Once in a while a game comes along that just clicks with everything you love about video games. You know that game, it’s a game that defines or redefines what games can be. It’s your favorite, or at least among them. It’s on a pedestal, a sacred cow you will go to bat for whenever someone disparages it. This game is special to you, this game represents everything you want other games to be, and more. It’s a reminder of why you started playing games in the first place, a gateway into the childlike optimism of Play. For me, Alien: Isolation is one of those games.
Alien: Isolation starts off with the player taking the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of series heroine Ellen Ripley. Set fifteen years after the original 1979 classic, Amanda has never stopped searching for her mother, who was on the Nostromo when it went missing. One day she is approached by a Weyland-Yutani representative told that the crew of the Sevastopol space station has found the Nostromo’s flight recorder. Amanda wastes no time in traveling to the Sevastopol to potentially hear the final moments of her mother’s life. Unfortunately for her, the Sevastopol has been set upon by the same life form that caused the terrible events of the Nostromo.
"Amanda wastes no time in traveling to the Sevastopol to potentially hear the final moments of her mother’s life. "
First and foremost, Isolation is a stealth game. There are segments where you may need to use your pistol to combat android and human enemies, but most of the time it will benefit you more to just sneak around them. Human enemies are easily dispatched using your various weapons and crafted items, but the androids are much more resilient. And the Xenomorph? Well, the Xenomorph is invincible. The only recourse you have with it is fire, so when you eventually get the flamethrower or molotovs, you can use them to scare it off momentarily (and I mean momentarily). However, if you use them too much, the creature will only be stunned for a few seconds before pouncing on you.
There aren’t many encounters in the game that pit you against human/android enemies, most of the time you will be making your way through the station avoiding the Xenomorph. Thankfully this is the case, because I felt like the parts where you are pitted against the other enemies, especially the androids, were among the weakest in the game. Human encounters are mostly fine, they are usually circumvented easily, and in some cases you can lure the Xenomorph to kill them with a well placed distraction. This isn’t the case with the androids though, as the Xenomorph will not attack them. Add to that the fact that they will swarm your position when alerted and take entirely too much damage to kill, and you have yourself a recipe for frustration. The saving grace here is that these encounters are few and far between.
I’m kind of a chicken when it comes to horror games. I deplore when a game uses a large amount of cheap jump scares to startle the player. It’s lazy and there’s no craftsmanship to it. I’ve been turned off on a lot of horror games due to this. And while this trope is in Isolation, the game knows it has to earn those moments, and it never puts you into that situation deliberately. What I mean by this is that whenever the game has a jump scare, it is something dynamic, and could often have been avoided by careful observations of one’s surroundings. For instance, you could round a corner and find the Xenomorph right there staring at you. It isn’t because the Xenomorph suddenly appeared there, it is because you weren’t using your motion tracker and peeking around corners.
"Whenever the game has a jump scare, it is something dynamic, and could often have been avoided by careful observations of one’s surroundings."
Isolation is a game where you need to be careful of your surroundings. Being careless will always lead to a quick impaling by the Xenomorph. To aid in your endeavor you are given a motion tracker, and the ability to craft items. Among these items are noisemakers, emp grenades, medpacks, and molotov cocktails. You’ll need to collect blueprints for each item before you can craft it, and they are easily missed if you are just speeding through areas trying to get away from the alien as fast as possible. Exploring areas to find these blueprints is key, as you will find later segments much easier when you have them.
The Xenomorph is the most impressive thing about Alien: Isolation. I don’t say that lightly either, I could write an essay on it’s dynamic AI alone. The Xenomorph is a one hit kill when it finds you, forcing players to avoid detection at all cost. He’s going to follow you throughout the game, and when you don’t see him you will always feel his presence. You’ll wander down corridors, and through rooms trying to complete your objective, all the while picking up the odd blip on your tracker, to remind you that you’re never truly isolated. You can hide under desks, in cabinets, and in lockers, but if you aren’t holding your breath the Xenomorph will hear you and rip you from safety. The creature is dangerous, and it demands you respect that fact if you want to make it to the end.
"The Xenomorph is the most impressive thing about Alien: Isolation. "
The attention to detail in this game is staggering. It is a faithful recreation of the technology from the first film. Computers use old DOS prompts, handheld devices are big and bulky with mechanical button inputs instead of our now modern touch screens. On top of this everything uses rudimentary graphic design reminiscent of the Atari 2600. In fact, one of the small hacking minigames uses designs from the Alien Pac-Man clone for the 2600. Its not just the technology though, the designers have gone through painstaking measures to create the look and feel of the 1979 classic in the design of the ship’s interior. I recently watched the first movie again in preparation for this review and I was amazed by how accurate everything turned out to be.
I normally don’t acknowledge sound design in games. A lot of the time it is pretty negligible to my experience with them. I play a lot of games wearing headphones, but I feel like developers very rarely put a lot of effort into designing their sound around that type of immersion. It’s clear that this wasn’t the case with Alien: Isolation. Busted pipes hiss, vents creak, computer hard drives write, and the loudspeakers blare announcements. These small things go far in giving ambient sound to the environment and bring it to life. Add to this the recut score from the original film during sequences with the Xenomorph and you have some of the best sound design in recent years.
"The attention to detail in this game is staggering. It is a faithful recreation of the technology from the first film."
I’ve seen some people say that they thought the game was too long, I don’t share this opinion. I definitely understand where they are coming from, but for me it was more of an issue with pacing. There are at least two points where the game seems to ramp up to a climax, but doesn’t end. Honestly this didn’t bother me. To me, this is part of the Alien experience with the movie franchise also sharing the “False end” trope. I appreciated this game’s 18+ hour length as a fan of the movies and can’t get enough. In fact, I will probably play all of the DLC just to get more time with it.
Overall Alien: Isolation is the game Alien fans have been waiting for. In spite of the numerous broken promises in the last 35 years, Creative Assembly has successfully formatted a love letter to fans of the franchise, one that has taken far too long to get here. A golden standard has been set for all future titles in the Alien universe. Simply put, Isolation is the definitive Alien game that no fan should miss out on.
This game was reviewed on the Playstation 4.
Faithful recreation of the Alien universe, Retrofuturism is pulled off flawlessly, Dynamic Xenomorph AI is among the smartest ever designed, Tense atmosphere, Amazing sound design, Lengthy campaign
It’s sometimes unclear if human NPCs are hostile or not, Android sequences can be frustrating.