Review: Alien: Isolation

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Set 15 years after the events of Ridley Scott’s Alien, Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda (mentioned often in the films but never seen) is offered to accompany a team to Sevastopol, a giant space station, in order to retrieve the flight recorder for the Nostromo (the original ship in the film) and find out what happened to her mother. Of course, things go disastrously wrong: Sevastopol is a wreck upon arrival, androids are mysteriously hostile, survivors shoot on sight and a terrifying presence stalks the station. Allies are few and far between, enemies are everywhere and when the titular antagonist finally makes its appearance the tension that the game has built is so overwhelming it’s almost anticlimactic to finally see the Alien in its entirety.

The story cleverly uses the huge 57 year gap between the events of Alien and Aliens to tell a story that’s both flexible in storytelling and faithful to the franchise. There’s no cheap retcon or shoved in ‘canon’ material (thanks, Colonial Marines), it’s just an old school Alien story, one that will strike familiar to any fan of the first film. In fact, it’s just a bit TOO similar to the film. Everything that happened in Alien/Aliens pretty much is copied in Isolation. It’s especially detrimental when plot twists and story beats are pretty much ripped from the films. The most refreshing plot point involving openly hostile androids adds a mix to the story (and gameplay) that adds an extra layer of intrigue to the story. It’s all faithfully done, but Isolation forgets that it’s not an adaptation, it’s a standalone game, and the line is blurred just a bit too much as the game chooses to play it safe. There’s a lot of wasted potential to explore the Alien mythos and setting further, choosing to replicate an arguably perfect film.

However, all of this can ultimately be seen as a positive to the fans of the franchise, as there is no other game that will make you feel like you are actually in Alien more than Isolation does. The story reflects the atmosphere and presentation in that it just feels like a true part of the Alien franchise.

Isolation looks fantastic. The game nails the aesthetic and atmosphere that the original film had. It’s set in the future yet looks like the past: simple CRT monitors and binary displays, video tape tracking, monochrome and vector graphics. It doesn’t just look like an Alien film, it feels like one. It doesn’t take place on the Nostromo, but Sevastopol is so aesthetically similar that it feels like you’re in the film. Characters are dead caricatures of their film counterparts; with the exception of Jones the Cat, with no such double existing, tragically. And the titular Alien looks impressive: the tall, thin glistening monster with dozens of different animations depending on the situation. And thank God Creative Assembly got it right, because they manage to make the now iconic Alien look terrifying all over again. While years and years of films, media and spoofs have dulled the impact of the natural scariness of the Alien, Isolation manages to overcome 30 years of pop culture to make it look as scary as it did in 1979.

The flame effects in particular looks downright spectacular: engulfing the Alien with your flamethrower or throwing a molotov cocktail will result in a glorious eruption of flames that are hands down the best looking fire effects in a game since Far Cry 2.

The audio is exceptional: the dynamic sound range will have you jumping in terror at the mere sound of a vent opening and closing. The vibrant sounds that the Alien makes are terrifying: hissing when you get close, shrieking when it sees you, stomping around the vents. The mere creaking of a vent straight above you will send chills down your spine, whipping out the iconic motion tracker to see just how close you are to certain death. The sound is essential in any horror game, and Isolation nails it. It’s not just recommended to play with a great headset, it’s essential.

It also sounds like an Alien film would: monitors hum and beep just like in the original film did, with the limited technology and budget that the 1979 film had at the time there was a lot of old school technology used, and it carries onto Isolation. 20th Century Fox apparently provided The Creative Assembly with three terabytes of archived data related to the original Alien film, including notes on prop and set design, behind the scenes photos, videos, and the film’s original sound effect recordings, to help Creative Assembly authentically recreate the atmosphere of the film, along with the original soundtrack which Creative Assembly then re-recorded with an orchestra in order to get the perfect cues for certain scares, and it works damn well.

The voice acting is solid all around; thankfully, Amanda Ripley is a fully fledged character with actual motivations and emotions. She isn’t dead silent throughout the game and even in general gameplay she makes noises dependant on what is going on; hiding in a locker she may hold her breath if the Alien is especially nearby, a nearby explosion will cause her to swear and mercifully, she actually talks to characters instead of blindly following orders. Lip synching and facial animations are beyond awful, but since you’re spending 90% of your time alone, it doesn’t become a huge deal.

In terms of the PC version, the differences are pretty bad. The game uses a LOT of contextual actions: going near any object will automatically make you lean under or over; a nitpick that it does not have a separate prone button, with only a crouch button and contextual actions taking over the rest. The game was built for a controller, with leaning a KB+M function will only allow you to lean fully, instead of having a joystick to carefully put pressure on how much you would want to lean.

