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.
We'd worried that the Alien encounters would be a one-trick pony that'd bore after a while with their repetition. They don't. We were too busy being terrified every time: boredom would be a luxury.
The game's pacing is such that you seldom get moments when you can unclench your buttocks and relax, and these are the thinest, shortest slither of a breather. Barring one particular stretch, the Alien is a constant threat to your world. If it's not wandering the corridors looking for you, it's skittering in the air vents above your head, and even then you learn very quickly to navigate round any ceiling opening as you walk past.
It's appearance is more heavily reliant on player action, though there is the odd time when it automatically comes down the vents above for theatrical purposes. Any loud noise can bring it down, so you spend a lot of the game crouch-crawling.
Nearly every room and corridor has a duct opening in the ceiling, and even if you're a room away, it's speed is such it'll be where you are in a matter of moments, though CA allow a tell-tale thud and roar to indicate it has landed into your space. And the complete bastards that they are, they start introducing areas with smashed glass on the floor, making it a nightmare to sneak through. (They also introduce something else as well that we won't say for fear of spoiling it, but it made our hearts nearly punch out of our chests.)
As with the other enemies, there are some limitations to give the player a slight chance of survival. It'll sniff at the air holes of cabinets and closets you're in, but if you pull back and hold your breath, it'll soon move on. There'll be tiny corners of rooms it'll choose not to walk by if you're crouched there, or you'll be given enough time to crouch-crawl round a desk if starts walking round from the opposite side of you. You need to embrace the fiction, but forgive the limitations of the AI.
The much-vaunted learning curve of that AI is interesting to behold. Repeatedly use the same distraction device, such as the noise emitter, and it'll start having a lesser effect on the Alien's attention span. There was one point that we hit an emergency override button on a door to stop the creature coming through a trio of times - on the third press we heard it jump into an overhead duct behind the door, and a second later it'd dropped down behind us and speared us with its tail.
However, there were sequences that the length of time it spent on our level felt directly proportional to how important the current objective was, lingering much longer than it would if it hadn't spotted anything normally. Most likely intentional, but it did lead to moments of frustration as we awaited an eventual break in its patrol to make it to the next hiding spot.
Truthfully we're happier dealing with the erratic nature of the Alien than the methodical synths. The slow walk and glowing eyes on dead faces are the true terror of the experience, their intoning of the virtues of their creators (which have dual meanings given their killer rampages) a horrific counterpart to the casual brutality of their actions, and a new variant introduced later in the game makes them the toughest enemies to tackle as well.
In comparison, the humans are weak in their characterisation. The loading screen tips hint at something we never see: reaction to your presence dependent on your approach. We thought that would lead to a variety of encounters, but all end up trying to shoot us on the spot before we've even raised a weapon. Nicely though, in a divergence from usual first-person adventure tactics, we feel compelled to get past without injury to them. It didn't always work, but we tried.
A few late story beats aside, AI routines are different every time you restart, making it impossible to second-guess were enemies will be, or where they'll be patrolling. Restarts are many, death returning you to your last saved checkpoint, represented in the world via phone terminals. They're usually not too far from your last step, but factoring in the length of time you spend hiding, they feel a world away. The decision for manual save points has to be applauded though: it makes you weigh up every move before you take it, and a titanic relief when you reach the safety of the next booth.
TOO LONG, TOO SHORT
It's amazing in retrospect that Creative Assembly manage to sustain our level of investment and fear for so long. But it's almost funny that a game we worried about being too short at the preview stage ultimately overstays its welcome.
Admittedly, that rough eighteen hour stretch can be shortened considerably if you subtract the time spent cowering in closets, under tables, and there are times - brilliantly - when the game offers a bait and switch as to what you think is the onset of its final act.
But then the trick repeats, and repeats. The experience, despite the continuing razor-sharp tension of being hunted, starts to lose its luster in the final few hours. The open first and second acts are for the most strong work, but after a certain series of events in the last third, we fully expected a change of pace with the cue of a countdown that'd be in keeping with the cinematic climaxes.
Instead, we return to the snail's pace of before, and experience growingly preposterous sequences that can't shake the feeling that they're padding, a suspicion that grows as they're a uncomfortable fit with what's come before, and feel weaker in design.
Games may be more about the journey than the destination, but that's less true of story-driven adventures - we're working towards that ending.
Isolation's conclusion is the weakest part of the package. Criminally short, confusingly vague, we're left wondering if a cinematic sequence was missing. The build-up had looked promising, and we'd have been happy with a strong echo to the canon finishers of before, and needed it, a release after nearly twenty hours of frayed nerves.
Yet it never happens. Which feels bizarre, given right up to then, this was a near-perfect homage to the best of the franchise. No spoilers, but it's ambiguous enough to offer a return to this corner of the universe if they so wanted. But for an ending, right here, right now, it's puzzling, even disappointing.
It's definitely what lingers in the mind as you watch the credits, and that dissatisfaction takes a while to shift. But taken as a whole, thinking back on the entirety of the past eighteen hours, there's definitely much more good than bad. This is a tie-in that we not only deserved, but one we thought we'd never get.
Only Rocksteady's Arkham series matches its quality in licence representation, though Isolation arguably betters Arkham for the purity of its vision. Because Rocksteady could pick and choose from 75 years of the Batman universe to create its series. Creative Assembly crafted a game based on one movie (arguably two) from thirty years ago as inspiration.
This is as much as game of the first movie as a standalone product. As an Alien fan, as a horror fan, this is worth experiencing. It's just a shame that ending will get fans talking more than Ridley Scott's Prometheus did, for the questions it raises.
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