Now that we have got the compulsory “In space no one” joke out of the way, let us launch into the review that will explain why Alien: Isolation is not only the finest game the franchise has produced, but one of the finest horror games ever released. Historically the Alien franchise has spawned games less reputable than the dreaded “Facehugger” itself, last year’s Aliens: Colonial Marines being a prime example of this consistent low quality. Now there is a pattern here, nearly every game in the franchise being mostly if not wholly influenced by James Cameron’s Aliens. Now while this film is a brilliant second instalment in the series, the horror of the “xenomorph” becomes diluted by the gung-ho space marine setting. This is clearly shown in the games, the “xenomorph” becoming a mindless beast that will consistently throw itself at you to be mown down by Pulse Rifles and the like. The influence of the disreputable AvP franchise has also contributed to this effect.
Gone from the games is the isolated hunter of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, the pyscho-sexual demon spawned from the genius of Giger. Despite an early game based on the original film for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and similar consoles, none of the games have been truly faithful to the original, or able to recreate the horror of the solitary hunter. Until Alien: Isolation, that is. Ironically enough, this masterpiece comes to us from The Creative Assembly, a UK-based studio mostly known for the acclaimed strategy series Total War. In some ways an unlikely studio to tackle the challenge of a first-person survival-horror title, yet in the words of creative lead Al Hope, no one had made “a game that captured the spirit of the original movie”. And capture it they did.
The story follows that of Amanda Ripley, Warrant Officer and Ellen Ripley’s daughter. Set fifteen years after the original, Amanda, now a technician working for the shady Weyland-Yutani Corporation, is approached by executive Samuels, informing her that the company has received word about the recovery of the Nostromo‘s flight recorder, her mother’s lost ship. Not being able to resist getting closure about her mother, Amanda accompanies Samuels and another exec, Taylor, to Sevastopol Station aboard the Torrens, a ship that die-hard Alien fans will note is very similar to the Nostromo. Once at the station Amanda, Samuels and Taylor become stranded through a series of misadventures. Separated from the rest of her team, Amanda quickly realizes that something is wrong on Sevastopol Station: a once thriving trading post at the edges of colonized space, the station has fallen into disrepair as Seegson, the Weyland-Yutani rival that built the station, slowly goes bankrupt. The remaining population, those there to either oversee the decommissioning or simply too poor to afford a ticket back to civilization, range from mistrustful to openly violent. But something else stalks the shadows of Sevastopol, an unknown horror that seems to have come aboard the station after a salvage ship returned to port with the Nostromo‘s flight recorder.
The story, while simple in some ways, fits perfectly into the gap between the first and second films, setting the stage for a game filled with atmosphere so thick it would need a plasma torch to cut. While the gameplay is compared by some to that of the Dead Space series, a better comparison would be that of the acclaimed 2013 game Outlast, most of the first-person gameplay focusing on avoiding rather than confronting enemies, making use of hiding places such as lockers and alternative routes such as vents or hackable doors. Also, like Outlast, much of Amanda’s quest is taken up by restarting generators or repairing systems, to allow her to reach her goals. While some may find this fetch-quest style of gameplay dull, it fits perfectly with the survival horror gameplay aspects, as players will find themselves trying to gather the nerves to leave a good hiding space to reach a terminal, switch or other goal.
The comparison to Dead Space is not without merit, because unlike Outlast, Alien: Isolation does contain a combat element, but unlike the super-powered arsenal of Dead Space, Alien: Isolation opts for a minimal combat system. Weapons include the classic “Flame Unit”, a revolver and a wrench, but ammo is extremely scarce even on easier difficulties, and combat is generally considered a last option. While killing an openly hostile human or android that blocks your path may be an easy choice, excess sound will attract the “Alien” who, faithful to the original, is impossible to kill. Plus tackling the androids can be extremely difficult, the mannequin-like nightmares being able to withstand a lot of punishment before they finally fall. This in some ways can be the most frustrating part of the game, because sometimes they seem to sense you even if you are hiding, and when the “Alien” is around any attempt to tackle the android threat will usually end in death. The crafting system is also reminiscent of that of Dead Space 3, as you can build useful objects, like noisemakers, which will briefly distract the “Alien”. Some reviewers have criticised the addition of a crafting system in this game, but it accentuates the “survival” in survival-horror, as you are forced to scavenge for resources in the shadowy station.
Now to the star of the game. The “xenomorph”. As far as a video-game villains go, the titular “Alien” is by far one of the most terrifying ever experienced. Villain is perhaps not the right word, as it does not do justice to the double-mouthed monstrosity. The “xenomorph” is better akin to a force of nature, the embodiment of the predator in the predator-prey cycle. Ash was correct in the original movie when calling the “Alien” a “perfect organism”. This is reflected in the AI for the creature: it is as unpredictable as any hunting animal, reactive to outside stimuli, e.g. noise and light. Amanda will even gasp in fear if the alien gets to close, which it will occasionally hear, leading to your death. The motion tracker is useful, but can be unreliable when you are unsure if the alien is in the vents above or below you. The game never feels repetitive, the “Alien” never feels like it’s on a set patrol cycle: every player death feels warranted, as the smallest mistake will lead to doom. Some will find it frustrating, but this unpredictability truly makes the game a visceral and terrifying experience.
To sum up, this title blows other games of the same genre out of the water. The setting and atmosphere are perfectly crafted, the artists having studied extensively the artwork of Ron Cobb who designed the Nostromo, and so you truly feel like you are in the universe of the original movie. The sound design evokes both nostalgia and fear, from the chatter of analogue computers to the hissing of the dreaded xenomorph, the music faithful to Jerry Goldsmith’s original score. All in all, this game is an amazing addition to the Alien canon, so much so that a sequel is warranted. I think it can safely be said that Sega is forgiven for Aliens: Colonial Marines.