In many respects, the Ripleys of Alien fame are a lot like the Brodys from Jaws. The heads of the family — Ellen and Martin, respectively — are just trying to get by in life doing less-than-stellar jobs in mostly unexciting places until some arsehole monster comes along to ruin it all. Then the sequels come along when the children are pursued. That’s the loosest of setups for Alien: Isolation. Much like the Jaws sequels, the monster-attracting party trick is seemingly a hereditary curse, as Ellen’s daughter Amanda goes searching for answers about what happened to her mother after the Nostromo went missing and is inevitably pursued by the iconic beast.
For those who’ve seen Alien, you’ll know exactly what happened to the Nostromo and Ellen Ripley’s fate, but young Amanda doesn’t know that. It’s an odd narrative starting point for Isolation, as prequels — or pre-sequels, in this case, to lift a term from Borderlands — tend to not provide a whole lot of meaningful revelations in terms of the storytelling, because we already know certain plot points have to stay the same. And when Hollywood storytellers try to stray away from the traditional prequel formula, you end up with Prometheus. Thankfully, Alien: Isolation is nowhere near as messy in its execution as that Alien Universe example.
The reason I’m pushing the Hollywood angle is that so much of Isolation is cinematic. From the traditional slow-pace opening of a horror film, to the faithfulness to set design and old-tech from the original Alien movie, everything about Isolation screams the sequel that never was. The problem with applying cinematic pacing to a game, though, is it doesn’t work when stretched over a lengthier runtime. In the instance of horror films, the first 12–30 minutes are spent getting to know the characters that are inevitably going to be thrown in harm’s way because you need to connect with them to care about it when they start suffering and, well, dying.
In Isolation, this initial period is stretched to at least an hour before the game promised in the trailers comes to the forefront. For me, it was more than two hours, as I got lost during the menial, Alien-less tasks phase, which is a problem before you get your hands on the modified motion tracker that conveniently includes a directional icon a lot of the time. Before acquiring that tool, you have to rely on old-fashioned exploring or finding maps for sections of the ship to have any clue of where you’re going. This is compounded by the horror traditions of constantly arising obstacles that convert the ‘go from A to B to complete X’ formula to a ‘go from A to C, to D, to F, back to D, complete Y, then complete X’ approach.
That may read like a negative, but it really isn’t when you throw in the most intense game of cat and mouse I’ve ever experienced. And you’re never, ever the cat. It’s more like a murderous version of hide and seek, whereby you’re always hiding and you never want to get caught. True to Ridley Scott’s vision of the Alien, care of H. R. Giger’s iconic design, this Xenomorph isn’t the wall-running, low-profile killer of the Alien sequels. Instead, it stands tall and horrifying, stalking Amanda through poorly lit corridors in unpredictable patrol patterns, constantly looking over its shoulder, aware that you’re nearby and eager to eat you.
If you’re sneaky and, most importantly, invisible to the Xeno, it’ll get frustrated and return to the roof vents, banging around above you trying to inspire you to freak out and make noise you shouldn’t. If it does see you, you’re dead. Plain and simple. You can’t outrun it, you can’t kill it and, not until later in the game, you can’t deter it from making a beeline straight for your delicious heart and/or brains. Upon death, you’re returned to the nearest—or as the case was frequently with me, the not-so-nearest—save point.
Save points are almost exclusively manually activated, which heaps on top of the already high tension as the Alien loves to be between you and your next save point. Thankfully, save points are noted on the map as you discover them, and they make a familiar beeping sound to alert you of their proximity. The Alien doesn’t cheat in locating you, and I never felt my deaths weren’t warranted. Creative lead Al Hope’s assertion that the Alien is around 10 percent scripted and 90 percent emergent was true of my experience.
You can also use various tools to distract the beast from focusing on you. Flares work well for a time, until the monster realises they’re a distraction without a payoff and simply ignores them. There’s a real-time crafting system for pretty much everything else (outside of a few weapons), which lets you make Molotov cocktails, noisemakers, EMP mines, medkits and flashbangs. You can pre-allocate salvaged parts to your preferred items for faster construction during hectic situations, but Amanda Ripley can also hold a few of each item, so it’s best to create them in quieter moments.
