If you’ve ever imagined what warrant officer Ellen Ripley went through in the first Alien movie, all alone in the middle of space and facing a huge, impossibly aggressive and crazy fast alien beast with nothing more than her wits, you still won’t know what it’s like. Alien Isolation will tell you, though, and it makes no bones about it: it’s scary as hell.
Isolation takes place fifteen years after the events on the Nostromo. Ellen Ripley is missing – she’s dozing in hypersleep aboard the Nostromo’s escape pod – and you play as her daughter, Amanda Ripley, who knows nothing about her mother’s fate. Amanda is tempted into retrieving the Nostromo’s black box by a Weyland-Yutani synthetic: it’s aboard the space station Sevastopol, and all you have to do is go and get it.
Of course, when you get there you find out that everything has gone to hell. You don’t know why, at first, all you see is a disintegrating space station full of corpses, but it soon becomes clear: an alien is on board, and it’s doing what it does best: hunting and killing.
Your job is to make your way through the station, activating damaged systems and re-routing power while avoiding the alien and picking up clues as to the station’s fate, but that’s far easier said than done. At almost every turn you encounter hostiles: human looters stripping the station of valuables, creepy androids programmed to catch and kill intruders and, of course, the titular alien, all of whom will kill you very quickly should they spot you. There are allies, too, but they are few and far between. For the most part, the Sevastopol is home to hostility, not friendship.
So you must sneak and hide your way through the damaged station, just like you’d be forced to do should you find yourself in the situation in real life, scavenging what supplies you can and trying to stay out of the line of fire.
And yes, that’s as difficult to do as it sounds. Enemies are relentless in Alien Isolation, they’re intelligent and they will hunt you down, so they’re best avoided altogether until you’re armed, which only happens much later in the game. Fortunately, each gorgeously-made level is packed with branching paths and vents that can be used to smart effect, and there’s a crafting system that lets Amanda build various aids, like medical kits and noisemakers that work as distractions, motivating players to scavenge.
And the alien. Oh god, the alien. You’ll only discover him a couple of hours into the game, which ramps up the tension that was already quite intense thanks to the metallic bangs and creaks of the disintegrating Sevastopol, but when you do the whole game changes. You’ll go from feeling a low-level dread brought on by the Sevastopol’s general creepiness to a full-on panic as the unkillable alien hunts you down. It’s a very primal experience, and one that will stay with you long after the game ends.
That’s because the alien doesn’t mess about – when he sees you, you die. There is no slow depletion of health bars as he claws at your face, it’s just a quick, vicious death every time he gets too close. Now, every creak or bang or strange noise you hear could be him crawling through the vents or exploring a nearby room, looking for you, and you become acutely aware of every sound you make as you know it could, and probably will, bring him running.
This primal hunter/hunted mechanic turns Alien Isolation from a mere game, into an experience. You, the player, will experience fear like you have never done in any other game before, complete with sweaty palms, a racing heart and a genuine sense of shock when the alien inevitably catches up with you, sometimes unexpectedly, and impales you with his tail or sends his second mouth plowing into your skull.
Speaking as someone who has dreamed about the game, I can say with certainty that Alien Isolation is the stuff of nightmares.
When you do see him you need to get out of his line of sight as quickly as possible. Sometimes crouching behind an object works, as does hiding in a locker or beneath a table, and those moments are sheer terror as you wait for him to move on. But he’s incredibly unpredictable: sometimes he will walk right up to the locker you’re hiding in, peer into the slats for a few seconds and then just walk away, causing a real-world explosive out-breath of palpable relief, and others he’ll tear the locker open and eat your face. It helps to pull back on the controller stick to tuck Amanda’s body deeper into the locker, but not always.
You’ll pick up a motion detector early on that helps you keep tabs on the alien’s movements, but don’t expect that iconic beeping to provide much comfort – the best you can hope for is to find out where the alien is, not which direction it’s moving in or which way it’s facing.
The point is, the alien’s behaviour isn’t scripted and is meant to keep you on your toes. Once he makes his appearance in the game, he’s always close-by and could pop unexpectedly out of vents in front of Amanda or veer around a corner in the distance as he explores the ship, looking for prey. That unpredictability is both realistic – you’re dealing with an alien, after all, and who knows how they should behave – and incredibly stress-inducing, which is what developer Creative Assembly has said in countless interviews that it’s going for. Mission accomplished, guys.
Save yourself or die trying
Scattered throughout the levels, which look like they were all ripped straight out of Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie with nary a retro-tech touch out-of-place, are save points. That means there are no automatic checkpoints in Alien Isolation, and you’ll need to constantly be on the lookout for these keycard-activated phone booth-like things. They’re spaced quite smartly, with just enough of a gap between them that the tension really builds up nicely, which of course means that reaching them feels like a mini-victory.
But any relief I felt was often short-lived as those save points took seconds to ready themselves. It proved extremely nerve-wracking when the alien could be heard snuffling around nearby – the game makes damn sure you know he’s not far off with effective environmental sound cues – and could possibly find and kill me before the save station is ready. That didn’t happen to me, fortunately, but the mere possibility added dramatically to the tension. As if the atmosphere needed any more dread.
