In space, as the old saw goes, no one can hear you scream. But if you're playing Alien Isolation, even in a vacuum your crewmates might be able to sense you grinding your teeth in frustration.
That's the key word to describe Alien Isolation: frustration, not so much fear or anxiety. The developer, Creative Assembly, wanted to recreate the feel of Ridley Scott's Alien, so they removed all the action-based aspects that have defined Alien games since the '90s. In effect, what they've done is to radically downplay the influence of James Cameron's Aliens (though that might also have a lot to do with the franchise extinction-level fiasco that was last year's Colonial Marines). There are no pulse rifles, no smartguns, no Power Loader-based boss battles against Queens. The Weyland-Yutani logo resembles a Horus Wings icon. (And no Predators, either, though that wasn't Cameron's fault.) Instead of facing a horde of mindless drones, you're up against a single Alien — never referred to as a "xenomorph" — a ruthless, unstoppable, and deliberate killing machine who will never stop hunting you. This is not the Stan Winston "warrior" Alien, but the classic Giger/Rambaldi "Big Chap," with a domed head like a Rolls Royce hood and a human skull underneath, a memento mori you're going to see a lot of throughout the game.
This is a pretty ballsy move, when you consider the huge influence Aliens has had on the development of video games, and the FPS genre in general. Doom, Quake, Halo, Metroid Prime; all of these games (not to mention countless others, including the half-dozen or so Alien-branded shooters from the same period) draw considerable inspiration from Cameron's 1986 military SF epic. Even after all this time, there's something deeply satisfying about opening up a can of ballistic whoop-ass on an army of extraterrestrial horrors. And Alien Isolation denies you this satisfaction at every turn, forcing you to retreat into the shadows, or a storage locker, or a ventilation shaft, which are often no safer than being out the open. At every moment, you're reminded that you're prey, and that all your efforts are on borrowed time. That's something new for the franchise, and pretty unusual for a AAA game at this point in time. But is it fun?
Alien Isolation opens fifteen years after the events of Alien. Ripley is barely into the first leg of the long hypersleep journey that will take her home some forty-odd years later. But her daughter Amanda Ripley — a character mentioned briefly in the 1991 extended version of Aliens, who had died of old age by the time her mother made it back to Earth — is a grown woman, an engineer in the employ of her mother's old company, Weyland-Yutani. As the game begins, a company rep named Samuels approaches Amanda with the news that the Nostromo's flight recorder has been recovered by a crew of deep space prospectors exploring the same region where the ship disappeared. They've delivered the recorder to Sevastopol Station, an orbital platform in an adjacent system in the process of being decommissioned. The station's owners, Seegson Corporation, are keeping the recorder under lock and key until Weyland-Yutani can take possession. But because this is an Alien game, they've brought something else aboard the station. (Hint: Not puppies.)
Upon arriving at Sevastopol aboard the independent freighter Torrens, Amanda, Samuels, and Taylor, another WY exec, find the platform in a state of disarray; the station's orbit is decaying, neither the Colonial Marshal nor the skeleton crew respond to hails, and the docking clamp is disengaged. During a harrowing ship-to-station EVA, Amanda is separated from her companions and enters the darkened station, only to find it filled with dead bodies and rubble. An encounter with a paranoid crewman named Axel reveals the fate that befell Sevastopol: A vicious alien lifeform is loose onboard, and is hunting down the few dozen humans who have taken refuge in the platform's three tower complexes. With no tools or weapons equipped, Amanda will have to find her companions, regain contact with the Torrens, and recover the Nostromo's recorder, all the while avoiding both the Alien and the Sevastopol's traumatized, trigger-happy residents, who are desperate to protect their dwindling supplies of food and medicine from rival scavengers.
It's a classic Alien storyline, credited in part to Dan Abnett, the veteran Warhammer novelist and formerly the writer for the Guardians of the Galaxy comic, whose storylines revived the characters and served as the partial basis for the hit Marvel movie. There are echoes of Alien and Aliens, as well as William Gibson's unused Alien III screenplay (also set on a down-at-the-heels, blue collar space station) and the 1981 "space western" Outland, which, while not an Alien movie, shared many of the same designers and looked as if it could have been set in the same universe. The story also shows how well-suited the premise is for gaming, recalling not just horror survival titles like the original Dead Space (which itself borrowed heavily from the look and feel of Scott's movie), but games like Bioshock (and its space-based predecessor, System Shock) set in abandoned, isolated complexes.
