It has happened. Finally there is an Alien game out that is worthy of the license. Creative Assembly have done it with Alien Isolation. Sega has also amazingly backed this game even though Alien Colonial Marines was a missed opportunity.
Honestly – you should just stop reading this now and go buy this game. This is survival horror at its finest.
The story is a good one. You play Amanda Ripley, the daughter of that famous Alien hunting heroine, Ellen Ripley. The game is set fifteen years after the original Alien movie and Creative Assembly have done an amazing job of recreating and enhancing the amazing atmosphere Ridley Scott made just over thirty five years ago. Amanda Ripley, who works as an engineer, gets approached by a representative of the company to give her the news that the Nostromo Black Box has been found and handed over to a mining station called Sevestapol. The company representatives know that Amanda has been looking for her mother and offer her to come on the trip to retrieve the black box. This starts on you a huge 20-25 hour single player campaign that I feel has perfect pacing.
As you arrive after a long journey it becomes pretty apparent that things have not bode well on the mining station. I think some inspiration was definitely taken from Bioshock at the beginning of the game because as Amanda searches through the mining station for any survivors you definitely get a case of déjà vu. The once thriving Sevestapol Mining Station hints at a revolt and you’ll see shops closed and makeshift barricades indicating something definitely went wrong. Throughout the game audio logs and data terminals are found to help fill in some missing pieces as well. These little touches adds to the tension.
Your first little snippet of the Alien is quite impactful and through relevant cut scenes you feel Amanda’s fear. When the big guy actually shows up for real and the hunt begins I had my mouth in my throat. Creative Assembly have made H.R Giger’s creature very fluid and believable, and frankly, quite terrifying. The speed at which the creature moves means you really have to hide, and hide well. I will admit now that I am a fan of the Alien movie so to be able to play in a feature rich world that so accurately portrays the original movie, while providing plenty of references for those who love the film, is just genius. Creative Assembly have done their homework and it truly shows in this game. Just like a brilliant movie director, the developers know when to ramp up the suspense and when to slow burn to build up your sense of dread. This so far has been the only game where I have had to tell my wife not to sneak up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder for fear I’ll have a heart attack. I am not ashamed to admit I yelped out more than once when playing this game. You get load screens between levels via a nice VHS style homage that hails back to the time I used to watch Alien on video. This is the one example where I actually like loading screens as it gives you that much needed breather from the incredible tension.
What makes Alien Isolation even greater is that your resolve seems to harden as you progress just as Amanda’s does. The first time the Alien actually walked around a corner while I was crouched near a crate was genuinely terrifying. I just froze not knowing what to do. The Alien just looked down and me then it didn’t end well. After that first real encounter I found myself sitting at the game over screen wondering if I could put myself through that again. But patience and tactics are key and you do get to find some useful gadgets and weapons throughout the game that will aid you. The developers intentionally made it impossible for you to kill the Alien with the items you find and at best you’ll be able to scare it off a bit (when you find a flame-thrower you will have that in your hands almost all the time). Ammo is scarce however as Sevestopal station isn’t a military base. You do find a motion tracker quite early in the game and there is a really nice feature where you can focus on the background or the tracker with the press of a button. So if you suddenly hear the motion tracker sound off you can focus in the distance to properly see the incoming threat. It is great little features like this that enforce the developer’s love for this franchise.
The Alien is not the only threat in this game and this is what keeps things interesting. You will encounter other foes that sometimes you will have to confront, while others you’ll do you best to continue to hide. I won’t go into the other foes too much because it is better if you experience this yourself. They could almost call this game “The Hiding Simulator” because you can pretty much hide almost anywhere. I remember my joy at being able to hide under a desk or in a small cupboard for the first time. If you are in a crouch and move near a desk Amanda will duck down even further to fit. It is a nice stealth mechanic. You’ll actually have to adopt certain strategies when picking your hiding location. For example, if you hide in a locker or a cupboard you are well hidden but you have no room to hold one of your makeshift tools. You can craft makeshift tools in this game – like noise makers for example. These various makeshift tools can be upgraded via blueprints you find throughout the station. You will also have the added pressure of trying to hack into certain doors and other devices while knowing that the creature won’t be far behind. The upgrade system with the tools is fantastic because it will often unlock areas that earlier were simply inaccessible to you. Coming back to the titular creature, the game AI controlling the Alien is adaptive. You spend too much time in the air vents and the creature will start crawling in air vents to find you. This means no encounter is ever really the same. So I would recommend you don’t get too comfortable using the same strategy and keep mixing things up as much as possible.
The graphics are overall, excellent. The only slight gripe I have is that some of the human animations were a bit rigid at times, and on occasion the lip syncing didn’t match up at all. These are only small gripes though because overall the lighting and art design is simply top notch. Sound design is where this game truly shines. They have intentionally made the Alien a little noisier than in the films but that is so you have a game mechanic that indicates the alien is never far away. When you hear noises in the air ducts you will know straight away that the Alien isn’t far away. I’ll mention just a couple of other small niggles as well that break the flow a bit. There were a couple of times where a cut scene would have enhanced the game greatly. One sequence has you making it to an ambulance shuttle but instead of showing what happens next it goes straight to a loading screen. Even though the loading screens do give you a breather from the tension they can break the flow very occasionally as well. The only other minor complaint is that the developers recommend playing this on Hard. Because this is quite a different game to most first person shooters and definitely sits in the survival horror style of play I think perhaps this was a mistake. Playing on the “Normal” difficulty level for me was definitely hard enough, the difference being I found a lot more materials to craft home-made devices with. I think other critics might have reviewed this poorly because they attempted it on Hard and got overly discouraged. I think Normal is a great starting point. Now that I have completed it once it would make sense to try the bigger challenge.
So apart from the main single player campaign you might have a couple of other modes to try. If you bought Alien Isolation as a pre-order you were probably given the “Crew Expendable” mission. Most of the original actors from the film reprised their roles in this very short, but enjoyable bit of DLC (it only took me about 45 minutes on Normal difficulty). The other mode is the “Challenge” mode. In this mode you are given a series of tasks, and it is your job to make it out alive in the shortest time possible, points being awarded for doing more of the optional goals you are given. At this stage there is only one challenge map with the original game, with more to come over the next six months in the form of DLC. Each to their own I guess but I didn’t really get much out of the Challenge mode. There are leader boards for the challenges but I just don’t think I’ve got enough energy to revisit the world in a time pressure type challenge and I think Alien Isolation is all about the main single player story and taking your time to stay alive. I wouldn’t recommend trying the challenge mode or any other DLC until you have finished the main story.
So what Alien Isolation provides you with is an intense 20-25 hour single player campaign that will make you feel completely drained by the end, yet supremely satisfied you got through it. This lovingly crafted game is the best that has ever been done with the Alien license. In the days of multiplayer shooters, some of which forgo a single player campaign altogether, this game is one of those rare gems that focuses purely on the single player experience and it is a superb game as a result. Even if you are not an Alien fan and haven’t seen the movies you will thoroughly enjoy this game, particularly if you are into survival horror.
Reviewed on the Xbox One.
Score – 9 out of 10.