He is stalking me, I can hear him up in the vents and he’s barely one step behind me. I dare not turn around, don’t turn around and don’t run, that’s what he wants me to do. My heart is pounding, I can see the exit to safety, just don’t run, don’t look behind, keep going – This is the emotional rollercoaster you’ll be taken on should you decide to step foot inside Sevastopol station.
It was with some trepidation that I took on this review, on paper Alien Isolation sounded like it would scare the living daylights out of me but even more scary was the prospect that I could end up having to endure another poor interpretation of one of my favourite films. Thankfully Alien Isolation celebrates what made the original film so frightening – the fear of being stalked by something that is impervious to your attacks.
The first thing that struck me about Isolation was the sound – it’s simply phenomenal. It perfectly celebrates the orchestral score of the film and sent a shiver down my spine as the music opens the game. The sound also builds to a shrill crescendo at times of heightened suspense that only serves to up your pulse and make you grip your controller all the more tightly.
You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley. The story picks up 15 years after the events of Alien. Ellen is floating in space after escaping the creature and Amanda has taken job after job in the hope that while working in the same areas as her mother that she might find some answers as to what became of her – that day has arrived. The flight recorder of the Nostromo has been recovered and being held on the Sevastopol, a space station orbiting the gas giant KG348. Naturally things go pretty pear–shaped as soon as you arrive at the station, afterall when you are a Ripley things have a habit of going bad real quick.
Just like the film, the alien doesn’t reveal itself fully or begin to aggressively hunt you until after several chapters into the game, but that doesn’t make the initial levels any less tense. Sound, light and shadow make you see things that aren’t there as you carefully navigate the Sevastopol’s metallic labyrinth of corridors. It’s this environment that the graphics really excel in. The majority of textures look great and the smoke that hisses from pipes is extremely lifelike, it’s a shame that The Creative Assembly didn’t spend more time on character faces which look rather ugly and stiff in their animation – a compete contrast to the smooth creepy movements of the alien.
Having written about Alien for my dissertation I’m rather familiar with the seven–foot–tall monstrosity but while playing Isolation it still managed to put me on edge. The alien can’t be killed, only fended off and should you get caught by it… well, I’m sure you can imagine what the outcome is. All you have to warn you of its presence is the iconic motion scanner, which has been implemented into Isolation’s gameplay perfectly.
Mostly the alien’s movement is unscripted – appearing without warning or just to remind you that you can’t go charging through the Sevastopol like a bull in china shop. Relying on sight and sound, the alien retains the sense of horror that many other games lose once you discover and learn attack and patrol patterns. Even after several hours of ‘dealing’ with the alien, I still got myself worked up into a panicked frenzy. It’s invigorating stuff but boy was I glad when it was over!
There are several other enemies to either avoid or dispose of in Isolation and for added kicks you can even distract the Alien into the path of your foes allowing you to scurry away while the Alien does your dirty work. Human enemies will generally shoot first and ask questions later, while the synthetic Worker Joe androids will try to strangle you if they are in combat mode.
Mostly you’ll be trying to navigate the station without creating too much noise and avoiding combat where possible, there’s nothing worse than engaging in a firefight that causes the alien to drop by so sneaking and choosing your moments is key if you want to avoid any undue alien attention. The gameplay owes a lot to Outlast; it creates that same sense of unease and dread, it nails the same eerie vibe and how the action sequences are handled. Mostly you’ll be crisscrossing the station powering up different areas or embarking on numerous fetch quests to achieve your current objective, which is reminiscent of Dead Space’s gameplay. To pass through doors or access comms you will need to successfully complete a hacking minigame, these are rather simple but I really enjoyed playing the Bioshockesque hacking games, just not when the alien had dropped into the room while I was huddled over my Access Tuner hacking a door. Like Dead Space, you can also create several items from scrap and other useful objects that are left lying around the station, although you can’t hoard items due to a limited inventory system. You can craft at anytime so choose your moment carefully!
The cruelest thing Isolation does is to wind you up into a state of panic and terror then tease you with a solution, an exit or a save point – suddenly a wave of relief floods your body only for it to be smashed just as you are moments from safety as the alien thrusts its tail through your abdomen – Isolation is as cruel as the beast that stalks you. While some may find the challenge and horror exhilarating, others may find it a little too much to tackle 20+ hours of space horror. Checkpoints need to be activated by logging into Sevastopol’s computer system with your keycard, but this isn’t instant – you have to endure a few seconds as the system scans and checks your card – during this time you are vulnerable and should you die then it’s back to the last save you go. In a time when we are used to games saving often, this can be quite frustrating but it adds to the suspense of the gameplay and should be applauded rather than frowned upon.
The twists in the story are rather predictable if you are familiar with the films, most of the sequences have been lifted straight from them and the end of the game outstays its welcome – instead of stopping at an obvious end point you are presented with new problems and objectives before the real ending arrives. While it’s not a bad thing to keep throwing more gameplay at you, the natural ending is breezed past as the story unfolds to be so much more than you originally thought. It takes the shine off of what you have spent the majority of the game trying to achieve.
If you have the stomach for it I highly recommend playing Alien Isolation in the dark, on hard and with headphones on – it’s guaranteed to make the hairs on your neck stand on end, not least because of the terrifying sounds the alien makes as it roams the Sevastopol’s metallic hallways and vents, but because of the exquisite musical score that has been so fondly recreated from Ridley Scott’s 1979 film.