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Alien, Isolation: A Review
Alien: Isolation was released on 7th October 2014 for PC, Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 4 and Playstation 3.
About the Author
John Roberts is a video game critic on HubPages and YouTube, reviewing that he sees worthy of the former, whilst reviewing Playstation One games on the latter channel. When he isn't raising an army of wolves to conquer the dungeons of Minecraft, he likes to conjure up random phrases to greet people with every morning.
The last time he was involved in Isolation was when he was in high school for failing to behave in class. There were no aliens, but he managed to escape shortly after pretending a chestburster was inside him and was ready to evacuate his person.
Game over man, game over!
Long has the demand for a survival horror game based around the Alien universe existed, and yet attempts to make any genre off the films' successes have been met with unfavourable reviews. Aliens: Colonial Marines had critically stunted gamers' opinions on the films' chances as a video gaming series, and all hopes of seeing something like Alien capitalising on the success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent were minimal. Creative Assembly, supported by Sega, have realised that people are still interested in horror, and that the myth of it being dead on consoles was just that: a myth. Next time the industry is scared that something is going to go down in popularity, they should t
Alien: Isolation is based 15 years after the events of the original film where Weyland-Yutani have been searching tirelessly for the missing ship, The Nostromo. The game's playable protagonist is Amanda Ripley, daughter to one of film's strongest female leads Ellen, on a desperate hunt to find out just what happened a decade and a half ago. When she and two others leave the ship to make personal contact with the ghost ship Sevestapol, a blast cuts off communications between Ripley and her crew. Her only chances of finding her mother and making it out alive are to scavenge and sneak in order to find the black box from the Nostromo, and see what really happened.
Alien: Isolation plays less like the survival horror games of old with tank controls and relying on horrifying texture quality to shock you to your core, and more like sophisticated titles such as Outlast, giving the enemies competent AI and leaving the player responsible for everything that goes wrong. Instead of dying because you lost to a wrestling match with your own controller, Isolation has you die because you failed to hide under a desk when the Alien stomped around the room, or your noise maker backfired when it ricocheted off the wall and alerted nearby attackers. Stealth plays an incredibly important role when navigating the retro-futuristic space hulk as all enemies have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to detecting Amanda. Crouching and moving is novice stuff, as later on you'll be expected to make good use of leaning around surfaces instead of hobbling around to peer at the intergalactic stalkers, using the environment to control air purification and security cameras, even going as far as using salvaged items to craft gadgets in guerrilla warfare-like scenarios. It's quite astonishing, going farther than just requiring batteries for your torch and health kits like most of these titles like to. But here's where the game starts to make bad use of good mechanics. Stealth isn't so much as important but enforced, where so much as walking will cause enemies to be far more aware, and the Alien finding you almost immediately. It's not so much as a punishment for trying to cheaply get through areas, but more a punishment for having fun. I can say without hyperbole that 90% of your game time is going to be crouching and waddling along, and that there were a total of three times when I needed to sprint to escape a pursuer. The concept of finding walking fun is more horrifying than some of the enemies in this game, but only because "stealth" is not optional but mandatory.
While the screenshots and videos in advertisement may show Amanda brandishing a revolver, stun baton or flamethrower, these weapons won't do you much good in any situation let alone against the real threat of the Sevastopol. It's like as though Alien is too afraid to let its players go completely unarmed, so provides ineffective tools to make its audience think they stand a chance. The sad truth is that these weapons aren't "situational" or "risky but rewarding"; using a revolver or flamethrower on an android is like trying to scare away felines with catnip, whereas the Alien seems to be impervious to all kinds of damage, though mildly intimidated by flames. The only ones that are certain to fall to your firepower are scavenging humans and by the time you face them again you'll have nearly finished the game.
It's normal to expect horror games to have puzzles and mini-games for progress, but when the same Fisher-Price playsets are used to make up the bulk of the gameplay it becomes a chore. Holding down LT and RT together, before pushing down on both thumsticks, or moving the left stick to the right is so common you'd swear quick time events were a company that had a partnership with Sega. Not that it's bad, it's somewhat visceral and makes excellent use of weight. Everything in the game feels heavy and when you're going to be interacting with levers and metal hatches that need to be forced away, it's good to get that sense of empowerment. Not only that, but it also makes Amanda feel like she's putting some elbow grease into things as opposed to just casually flicking a switch. That's all fine, but after two hours you begin to wonder when it'll stop.