Graphical options aren’t so flashy: the only options for Anti-Aliasing are FXAA, SMAATX2 and SMAATX1,and they don’t actually get rid of aliasing. The aliasing is borderline awful and is especially noticeable with dark environments with sole light sources: something that is very commonplace within Sevastopol. The sliders are strange: FOV slider is reversed and is vertical instead of horizontal, SMAA T2X comes before T1X, HDAO looks worse than standard AO. The pre-rendered videos are also very bad: obvious compression and runs incredibly choppy. Depth of field would usually be turned off for me, but since this is directly involved with an important gameplay component it gets a pass.

However, even on Ultra settings the game runs incredibly smoothly: my rig is a mid-range build (i5-3570k CPU, GTX 660, 16GB RAM on Windows 7) and it was amazing how well the game was running, with a constant 60FPS on the highest settings.

As a survival horror, you cannot kill the Alien. This is a huge positive, as many so called modern ‘horror’ games become trivial due to the lack of fear that the enemy couldn’t be beaten. Like the Hunter in Dead Space, the Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 or the Regeneradores in Resident Evil 4 (sort of), the Alien is nigh invincible. Gunshots will just anger it; your best weapon against it would be the flamethrower which scares it off but doesn’t quite hurt it. Any weapon build or obtained by Amandais used to either distract the Alien of kill the weaker Working Joes; lethal androids who aren’t quite humanoid, but with their red eyes and grey complexion are a near equally terrifying presence on Sevastopol.

Segments with the Working Joes are refreshing because they can be overcome, and it’s a fun change over the unstoppable Alien as it lets you have a bit of fun with the weapons and the AI, exploiting whatever weaknesses the androids have. Using the revolver is especially satisfying against the androids, and words cannot describe the sheer terror of reloading the revolver whilst a Working Joe approached Amanda to throttle her. While the best scenario would be to sneak past the Working Joes or outright spring to the next destination (as they take a tremendous amount of punishment, requiring a few headshots with ), it’s still stimulating to have a bit more frantic and upbeat action in comparison to the almost torturously slow gameplay involving the Alien.

Moving slowly, softly and quietly is the only way to survive the Alien, and throughout the course of the 20 hour game it gets a bit tedious. Sheer terror sometimes devolves into tedium and boredom, and while the top notch audio and atmosphere keep you on your toes, it’s easy to see why some people would give up halfway due to the slow pace that rarely quickens. Save points are few and far between, doesn’t pause the game and are genuinely old school. A notification pops up when hostiles are nearby, and it’s up to you to decide whether to risk saving the game or waiting for the enemy to pass, because the Alien can completely sneak up and kill you right as you are about to save. While the save system is a good change over the trial-and-error quick save system, it can lead to a certain amount of frustration when you die just short of a save point, forcing you to retrace the last 15-20 minutes of the game.

The Alien is just about unstoppable in Isolation; it can smell you, hear you and once it sees you, you might as well restart from the last save. It’s a real shame that there’s no real chance to outrun the Alien, as like in Outlast, chase scenes can lead to exceptionally memorable and frightening moments. Rather, there’s no chance to outrun the Alien, just wave it off with a molotov, or distract it beforehand with a noisemaker. Amanda Ripley’s background of a technician is a good way to introduce a crafting system, as most items need to be crafted with ingredients picked up throughout the station. It make sense contexually, and adds a lot of flavour in the otherwise slow paced horror.

Little minigames exist throughout the station, but I feel they are fun only because of the old school CRT displays that are a throwback to the original film. They’re simple enough: decrypting codes to open doors, changing power outlets to certain elements (such as lights, sprinklers, alarms or doors) and generally hiding in lockers or cabinets and trying not to pee as the Alien stalks past you.

There is no heads up display thankfully; forcing you to explore the generally non-linear environments to reach your goal. It never gets difficult as the motion tracker gives you a mark on where to go and bringing up the map contains all the information you will need. In contrary, having a goal waypoint would be extremely detrimental to the atmosphere and gameplay. Pulling out your revolver, you have to wait several seconds to line up a shot; another great reflection on Amanda’s inexperience with a gun and the fear of survival.

The pace will throw many off, but survival horror gamers will love Isolation’s creepy, tense atmosphere that builds slowly and pays off in spades. The survival mode in particular has potential to become a huge party game: get a group of friends together and see who can survive the level. It worked with Slender, and I see it working with Isolation.