While the risk/reward aspect of these save stations can be quite satisfying when it works out, it also forces you to re-do sections of the game over and over again because the alien will kill you, sometimes without warning and right in the middle of a level, and it’s at those moments that the game’s greatest frustration will sink in. If you’re not a fan of repeating sections or getting ganked unfairly, you should probably steer clear of Alien Isolation. It took a lot of perseverance on my part to keep going (and not to throw the controller at the wall) sometimes, something I know not everyone can do.
For the first part of the game you’re entirely weaponless, but even once you’re armed you won’t feel powerful as ammo is scarce and you become very, very hesitant to make noise as You Know Who is going to be attracted by it. This isn’t some teenage power trip you’re on, Alien Isolation wants you to know you’re a vulnerable meat-bag who will die with just a few whacks or shots, and it’s very clear that even just spotting the alien means you’re probably dead already. It’s a refreshing change to play someone so vulnerable in the age of regenerating health and bullet-sponge protagonists.
But of course concessions must be made, even in something as original as this, and in parts, the game turns into a bit into a bit of an action shooter. It’s a move that completely undermines the central premise but it also delivers the obligatory shooty bits that mixes things up a bit.
About half-way through the game the alien disappears for a story-related reason, leaving Ripley to deal with the Sevastopol’s army of creepy Working Joe androids who she must run away from (they’re slow, fortunately), shoot or beat to electronic death with whatever she can get her hands on. While these sections are nowhere as near as tense as the cat-and-mouse game with the alien is, they provide a bit of a welcome break from the near-constant tension.
Well, it’s a “sort of” break. Those androids are just so freaking creepy with their glowing eyes and soft-spoken British voices announcing how they’re going to catch you with utter conviction, and while they’re not the alien, they’re scary in their own right, especially when they swarm you.
No game based on the Alien licence would be complete without a flamethrower, and so naturally Amanda comes across one in the late game. It won’t kill the alien, but it makes being spotted less likely to be your end, as a few quick blasts sends it scurrying for the nearest exit. It evens the odds significantly, and provides a surprising amount of comfort. Some people think it neutralises the alien’s threat, but I was grateful I was no longer as pathetically helpless as I once was, and relished frying the bastard.
A few mis-steps
As pants-wettingly scary as Alien Isolation is, it makes a few mis-steps that will likely keep it from being the Game of the Year. Aesthetically, it can’t be faulted – the game’s environments and use of retro-future technology are as true to the 1979 movie as it’s possible to be, and the alien is as ugly and, well, alien as it appeared then thanks to HR Giger’s visionary design. The sound design is particularly brilliant, with a moody score that responds to what’s happening, and lifelike sound effects that work very hard to make you believe you’re in a doomed space station with a deadly beast after you.
So everything looks, sounds and feels convincingly authentic, and Creative Assembly need to win some sort of award for their commitment to the franchise’s integrity. But damn, the game is long. That’s partly because on several occasions the game seems like it reaches a climax only to send you off to another location on the ship afterwards, and partly because a lot of what you end up doing – backtracking, restarting generators, re-routing power – feels like padding.
On the one hand it could be argued that this is just Creative Assembly’s idea of pacing, and because the original movie was 117 minutes long they were looking to drag their game out in a similar manner, but unfortunately even if that’s true, it dilutes the game’s core appeal rather than enhances it. I strongly believe Alien Isolation could get away with being a ten-hour game or shorter and be no less a game for it.
Expect to get anything upwards of 20 hours of “entertainment” out of Alien Isolation, taking into account your many – many – deaths and replaying sections over and over. Believe me, those hours will feel longer than a mere 60 minutes each.
When you’re done with the main game, or you just want a bite-sized chunk of Alien Isolation, Creative Assembly also included a Survivor mode that has you playing a single map and trying to reach the exit in the fastest time possible. A leaderboard keeps track of players’ times, and completing optional objectives boosts the overall score. It can be quite satisfying to do a really quick run, but you’ll be disappointed that there’s only one map so far. More are planned as paid-for DLC which come out around the end of the month.
Developer Creative Assembly has made an incredible game here; it’s not perfect by any means, but it’s easily the best Alien game based on the license that we’ve had since 2000’s Aliens vs. Predator, and truer to its source material than any Alien game, ever. It’s the game Alien fans have deserved since 1979, as it’s slow, methodical and deliberate, and just as scary, if not more so than the movie. It’s just not fair all the time, and a bit frustrating, which may leave some gamers cold.
Should you play it? That depends entirely on how much you like changing your underwear frequently, how much of a fan you are of the first movie and lastly, your tolerance for frustration. And just remember: while no-one can hear you scream in space, everyone can hear you screaming like a little girl on Earth. And you will.
Me, I’m happy I played, but I’m just as happy that it’s over.
Alien Isolation is out now for PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It was reviewed here on the PS4, and has a recommended retail price of R499 for PC, R599 for previous-gen consoles and R699 for current-gen.