Remember Aliens: Colonial Marines? Yeah, we wish we didn’t either.
Gearbox’s title was one of hope; it promised to be everything that made the first couple Alien movies so amazing, and from everything we saw at preview events, looked to live up to that promise. With hindsight, it obviously didn’t.
Flash-forward a year, and critics were far more cautious when it came to The Creative Assembly’s foray into the popular science-fiction franchise. Alien: Isolation was a different take on the universe; one more attuned to the fear and hopelessness of the first Alien film as opposed to the balls-to-the-wall action of Aliens. Throughout the game’s marketing campaign, we were told that careful attention was put into the sights and sounds of the horror game… but then again, we were told all that with Colonial Marines.
Long story short, you needn’t worry. Alien: Isolation is equal parts terrifying and amazing. Unlike its predecessor, Isolation is everything you hoped it would be.
Set 15 years after the events of Alien and around 45 before Aliens, you play as Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda. An engineer for the (sliiiiiightly evil) Weyland-Yutani Corporation, Amanda has pretty much given up all hope on ever finding her mother again. A tiny bit of hope re-imerges when Amanda is told her mother’s ship, the Nostromo, has been found and is being held at a space station called Sevastopol. Of course, arriving at the station, Ripley – that’ll be referring to Amanda from this point onward – finds that nothing is quite as it seems.
That means there’s an Alien about.
Well, sort of. Think of Alien: Isolation as an extended Alien film. With around a 20 hour playthrough time, you won’t really see the titular Alien until about two hours in. You’d think that much time in what equates to a tutorial, of sorts, would prepare you for what’s ahead. It does not.
The Alien is terrifying. Its artificial intelligence will constantly have you guessing. You will die in this game – a lot, even on Easy difficulty – and each time you re-load a sequence, the Alien will use a different tactic against you. As such, every little trick you’ve picked up from playing other games — hell, even prior missions in Isolation itself — needs to be disregarded. Ignored. Abandoned. You need to think outside the box or you’ll die, plain as that. What works at some points – hiding in a locker or under a bed – won’t help you every single time. Alien: Isolation is a true survival simulator.
The Alien itself is like Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis; no matter what you do, you won’t be able to kill it. Instead, you should run from it… except, you shouldn’t. Running means you’ll be tracked down and killed. Using your flashlight (sorry, still can’t call it a torch, Aussies) means you’ll be tracked down and killed. Using weapons is equally as futile as it is stupid. You need to stay down, stay quiet, and live and die – quite literally – by your motion tracker. That said, using the motion tracker is as terrifying as it is helpful, as you lose focus of everything else around you as you stare at a beeping, green CRT screen.
Manual save points – there are no checkpoints in this game, people, in a glorious return to old-school gaming – are equally as nerve-wracking. Saving your progress requires getting to a specific point and plugging in a keycard. Then, you’ve got to wait it out, left to the mercy of your surroundings. It’s a great little rush to get through a save point successfully and, more importantly, unscathed; how many other games can you say that about?
The Alien isn’t the only enemy you need to concern yourself with. As the space station is in disarray, emotions are high. Humans on the station do little else now but fighting each other and the Alien menace; when you come across someone else, you may find they’re friendly. Then again, they might not be… and you’ll only know that when they put a bullet through your brain without a moment’s hesitation. You can fight other humans, sure, but that will draw the Alien near; it also doesn’t seem like something the engineer would really do.
On top of that, Synthetics, also known as “Working Joes”, seem to have deviated from their original programming. They’re creepy, decidedly human-looking-but-not mini-Terminators; bullet sponges that take far too much abuse, meaning the Alien will certainly be able to track you down amidst the ruckus. With every enemy, it’s far more effective to be as stealthy as possible. With Amanda’s engineering background, she can make flash-bangs, EMPs, noise-makers and even re-route power to different parts of the station as distractions. Get good with those distractions and you’ll go far.
Once you’ve scraped by in the game’s main campaign, Survival Mode lets The Creative Assembly show off just how tight the game’s mechanics are, presenting you with short moments that you need to adapt to, survive and overcome. DLC packs also take you through the lore of Alien itself, but we were unable to play through the two pieces of DLC before this review.
The game’s not without its flaws — human AI is clumsy at times, and character models apart from Amanda and the Alien are pretty plasticy and basic — but Alien: Isolation‘s strengths far more than make up for them. This is without a doubt an Alien game that finally lives up to the franchise’s promise, and one that every gamer should play. That said, it’s not for the faint of heart; it’s not full of jump scares, but high-tension and stressful moments will require a certain type of player.
Alien: Isolation was reviewed using a promotional copy of the game on Xbox 360, as provided by the publisher.