Alien: Isolation: Long Night's Journey into Hell
Heart of Darkness
The halls of Sevastopol station are shadowy and abandoned, but you know you are not alone. You crouch beneath a desk, the eerie silence disturbed only by the whirr of broken machinery and the reptilian slithering of the monstrous predator stalking in the vents above you. And slowly, in a hiss of steam and smoke, it descends.
This is the world of Alien: Isolation, the first stab at survival-horror from developer The Creative Assembly, a studio primarily known for strategy games like Rome: Total War. Playing Isolation is like listening to a great musician cover your favorite song. The game is a painstakingly crafted and reverent homage to everything that made the first film unforgettable, with just enough tricks up its sleeve to keep the proceedings fresh. The plot is simple yet compelling, and smart enough not to get in the way of the main attraction, which is simply the chance to inhabit this dark and fascinating universe brought so vividly to life.
Chronologically, the game’s narrative is set fifteen years after the events of Alien, when the Nostromo mysteriously vanished. As Amanda Ripley, you embark on the derelict space station Sevastopol, searching for the Nostromo’s flight recorder that might contain answers to your mother’s disappearance. Predictably, things go less than according to plan, leading to a harrowing fight for survival that grips the player in a chokehold from start to finish. Alien: Isolation is not perfect, but The Creative Assembly have more than done justice to the essence of the Alien franchise, and the fact that this is the studio’s first attempt at horror only makes their achievement that much more remarkable.
The environments in Alien: Isolation are stunningly well designed
I Won't Lie to You About Your Chances...
On a technical level, the game is a masterpiece of design. With Isolation, Creative Assembly have gone for a back-to-basics approach, emulating the look and feel of the 1979 film. Sevastopol’s retro-futuristic aesthetic closely mirrors the Nostromo, right down to the bulky, primitive computers, cryogenic sleeping pods, and space suit containers.
Every aspect of the game, from the pulse-pounding score, to the repetitive drip-drip of water from the ceiling, has been calculated to induce paranoia and dread. The voice acting is equally impressive, particularly Andrea Deck’s performance as Amanda Ripley, which manages to convey precisely the right mixture of terror and scrappy resilience mirroring the player’s. Ripley is an immensely likable heroine, and her terrible case of Murphy’s Law is one that players can immediately empathize with.
If you’re ever unfortunate enough to wind up in a life-or-death struggle with a seven-foot tall beast from outer space, this is what it would be like.
Creative Assembly clearly understands that the “alien” referred to in the title refers not just to the creature itself, but the chilling dread of the unknown. Nothing could be more unknowable than the Xenomorph, a mysterious, extraterrestrial predator that stalks the player relentlessly throughout the lengthy campaign. Much work has gone into crafting the Xenomorph’s A.I, and it shows.The Alien is a cunning and extremely formidable foe, unpredictable in its behavior, capable of striking almost anytime and anywhere. It cannot be killed or harmed, only avoided, and the game is at its best when you find yourself locked in a cat-and-mouse struggle with the creature, hiding in a locker with bated breath as you wait for it to go away. If you’re ever unfortunate enough to wind up in a life-or-death struggle with a seven-foot tall beast from outer space, this is what it would be like.
Isolation's gameplay is straightforward and at time slightly repetitive
"The voice acting is... impressive, particularly Andrea Deck’s performance as Ripley, which manages to convey precisely the right mixture of terror and scrappy resilience...Ripley is an immensely likable heroine, and her terrible case of Murphy’s Law is one that players can immediately empathize with."
Give Me Fuel, Give Me Fire
Unfortunately, Alien: Isolation’s game-play is less inspired. Most of the player’s time is spent recovering lost components, hacking terminals, repowering generators, and flipping switches while struggling to evade the ever-watchful alien, edgy human survivors, and hostile androids called “Working Joes”. You are equipped with the standard arsenal of weapons, from shotguns, stun batons, and revolvers, to more exciting toys like the obligatory flamethrower and an ion torch that can burn through doors. Perhaps the game’s most fundamental tool is the motion tracker, a futuristic GPS system by way of the 1970s that steers you towards your objective and alerts you to the enemy’s position.
The flashing blip on your radar is one of the many instruments of terror Isolation uses against you, signifying the Xenomorph (or other foes) rapidly closing in. The motion tracker is also indispensable on a practical level, as it helps you circumnavigate the at times unnecessarily complicated labyrinth of Sevastopol. A rudimentary crafting system is also in place that allows you to build med-kits and makeshift weapons like pipe and smoke bombs and Molotov cocktails. The game goes out of its way to ensure that the player is never overpowered, instead feeling vulnerable, tense, and insecure. Complacency is the greatest danger, and as the game warns you during load screens, “Hiding is only a temporary solution”.
It's worth mentioning that the game has no auto-save feature aside from some crucial moments. Instead players must rely on save stations scattered throughout the environment, and close attention must be paid to their location to avoid the hassle of replaying sections over and over again. Ammo is frequently scarce, even on lower difficulties, and the mighty flamethrower is just a mild deterrent to the space monster hell-bent on killing you.
The Xenomorph is a terrifying foe
Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here
As far as character development is concerned, Isolation doesn’t offer much, but the bare-bones narrative is fleshed out by terminal entries and audio recordings a la Bioshock and Dead Space. Alien: Isolation is also a fairly long game that does veer into repetitive territory at times, particularly during its final act. Yet it remains compelling, thanks to the powerful, claustrophobic atmosphere and the player’s emotional investment in Ripley, which by the end of the game is enormous.
At worst, Isolation can feel like a slog, but these tedious segments are compensated for by some thrilling cinematic moments on par with any movie in this franchise. That said, this is a challenging game, even on the lowest difficulty settings, and at times almost sadistic in the way it tantalizes the player with the promise of freedom, only to have it snatched away at the last second. All things considered, Alien: Isolation is a relentless, grueling descent into hell that’s hard to describe as “fun”. Yet I found myself not only enjoying the game, but admiring the level of love and care that Creative Assembly poured into it. When Isolation is firing on all cylinders, it’s hard to imagine any Alien fan, or any fan of video games in general, being dissatisfied with what Creative Assembly has pulled off here. Its best sequences are among the most gripping and intense I’ve ever played.
"[Alien: Isolation] has set the benchmark for what a good Alien game, or any survival horror game, can and should be."
This game has set the benchmark for what a good Alien game, or any survival horror game, can and should be. In time we may see a sequel that refines Isolation’s core gameplay mechanics and the few elements that don’t quite work. Until then, we have Alien: Isolation, an intelligent, respectfully-made entry in an iconic and much beloved franchise. A great Alien game was long overdue, and on almost every front, Creative Assembly has delivered.