Superficially, Isolation resembles an FPS at first. Playing from Amanda's POV, you'll explore the corridors and arcades of the Sevastopol, discovering weapons, tools that will allow you to unlock further regions of the station, as well as bits of scrap that you can turn into improvised explosives and other useful devices, like medikits. The Sevastopol is huge, and you'll spend much of the game's 20-24 hour (!) playing time finding new areas, frequently backtracking through the three main areas to find extra audio logs, resources, and hidden rooms. But you won't be alone. The Alien shows up very early on in the game, and before long it starts pursuing you, using the air ducts to move between areas.
Encounters with the Alien and most of the other humans are to be avoided at all costs. The former can kill as soon as it notices you; invariably any attempt to flee will end in death. Most of the humans you'll meet have been so traumatized by their experiences with the Alien and other survivors that they will shoot any strangers on sight. Besides organic threats, there's also the Working Joes, dimwitted, mannequin-like androids built by Seegson in a failed attempt to rival Weyland-Yutani's lifelike synthetics. Most of them have turned homicidal, and will attempt to strangle any humans who intrude on their domains in the station's numerous maintenance areas. (Though they're designed to evoke low-rent versions of Ian Holm's Ash from the original Alien, they reminded me a lot of the Autons from the Pertwee Era Doctor Who serials; American gamers will probably think of Vince and Larry, the Crash Test Dummies from those '80s and '90s PSAs.) It's possible to kill both the humans and the Joes, but using firearms or explosives runs the risk of attracting the Alien's attention. In most events, stealth is the preferred alternative to violence, though in some cases, particularly with the Joes, direct confrontations are unavoidable.
Stealth is the only way to avoid the Alien. Unlike its many biomechanoid antecedents in other Alien games, the creature is unkillable, and in order to achieve your goals you'll have to stick to the shadows, crawling behind consoles and under desks, hiding in lockers when necessary, and using air ducts and service tunnels to traverse large or open areas with little or no cover. To stay alive, you'll have to rely on your knowledge of the station's deck plans, which can be downloaded from terminals scattered around the Sevastopol. You'll also need to keep a close eye on your motion tracker, which will warn you of approaching enemies, be they Alien, human, or robotic. Visual and audio cues also warn of the creature's presence: pounding footsteps warn you when it's time to seek cover, while slime pouring from an overhead vent is a sure sign to watch your step.
In essence, much of the game is a variation on the final twenty minutes of Alien, specifically the scene in which Ripley, having activated the Nostromo's self-destruct system, attempts to board the Narcissus shuttle only to find the passageway blocked by the Alien. To get further in the game, you'll have to reach a door, throw a switch, and/or hack a console that the Alien may be in close proximity to; just making it to the end of a corridor can feel like a substantial victory. Even the old school save system works this way. With a handful of exceptions, there are no automatic save points, and in order to preserve Amanda's progress, you'll have to use a wall-mounted callbox-like device that is slow, noisy, and often placed in an open area like a lobby or transit station. It's entirely possible for the Alien or some other foe to interrupt the process and kill you, forcing you to repeat everything you did up since your last save. For the most part, this isn't a huge problem. But in some situations, especially areas in which the game is stingy with save points, this can become an exercise in annoyance. You can get caught in a procedural cul-de-sac, forced to perform the same activities over and over again, only to perish due to a simple misstep or delay.
The unscripted nature of the Alien's behavior only exacerbates these situations. Creative Assembly made a big deal out of the AI when promoting Alien Isolation; rather than simply wandering around, the Alien would actively seek out the player in a terrifying, lifelike game of hide and seek. But this approach often results in frustration rather than true fear, as the Alien will linger around hiding places or mission critical areas to the point where it becomes impossible to proceed. About halfway through the game, Amanda gets a flamethrower that can be used to scare off the Alien for a few precious seconds, but like the creature's tendency to camp out around the player's position, it reveals the limitations of the stealth system. The game lives or dies by the cat and mouse mechanic. Successfully evading the Alien through subterfuge or other means (such as using an improvised noisemaker to distract the monster) should be one of the core mechanics of the game. But often it seems as if the designers are working to willfully sabotage any sense of satisfaction on the player's part, and the primitive save system discourages Bioshock-style experimentation. And while the levels are designed to be nonlinear, it often seems like there are too few options for getting around.