The best distractions, though, are other humans, of which there are quite a few scattered through the halls of the Sevastopol Station. If you don’t want to waste precious gadgets, you can scare them into firing at you, which attracts the Alien to clear the way for you. That does, of course, also mean you have to deal with sneaking past the enemy of your enemy that’s still very much your enemy, but it’s often worth it as getting too close to trigger-happy humans is a fast way to get you slaughtered alongside them.
Speaking of sneaking, that’s how you’ll spend a lot of the game, crouched and inching forward so as to attract as little attention as possible. There is no run-and-gun option in Isolation, despite the presence of pistols, shotguns and other weapons, and Amanda seemingly wasn’t trained at the Everywoman School of Protagonists that Shoot Good, either, which translates to her having terrible aim. Even with a mouse. Even if you wait to press fire from a crouched position when an enemy is right on top of you.
You won’t use that last tactic against humans as much as you will against the bastard synthetics that roam the corridors. This is an enemy type that the Alien has zero interest in, so they’re free to make a lot of noise when they spot you, which will inevitably attract the Xeno. Androids are best avoided or killed as quickly as possible, but they’re tough to kill from the front unless you’ve stunned them, and they get even harder to kill towards the end of the game. Couple this with the presence of ‘android mines’—seemingly incapacitated synthetics that will grab you if you’re nearby—and their deadliness surpasses fleshy humans and is secondary only to the main antagonist of the game.
One of the biggest problems is there are long stretches of the game that are Alien free, and obviously so. This means that the run-and-hide tactics that don’t work against the Xeno come back into play, and Isolation descends into more traditional survival-horror territory, with a significant release of tension than when the ultimate hunter is around.
It’s worth noting that if you can see an enemy, they can see you. So if your head is showing around a corner as you track them, they’ll spot you. They’re less likely to do so if they’re far away and you’re crouched in the shadows, but it’s best to use the peek option literally and not liberally. The frustrating thing is that peeking only works in extremities on a keyboard/mouse configuration by holding Control and using the directional keys. On a controller, you can hold down the peek button and edge the left joystick in a full front-facing circle, as little or as much as you like, which means a controller is the better control methodology for Isolation, with the exception of the sections where firing a weapon is advised.
In terms of the narrative, Isolation doesn’t deliver in terms of Amanda’s core plight, and a lot of the supplementary discoveries can only be found in a completionist play-through as the Nostromo audio logs are in sealed rooms that aren’t accessible the first time you discover them. You’ll need to upgrade your equipment to the point that these areas become accessible. The storyline has more false endings than Return of the King, and the ultimate conclusion of the core campaign is soft and unsatisfying which, after my 20-hour play-through, was incredibly disappointing. For those hunting additional challenges, Hard mode is brutal (I played the bulk of the game on Normal) and there are levels in ‘Challenge Mode’ that add a time-attack approach to the usual slow-paced sneaking, with leaderboards on hand for bragging rights.
Despite the aforementioned gripes, Alien: Isolation kept me coming back for more time and time again, even when it was kicking my arse. As a gamer who prides himself on being quite resilient to the tension tactics of your average horror title, when Isolation was at its best (which it was for most of the game) it had me doing things I’ve never done before. It made me look away. It made me cover my mouth. It made me close my eyes. It even made me scream on more than one occasion, and it had me in such a constant state of tenseness that I had to put my phone on silent as notification sounds were enough to make me jump.
Alien: Isolation isn’t a perfect experience and it has some noticeable problems, but when it gets things right, it really gets them right. Being stalked by a seemingly invincible solitary foe whose cunning is unlike anything experienced before is absolutely satisfying. Look out for live Twitch streams of this game at launch if you’re still unconvinced. You’ll see just how effective Isolation is at creating incredible tension and genuine scares, and you’ll likely jump as much as the streamer, even though you’re not in the pilot’s seat.
Nathan Lawrence can be found fragging n00bs in a variety of digital battlefields, but most commonly the ones from the franchise with a capital ‘B’. He loves games with a strong narrative component, and believes in a gaming world where cutscenes are no longer necessary. In his lack of spare time, Nathan can be found working on a variety of wacky script ideas, and dreams of freeing cinemagoers from unnecessary sequels and pointless remakes by writing films with never-before-seen twists and turns. But mostly he’s all about the fragging of n00bs.
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