Developer: Creative Assembly
Release Date: October 7, 2014
Platforms: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed On: Playstation 4 (Review copy provided by publisher)
Horror can be only as good as what it doesn’t show to its viewer as compared to what it does. The threat of something is more often than not far more terrifying than what is presented. Effective horror, especially in this medium, works best when not relying on simple jump scares or excessive gore. Creative Assembly gets that and, clearly, with Alien: Isolation it succeeds in crafting an effective experience that is not only reverential to its source, Alien, but does a tremendous job of ratcheting up tension without relying on having to constantly show its antagonist.
The Xenomorph, as designed by H.R. Giger, is an awful sort of thing isn’t it? The elongated head, rigid exoskeleton and the long barbed tail. This thing not only looks as though it were ripped directly from the most surreal and awful of dreams (a speciality of Giger) but it is a killing machine. The design, elaborated on by Stan Winston in the original Alien, became not only one of the best in all of science fiction but horror as well. There can be no mistake about it. The first Alien movie wasn’t just a science fiction flick but, rather, a horror movie. A truly terrifying film that thrust the main character, Ellen Ripley, into a deadly cat and mouse game that was scary not for what it showed, but what it didn’t. That is true horror. The mind can craft things far worse than any director, writer or video game developer can create.
Alien: Isolation pays homage and stays true to the aim of the original film, unlike the other Aliens related games of the past that cribbed more from the sequel. The second film was more of an action-thriller than it was a tense screamer in space. You’re placed into the role of Amanda Ripley this time, the daughter of the original heroine, Ellen. The worries of having a copy-paste character in regards to protagonist were quickly dispelled as this Ripley is not only one that feels natural to the established universe but one that needs to be featured in more of the in-universe canon.
The story is simple and boils down to mostly Ripley moving from one point to the other. Problems are solved. Mysteries are unraveled and along the way something wonderful occurs. There is actual universe-building going on. It isn’t the typical scant details that are blown out of proportion with most of the other attempts to bring this franchise over to the medium but, instead, offers a glimpse at a company that is just as vile as Weyland-Yutani yet not quite as large. The space station, Sevastapol, is dilapidated and in ruins by the time Amanda Ripley steps aboard. Something is clearly not right from the beginning and the atmosphere of oppression quickly settles like a thick fog blanketing the proceedings. Scattered throughout the ship are remainders of the last days before everything went to pot. Audio-logs and communications between employees and the corporation, Seegson, paint a grim picture of a place that was already horrid before people started dying. Ripley’s mission is to find the black box of the Nostromo, the craft that her Mother was aboard when she disappeared. The simple grab and dash turns into something far more complicated, though.
The chaos and disarray of the station is exceeded by the dissonance of this growing feeling of presence. Something lurks within the crawl spaces and ventilation shafts. Something that can only be heard from a distance at times while at others feels so close you can hear it breathing. The thing that stalks the station in search of the next victim to murder is, of course, a single Xenomorph. This isn’t the cannon fodder of the later movies nor the bullet sponges of the numerous other licensed games made. This creature is fast, deadly and will kill Ripley if it finds her. The same dynamic of a constant tension that builds throughout is so marvelously pulled off here that those moments where the titular Alien became more of a roadblock than a constant terror can be forgiven. There were more than a few times that a sudden turn meant game over for Ripley or an unlucky step spelled certain doom. It always seemed within a certain distance too which sometimes lead to moments where all Ripley could do was hope to not get caught as she rewired a console though the Alien was clearly nearby.
There is an unpredictability to the thing that makes it so rewarding to avoid the Xenomorph. The constant terror of knowing it is present above or below or just out of sight makes traversing the remains of the once bustling Sevastapol a tremendously frightening experience. The creature, however, isn’t the only thing Ripley will encounter along the way. There are, of course, other survivors to contend with. They’re very rarely alone and one can never be too sure if they’re directly hostile or not. The space station has turned towards a truly savage free-for-all that, with a killer alien, makes for a horrible work environment. Ripley cannot deal with more than one person at a time as her combat skills are nil and, really, stealth remains the only reliable weapon.
What other threats lurk within the ruins of Seegson Industries? Humanoid robots known as “Average Joes”. They are the second-class version of some of the more familiar androids like Ash or Bishop. These slavishly devoted Seegson creations are hardly lifelike but some sort of twisted version of the Every Man worker that inhabited Sevastapol in the glory days. Their skeletal robot frames are draped in gray synthetic skin that does little to evoke a sense humanity let alone those awful glowing eyes. The “Average Joes” Ripley encounters along the way are slow and can be easy to avoid at times yet if combat is necessary provide a very resilient and powerful enemy to contend with. They provide a different sort of terror than the Alien does but are just as effective.
The Alien, however, provides the biggest and best moments. It is, just like the first movie the game pays such reverent homage to, invulnerable. Nearer the end of the game Ripley gets her hands on a flamethrower to help deal with the looming threat of the murderous invader but it doesn’t so much as harm the beast as it does delay it. The malicious intent of this space slasher (let’s be honest Alien is, in part, a bit of a slasher film with how it is structured) never falters and there was never a moment, truly, that felt safe aboard the Sevastapol.
Stealth is, indeed, her greatest weapon but there are an assortment of items that can be crafted or found throughout to assist Ripley in her mission. Medkits, noisemakers, EMP mines, and more along with scarce ammunition and weaponry are available. Guns, however, are a very last-ditch effort at best. Firing them is not only loud but clunky and more of a detriment than benefit. Every choice made and every thing employed to help along the way can draw the attention of what lurks possibly above Ripley’s head. The constant specter of immediate murder at the hands of the Xenomorph forces the player to think through encounters and areas. Running can definitely get through quicker but is it worth making all that noise? The noisemaker will, indeed, draw the attention of some potentially deadly hostile survivors but what if the stalker comes to play? Saving can even be a risky move at times considering it can only be done through terminals scattered over the length of the station. It wouldn’t be surprising to find the need to glance around while waiting for the station to activate. The commitment to stealth gameplay in this very big budget title is one that not only works well but should be commended as many AAA titles don’t take too many risks.
The presentation of the game, as seen on the Playstation 4, was fantastic. The environments; claustrophobic and constantly creepy, felt right at home within the aesthetic of the Alien universe. The constant span of tubing and pipes that almost look like something is lurking in the corner of the eye, the steam gushing out and the archaic looking computer consoles feels directly ripped from the design aesthetic of Giger and Ridley Scott. The lighting, in particular, serves the material well, especially during the few space sections. Every sound and distant rumbling or scrape elicited some sort of reaction with a soundtrack that helps to ramp up the tension sufficiently often without feeling overdone. The Xenomorph moved and sounded natural, if that is possible, with only minor animation quirks that were only noticeable if one were looking for them.
Alien: Isolation is, without a doubt, a true stealth survival horror game. It pulls no punches in that regard and while it may linger just a tad too long near the end of the story, the terror delivered throughout overshadows minor foibles the title has. This is not only one of the better licensed titles to come out in years but, in regards to horror games, one of the best in the genre. The enemy AI is unpredictable often and leads to genuinely tense and dread-filled moments while occasionally providing frustration. Alien: Isolation makes the player think before encounters, consider the consequences and be stealthy about their approach. It makes for a tense if methodical feeling that is unnerving to say the least. The small concerns aside this is an experience worth having as few horror games execute as well as this one.