The stealth system really falls apart when it comes to encounters with other humans. For all that the game makes of the Alien's "preternatural" senses, the Sevastopol survivors were frequently able to spot me from far away, even in dim lighting, and in many cases I found myself gunned down before I could escape or hide, or unable to get past the humans' checkpoint. One encounter in particular early on in the game was very discouraging. In the Lorenz SysTech Lobby, I found a codebreaking device that would allow me to open locked doors; having attracted the notice of several crewmembers, and sensing that the device was an important plot development, I dashed back to the nearest save point and then headed back to the lobby to continue my explorations. But at this point, the area was crawling with survivors, and with no visible means of sneaking around them, I was an easy target, outnumbered and outgunned. I must've spent about an hour trying to get past those guys, using different combinations of stealth and running, but to no avail. Ultimately it turned out that I was supposed to run upstairs to the mezzanine and sneak around to a door on the opposite side; my urge to self-preservation had been in error. Unintuitive bits like that are fairly rare in the game, but they do stand out. There are a handful of life or death moments in which it is absolutely unclear from the mission prompts or audio cues where you're supposed to go next, or what you're supposed to do. There's also an extended, Alien-free sequence in the middle of the game set in a shopping mall full of locked shutters, gun-toting security guards, and Working Joes. It is a lethal mix of bad level design, uninspired visuals, and repetitive action that stops the action cold. It doesn't look or feel like anything from an Alien movie, and should have been cut from the finished product.
In a game as long as Alien Isolation, these end up being fairly minor irritations, though. The game's big problem is simply that what the designers thought was scary or suspenseful is, in the long run, not very frightening, or at least, not for the reasons they intended. Few games are really scary. Ultimately, they're either fun or not fun. And Alien Isolation, in trying to be scary, simply ends up being not fun a lot of the time.
After being killed by the Alien for the fortieth, fiftieth, or hundredth time (this last milestone netted me a Trophy), often while trying to perform the same tasks, I didn't feel particularly scared. Most of the anxiety came from the knowledge that after turning on a generator or hacking a door in exactly the same way for the ninth or tenth time, I would probably have to do it again, since I'd used up all my flamethrower fuel and wouldn't be able to ward off the creature long enough to reach the next save point. (HINT: DO NOT RUN OUT OF FLAMETHROWER FUEL. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, NEVER ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN.) It's not that games can't be scary — Amnesia: The Dark Descent was frequently terrifying. But that was a game that used scares sparingly. In Isolation, the Alien's presence is so pervasive that the shock of seeing it casually tromping around wears off pretty quickly. Whenever you enter a new area, you can be sure it'll be popping out of a duct before too long. Its presence is weirdly reassuring, like a friendly dog's (albeit one that murders and/or drags you off to become hosts for its young). If the designers had deemphasized the Alien's presence, making it appear less frequently, the game would be a lot scarier. After all, in the original movie, the Alien only has maybe five or six minutes of actual screen time. As it is, the creature's predictability — the fact that you know it's always going to appear during specific points in the gameplay, and will act in a specific way, undercuts the designers' claims of its "unscripted" behavior.
I also had major reservations about having to kill other humans, or engineer situations in which the Alien would show up and kill them for me. Playing a human character hunting and killing other humans in an Alien game feels oddly perverse. The people in the game are fearful, antisocial, and violent, and every now and then you'll find the body of a Sevastopolite who's been gunned down in cold blood by other crew members, presumably so you won't feel bad about having to do the deed yourself. It's an element of post-9/11 zombie horror nihilism that's new to the generally humanistic ethos of the Alien series, in which even the dregs of society, such as convicts and mercenaries, ultimately band together to defeat the Aliens and the corporation that wants to exploit them. The title itself —Isolation — shows that the designers missed one of the movies' greatest strengths, which is their ensemble casts. Andrea Deck manages to channel some of Sigourney Weaver's splendiferously foul-mouthed indignation as the voice of Amanda Ripley, but few of the other voice actors or characters make much of an impression, or are even around long enough for the player to get attached to them. A game that was true to the spirit of the Alien series would build on the camaraderie and conflict of those movies' casts; but maybe video games are just still too primitive at this point in time to capture their psychological and emotional complexity.
