Knock, knock. Who's there? An alien. It kills you.
While many a video game has been designed for people who enjoy killing aliens, Alien: Isolation can only have been created for people who derive some perverse pleasure out of being killed by an alien.
Sometimes the alien will kill you while you're running away...
...and sometimes while you're hiding under a table.
Sometimes it will play with you before killing you...
...and other times it will kill you while you check email.
Regardless of how it happens, rest assured that the alien will kill you. Often. That is what the bulk of Alien: Isolation consists of: Being mercilessly murdered, over and over again, by a horrifying, eight-foot-tall monster from outer space.
If that's your thing, though, it's pretty good stuff.
Alien: Isolation is a first-person survival horror game set in the same universe as the Alien films. It casts the player as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Sigourney Weaver's now-iconic heroine Ellen Ripley. Amanda was first introduced in the extended cut of James Cameron's Aliens, in which it's revealed that in the decades that Ellen Ripley spent in cryo-sleep following the destruction of the Nostromo in the first film, her daughter Amanda lived a full life and passed away, all without seeing her mother again.
Isolation informs us that, as it turns out, Amanda Ripley's life was not that of a normal 22nd-century civilian. She had a pretty dark event in the middle there—an event which makes up the entirety of Isolation—and at the very least must have suffered from some severe post-traumatic stress in its aftermath.
The game takes place in the year 2137, fifteen years after the the events of Alien and another 42 before the start of its sequel, Aliens. Amanda is an adult, working as an engineer for Weyland-Yutani, the chilly corporation that owned her mother's ship all those years ago. Amanda has all but given up hope of finding any trace of her mother when a Weyland-Yutani higher-up informs her that the Nostromo's flight recorder has been found and is being held for safekeeping at a space station called Sevastopol.
Ripley and a couple of Weyland-Yutani employees hop a ride aboard a ship called the Torrens and head to the station, where they discover that everything has gone to hell. The station is in a state of malfunction and lockdown. The local androids are acting up and possibly dangerous. And of course, to top everything off, there's something horrible lurking in the dark, picking off the terrified survivors one by one.
That's pretty much it, really. Once Ripley arrives on the Sevastopol, the rest of the game consists of one long horror-show in which she attempts to evade all manner of violent death in order to escape the station, all while trying to discover what the heck is going on.
Alien: Isolation is a draining, stressful game. It is uncommonly difficult and at times genuinely daunting. It took me a whopping 21 hours to finish the story, and let me tell you, that is a long-ass time to feel as stressed out as this game made me. (Why do I volunteer to review games like this? I don't know.)
Here, check out the view from inside this locker:
Does that look fun? Cool, this is your game.
When it comes to the great debate between Alien and Aliens, I'm firmly in camp Alien. It's not that I don't mostly enjoy James Cameron's 1986 sequel (mostly), it's just that it's not in the same league as Ridley Scott's 1979 original. Others have argued the point more effectively than I will here, so I'll just say that a recent Alien rewatch confirmed how I already felt: The original Alien is the kind of masterpiece that only comes along every once in a great while. With its stillness, its strangeness, its weird beauty and shocking horror, it is also the kind of masterpiece that does not easily translate into a video game.
So, Isolation arrives burdened with great expectations. Video games based on the Alien franchise have not traditionally fared well, and in particular, none have succeeded or even attempted to succeed at capturing the genius of the first film. On top of that, the most recent Alien game was last year's execrable Aliens: Colonial Marines.
To say that Isolation is superior to Colonial Marines is really just to affirm that, no, it is not one of the worst games I've ever played. Good news, though! Even considered without the Alien brand, Isolation is a very good time. It's equal parts Worst-Case Situation Simulator 2014 and "Fuck Everything!": The Game. It does have some significant flaws, but on the whole, it works.
Isolation is a horror game as Alien before it was a horror movie.
Horror is a slithering, shadowy thing. It exists in your imagination. It's a thing that arrives in the heat of the moment but that you laugh about afterward. It resists standing still and allowing itself to be studied and understood, so it can be challenging to talk about why something is scary, and what makes it work.
Horror, for me, is about two primary emotions: dread, and panic. Something is off, but I don't know what. It's too quiet in here. I can just sense it… what was that noise?… That's dread. Oh god, it's right here, it's right beside me but it doesn't see me yet, what do I do, what do I do, quick think, calm down and THINK… That's panic. Good horror exists in the balance of those two emotions.
