had to replay after a death without saving. That’s probably the biggest problem I have with the game -- the frustration caused by the save system. I did enjoy my time with Alien: Isolation, though, despite my struggles and a survival that seemed downright unfair at times.
Alien: Isolation isn’t created with the same purity as the xenomorph in which you’ll be hiding from; it’s not perfect by any means. But it’s finally a game that does the iconic franchise justice. It’s the best Alien game I’ve played to date which, again, isn’t saying much given the competition. If anything, it remains faithful to Ridley Scott’s creative vision, which I think that is all fans of the franchise really want from an Alien game.