For Backlog Month, I wanted to go back and play one game more than any other. One that had been casting the longest shadow over my back catalogue, a game that was both seemingly made specifically for me, but also made to keep me at arm’s length. That game is Alien: Isolation.
This isn’t a proper “review” of Alien: Isolation!
Kirk did that back in 2014, and it’s very good. This is more of a look back at the game through the eyes of someone who has been avoiding it for seven years, finally played it and found some surprises along the way.
As we have established many times on this website, I am an enormous coward. I cannot play horror games, and can’t even stand the parts of regular games I find horrific (get absolutely fucked, Half-Life shark fight), and my trusted solution to this problem is to simply never play horror games. Yet when Alien: Isolation came along in 2014, I was torn. The general premise, that I was going to be spending the whole game in a lavishly-recreated corner of an iconic cinematic universe, sounded perfect to me. And sure, I am very into Alien/Aliens.
But it was also going to be scary, because in this game the alien wasn’t target practice for my pulse rifle, it was unkillable, and it would hunt my every step. Which sounded like a game I would hate. But for the sake of optimism, I tried it out anyway. And got as far as the game’s first elevator ride before I said no thank you. My heart couldn’t even take the alien’s first fleeting, introductory moments, there was no way I was going to be able stomach whatever horrors were coming later.
So I uninstalled the game, got on with my life, and rarely looked back. I did sometimes look back, though, whenever discussion of the game would pop up, because I remained fascinated by so much of what the game had done outside of its alien, and tempted by the lengths to which Creative Assembly’s artists had been so faithful to Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s early vision for the franchise.
When Backlog Month came along, then, I swallowed hard and reinstalled it. How hard could it be, I figured, I’m a grown-ass man now, I’ll just drop the difficulty, play in daylight and try my hardest to enjoy the good bits, while making full use of FAQs and tips to get me through the horrid parts. Which I have now discovered was a terrible mistake, if not entirely for the reasons I first thought it would be.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first, because in many ways I’m glad I persevered through most of Isolation’s hardships. I am in love with Sevastopol. As someone who deeply appreciates video games with a strong sense of place, the space station feels alive, lived in, like a coherent and functional space that’s a joy to explore and dig around in. I will never get enough of the retro-future touches found throughout, and the lengths to which the art team managed to stick to the vision of guys like Ron Cobb are extraordinary.
Like my favourite Star Wars game, Isolation doesn’t feel like a video game based on the Alien series in the off-centre way most licensed adaptations do—it feels like a legitimate entry, something that looks and sounds like it inhabits the same universe as Alien and Aliens.
I kinda knew all that coming into the game, though. It was the stuff that had got me willing to brave my cowardice in the first place. What I also knew, and what I was dreading, was the terror, and boy did I get that in spades. The unkillable alien that stalks you for most of this game is simply the scariest thing I have ever encountered in an interactive space, not just for its own sneaky and murderous actions, but for the way it’s so casually able to draw on my existing fears of the creature based on what I already know from the movies. And then amplify them.
The way it can simply appear from out of nowhere and, if you’re frantic/lucky, scared off. The way it can snatch you from a vent and kill you instantly. How it will track you down if you’re making too much noise, claws clacking on the station’s metal floors, as you hide yourself in a locker. The potential for the alien to be in the vicinity at all times makes every single thing you do in this game an exercise in fear, from opening a door to saving your game on one of the station’s emergency stations.
I was so scared playing this game I could only endure some parts of it in 10-15 minute bursts before I’d have to quit and breathe into a paper bag and go outside and hug my children. I HATED the alien, but I could also, from a very distant and academic place, admire the craft that went into it, especially once I got into a solid survival tactic of keeping my running to a minimum, listening out more, using my scanner everywhere, and remembering where the closest hiding spot was at all times.
Indeed, as I explored more of the world, got a better grasp on how to stay alive, and picked up on some of the game’s quirkier quirks (like easily being able to avoid the alien’s vent-from-above instakill), Isolation really started coming together. Dare I say I was even enjoying myself. The medical sector’s hide-and-seek chase was a thrill, and the killer androids a fantastic exercise in first-person conflict avoidance. Sure, the game’s ever-escalating series of, “You need to do one more thing before you can do the thing,” quests were becoming grating, but as I hovered around the halfway point of the game, I was a lot more into it than I thought I would have been.
