FBT plucks up the courage to play Alien Isolation. You have my sympathies.
Insanity is repeating the same event and expecting a different outcome. But it’s always tail-gutting, claw-shredding, inner-jaw death. ‘This time, I won’t get killed’. You will. Alien Isolation should be called Alien Insanity; it is death on repeat and, at the risk of being insensitively glib, playing it is denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Fifteen years after the Nostromo disappeared, it’s flight recorder turns up at Sevastopol Space Station. Weyland-Yutani sends a ship to retrieve it, and invites Amanda Ripley to go along and gain some closure on her missing mom – but she and a couple of W-Y suits arrive to find Sevastopol damaged and drifting. During an ill-advised spacewalk, Ripley is separated and enters the ship alone. Only she’s not alone.
Isolation bleeds not only the original’s atheistic but also the era. 20th Century Fox’s logo is a fuzzy, played-too-often VHS image and Sega’s is rendered like the green monitors (humourless AMD keep their logo shiny HD). The menu background is a huge planet surrounded by the blackness of space, a speck of a ship orbiting while the text is in the original font and the music a rework of Silvestri’s original score. I am in Alien. There’s that nodding bird, the padded walls, the clicky buttons, huge passkeys, CRT monitors. Although Sevastopol is in ruins it’s not the Marie Celeste; occasionally we see people. They never stop to talk though. Or stop running. I wonder why.
Creeping along, we find locked doors and items that require things we don’t have, suggesting this isn’t linear and we’re going to be doing some backtracking. Nope, not doing that, I’m getting my closure and getting out. Ripley doesn’t know about the Starbeast but she’s hesitant, muttering to herself and scared; a twenty-something grease-monkey, Junior is reminiscent of the rebooted Lara but more consistent; she doesn’t switch from blubbering Lambert in cut-scenes to Ripley in-game. She’s shit-scared throughout and so are we . Although we don’t learn a great deal about her as a character, we gather she’s never given up on looking for her mother, and the pain of not knowing her fate drives Jnr. Right now I suspect the pain she’s focused on is backache. I’ve never crouched so much in my life. Thank God the Crouch button toggles otherwise I’d pull a muscle in my finger.
Eventually we meet a tetchy local who explains the horrible truth - which we bought this game for. The ship that found the black box backtracked Nostromo’s route to LV-426, hoping for some prize salvage and … Yup. Arriving at the station, they asked for medical assistance and we can guess the rest but the local insists on taking us on a tutorial tour. He explains that the ‘Working Joes’ -android caretakers- suddenly started preventing people from escaping or sending distress calls (Ohho) and survivors became unstable while trying to protect themselves from a ‘monster’ stalking the station. Can I crouch any lower?
When I do pop up to take in the surroundings, I’m reminded of Bioshock. The Sevastopol has the ‘used future’ feel but also Rapture’s rotting, uncared-for look, with (ironic) health & safety posters and corporate propaganda on the walls; the departure boards all say ‘cancelled’ - it’s got that abandoned, trapped feel like there’s no (Hadley’s) hope of escaping. Then there’s the exploration element, the hacking and crafting plus we contend with Bioshock Splicers in the panicked human survivors, and the Joes are like Big Daddys, harmless unless provoked and doing so risks death. But if they’re the Daddy, what’s the Alien? Please don’t say it’s a Queen.
So, as the local finishes his tutorial and his exposition, we realise we’re trapped, have to contend with hostile androids, insane humans and HOLY SHIT A FRICKING ALIEN. Its first appearance is (thankfully) a cutscene that lets you in on the horror gently. Too late. The cutscene over, we’re right where the Alien was. It’s coming back. F’ing run!
Kane’s Son isn’t just a tough little son of a bitch, it can’t be killed; if the keyboard and mouse would reach, I’d be playing this from behind the sofa. It’ll patrol around, sometimes you’ll just hear it and sometimes you’ll see it. And you’ll always be paralysed, dumb-stuck, in denial that it’s actually there, in front of you. If you do snap out of it in time, you have seconds to find a hiding spot and wait, wondering if it’s really gone or will reappear like it popped back for its keys. You quickly flick on your motion sensor and gingerly step out. Then back in; give it a minute. What’s worse than seeing a shark’s fin while swimming? Seeing it disappear. You know it’s still there, but where, and that unknowing becomes unbearable. You slowly build up the courage to - Oh shit it’s here! Don’t run it can hear you. Where’s the tiptoe button? I don’t wanna crouch I’m moving too slow. Did it follow me in, maybe it didn’t notice me, I can’t hear it, okay I’ll just take a peek to see - waa! The Alien is relentless and the experience exhilarating, terrifying - it is. And isn’t.
