“Alien: Isolation” is a game that certainly had its fair share of scepticism carrying around.
It was not long ago when Sega, together with developer Gearbox, released the highly anticipated videogame-entry in the famous Aliens-Universe titled “Aliens: Colonial Marines”. As most of you know, it turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments of the last generation, next to “Duke Nukem Forever” and the 2006 “Sonic the Hedgehog” reboot. A horrible story that could’ve directly come from a teenagers’ Internet fan-fiction. A bland presentation, with terrible art direction. Even running on an actually decades old engine (Unreal Engine 2), and featuring gameplay that would’ve already been considered not very well done back when ‘Aliens vs. Predator 2' came out on PC in 2001. But, I digress.
“Alien: Isolation”, however, appeared as a breath of fresh air. It impressed early on with fantastic graphics and a really neat concept. As I mentioned before, there was a lot of scepticism around, because of Colonial Marines’ very impressive early showing, and what we ultimately got. However, as time went on, the game shaped up to look as if it was not only going to be the best Alien-based video game out there, but also as one of the better games of last year. Did it deliver?
Yes. Yes, it thankfully did.
This Game, from the get-go, emits a special feeling as all the logos look as if they were played off an old VCR. You’re dropped into this just breathtakingly beautiful start screen and hear that iconic indescribable noise. You know, that weird ambient noise from the first Alien? From that point, you’re already sucked into it if you like the Aliens franchise.
The Sevastopol hovers elegantly alone in the distance.
The Game starts out rather simple; you explore this vessel called the Torrens, where you meet the team members of your little expedition. You’re all working for Weyland-Yutani and are heading for the Space Station Sevastopol, to retrieve the newly found black box of the Nostromo. Yes, the same Nostromo Ellen Ripley was on in Alien.
You’re playing as her daughter, Amanda, who joined this whole farce to find out what happened to her mother. Things quickly get out of hand, once they try to board Sevastopol. An unexpected explosion during boarding splits the team all across the station.
This Cutscene is accentuated by the wonderful sound design, as it only lets you hear what Amanda could actually hear, giving you a really Isolated (hah) feeling. On-board the Sevastopol Station, you quickly realise that something has gone terribly wrong, as everything is oddly deserted.
For quite a while, you’re walking around Sevastopol slowly, reading news logs on computers and hearing nothing but fantastically done ambient noise. You hear every little thing that you would hear on such a ship. You might even hear a cat meowing in the distance at some point, which would probably be a reference to the best character in the entire Aliens-Universe: Johnsey.
The fantastic minimalistic HUD and the – even though they’re sometimes close to the uncanny valley - visuals simply make this game a real pleasure to look at. These are some of the best textures and lighting effects I have seen in ages.
The art direction is amazing, perfectly capturing the low-fi vibe of the Aliens-Universe. From the lights, radio, music, sounds, screen and panels - everything looks like it’s directly out of the 70s, and sounds like out of the 70s. Everything is done manually, so no touch screens and weird holograms like in Prometheus. A setting that is not often seen in videogames, let alone movies nowadays.
But, this also brings in issues, which I’ll get back to.
The level of detail in this game is also pretty spectacular; It’s amazing to me that they even managed to pull it off. Not one single room is left untouched or feels simply copy/pasted.
An empty control room on the Sevastopol
It takes a while until you encounter someone else: Scared Humans. They’re prone to attack, but don’t shoot immediately. Hell, maybe they’re just scared and don’t do anything at all. And some take no chances. And this is one of the things that makes this games so great. All the humans on board do not feel like random NPCs for you to take down. They feel like Humans. You do not have fight anyone. You might go around the corner and find a scared man, who suddenly finds himself pointing a gun at you, telling you just to go away. All of this happens without ever taking the control away from you through a scripted sequence.
As time goes on you start to realise that something is here, that stalks you. But of course, you never see it. This builds a massive amount of tension up to the point where the Alien appears for the first time about 2 to 3 hours in.
And that’s when the game not only truly starts to grip you, but also begins.
The Alien is unrelenting, strong, and intelligent. You can’t kill it; However, it can kill you in a single hit. The Motion Tracker becomes your very best friend, as it shows local movement. However, even that doesn’t make not make you feel a lot safer, as you see the dot suddenly rushing towards you, only to realise it’s a level above or below you. Which can lead to really intense situations.
And if you make too much noise, the Alien might realise where you are and set up an ambush. Coming out of one of the many hiding places Sevastopol offers. Not only that, but the motion tracker blurs your vision. Your vision strictly focuses on the Motion Tracker, and not what is behind it.
That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in the tight and dark places of Sevastopol, it truly is, as you need to pinpoint where exactly the alien is to move forward. While having the motion tracker equipped you can press the back bumper to either focus on it or the background.
The game also lacks auto-save, so if you die, you have to go all the way back to the last saving point, which sometimes might be up to 20 minutes apart - if you do not look around.
Yeah, this might sound annoying to some, and according to a certain other review there’s a 40-minute span possible between the save points, which is just not true. You have to be blind or deaf, as the save points make loud noises you can’t overhear. Either that or just followed your objectives’ direction arrow blindly. I’d even say that there’s too many save points around. Exploration is key, to say the least.
It’s right there. Don’t tell me you can’t see it?