The mini-games were OK to begin with such as hacking or cutting through a door with a blowtorch, but when the upgrades for them were mandated it made them less enjoyable throughout. As you upgrade your hack tool, you have less time to complete the match-up mini-game (or press a button to get a moving dot to align with a bar) whereas the blowtorch allows you to cut through certain doors and do it faster, but far later throughout the game. By the time I came across old hubs where I'd finally be able to use the upgrade, any enthusiasm I had when first come across that place was long gone. The only good thing I can say about all this is that it happens in real time, so if there's any enemies nearby you have to complete the challenge before they spot you and pull you away or kill you. A great idea that an intermediate player will get their head around, but you'll easy adapt to it before the game ends.
"I can say without hyperbole that 90% of your game time is going to be crouching and waddling along,"
I'm not sure whether it's a good or bad thing that the Alien isn't the only threat in the game, considering how all of them are worthy of being feared in their own ways. Hostile humans are armed with handguns most - if not all - of the time and can take a sizeable chunk out of your life bar, whereas the androids are terrifying not because of their attacks but because of their appearance; their rubbery skin is loose and plucky, and their eyes dormant yet demanding to find someone interfering with their business. In fact, the Working Joes are the most fearsome of all; their animations are perfect and their phrases are creepy as they imply that your life is little more than a distraction to their work. If I hadn't seen Doctor Who's autons when I was a young 'un, I'd be bricking myself at the sight of these guys.
Like I said before the Alien doesn't take the spotlight in the Sevastopol, but that doesn't mean he's not worth mentioning. The animation work here is the best I've seen in an Alien game, similar to what we had seen from Colonial Marines before it went live. During my time playing I never thought of it like it's another player, as some have made passing comments about, but rather a wild animal that's just wandered onto the set replacing a pretender. It moves naturally amongst the rooms and corridors searching like a curious elk, but we can see the serpent that it truly is. I couldn't help but watch it out in the open because of how beautiful it was to behold. The animations could've been better, and I envy the PC players who can fully appreciate it at 60 frames per second, but I've never felt my heart throb quite as much as I did watching the galaxy's most dangerous creature walk. The sad thing is that the Alien, for all its grace, is a bumbling oaf. Very rarely does the extra terrestrial being manage to catch me near its sides or under a desk (which I thought it'd be good at), and it didn't take much advantage of vents to drag me up or even crawl along the walls. The bipedal monstrosity isn't that effective a villain because it's so easily fooled, and after a few times I just didn't care if it'd catch me or not. This leads to Alien Isolation's biggest crime, if it can be called that.
Isolation isn't really all that scary. The jump scares are there were you least expect them, but suspenseful, lasting moments are clumped up at the beginning before you just want to make progress. The aspect of taking my time and planning escape routes in case of immediate danger doesn't exist because enemies arrive and.... that's it. They just patrol and go after you when you catch their attention. There's no need to run away from monsters and wait in a cupboard the moment you come across them like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but whenever you are caught you'll do just that but without any sort of adrenaline rush. What could take 20 or so seconds of sprinting can become 20 minutes of sneaking, backtracking and getting lost in vents or alternate rooms.
This isn't to say that the game's easy, but the urge to get better like in a difficult game isn't quite here; deaths and slow progress lead more to frustration than a sense of reward for getting past a tough patrol. The game doesn't have an autosave feature, but rather it expects players to go to certain save points in the map and take a few seconds to manually save (see Resident Evil's typewriters). I'll be one of the few to say that this is a neat idea, albeit one I hated when I first played RE3: Nemesis, but it's the cause of so much frustration and boredom. You can't even think about taking a break before coming up to one of the emergency clock in booths, and that makes the game all the more exhausting to pick up and play.
"Using a revolver or flamethrower on an android is like trying to scare away felines with catnip."