Alien: Isolation has both dread and panic in spades, yet it lacks a third staple of horror video games: The jump-scare. There are almost no traditional scripted jump-scares in Isolation, no moments when you open a door and a beast jumps out at you or when you walk past a closet only to have a something burst out of it behind your back.
That's because of the ambitious way Isolation has been designed. As has been touted by its developers for months on end, Alien: Isolation is a simulation, not a series of scripted events. As you make your way through the Sevastopol, there is an Alien Xenomorph on your trail. It's always around, following your scent, listening for your movements, waiting to pounce. There are other hazards aboard the Sevastopol—some of the surviving crew will shoot at you if they see you, and the station's androids are less than friendly—but the Alien is its own thing. If it sees you, it's game over, more or less every time. It does not swipe at you with its claws, damaging your health. It kills you immediately.
The Alien is driven by a complicated artificial intelligence (AI), one that allegedly learns from you and rarely repeats the same patterns twice. I can't attest to the learning bit, but I can attest to the fact that the motherfucker is indeed unpredictable, and that fact alone lends the game a great deal of its shuddery effectiveness.
Predictability is not scary. If you know a thing is going to jump out at you every time you cross an invisible line, it stops being scary the second or third time it happens. What Isolation development studio Creative Assembly has done—with a remarkable degree of success, for the most part—is create a nemesis that you can never quite pin down, which gives it the illusion of possessing actual intelligent thought.
If you die and reload a section, you will likely see the alien follow a different pattern. Remember the locker thing from before? Sometimes hiding in a locker works, but other times…
Isolation has no quicksave or auto-save feature, meaning that for the most part, you'll have to manually save your progress at certain designated save points. The saving process takes time in-game and you can screw up and save with the alien standing right behind you. As a result, even the act of saving the game—something that is supposed to make you feel relieved—can be an excruciating process.
With all of those elements in place, Alien: Isolation's formula comes into focus:
- Unpredictable monster that kills instantly, must be tracked by sound/motion tracker.
- No way to kill monster permanently, and methods of distracting it don't always work.
- No autosave means progress is not guaranteed even upon completing objectives.
- Frequent death means replaying missions, but unpredictable monster behaves differently every time.
- Result: scariness.
That's it, more or less. With a few exceptions, each mission is about the same. Ripley enters a new area of the Sevastopol with an objective like, say, getting communications back up and working. Meanwhile, the player can hear the alien clomping around in the air ducts, clomp, clomp, clomp. The communications board is on the other side of the level, and there are some pretty exposed hallways between here and there. Good luck!
By the end of the game I thought of the alien as a thing, rather than a collection of programming if/then equations. It never felt fair, I was constantly angry at it, and I could never quite guess when it was going to turn up and kill me.
Alien: Isolation embraces uncertainty to an unusual degree, and at times I found myself questioning the experience I was having: Is the alien's fickleness a result of weird artificial intelligence programming, or is that simply how an extraterrestrial life form would behave? Everywhere I go, the alien is near. If I'm in the south corner of the level, it's probably down there too; it always seems to drop from the ceiling at the worst possible moment.
Is that bad AI programming? Are the game's developers cheating? Or is this just a "realistic" rendition of how an utterly foreign killer beast would behave? It's a credit to Isolation's effectiveness that most of the time I chalked up the alien's infuriating doggedness not to cheap AI shortcuts, but to the fictional monster's advanced senses. What do I know, right? It's an alien. Sure, it can probably smell me or something.
Much of Isolation is spent cowering under a desk or around a corner, waiting to make a move. You'll check your motion tracker and wait for the creature to pass you by, then quickly shimmy down the hall to the next sorta-safe spot, praying that the alien doesn't decide to turn around on a whim and spot you.
Ripley is given a number of tools with which to distract and evade the alien, and while none of them work consistently, each can be a lifesaver in a precarious situation. If you're in a large room and the alien is between you and the door, toss a flare or a noisemaker in the opposite corner and you'll clear a path. As to whether the alien will grow tired of the distraction in time to turn around and see you making for the door… well, that could go either way.
The rest of Ripley's toolkit consists of guns and improvised weaponry used to fight off hostile humans and androids. I rarely used most of those weapons. Their noise attracts the alien's attention, but the weapons themselves are largely useless against it. I survived more easily when I played as stealthily as possible. Furthermore, I just didn't picture Amanda Ripley, a civilian engineer, as the sort of person who would murder a group of desperate survivors, no matter how dangerous they may have seemed.