You’ll gather and can craft many tools during the lengthy 15 to 20-hour campaign. Like a Noisemaker, that lures the Alien into a specific direction. You could also throw it in the direction of other humans, so that the Alien starts attacking them, and thus giving a major timely advantage.
You can also do this by simply shooting with a gun in their direction and then simply quickly – and quietly – moving away, as they start to shoot at you and search you, making noise. Noise always attracts the alien.
Similar to Metroidvania-Games you won’t be able to enter doors, regions and what not until you find the right tools. It is tense standing next to a door, which you have to cut loudly open, as you hear the Alien walking around above you or screaming in the distance. Nowhere is safe. Even at the saving points, the game will simply warn you that an enemy is nearby.
However, later on, you’ll get into a region where there is no Alien to deal with. This is where combat against Androids becomes prevalent. (Although you already will have fought them before.) The Androids are strong, almost feeling immortal, unless you find the right tools. They slowly walk down the hallways, grab you and throw you around. They’ll also call close-by androids to gang up on you – sometimes even flank you. Unlike the Alien, though, they do not one-hit kill you.
The Game then starts mixing both the Android-Combat and the Alien, creating a weird dynamic where you sometimes have to take down an Android, while being scared that the Alien might be right around the corner.
It is better not to fight them at all and to save your found and crafted items for when there really is no other way around a confrontation.
The Androids are quite ominous themselves. Unlike the ones we know from the movies, who were made by Weyland-Yutani, these Seegson Androids are supposed to be cheap, mass-market products. And that’s exactly what they look like. With their eerily not-moving rubber faces (especially next to the quite emotive humans in this game) and their before mentioned slow walk. They look so fragile, but are able to throw you across the room, as if you were nothing but a mere pretty doll. They walk through flames and continue to chase you regardless of them being set on fire.
A Seegson android - just a bit too close for my liking.
And this is the point where I realise I have been writing so much about this game and didn’t even properly get into the gameplay yet. That’s how memorable this entire package was to me. Now, as I mentioned before, the low-fi art is great, but it comes with a con that might ironically feel really dated for some players.
Buttons and Switches.
You’ll be pressing a lot of buttons and switches.
They try to spice things up adding special movements - like pressing both sticks down for a switch that requires both hands - and it’s a really considerable effort - and you’ll love it if you’re into the universe, as that’s just how it is. But, for someone whose patience are low, and is just here to enjoy a good game and doesn’t really care for the universe, it might be really annoying already early on.
I should also note that – in case it wasn’t clear before - this game is really slow. There’s a lot of waiting, walking and hiding. Not because it tries to artificially lengthen the game, but because that’s the style of this world and the way it tries to immerse you in it.
Now, I already mentioned how the Alien behaves, and a few gameplay elements surrounding it, but not the meat it of it all, although you might’ve come to the conclusion already: This is almost a pure stealth game. You have to be nimble and fast, yet not loud. You have to hide in lockers - sometimes even have to hold your breath, as the Alien seeks you out, and might stand right before said locker – or under tables, closets, even behind chairs.
Not only is that already really tense in the first the place, but both the Alien and the Androids can still find you in your hiding spots, even if you hid directly in their field of view, or have made a lot of noise going to your hiding spot. More so the Alien, than the Androids.
But you aren’t defenceless either: You’ll be able to craft smoke bombs, and Molotov-Cocktails to obscure the view or scare the Alien away respectively. But even that isn’t guaranteed to work. The Alien isn’t dumb. If it’s a hallway with just one path, it’ll get you one way or the other. The Molotov must be nicely thrown as well, otherwise it’ll just run through the flames.
And the best part is, the Alien learns. If you start to overuse a method, it starts realising that it keeps coming from you. The one person who keeps escaping. And it’ll start applying different tactics to get you.
Yes, there are even little details in the lockers.
All in all, this is an amazing experience. Not only is this the moodiest and tense game I have played since Silent Hill 2 (and yes, that list includes Dead Space and Amnesia), but one of the better games I have played in general.
There have been games that tackled a similar concept, like the Amnesia series or Outlast, and the not killable, endlessly chasing enemy has been done before (Resident Evil 3), however, none came close to this feeling of being terrified and having such fun and satisfaction before.
And unlike those, this game doesn’t need to distort your screen when the monster is coming, and it doesn’t need loud creepy noises or jump scares to scare you. Although, the game isn’t void of jump scares either.
It scares because of its marvellous design. On top of that, it also offers a lengthy and quite challenging campaign. Maybe sometimes too challenging. This game is meant to be played on Hard-Mode. Even the developers themselves recommend Hard-Mode. If you do not like to be challenged in terms of problem-solving, I certainly wouldn’t recommend this title.
And while I have been raving about the title, I do have one complaint. And it only fits that I bring it up at the end of the Review, because I’m talking about the ending.
You’ll get dropped into this epic and intense final level, with a really satisfying ending — but there’s one small segment after that level. An Epilogue, if you will... which, unfortunately, hints at a sequel.
Now, while this might have been a fantastic game, I doubt it could sustain itself for another go. This certainly should’ve been a one-off title - but if they wait for long enough, the lust for Alien will certainly return.
I may have no writing degree, but trust me when I say what Creative Assembly created here, for me, is not just the best Aliens-based game out there, but one of the better games of 2014.