Below is our Alien Isolation review. This game was played on medium difficulty on the PC. There will be minor spoilers and significant spoilers are blanked out. To read them please move your cursor over the black text.
Alien Isolation is the first Alien game released by Creative Assembly. We first learnt of Alien Isolation in May of 2011. All we knew was that Creative Assembly, the developers best known for Total War, would be developing. Details of the game remained scarce but it was eventually found to be a third person game. The game was officially announced in January 2014 as a first person horror survival, the first such game to be released for the Alien franchise.
I think it would be fair of me to say that Alien fans have had it hard these past few years. I could list all the disappointments that have been inflicted upon us but to talk more specifically, it has been so long since we have had a good video game. The last instalment, Colonial Marines, had such promise but instead left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone who played it.
From the get-go Creative Assembly had the misfortune of fighting against the stigmata inflicted upon the franchise by Colonial Marines. Instead of being like the stream of shooter/action games that had preceded it, Creative Assembly turned 180 and ran in the complete opposite direction and instead released a survival horror game.
Due to that genre choice, Alien Isolation follows more in the footsteps of Ridley Scott’s Alien instead of the more called upon Aliens. This choice is reflected in nearly everything related to the game: The title, the general design and intelligence of the titular monster and the aesthetics to name a few.
The start of the game introduces us to Amanda Ripley, 15 years after her mother disappeared into the void of space. She is taking jobs in the area Ellen went missing, looking for any clues as to the fate of her mother. As it happens, the flight recorder of the Nostromo has been discovered and Samuels, a representative from Weyland-Yutani, is offering Amanda the chance to get some closure.
When it was first announced that the protagonist of the game would be Ripley’s daughter I was a little sceptical at the plot’s convenience but I soon found myself comfortable with the very likely possibility that Amanda would go searching for her mother.
After a very intense and explosive start to the game where an explosion interrupts a simple spacewalk the game takes it very steady, progressing very slowly through the story. This offers us a chance to explore the desolate Sevastopol station that the game takes place on. There was something disturbing about exploring this obviously lived in location, knowing that the hallways you were slowly walking through once held 100’s of people. From a pacing point of view, it also gives the player a couple of hours to become accustomed to the world the game takes place in before being thrown into the terrifying deep end.
Through the use of the various access terminals and tape recorders, we are offered a deeper insight into the history of Sevastopol and the people who lived and worked there. Whilst they also offer an opportunity for replay (to collect them all), they also serve as fantastic elements of world building, further drawing the player into the mystery that Dan Abnett, Will Porter and Dion Lay had crafted for us.
And then we’re thrown straight in. Once the Alien makes its first appearance the game ramps it up. My heart-rate shot through the roof and the adrenaline that coursed through my body compelled me forward despite the fact I was perfectly content to spend what seemed like an eternity hiding under a table. The sheer euphoria that came from avoiding the Alien or making it to the next objective was immensely satisfying.
Alien Isolation is a game best played in the dark, with the gamma levels at minimal and your headphones firmly clasped around your head. I have never played a game like this; that was so terrifying or that caused such a physical reaction that I was on an adrenaline come down when I stopped playing.
Thankfully towards the middle of the game, the pace does start to slow down – something my heart was grateful for. After hours of the cat-and-mouse games with the Alien in the dark hallways of Sevastopol, I was thankful for the respite. However, this leaves it up to the Working Joes and humans to take over the spotlight and the game does start to falter slightly here. Whilst the Working Joes are immensely creepy (those eyes!) they just don’t have the weight to carry the game.
As the story progresses familiar Alien narrative tropes start to crop up. For those of us familiar with the various stories from the Expanded Universe, it feels very much like treading familiar ground. However, thanks to the immersive and terrifying game that Creative Assembly has crafted we get to experience these familiar aspects in a completely new way that no amount of comics or novels can compete with.Once I realized the game would feature a hive, it wasn’t “not this again” it was “oh God, how am I going to deal with this?” One of the things I’ve always wanted the Expanded Universe to deal with was what it would be like to be inside an alien hive, to see what happened in the head of a character stuck in that situation, instead, Creative Assembly forced that experience upon me. I actually experienced what it was like in the depths of a hive, with no useful weapons and a motion tracker that is completely useless. I was simply stunned – at the level of the detail in the hive, at the surprise and by the fear instilled in me. How a game can convince me that I’m enjoying being trapped in a small hole in the ground, watching the legs of an Alien killing machine stalk past me in its hive, I’ll never know but somehow Creative Assembly managed it. After playing the game for hours, being hunted and tormented by the singular Alien, it was a relief when the bastard was finally jettisoned into space. So when you come across a hive full of the acid-blooded menaces, the visual and emotional power is astounding. I simply did not know how the hell I was going to be able to deal with more than one. On one of my playthroughs I came across two Aliens in the same room and just completely panicked. All I could do was shout “not two of them!” as they swiftly put an end to my tormenting.