Isolation is often a challenging game, and I was surprised to find myself frequently dropping the difficulty from normal to easy. Getting spotted by the alien is a game-over no matter which difficulty you choose, and I died often enough on "easy" difficulty that I'd consider renaming it "still not very easy."
On higher difficulties, the alien is more attuned to your sounds and scent, as are the occasional humans and androids you must circumvent. My brief and bloody experience with hard difficulty had me scratching at the bottom of my inventory, looking for ways to distract the creature and still, much more often than not, getting my face shredded anyway.
In addition to the main story, Isolation comes with an included "survival mode," which tasks players with escaping from a level while accomplishing various tasks, all while racing a timer. I found it to be slight and in most ways indistinguishable from the main game, particularly given that the base game comes with only a single map and a single character: Amanda Ripley. Publisher Sega will be releasing more levels and playable characters in the future as paid DLC, but for now, survival mode doesn't have much to it.
Alien: Isolation is more than simply you vs. the beast; the game quickly introduces other complicating human and android antagonists. Ripley is the first leg of this design tripod, hiding at the periphery and trying to remain undetected. The humans or androids lingering about are the second leg, walking patrol routes and attacking if they see Ripley. The third leg is the alien, pacing through the air ducts, ignoring androids but waiting to attack any hapless human. If a hostile person sees Ripley and opens fire while the alien is around, he or she is mincemeat. If Ripley is forced to fight off a marauding android, there's a good chance that the alien will turn up shortly afterward and that'll be that.
Unfortunately, one leg of the tripod is weaker than the others: Humans behave skittishly, and are seldom fun to engage. Some are friendly but others decidedly aren't. There's not enough response-time between the two to bother taking the time to find out which you're looking at. Human character models in the game look like shiny action figures and are appallingly under-animated; most stand still like statues, their mouths flopping open almost at random as dialogue plays. Isolation's production values are generally high, which makes the crusty character models and wonked human AI all the more jarring. Both undercut the impact of a few sections of the game, which is a shame.
Androids fare better than humans, at least in part because they aren't expected to act like humans. Called "Working Joes," Isolation's androids operate at the behest of APOLLO, the station-running artificial intelligence that is a direct analogue to the first film's MOTHER. The Working Joes can be creepy when they're required to be, though mostly, they exist as a plot device and as a disposable means with which to force Ripley to make noise and in so doing, attract the alien's attention.
Any prolonged encounter with the Working Joes generally devolves into the sort of slow-moving survival horror shooting gallery we've seen in so many Resident Evil games, but even those are exciting, given that a far more deadly threat is usually waiting in the shadows.
As for Ripley, guiding her through the cramped hallways of the Sevastopol is mostly easy to do. While her body doesn't quite "exist" in the game world to quite the same extent as the touching-leaning-crawling protagonist of the recent (similar) horror game Outlast, she's not quite a floating camera, either. On the one hand, she doesn't cast a shadow, which is peculiar given the fact that if you look down, you'll see her legs. On the other hand, there's a dedicated button for focusing her eyes either on the motion tracker in front of her face or the wider view beyond it.
It's a small but smart touch that helps the player embody the character while exacerbating one of a horror game's defining challenges: Where do I look, and for how long? I was surprised to find that Isolation's map screen doesn't behave similarly; instead, looking at the map pauses the action and you can study it at your leisure. I was glad for the relief, but this game cries out for an in-game map that must be hurriedly checked while hiding in a closet.
A horror game's setting is the foundation upon which everything else is built, and the Sevastopol proves a sturdy one. It's not fancy, but it is admirably consistent, presenting the kind of chunky vision of 22nd-century life imagined in the green-monitored, 8-track era from which Alien was born.
The game's art team really only falter when they create typically bad video-game graffiti, or when they attempt to embrace the sort of ironic propaganda iconography popularized by BioShock. But for the most part, the Sevastopol is a dank and marvelous place, and after nearly two dozen hours there I hate every inch of it.
Every god damned thing in the space station is broken, every low ceiling makes you reflexively hunch, and every door you hoped you could pass through is powered down or jammed. The Sevastopol fights the player at every turn, confounding the simplest task and turning a ten-foot trip into a twenty-minute saga.