The Xeno slithers out of the vents like a snake, then stalks around, checking and searching while you stare, frozen, trying to work out an escape. It provokes the most preternatural fear-response I’ve ever known; I’m almost relived when I get killed, it’s a break from the tension. And this is where I get a bit conflicted. Xeno is the office cold – no matter what you do, who you avoid, you’re gonna get it eventually; I never stop being terrified, but I get used to the sensation – slowly you start accepting it’s gonna get you. It becomes an inevitable thing to deal with while doing other things; extras to unlock, schematics to build, relevant junk to find, secrets to explore, archive logs to find and crewmember ID tags to collect (Collectibles? Who the hell cares?!) And that’s while dealing with the Working Joes and Humans, tracking down the W-Y suits - who are injured; guess who has to reach the med bay? - not to mention the discovery that (surprise) Weyland-Yutani hasn’t been entirely honest about its intentions. Plus, resolving my mummy issues. Oh, and escaping. While being constantly eaten. I feel like an overtaxed parent, trying to get chores done while my toddler keeps demanding attention. A bitey toddler. In the end, you just suck it up and chance a run, hoping you’ll reach safety but accepting a kill if it means you scoped out what’s ahead. And once you get into that mindset, the Alien isn’t that scary anymore – Okay it’s still terrifying but I just give up and guess which death I’m about to suffer. Being pulled out from under a desk by my feet is a fave. What isn’t a favourite though, is reloading.
Because you can only save at static locations (you can even be killed while saving), getting killed eventually triggers something other than terror – anger. Now I gotta go through all that crap again and because the Alien is entirely unscripted, you can’t anticipate it – which is cool but it means a fresh hell as you retrace your steps. Or don’t even get to take a step - there’s one death where Ripley looks down and sees its tail sticking through her stomach; you didn't even know it was there. And to make it worse, while you start all over again, the Alien gets to improve. It gets level-ups?!
Each time you win a round of hide and seek, the Alien learns from it. Use distractions too often and it’ll ignore them, hide in the same spots and it’ll realise. Even the tracker starts to attract it. Every edge Ripley gains eventually kills her. Yet she doesn’t have the same learning curve. If it had behaviours, if you could spot quirks (such as Xeno gets enamoured by flashing lights) or routines I could exploit, like it always disappears after feeding then you’d start to feel a bit more confident and use those against it. Imagine being able to lead the Alien to a human so it feasts and leaves you alone for a while. Imagine if you could gain trust then set them up, create bait traps; Jesus, don’t trust me in extreme stress situations. It sounds like I’m trying to bargain for an advantage but it’s not that; hide and seek just isn’t very compelling as a character trait - you survive not by Ripley’s wit or inventiveness but because it didn’t see me. I thought this was Alien not Predator? Who’s got some mud?
Why can’t I hack a Working Joe? The Alien ignores them. Ripley is an engineer, we can kill them, why not reprogramme them? Instead of playing Tag, why isn’t she improving her odds, out-thinking it? She gets better at surviving, but not in the same way the Alien grows more dangerous. It's just repetitive upgrading her noise makers when you know it'll become redundant eventually. There’s a couple of story-dependant out-wits but naturally they fail and there’s no reason why the game couldn’t have included free-form attempts at containing it. I keep thinking of the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park; that is Alien Isolation but without the kids’ ingenuity - and it figures out how to open doors before you closed it. Instead of building distractions and lobbing flares, why can’t I repair a bulkhead, let it chase me into a trap, sealing it in for a time? It’d be exciting to see if I could make it, if the trap worked or the Alien just escaped, more pissed at me than before. It’s just not tactical enough to keep your interest – even Pacman got to chase the ghosts once in a while.
