Now let’s get something straight from the start. I’m not a brave man. Despite my love for Japanese horror movies, I still find myself able to complete Bioshock and only lasted 10 minutes playing Outlast before I was in the corner curled up in a ball. When the impending release of Alien: Isolation was announced I decided it was about time I put my big boy pants on, even if I did end up soiling them.
Patiently I waited until release day, following the game’s progress with a sense of anticipation and admiration of the developers’ dedication to the franchise, with the sole hope they managed to undo the damage of Colonial Marines. Finally the reviews were out and they ranged from ‘Mediocre’ (IGN) to ‘Structural Perfection’ (The Escapist), but they all agreed. It was a tense game in which you would be scared and dead – a lot.
Now that the game has been released and I have a couple of hours of gameplay under my belt, I thought I’d put down my initial impressions for anyone still sitting on the fence on whether to grab it.
If there’s one thing that can be said about the game, it’s that it remains true to the source material. The ship Torrens is a faithful replica her sister ship Nostromo and I took great pleasure exploring the ship with a feeling of ‘I know that place’. Once you arrive on the Sevastapol, this dedication continues. Although there’s nothing for direct comparison, the space station maintains the 1970’s space movie motif in both sights and sounds.
It’s not all great though. Despite the impressive backdrop, there’s some elements that makes the game feel decidingly last-gen. My concerns were raised from the first cut scene. The character modeling seemed a little ‘off’, and the dialogue cheesy. For all the care that had seemingly gone into the making of Alien: Isolation, this came as a bit of shock.
I also found little guidance given to the player on what to do. The scarcity of tutorials and objective markers sometimes leads to a trial and error approach. For example it wasn’t until I had picked up my third flare whilst backtracking did I get any instruction on how to use it. Obviously this was the flare the developers had intended me to pick up first. I also only discovered the map when I was randomly pressing buttons, trying to work out what to do next.
I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, and reminds us of a simpler, less forgiving time in gaming. Wolfenstein: The New Order proved this old school approach could work, but it may not appeal to those who are used to a greater level of hand holding from modern games.
Another stumbling block I found were parts of the control scheme. I found once I had equipped a flare for example, I was unable to go back to empty hands. Not a big problem, until you inadvertently press Square to pick something up you find yourself with a blazing flare that you didn’t want – I blame this on too much Destiny. Allocating crouch to R3 also caused some problems as I often found myself bringing up my inventory when I wanted to hide, being so used to the Circle button meaning crouch. Again, I don’t want to appear unfairly harsh or precious, but having been recently binging on Destiny and The Last of Us and their tight controls, the differences are quite apparent. No doubt the longer I play, the less of an issue this will become.
I also can’t help thinking the developers took some shortcuts to artificially increase the difficulty, for example by placing a trapdoor that’s required to progress the story in a darkened corner which I only stumbled over after 10 minutes of backtracking wondering what to do. Throughout the game I noticed well worn gaming tropes such as this that took some of the shine off the package.
But where the game suffers from gameplay, it make up for in environment. Areas are painstakingly created and possess an overarching sense of foreboding, even in the peaceful moments. Dark alleyways open up with flickering lights and objects move in your peripheral vision, making you literally jump at shadows.
One thing the Sevastapol does give you is options. An area may have a number of other areas branching off it and you’re often struck just deciding which way to go. The degree of detail in the environment makes you want to take the time to examine things closer, but that is often at odds with your natural instinct to just keep moving lest something jumps at you from behind.
Although I’m yet to come across the Xenomorph, his handiwork is visible everywhere. From the bloodied corpse and the darkened smear marks of who knows what in the vents, to the manic scrawling on the walls, they all show evidence of something bigger and badder lurking just around the corner. I’m already approaching areas cautiously with a sense of trepidation, so I don’t want to imagine how things will be when it starts to get real.
Would I discourage anyone from playing Alien: Isolation? Not in the slightest. The difficulties I’ve mentioned merely lend to the feeling of being lost, awkward, and isolated, further adding to the experience. I still have issues with the character interaction and the framerate sometimes stutters, but they’re minor grievances in the scheme of things. I’m still looking forward to a great experience. It’s a throwback to a time when games were a bit more unforgiving, but in a good way. It just doesn’t seem to do it with as much style as Wolfenstein: The New Order did.