Warning: this review contains spoilers for a movie that was released 35 years ago. Although if you haven’t seen Alien, then you’re a monster and should rectify that immediately anyway. No sympathy.
There’s a very easy way of describing what Alien: Isolation is like to play. You know the last section of Alien, where Ripley is all alone on the Nostromo, and she’s trying to escape the self-destruct, and she’s terrified and peering carefully around every corner, and the atmosphere is so thick you’d need a chainsaw to cut it? That’s Alien: Isolation. For about 17 fucking hours.
If that sounds horrible and stressful… well, okay; that’s exactly what it is. But Alien: Isolation is thankfully rather well-paced, so it’s not just stress and dread for the best part of a full day.
Alien: Isolation puts players in the boots of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Alien protagonist Ellen Ripley, and she’s wondering where the hell her mother has got to. When a Weyland-Yutani chap approaches her with news that the flight recorder from her mother’s ship has been found, she jumps at the opportunity to find out exactly why her dear old mum disappeared and where she got to. Which – because this isn’t a light documentary series on ITV about finding lost relatives – catapults her right into the maws of the very horror that put Ellen on the sides of milk cartons all those years ago.
See, the flight recorder hasn’t been taken to some shiny, fully-staffed space base, where it can be easily picked up with no hassles! It’s been delivered to Sevastopol, a space station in the process of being decommissioned which is being run by a skeleton crew.
Oh, and something appears to have gone very wrong there: the occupants have banded together into hostile and territorial groups, the Working Joe androids tasked with the day-to-day operations have turned a bit homicidal, and there are rumours of a nightmarish inhuman monster stalking the shadows and making people “disappear.”
Spoiler: yes, it’s an Alien.
This is very much a game based around Alien rather than Aliens, too. Alien: Isolation isn’t about running around shooting everything with smartguns and pulse rifles; even the flamethrower you eventually get is more of a jury-rigged defense tool than a military-spec weapon. You are alone, and afraid, and vastly underarmed, and you are being hunted.
This works beautifully thanks to an utterly sumptuous atmosphere. Everything has been designed to look just like the films, which means you’re dealing with futuristic tech that looks like it’d be outclassed by a BBC Micro. In-game viewscreens are flickery, four-colour affairs, and camera views displayed on computers appear to be at a resolution of about 160×160. Corridors are white and sterile, and everything is designed around function rather than aesthetics.
Nonetheless, it’s staggeringly beautiful at points. Lighting is used incredibly effectively, with most areas being dark enough that you can’t see clearly, but still bright enough that you can see a flickering shadow in the distance that might be a threat… or might simply be the result of electricity arcing from a loose cable and casting a shadow across a room. Flames are a thing of beauty, and some of the visual setpieces – particularly a segment in the Sevastopol’s reactor core around the final third of the game – are an ocular feast.
The thing that is used most effectively, though, is sound. Despite your access to a hefty maintenance jack, a stun baton, a handful of firearms, and Ripley’s MacGyver-like ability to craft IEDs ranging from molotov cocktails to EMP mines out of the shit she finds lying around, Alien: Isolation is fundamentally a stealth game.
Throughout the majority of the game, you’re being stalked by the Alien, and your first warning that it’s nearby is usually the sound. You can hear the thumps and rattles as it stalks down a corridor or slithers through the air ducts. You can hear a telltale noise as it triggers an automatic door by strolling past, or the sound it makes when it descends from a vent to hunt. Most horror games become a lot less scary when you turn the sound down; this becomes a lot harder.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t just work in your favour. Sure, you can calm that angry survivor with a shotgun blast, or force a synthetic into permanent shutdown with a few revolver shots to the head, but the noise will more than likely attract something far, far more dangerous. Basically: if you get into a noisy firefight or set off a flashbang, the Alien is going to come scampering.
Sometimes this works to your advantage. At one point I inadvertently stumbled into a group of survivors, and as they opened fire I ran around a corner and hid in a cupboard (because this is a stealth horror game in 2014, and so it involves more hiding in closets than season 9 of South Park). They wondered where I’d gone. Then there was the telltale tapping of the Alien’s feet, and some screams, and then silence. I stayed in the cupboard for a good 60 seconds longer than I probably needed to, listening to the Alien pacing around, and when I finally gathered the courage to look out that group of survivors were a matching set of eviscerated corpses.
Which I suppose brings me back to the pacing, because Alien: Isolation really is a long game, and a really long game in which you are moving from hiding place to hiding place and occasionally being eviscerated by a big monster would get quite old quite quickly. But Creative Assembly were clearly aware of this, because it continually switches things up.
There are sections focused on dealing with survivors, or synthetics, or the Alien itself. There are moments of relative calm which punctuate the endless dread. One section forces you into some genuinely unpleasant stealth, but then follows it up by giving you a shiny new weapon and a bunch of things to kill, letting you turn the tables with no small amount of satisfaction. Just as you start to get used to the Alien, you get a flamethrower which lets you fend it off a little better, and the rules change once again. It’s a long game, but expert pacing makes most of it feel fresh.
Despite this… well, it’s nonetheless over-long. I mean, for starters, Alien: Isolation has more moments of closure than The Return of the King. Around mission 12, you’ll think “The game could end here and it would be satisfying.” And then you’ll think the same again around mission 15. And then again a bit later. It gives you all these moments when the game could roll credits without feeling disappointing, and then it yanks that away from you. Which I suspect is actually intentional, because – again – pacing. Right as you think you’ve got everything sorted and victory is in reach, it turns out that things have just gotten worse.
This is Alien: Isolation‘s one big problem, too. It definitely outstays its welcome, but how much that’ll bother you is likely to come down to how much you’re playing in one sitting. If you’re trying to race through the game in a day or two, then yes, it will almost certainly feel a bit tedious. If you’re spacing it out in hour-long play sessions over the course of a couple of weeks, though, then it largely remains fresh and tense.
While I’m complaining, I’d also like to say that I wish it was a bit less homage-y to Alien. If you have seen that film – which, if you possess any taste, you obviously have – then you will recognise 90% of the plot twists and setpieces before they even happen.
The one place where I have real difficulty is in saying whether or not it’s scary. For about three-quarters of the game, I’d say “not exactly”, but then I can’t say I’m really scared of the xenomorph, because it’s such a familiar monster. Tense, though? Yes, absolutely, and at (unscripted) times it certainly made me jump, or sent adrenaline coursing through my body. It expertly forces you to do things you really don’t want to do, and most of the design is focused around this; things as simple as saving the game or opening a door are time-consuming events that often require multiple button presses, and which leave you entirely vulnerable.
Just because you’re reading logs on a computer doesn’t mean the Alien has stopped looking for you. Just because you’re trying to wedge open a door with your maintenance jack doesn’t mean that the hostile synthetics won’t attack you. Everything – even saving the game – has to be done at the appropriate time, or you risk a rather sudden and brutal death. It’s fair to say that this can get a bit frustrating, but it emphasises caution and – once again – means that nothing is really safe. If you’re not being careful, you’re dead.
I can’t argue that Alien: Isolation wouldn’t have been improved by being a bit shorter, and there are one or two sections of the game which could’ve been completely excised without compromising the quality – but it’s an expertly designed, expertly paced stealth-horror game that relies more on tension and creeping dread than on jump scares, and pays loving homage to the film that started the series.