Isolation frequently produces the stomach-dropping sensation of carefully sneaking around one last corner only to come up against a locked door and the realization that that you are going to have to retrace your steps. During my first prolonged encounter against the alien, which takes place in a medical ward about an hour or two into the game, I lost track of the number of times I got turned around, moaned "fuck everything" to myself, and headed back the way I came.
Labyrinthine death-trap though it may be, the Sevastopol can be lovely to behold, particularly for fans of the Alien franchise. Creative Assembly worked with 20th Century Fox to re-create the milieu of the first movie, using the film's original foley reels to create the game's sound effects, remixing Jerry Goldsmith's avant-garde score with the game's new music, and designing every prop in the game around the original film's future-via-1970's aesthetic.
Their work has paid off, and the finished product feels consistent with the original film to an impressive degree. Small flourishes abound: When you save your game, you do so at an emergency phone that accepts a keycard identical to the ones in the film:
When you engage in one of the many (too many) hacking minigames, you do so through an awful CRT interface:
I was pleasantly surprised by how effectively Alien: Isolation functions not only as a horror game, but as a piece of interactive Alien fan service. After I completed the story, I found myself looking for an alien-free mode that let me simply wander the ship and take in the oppressive design and wonderful lighting. (No such mode exists, alas.)
This game was clearly made by devotees of the original film, yet it manages to mostly avoid crossing from respectful homage to distracting genuflection. A couple of sequences in the back half of the game tipped too far over into the realm of Ellen Ripley's Greatest Hits, Redux, but by and large Isolation manages to check off iconic scenes without being too blatant about it.
The crew of the Torrens and the Sevastopol aren't as memorable as the crew of the Nostromo, but they're written and performed with a welcome subtlety, with nary a ham nor a scene-chewer to be found. When a game is already this intense, the best thing the cast can do is stay out of the way, and for the most part, Isolation's cast does just that.
Actor Kezia Burrows turns in an interesting, mannered performance as Amanda Ripley. There's often a slight quaver in this Ripley's voice, but it never makes her seem weak—rather, she sounds perpetually uncertain, like a woman continually processing an impossible situation. Ripley doesn't talk too much—a frequent problem in first-person games with a speaking protagonist—and often reacts to situations precisely as I would, hissing curses through her teeth and quietly bemoaning all the awful broken machinery surrounding her. I believed in her engineering expertise enough to feel frustrated at my own inability to grasp the Sevastopol's convoluted electrical schematics. Amanda would figure out how to do this, why is it taking me so long?
The script itself could have done with some trimming—I was expecting an overlong 15-hour game, and instead got an overlong 21-hour game. (In fairness, I sense that my playtime may turn out to be longer than some others.) Things that don't need to be repeated—oh look, another startling android, another of those bobbing bird things from the movie—repeat a few times too often.
The pacing is generally strong for the first two thirds of the game, with just enough periods of relief to recover from the immense stress of a prolonged encounter with the xenomorph. But the race to the finish turns out to require a few more laps than I'd been expecting, and I eventually found myself powering through an increasingly arduous finale that, despite including some well-done scares, could have probably been cut down.
I died a lot playing Alien: Isolation. I'll never feel as though I truly came to understand the monster that killed me, but for all the times it happened, I did learn to survive. Many games have asked me to take on legions of foes, but few have chosen to make me focus so resolutely on a single one.
One of my favorite scenes in Alien comes at the very end, as a horrified Ellen Ripley realizes that the alien has made its way onto her escape shuttle. The monster appears to be sleeping, and so she slowly backs away and climbs into a space suit in one last bid for survival.
Throughout the scene, Ripley quietly sings to herself, staring unblinkingly at the creature as it stirs from its makeshift nest. I love that sequence because of its quiet, terrifying focus, and because of Ripley's unwavering stare. It's the scene that, I suspect, made Sigourney Weaver a star.
Often in horror games, I find myself averting my gaze from the thing that terrorizes me. It's too scary, too gross, too horrifying. In Alien: Isolation, I found myself behaving more like Ripley—if I kept my eyes on the monster, at least I'd know where it was. That was my only advantage, and I refused to give it up. It was when I couldn't see the alien that I felt truly frightened.
I imagine what must have been going through Ripley's head as she sat there, exposed and terrified, unable to look away. If I just move slowly… carefully… maybe I can survive this. It is a tribute to Alien: Isolation that I spent most of my time with it feeling the same way.