Alien: Isolation is a beautiful looking game that successfully manages to capture the aesthetic and atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, that is unfortunately plagued by a host of baffling design choices, technical issues and frustrating gameplay. I should preface that I absolutely adore Scott’s Alien, and my endearment for the series has allowed me to convince myself that I’ve enjoyed entries that would otherwise be seen as nothing more than sub-par, (I’m looking at you, Aliens vs. Predator). With that said, let’s get into it.
Alien: Isolation’s story is, by all accounts, fairly rudimentary. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter to the iconic protagonist of the Alien film saga, who is approached by Samuels, an all around cool and nice guy who is totally NOT AN ANDROID, and asked to come along to retrieve the flight recorder from the Nostromo, the ship from the original film and Amanda’s mother’s last known location. Amanda reluctantly agrees and before long, you’re on board the Sevastopol, a space station owned and operated by Weiland Yutani competitor Seegson, and it’s clear that something has gone horribly awry.
There’s nothing outright wrong with the story of Alien: Isolation. It characterizes Amanda with a similar determination and tenacity to her mother’s, but it very quickly falls into the trappings of exposition being delivered by diary entries and audio logs. The overarching narrative can be boiled down to: Amanda heads to the station, aliens happen, Amanda tries to get off the station. There’s very little character development and I found myself at a loss as to why I should care when “major” characters would get picked off. As the title would imply, you are on your own for the entirety of the game. Other characters you come into contact with exist largely as disembodied voices over radio communications. This is fine, but it’s hard for me as the player to feel any kind of emotional impact when I’m shown the corpse of a character who’s role thus far has been opening a door one time when some jerk wanted to keep me locked in with the Xenomorph. Yeah, that was cool of him, but I wasn’t as choked up as Amanda seemed to be when she found him being used as an alien womb.
I guess I should also mention that while the game follows suit with the original movie (occasionally down to a T) the use of the title Alien is somewhat misleading. While you will spend a good portion of time hiding from a single Xenomorph à la Alien, eventually eggs and face-huggers work their way into the mix, in a few sequences that seem a little closer to Cameron’s Aliens (1986). Still, crawling through an alien hive is slimy, gross and eerie, and the visuals and sound design are competent at presenting a true to film Alien experience. And this is where Alien: Isolation shines.
Isolation is painstakingly crafted to look like it’s right out of Ridley Scott’s vision of an industrial, interstellar universe. It’s that special kind of dirty machinery meets sterile environments on display in Scott’s Alien that made for a uniquely terrifying experience. The Creative Assembly’s Alien world realized was the driving force that kept me going through my time with the game. Even during moments of endless frustration with certain enemy encounters and the lack of a checkpoint system, I found myself longing to discover the next area. The game looks absolutely brilliant thanks to some spectacular lighting and incredibly detailed environments. Fans of the film will certainly derive enjoyment from exploring various areas throughout the Sevastopol and identifying iconic sounds from the film (down to the sound a door makes when it opens). The sound design is also tremendous and is one of the major factors in creating player immersion in instances such as the Xenomorph stalking you, or the skin-crawling squelch an alien egg makes as its opening up.
I played the game on the Xbox One and while as mentioned, the game looks and sounds terrific, there were some spots where the game would noticeably chug, particularly during cutscenes or one of the many disastrous situations where areas of the Sevastopol are just on fire. The game also downright bugged out on me on more than one occasion, making the audio go completely out of sync and in some cases rendering the game completely un-playable. In one instance, I was teleported behind a chamber I was releasing an android from and could not move, forcing me to load up a previous manual save which was about 10 minutes prior to the event. Outside of this isolated incident (hah.) the technical issues were not enough to completely take away from how beautiful the game is capable of looking.