I would also like to credit Creative Assembly on their ability to keep secrets. There were some aspects of the game that just had the fanboy in me shivering with both excitement and fear. In particular there is the Derelict flashback towards the middle of the game that I simply had not expected. It allows us the opportunity to recreate one of the most memorable scenes from the original – with some minor changes. I would have loved to have been able to explore more of the Derelict and I felt the size of the corridors should have been bigger to reflect the size of the Engineers but what I was treated to was simply wonderful. I have never been that excited to see the Derelict in a video game as I was in Alien Isolation.
Being a mostly single player experience, the campaign is significantly long (and it depends on your own play through). To facilitate the long game time the story does introduce quite a few plot points which take several different “endings” to wrap up. These false ends might jar some players but I just kept wanting to go on, I did not want the game to end and I was so disappointed when it finally did.
While the game does feature a number of characters, not many of them receive much in the way of attention or development. It is only Amanda Ripley that we really get to forge any kind of connection to and that is through the fact that we’re experiencing the same terror as she is.
In the last few hours of the game, the punishment that Ripley takes increases to such a level that by the time the credits start to roll Amanda Ripley has easily wrenched the trophy for the most abused video game character from Lara Croft’s hands; and I thought no-one could receive more punishment than she did in the 2013 Tomb Raider! As progressively horrific things happen to Ripley, all I could think was “please, no more!”.
Andrea Deck was also wonderful as Ripley’s voice. She brought a convincing sense of vulnerability to the character. I’d also like to throw a special mention to the fact that William Hope, Lt. Gorman in Aliens and Dr Groves in AvP 2010, is the voice of Marshall Waits for Isolation. So even without the franchise staple Lance Henriksen, Creative Assembly managed to sneak in another connection to the franchise and I’m slightly surprised they didn’t make a bigger deal out of this.
Although the majority of the other characters aren’t given much attention, there are some characters who have gleaming moments. Next to Ripley, Samuels is probably the most interesting character who disappointingly disappears for half of the game. Most of the other humans we spend any significant time with end up with slightly predictable deaths.
I would like to give a special mention to Marlow and how he is handled towards the end of the game. I was very pleased to see a deviation from the norm and actually featuring more honourable, yet flawed, characters instead of the a-typical Company suits just in it for the money.
I do have to wonder if the lack of attention to the other characters was to further the feeling of isolation as Ripley and by extension you.
But the real star of the show is the titular Alien. The game is named after him after all. He is lovingly modelled in the style of H.R. Giger’s Alien – with some minor adjustments. One change in particular is the design of the legs which allow for the Alien to pull off some convincingly swift movements. The animation for the Alien is absolutely stunning. The way in which it moves into the vent is mesmerizing to watch.
As has been emphasized by the team at Creative Assembly the Alien is unscripted with an AI engine that allows “independent thinking”. It uses a series of senses to locate and hunt you down. This creates cat-and-mouse style gameplay and emphasizes a more conservative style of play, sneaking around rather than rushing through the levels as this will create noise that will alert the Alien.
The unscripted nature of the Alien also means that everyone playing will have differing experiences and each play through will be unique. It also presents a challenge in that you are never quite sure what the Alien is going to do or where it will be, meaning you can’t learn a pattern to the enemy.
At times it does seem like the Alien should have seen you and as much as I appreciate being able to hide under a table – I spent so much time hiding under tables, paralysed by the mere presence of the Alien! – how does the Alien not see my legs sticking out?! I’d be curious to see how the Alien’s senses work in more detail.
The Alien also learns from you and what you do. If you are constantly hiding in lockers, the Alien will soon wise onto the fact and pull you out of the lockers. If you keep trying to fool him with noise makers, he will soon stop running for them. This encourages a variety of hiding and distraction methods and helps keep your gameplay fresh.
It would also appear that the Alien is on a tether to you. This means he is never far away from you. Again, this means that once the Alien has disappeared back into the vents, you can’t go stomping around as he will be hovering nearby, upping the overall difficulty. This may frustrate some players so I emphasize the fact that you will need to approach this game with a cautious mindset.
When you finally get the flamethrower – which is just around halfway through the game – it has the possibility to diminish the threat of the Alien as it can force the Alien to retreat. It does require you to be in close proximity to force it away (otherwise it simply halts him for a few seconds) so it does require good timing, otherwise, he will still steamroll through you – a lesson I learnt quite a few times.