Alien: Isolation - Review
The opening two hours of Alien Isolation are utterly brilliant. Awakening aboard a ship bound for the mining vessel Sevastopol, Isolation's opening is a wonderful homage to Ridley Scott's Alien. It's an incredibly languid opening, you don't do much, other that hit the odd button and flip a few switches, but there's no need for anything else. Developers Creative Assembly are happy to simply drench you in the game's crushing atmosphere.
In this sense, Alien Isolation is a success. The crackling start-up of '70s sci-fi computers, complete with archaic CRT monitors and bright flashing lights, sets the mood and tone perfectly: this is an Alien game for Alien fans. It's also incredibly daring, who would think that a game of of this size would dare go for such a sedate opening, even a horror title? The years of Call of Duty has left its mark on game pacing and the fact that Alien Isolation rejects this is something that's worth commending.
Unfortunately, those first two hours are pretty much dispelled once you finally come face to face with the titular Alien; the game does a complete 180, and you're left playing a game that's neither original nor all that fun. As has been emphasized by Alien Isolation's marketing, the Alien here cannot be killed. Much like Outlast or Amnesia your only option is to run and hide, or in this, crawl and hide since, running, at any point, will usually result in the Alien hearing you.
At first, this can make for some thrilling moments. The Alien itself is faithfully brought to life here, it stalks about the place just as you'd expect it would; its phallic head bobbing about, those skeletal claws jutting forward waiting to grab you. You forget, watching the movies, just how big the Alien is, it's huge, dwarfing the humans which it preys upon. It makes for a much more unsettling foe than we're used to in an average survival horror title, which is somewhat of a surprise, considering how much the Alien franchise has been dragged through the muck, both in games and movies, in recent years.
However, all of this starts to get a bit tiring the fourth time you've seen it. Most of the encounters with the Alien aren't scripted, making each appearance of the monster, in theory, feel more organic and unique. One of the major problems with Outlast was that the encounters were so scripted you could see them coming from a mile off; picking up a key would inevitably trigger another horrible bad guy to come bursting out of a nearby room. By being so predictable, you were prepared for enemy encounters in advance, and Alien Isolation neatly sidesteps this problem, only to walk into several others.
The primary one being that the Alien simply isn't a fun adversary. Stealth isn't a fun mechanic when it's dogmatically enforced and results in an instant failure should you get caught. The Alien cannot be outrun, meaning that most of the game where it's present is viewed from about knee-height as you stalk around tables and duck under medical beds. This is exacerbated by a save system which leaves you constantly searching for the next checkpoint, given that you cannot save at anytime, forcing you to be even more cautious lest you waste the last twenty minutes by dying and having to do the section all over again. This is not to say that a game shouldn't be hard, but that Isolation's A.I. is too inconsistent for this to be the primary mechanic throughout the entire game.
(Occasionally the erratic A.I. did make for some shocking surprises. One I managed to capture on camera below...)
What's tense and exciting about encountering the Alien quickly becomes tedious and monotonous after a few hours of gameplay. Like the most annoying security guard, it'll pop up just as you're exploring a new room causing you to have to sit under a desk for five minutes as it sniffs around. In theory, the Alien will only come looking for you if you're too loud, but half the time it seems to have a habit of stalking your general vicinity regardless of what you're doing. What's worse, all of that creeping tension built up in the game's opening hours is gutted the minute you enter these insta-fail stealth sections. Gone is the dread of the Alien stalking you, that horrid purr that echoes down the Sevastopol's vents, and it's replaced with a repetitive stop/start game of hide-and-seek.
Fortunately, the entire game isn't comprised of evading the Alien, and some parts have you dealing with humans and androids instead, with both groups potentially being non-hostile in certain situations, forcing you to approach every new encounter with caution. Here, the game plays much more like a typical stealth-cum-action title, much like Starbreeze's Chronicles of Riddick.
You're also given a handful of different gadgets to craft in real-time, much like The Last of Us. Flash bangs, pipe bombs, and EMP grenades all come in handy from time to time, but all come with the drawback of making lots of noise, thereby potentially summoning the Alien. Ironically, these encounters with androids and humans highlights the flaws of the Alien sections even further. Not only are the human and androids less frustrating, they also give the crafting system a reason to exist, unlike the Alien, which can only be temporarily distracted with a noisemaker.
Of course, given that this is an Alien sequel there's a decent emphasis placed on its story. Co-written by novelist, and comic book writer, Dan Abnett, the story's serviceable but not much more. Amanda Ripley makes for an interesting protagonist but the rest of the cast is a fairly anaemic bunch and the majority of the plot involves listening to various people jabber on about science gobbledygook which results in you being told to "go here and push a button". It's the environment, rather than the characters, that tell the game's most interesting story but this can't be enjoyed thanks to an annoying central mechanic which actively discourages you from exploring.
That's perhaps the cruellest problem with Alien: Isolation; it's the Alien itself which ruins the parts that work. As a game world, Sevastopol potentially rivals Bioshock's Rapture, or Dead Space's Ishimura in terms of its design and atmosphere; it's a place that's rewarding to explore, full of incidental details, even more so if you're a fan of the films. As a game involving the Alien however, Alien: Isolation quickly becomes tedious and repetitive; being between 15-20 hours in length, the stealth sections simply cannot carry the game for that long.
Imagine if, just like those first two hours, Creative Assembly had used similar restraint with the Alien, perhaps only showing it two, maybe three times throughout the entire game, slowly churning that atmosphere as much as it would go. That would have been a far more frightening, and enjoyable, Alien game to get excited about.
Alien: Isolation was released on October 7th for the Xbox One, 360, PC, PS4 and PS3.
This review is based on the PS4 version.
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