But despite all of these reservations, I really did enjoy Alien Isolation, playing it through to the end twice in as many weeks. For one thing, the game is ridiculously generous by contemporary standards. At a time when single player campaigns amount to little more than a five or six-hour dry run for the multiplayer experience, Isolation's very long running time and large environments are quite rewarding. A lot of that is due to the game's insane fidelity to the look and feel of the original movie, especially Ron Cobb's designs. (There are even some ships and environments that evoke Cobb's unused drawings.) The Sevastopol is the spitting image of Alien's Nostromo in almost all respects, crap shopping mall excepted. 20th Century Fox provided CA with terabytes of data sourced from the original production materials, including concept art, set photos, dailies, and more, and if, like me, you're an obsessive fan of the the original movie, playing this game is an endless exercise in deja vu. Hallways are decked out in dingy vinyl cladding or exposed metalwork illuminated from within by hellish light; panels are labeled with abstruse instructions or certifications, often in multiple languages; industrial signage is everywhere. The designers went as far as to recreate the lo-fi aesthetic of 1970s technology: clunky CRTs with Atari Age raster displays, chunky keyboards, a vast array of analog bleeps and bloops. They even used cues from Jerry Goldsmith's score. (The ambient noise is so good that I strongly recommend playing the game with a decent pair of headphones; it'll make all the difference in the world.) More than any other game based on a movie, Alien Isolation does an amazing job of recreating the tactile reality of a cinematic environment, whether it's the squeak of Amanda's sneakers on the deckplates or the way a breaker clanks into position. (Remember those big-ass switches Ripley had to pull down to blow up the Nostromo? Yep, they're here. You get to pull them.) Seeing this world realized in three dimensions, and being able to actually interact with it, is a real trip, and it more than makes up for some of the jankiness of the gameplay.
The DLC set during the events of Alien and featuring most of the original cast is also solid. "Crew Expendable," which was available only as a GameStop preorder (though it'll probably be commercially available before long), takes place immediately after the death of Brett. You can play as Ripley, Dallas, or Parker, sealing off air ducts and luring the Alien to the airlock. "Last Survivor," which is available as a $3.99 download, opens with the deaths of Parker and Lambert, with the player as Ripley, trying to activate the self-destruct system and escape to the Narcissus before the Nostromo blows. They're both pretty short — most players should be able to finish them in twenty minutes or less — but it's a blast hearing the actors playing these characters again. (They also recorded mission logs hidden throughout the Sevastopol in the main game — I had a minor epiphany hearing Yaphet Kotto bitching about the Primary Load-Sharing Unit again after all these years, and Sigourney Weaver's farewell to her fictional daughter put a lump in my throat.) Best of all, you get to roam around the Nostromo's "A" Deck without having to deal with the Alien — a recreation so vivid that even the jaded Alien experts at PropSummit were duly impressed, despite some issues regarding accuracy.
So would I have liked Alien Isolation as much if it hadn't tried to recreate the look and feel of a movie I'm pretty bonkers about? Probably not. But it's still a huge part of the game; moreover, the environment was rendered in such amazing detail that I was willing to put up with a lot of tedium to see more of it. Granted, that makes it sound like a Corridor Porn Simulator, but when it's good, it feels like I'm in an Alien movie, and not Resurrection. I may never get the movie sequel I really wanted, but, with reservations, I've gotten the game that I dreamed about for a long time. And maybe, if there is a sequel to Isolation, CA will be able to build on its strengths and downplay its weaknesses.
I might not even say no to a pulse rifle next time.
Reviewer notes: Played on a PS4. I miss you, Xbox 360 controller. Perhaps someday, unlike Amanda and Ellen, we will be reunited.