If Alien consisted only of sneaking from enemies, I'd probably have traded in this game long before completing it and ignored most of the effort that went into recapturing the films to the best of the dev teams' abilities. Thankfully there's two gameplay features that make this game more than a walking simulator through an Alien-themed museum. Crafting doesn't add much to the gameplay, at least not until after the half-way point when armed humans are more common and "the creature" has made itself well established, but it still has its uses nonetheless. Amanda can find components throughout the environment similar to crafting survival games to make items such as Molotov cocktails, noise makers, pipe bombs and medi-packs, all of which you should understand. Crafting is simple yet effective, whereas the items you create are not; the most crafted item in my playthrough was the health kit because guns did a lot of damage and android melee attacks weren't easily shrugged off. Noise makers were the second most created item to attract the Alien in order to wreck the woefully underpowered human attackers while I sneaked throughout the area as best I could. But the pipe bomb and the Molotov cocktail I only used once, both times being a waste because my targets were spread out too far apart. An interesting concept, but one that isn't fully realised - especially with the upgrades. They just don't work.
The only other thing that Isolation does to make its stretched out campaign more enjoyable is the addition of lore objects throughout the environment. Despite the I.D tags being fairly brainless (merely providing a character's name and mugshot, exciting stuff right?), the emails and audio logs you can find breath incredible amounts of life into dormant gameplay. The stories themselves don't begin and end in ways similar to Bioshock with recurring characters, but the tape recorders and typed messages can provide intriguing characters with different motives even if you only hear about them once. It's great that this second rate rival to Weyland-Yutani, Seegson - the creators of the Sevastopol -, gets so much depth with its hidden lore items, going one step further in showing that games based on movies can tell their own stories and introduce new themes. If the lore doesn't interest you though, Alien: Isolation is hard to recommend.
Possibly the best thing I can say about Alien: Isolation is its art style, particle effects and character models. The Sevastopol mimics everything from the classic film, from monochrome computer screens to truckloads of flashing buttons and lights on consoles. There wasn't ever a time where I felt this wasn't an authentic Alien experience, and the phrase "playing the film" remained on my mind for the entire duration. What bugged me was the choppy, stiff animations which - as said earlier - could've been helped with a larger framerate, but that's forgiveable when the artwork is so astounding. Just when I thought Shadow of Mordor was the best looking game this year, I think it's safe to say that Isolation takes the trophy.
The sound design, for the few times you'll hear it, is just as astounding. The game's music, be it playing during a chase or signalling an upcoming threat, has to be some of the most atmospheric I've heard in a horror game. Kudos to the voice actors too who try to make the most out of some fairly awkward lines and battle to make context out of the script. Unfortunately there's little sounds that stand out as original or unique, and no fan of the IP should go without the Smartgun sound in their Alien game.
Final Verdict: Only recommended for hardcore Alien fans
Get away from her!
Alien: Isolation had the potential for a good start for survival horror on next-gen consoles but it fails to rival the likes of Indie titles such as Outlast or Amnesia in either jump scares, pacing, puzzles, narrative or long term effects. There's rarely a sense of dread that should be constant in a horror game, and while I found myself sobbing whenever an android hovered near me as I was hiding, the deaths are anticlimactic and successfully evading the Sevastopol natives feels unrewarding. I felt as though all of the ideas present could've worked much better in a far shorter game; I'd played for eighteen hours which is impressive for any game that isn't an RPG, but most of that time consisted of going back to older rooms to hide, and slowly making my way to the next objective. In a four hour game this could've worked, but it overstays its welcome and the ending's effectiveness was dampened by my fatigue of the game. The only thing that saves it from being a one star game is its visuals, as the lighting, particle effects and stunning graphical fidelity makes its chest rise and fall, but that doesn't give it any other signs of life.
This isn't so much a horror game than a terror game, giving cheap thrills for a short while which would work had the game been a lot shorter. But for £40 you're getting more quantity over quality, and I'd rather refer you to cheaper, better Indie horror titles. My recommendation is to wait for the inevitable game of the year release with all the survival mode maps and Crew Expendable content, so you can get the full experience. That includes the hardcore Alien fans, as I can only imagine the novelty of the perfect organism being in a Nostromo-esque environment lasting a tad longer for them. A good start for an idea we've longed for, but doesn't have the energy to fully realise it.
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