Apologies for the lateness of this review. Alien: Isolation's been out in the wild for just over 48 hours already, but I only just managed to clamber out from under the table I'd been cowering for the past fortnight and actually finish the game. The night of release was the last of a series of evenings that began two weekends ago when PS4 retail code dropped through my door.
My play style for this review was practically vampiric, awaiting sunset each day to play. Then it was curtains pulled, lights turned off, chair dragged close to TV, and sound toggled high. I decided against a headset. Partly because my girl, as much a fan of this franchise as I am, sat alongside me to watch, partly because my heart could only take so many scares anyway. I'm not good with horror games as it is, but I needed to do this one right. It's Alien, after all.
I give you this context because it's the best way the title's played: in small amounts (and by small I mean a few hours at a time) over a succession of nights. Given the amount of time you'll spend hiding and repeating sections due to death, that time isn't as generous as it first appears. Playing it like this lessens some of the game's weaknesses, and elevates the experience elsewhere. That said, playing in the cold light of day could still tempt a reactor leak of the brown trousers variety.
ODE TO GREATNESS
Alien: Isolation is a first-person adventure that favours stealth and diversion tactics over straight shooting to survive your trek through the deep space station Sevastapol. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter to the movie franchise's Ellen, as developer Creative Assembly smartly mines a, until now, unexplored part of the series canon: the recovery of the Nostromo flight recorder, and a daughter's need to find out what happened to her missing mother.
It's not a perfect game. It's flawed in some respects, and the less you're invested in the fiction, the more obvious the problems are. But there's no denying for the main, it's an ardent love letter to the 1979 Ridley Scott film, and there's no movie tie-in title past or present that betters it.
This is a respectful, accurately pitched project that washes away any lingering bitterness that was the result of the travesty that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. Though you can't help but wonder how amazing this modern day double-bill of the classic film series would have been had Marines been created with similar reverence to the source material as this.
THE THREE WAYS OF DEATH
You arrive to find a station decaying and most of its inhabitants missing or murdered, and what few are left welcome you with the barrel of a gun instead of a handshake. As you piece together the events of what's happened prior to your landing and try and locate the flight recorder, you've to deal with murderous androids that have gone rogue and a familiar, hulking behemoth with cheetah speed and keen senses that hunts you for most of your time on the station.
These are a trio of threats that dealing with becomes prime focus of your time in the game. They're overlaid on what is otherwise routine adventure mechanics - hit switches, fire up generators, unlock doors - that without the fear factor would be rudimentary processes. There are light, time-based puzzles as you hack equipment with a handheld tuner that has you punching in a randomised sequences of symbols in the right order, or solving computer terminal programs with zero tutorial to explain how they work or what they mean (and they're better for it as a result), but for the most it's repeated jaunts from A to B, without shitting your pants or dying on the way. You'll do both. A lot.
The majority of the time, your path is fairly linear, though individual areas have a few side rooms and corridors to diversify your path through them, but later in the game there's a degree of backtracking that is assuaged by the fact that the locations have altered due to story events, and certain rooms are now unlockable with newer equipment. Unforunately collectable station blueprints which update your pause menu map don't highlight which areas are yet to be explored.
CABIN(ET) WITH A VIEW
The environment work has to be commended, retro-engineered from set designs of the Nostromo to mimic that low-fi living in deep space, a station built to sustain life by a company looking to keep costs low, for a workforce who's downtime entertainment is of little importance. We see repeating room designs for android stations, living quarters, little in the way of furnishing. The uniformity makes it hard to differentiate many of the separate station sections. An annoyance to begin - no lush diversity or high-concept sci-fi of the likes of Rapture here - but you learn to appreciate the portrayal and Creative Assembly's decision to build it so. It's a perfect representation of the fiction it's based on.
Yet authentic environment detailing will soon become background noise as you instead look only for those telltale signs of what hiding spots are available. Underneath tables, clothes closets, filing cabinets become long-term refuge from threats. Get eyeballed by 99% of the population and you're on you way to knocking on death's door: these are where you'll spend most of the game.
It's a testament to Creative Assembly's work in creating a terrifying experience that you never tire of seeing the world mainly through a grate or at ankle view. Equally in seeing most of the world in constant blur as your focus instead is concentrated on your handheld motion tracker at the bottom left of the screen.
It's this that indicates objective direction as well as enemy location via the iconic green-coloured dots and beeps. It becomes your eyes to the world and you find yourself theorising enemy patrol patterns by dots and distance measurements rather than with your own eyes, the tracker both protective charm and safety blanket.
STEALTH AND PUZZLES
The trio of man, machine and xenomorph all rely on sight and sounds to track you, though their awareness ranges are different. CA drop you and them into multiple situations - tight corridors with parallel walkways, open areas with multiple floors, small interconnecting rooms - and forces you to work out a way round them, stacking and reconfiguring the trio together so their strengths and weaknesses become a constantly moving, interweaving puzzle to solve.
Androids and Alien will kill humans, but ignore each other. The Alien cannot be killed, only distracted or temporarily scared away, and will zero in on your location if you make any loud noise while dealing with the other two factions. Androids block any melee attack and will bludgeon you to death when within arm's reach, while humans for the most will start shooting on you getting near.
It's a somewhat clear rock, paper, scissors mentality in engaging with these different threats, but the sense of tension, of impotence in these situations overrides any clear-headedness in surviving them without issue.
While you do gain access to weapons, their low ammo count and discharge noise are so they become unwanted last resort rather than immediate solution. Distraction items such as noise emitters and smoke bombs are better, even if they only temporally disable a threat, but even parts for these aren't common - and the more powerful items such as molotovs and pipe bombs need a lot of spare parts to build.
Thus secondary to finding a bolt hole on entering a new location is a scan for a rewire station. These wall-mounted input devices allow you to temporary disable security cameras and their alarms, disengage air purification systems and such. Good idea, but these felt hit and miss during our run-through, as only some offered an apparent, beneficial change to our immediate situation.
As with terminals and tuners, using these doesn't pause the game. You'll find your fingers shaking in fear and missing a tuner frequency just as you're finishing the code, or mistime code inputs as your ears peel back to hear a tell-tale sign of a returning enemy, as your brain argues for you to flee and hide instead. Stealth becomes key, and as any threat can kill you easily, your stomach will be constantly knotted due to stress. It's a continuing dichotomy that, like the cowering and tracker-checking, never gets old.
In fact, it's worth mentioning here how fantastic the soundscape is. The original Alien OST is reused to great effect, with the odd cue to signify the smallest success (which in the frayed experience of Isolation, sound more delicious than an Achievement or Trophy unlock pop when it comes) or the sudden onset of danger. But Isolation also spends as much time letting the settling sounds of the station, footfalls and hissing, or cold monotone voices be the audio backdrop, and it's all the more terrifying for it. One excellent design decision: feeding the motion tracker audio out of the PS4 controller speaker, and using the pad's light bar to mirror the tracker's flicking screen.