No amount of detail in the audio/visual department makes Alien: Isolation all that fun to play however. This is where the game becomes somewhat of a disappointment. When the first trailers began to surface sometime last year, I was hopeful. The game looked magnificently claustrophobic and terrifying. To Alien’s credit, these moments shine through on occasion. Namely when you’re being stalked through vents and corridors by the horrifying Xenomorph. It’s just a shame that the exceedingly tense portions are undercut by tedious stealth sequences in which you are tasked with sneaking around groups of survivors, or rogue “Working Joes”, the admittedly creepy looking Seegson take on Weiland-Yutani synthetics. Without mincing words, it just feels like a chore having to sneak past anything that isn’t a Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation. The human and robot AI isn’t particularly smart, (the Working Joes will attempt to kick you if you hide from them under tables) and sneaking isn’t all that difficult, it just isn’t fun. On top of this, you’re never really given any sort of explanation as to why these people want to kill you outside of, “they’re scared of the alien.” Well that might be, but why does that give them an excuse to shoot at me when I’m passing through trying to deal with the problem? To the best of my knowledge, Amanda doesn’t look like a horrible H.R. Giger nightmare. Isn’t that kind of counter-productive on their part? I wouldn’t even be particularly bothered by the human and android enemy encounters if there just weren’t so damn many of them. With the game clocking in at around fifteen to twenty hours, they begin to feel like padding, unfortunately thrown into the game to stretch it out.
Being that Amanda Ripley is an engineer, you have the ability to craft a variety of devices both lethal and non to deal with your attackers, but I never found any of these items of great use and would instead try to circumvent them entirely. After a while you’re given a few different weapons to help deal with your assailants as well, but the shooting in the game feels inaccurate and out of place. Coupled with the aforementioned lack of a checkpoint system it’s altogether too risky to try and challenge the AI to a gunfight. I would have been much happier if there were no guns at all. The most useful item you’ll be given in the game is the motion tracker which will give you a vague idea of where enemies are, and point you in the direction of your current objective.
The game is also a slow burn. It’ll be about two hours before you actually see the Xenomorph and when you do, the game fails at teaching you how to deal with its presence. Sure at this point, you know about hiding in lockers, but you haven’t been given any information as to what will and wont set the creature off. It can be infuriating having to run the same sequence over and over again, because you just don’t know what you’re doing to alert the alien of your presence. There are audio cues that let you know when the alien is in the vents and when its roaming around the same hallways as you, but it took me about 10 consecutive deaths before I picked up on the subtleties of the alien’s sounds. The games of cat and mouse you play with the alien can be dynamic and, yes, even scary but I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of my deaths in the game were simply unfair and the fact that the only checkpoints I would come across were manual save spots never ceased to be absolutely maddening. Once you’re given a flamethrower, the alien encounters become a touch more manageable as it basically acts as a deadly broom being shoved in the face of an otherworldly mouse (I can almost hear Amanda yelling “Shoo! Go on, get!” to the alien as she blasts it in the face with fire) but its honestly too little too late, and by that point I had already decided I just wasn’t having that much fun with the game.
Despite it’s shortcomings, I still enjoyed Alien: Isolation. I just wish that it was a tighter package, and not padded out with poorly designed stealth and combat sequences with human and android AI. The addition of checkpoints would have been more than welcome. The moments where the Alien is stalking you are capable of being genuinely tense, and there are some really exciting set pieces. The game hits all the notes it should, being that its based on the original film from ‘79. The technology you use is an accurate realization of future 1970s, the environments are spot on, the space suits are big in chunky in all the right ways, but I can’t stress enough how much of a drag it can be to make a good amount of progress only to have to load up a manual save because you feel like you were unfairly killed.
How much you will enjoy this game is directly linked to how much you like Ridley Scott’s film. Someone like me will put up with the tedium and frustration in order to keep exploring the world that The Creative Assembly has created, while someone who isn’t as invested in the source material probably wouldn’t give this game a second look. And honestly, if this game didn’t hit the right atmospheric cues in the impressive ways that it does, I probably wouldn’t myself. If you have the means though, play it on PC or current generation consoles because that’s truly where the game shows off it’s graphical prowess. The game is a promising step in the right direction for the series, and if you can put up with the frustration it will almost certainly cause you, the moments of genuine terror make the overall experience worth it. It certainly has its problems, but Alien: Isolation is the most terrifying the Xenomorph has been in a long time.