I am a big idiot, I was telling myself. You mean to tell me I could have been playing this masterpiece seven years ago and talking about it when everyone else was, and instead I was a coward and am writing about it in 2021 when nobody gives a shit? Extremely dumb.
OR WAS IT. Alien Isolation’s mid-game arc is easily its strongest point, but at the time it doesn’t feel like the middle at all, it feels like you’re approaching the end. Only for the goalposts to move, and move again, and just keep on moving in ways that are first tiring, and soon become ridiculous.
Alien: Isolation is simply way too long. What begins as a very sensible series of events, a survivor reaching other survivors then hatching a plan to escape a doomed space station, devolves into a crazed series of ever-escalating dramas which by the end are bordering on the absurd. So much of the appeal and success of Isolation’s early hours come from the fact you’re not playing as a Colonial Marine, adept at all forms of weaponry and combat tactics, but as a normal, working person, who is as powerless in the situation as you or I would be.
Someone who when faced with this nightmarish ideal doesn’t pick up a rocket launcher and automatic rifle and go to war, but...hides in cupboards and has to scrounge for every bullet they waste. It’s a big part of what makes the game’s horror sections work, because in the face of the alien’s talents—or an android’s relentlessness—we are vulnerable. And so when even something as minor as the lights going out occurs, it feels like the end of the world.
As Isolation hurtles from crisis to crisis throughout its final third, all of that hard work is undone. The game trades relatable problems for blockbuster ones, culminating in explosive outdoor sections that border on disaster porn. And all the while it’s asking you to do one last job, one more task, one final thing to fix before, ah, nope, now there’s something else you need to fix before that works, and then you’ll need to go somewhere else, and...
It’s numbing. All that amazing tension that had been generated early on disappears, replaced with something more grim, workmanlike. Even the game’s dramatic twists—oh no, this person dies, or oh my goodness, this friend is a traitor!—become a grind; they work early on by virtue of being unexpected, but when the game throws as many at you as it does, they quickly become predictable because you’re expecting everything to be a twist.
The only real surprise I found in the game’s last few hours was how terrible and short and unfulfilling its ending was.
After seven years of sitting on the sidelines, then, my time with Alien: Isolation was pretty surprising, because I’d ended the game with mixed feelings (which is a big win for the game, I guess, since I’d...avoided it for seven years, and that whole time my only feeling had been “no thanks”). It had been so much better in a lot of ways than I was expecting, but then worse—in different ways again—than I had prepared for as well. I’d been so afraid of being afraid I hadn’t counted on something else pissing me off more.
I’m sure playing on a gaming PC built for 2020 helped, in that I could jack everything up to ultra in 4K, but the game’s visual landmarks aren’t defined by texture resolution or lighting tricks. They’re memorable for their style and faithfulness to the source, and it’s testament to just how good and complete and real Sevastapol feels that I spent nearly my entire playthrough wishing a version of Isolation existed that just let me chill and walk around the station and soak it all up without a meat-eating alien on the loose to make everything so tense.
If nothing else though my main takeaway from the game was that, despite its age, I never felt like I was playing a game that was released in 2014. In almost every way it felt as current, and innovative, and exciting as anything I’ve played more recently. The way combat is a last resort instead of a first, an admirable devotion to the first-person perspective, the ingenuity of the single main protagonist, a willingness and confidence to just let the game do its thing without minigames or interruptions or hand-holding breaking anything up, all of it such excellent stuff.
You could have told me this game had been released for the first time in 2021 and, had I not been specifically avoiding it for the last seven years, I’d have believed you. I’m impressed with so much of it now; to have played it in 2014 would have blown my mind.
It’s a shame, then, that more couldn’t have been done with this! Isolation is a series of very good ideas let down by some terrible pacing, and it’s never a good feeling to walk away from a game where your last few hours spent were also the worst. In that most video game of ways it would have been the perfect candidate for a sequel where kinks were ironed out, or where a competitor takes notes and puts their own spin on things.
Instead this game exists apart, innovative for its time and unmatched since. It’s almost tragic that Isolation has been left to drift alone in space like this, but then considering that’s how the game so frustratingly ends, maybe it’s fitting.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)