Ripley just doesn’t rise to the challenge and it becomes depressing dying all the time. She does get a flamethrower but it learns to stay out of range and wait until you turn away. Now what? Why I can’t use the flamethrower to back it into a room and use those deadbolts she finds? Ripley’s so inept at mastering her situation she’d walk past a power loader.
Essentially, Alien Isolation is a one gag game – we’re here to be chased by an Alien and it does that brilliantly, but you’re so insanely focused on Xeno (regardless of if it’s there or not), you never really appreciate the subtleties, the station itself or even the story – which like the Alien, doesn’t know when to quit.
After a good ten hours of gameplay pass, we’re approaching a great ending. Except we’re not. You know how Shawshank ends like 3 times and each ending is better than the last? This isn’t it. I honestly thought I’d finished and triggered the DLCs. After a terrifying, beat-perfect battle it shifts into a completely different, annoying problem-based faff, followed by betrayals, twists, reveals and returns – none of which were necessary even as fan-service – and turns our Lara Croft-a-like into Sandra Bullock in Gravity. It just overstays it’s welcome by a good five hours; that’s too much crouching. More than a few reviews pointed out how much they wanted an alien-free roaming version of the game, just to take in the sheer beauty of the art design and that's all that's missing really. If the Alien would get shot just long enough to appreciate the world it's based in, give you a breather, it would be the perfect game.
But it's not over yet. The game had a ton of DLC, including two set within the movie, even featuring voices and digitised versions of the cast; ‘Crew Expendable’ reworks the scene where Dallas attempts to drive the creature out of the vents and into the airlock (we can play as Dallas, Ripley or Parker) while the second, ‘Last Survivor’ follows Ripley’s run for the lifeboat. Post-ending DLCs included ‘Corporate Lockdown’ where a Sevastopol-based W-Y employee regrets their career choices; ‘Trauma’ which follows a doctor who realises her research on the Alien could fall into the wrong hands (Like Eric Red’s hands – you read his Alien 3 script?) and must destroy her research before it destroys her, while ‘Safe Haven’ follows a survivor trying to reach their safe room with supplies. The final two DLCs were ‘Lost Contact’ where the local we met at the start tries to survive as the station falls apart while ‘Trigger’ sees you trying to corral the Alien; those two lead up to Ripley’s arrival. While seeing the station pre-riots is interesting, it’s just more crouching and more death. Ripley, signing off.
Putting the Alien encounters aside, there are other issues – too many distractions and padding, and the character animation is so bad I expected Ripley to turn out to be an android. The Joes are annoyances while the humans are there just to provide more obstacles. You can risk luring the Alien to them or use them to distract it – see, told you it was a good idea. But given their desperation to escape, and the fact they can all see Ripley’s ship orbiting outside, you’d think they’d end hostilities; ‘You have a ship? Okay, I’ll stop clubbing you, let’s work together’ – it’s too much Ripley vs everything. Even a bunch of convicts worked together to capture Alien 3 and really, just an Alien is enough to contend with; I would have rather played as the two of us, not getting embroiled in W-T shenanigans and story twists. The DLCs do explore that to be fair though. See, this game has everything. Even free heart-attacks.
Still, in the end, Alien Isolation is a terrific game. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. It is repetitive but it's only my fear that causes me to get aggravated with it, get impatient with Ripley. The care, the attention to detail (the Working Joes do Ash's little warm up jog when idle); it's extraordinary – you are on the Nostromo in 1979/2137. And the way the Alien behaves … that thing is real. But, it’s not Ripley Vs Alien, it’s Alien from the POV of its lunch. While I was for killing that goddamn thing right now, the concept of only ever escaping it works brilliantly, and terrifyingly – it's just not for me; I'm no Ripley, I'm Lambert.
You’d think after their Colonial Marines mishap, Sega would run away from Alien faster than I do, but they let Creative Assembly craft something clever, original and challenging – it’s an hour before you even see the Alien, and it’s not an easy sell; here’s an alien, and you won’t beat it. That’s not the kind of risk you’d expect from a publisher and for that alone Alien Isolation should be played. From the safety of a locker. I am safe in a locker, right?
2014 | Developer Creative Assembly | Publisher SEGA
Platforms; Win, PS3/4, X360/XO
Genres; horror, survival, sci-fi