Alien: Isolation (Xbox One) Review
- Looks superb and captures the look and feel of the original Alien movie
- Dripping with atmosphere aided by some wonderful sound design
- Can feel truly nerve-racking and tense at times with many a jump-scare
- The random AI of the Alien can lead to some tense cat & mouse play
Not So Much?
- Random nature of the Alien AI can also sometimes be the game's downfall
- Terrible save system means huge amounts of game time can be lost in a heartbeat - this is compounded by the trial & error gameplay
- Game runs way too long and stretches a great 8 hour premise over 20
- Graphical glitches can detract at times
- Ends up being more frustrating than scary as the hours go on
Frustratingly close to the definitive Alien game. Some poor design choices and copious amounts of in-game filler leave you feeling frustrated more than scared as time wears on. It is, however, the best Alien game for quite some time!
With Alien: Isolation what so many people have been hoping for is a good, solid use of the Alien franchise. Something that treats the subject matter with respect, offers up a new story and above all isn’t Aliens: Colonial Marines!
This time out Sega have taken development in-house and put to work the team over at Creative Assembly. Noted in recent years for the Total War series they might not seem like a go-to studio for a fresh take on the Alien series. In fact apart from making a few ports (and a cracking Viking game!) over the UK studio’s seventeen plus years all these guys know is strategy games. So can they pull off the impossible and make an Alien game that delights fans and gamers alike? Well… Almost!
Let’s take a step back here and dig a little deeper with Alien: Isolation. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the Nostromo’s Ellen Ripley. Set around 15 years after the events of Alien Amanda is given the opportunity to go and investigate the black box recorder from the Nostromo that’s been recovered from deep space. Jumping at the chance to continue her investigation in to her mother’s disappearance Amanda takes a flight to rendezvous with the Sevastopol. As you approach the space station you can clearly tell something is not right, yet Amanda and two colleagues attempt a disastrous spacewalk that lands them stranded over on the space station… A space station that has quite clearly been ravaged by something.
From here it’s up to you to edge your way along many a smoke filled corridor or creaking vent tube and piece together what’s happened on the once vibrant space station. Society has collapsed inside the Sevastopol and it’s pretty much everyone for themselves. You’ll encounter looters and other just struggling to survive on the station. Some’ll likely shoot you as much as look at you but others will leave you be as long as you show no signs of aggression towards them.
The initial impression that Alien: Isolation leaves on you is impressive. Visually it’s striking in many ways. Firstly the general art style apes that of the original Alien movie perfectly. Rather than interpret what an Alien movie made today might have looked like the team have taken their cues from the original 1970’s movie. So what we end up with is the impression of what the future will look like viewed from the 70’s. It’s a process that just simply works in immersing you in that initial movie’s world – right down to reel-to-reel tape machines to play audio logs and fuzzy green screen computer terminals. It all fits incredibly well.
As do the inhabitants of the world. The small number of characters you come across are well realised as are the “Working Joes” – the android worker bots being manufactured on the space station. The show stealer, and rightly so, has to be the Alien model. We’ve all seen countless iteration of the Alien creation represented in a multitude of varying quality videogames. Yet we don’t usually get this up-close and personal! Watching the alien make its way around the level, whilst you duck and doge for cover is exhilarating – H.R. Giger truly made one of the world’s classic “monsters”.
Sound design too has been given a lot of thought in Alien: Isolation. The general hum and background creaks of the space station only become evident when you pause or drop out of the game. You suddenly realise that buzz of activity all around you was there and it’s incredibly absorbing. The background pulls you in and the shuffling, clanking and thudding around you of a prowling Xenomorph ratchets up the tension. You see, as in the original Alien movie, it’s not seeing the alien that’s the scary part – it’s knowing that it could appear at any moment… from literally anywhere.
With a hud-less game the only real constant feedback you get is from what you can see and hear. There are times when you need to hide in the shadows and not use your newly acquired head-torch. In these instances all you have is your ears to let you know just how screwed you are! Sure, you can use your trusty motion tracker, but those beeps don’t go unheard… That said seeing the alien creature scurrying around on your motion tracker as it weaves through tunnels and pipes hidden in the walls – all the while you’re trying to reach the next save point – can be truly terrifying at times.
Whilst I mention saving let’s get one of my biggest gripes about Alien: Isolation out in the open – the save system is terrible. There are no auto saves on Alien: Isolation (with the exception of major level changes… mostly). Saving is down to you locating a wall device that you slot a card in to. The process takes about 5 seconds or more and during that whole process, whilst your card is checked and read, you can still be attacked and killed. Not a massive issue right? Plenty of survival horror titles use this trick to good effect. The issue here is that, with the random alien AI and the savant skills of the androids you can easily die in this game – you die A LOT in Alien: Isolation. So you’ve just spent 25 minutes edging your way through an area filled with androids and the ever stalking alien creature. You’ve reached your objective, flip a switch or collected an item, maybe even seen a cut scene or two. You then head back through the level. As you progress towards the lift that serves as the end of the level you round the corner and end up face to jaws with the alien – Boom! Dead. 25 minutes wastes in a heartbeat from a random encounter you could do nothing about. This happened on multiple occasions and I would ned up just sprinting through a level and hitting the elevator button moments before being slain.
As if to add insult to injury I had several occurrences where I didn’t start at my save point, I started at the one prior to that (it maintains 2 save points just in case you mess up one by saving moments before death). That and a particular favourite where you go through a lengthy and fraught sneak sequence, dodge scores of androids, do several tasks, escape in to a lift and watch a lengthy cut scene then load in the next level. I stepped out of that lift, played about 5 minutes on the new level and was randomly killed by the alien. Never mind I thought, it’s just back to the start of the level. Well, actually, no! It’s back to the save I had made 35 minutes previously on the level before. The level change obviously hadn’t counted as a forced save and there had been no save stations in the area I was in on the new level… so again I was left frustrated and feeling like I’d wasted my time. I live in hope that Creative Assembly will take pity on us and patch in a few more save points or at least a conservative autosave.
When Alien: Isolation is working at its best it truly is a nerve-jangling experience. Trying to keep one step ahead of the alien by using scavenged parts and crafting useful items is a must. As you explore the station you will locate blueprints. These will show you how to build simple devices like med kits, pipe bombs, noise makers, flares etc. These all form the basis of your limited tools. You will eventually get varying weapons but these are to be used very sparingly and in the full knowledge that the use will likely lead to a visit from your friendly neighbourhood xenomorph!
Sneaking, skulking and hiding are your best tools for the job here. Progress through each of the levels is slow going. Tempted to run? Sure that’ll work in the first few hours of the game but when you reach the later parts where the alien is stalking you constantly even a short sprint can bring the beastie after you. Here in lies the rub – The game builds atmosphere by making you go slow and listen to every pop and creak of the station. It hangs its hat on the atmosphere and slow-burn stalking of the alien creature. Yet being forced to move slowly make each area of the game really drag along – sometimes to the point of tedium. Even a standard walk can lead to you being impaled by the alien’s tail.
At a good 20+ hours Alien: Isolation certainly has longevity on its side. Whether you will be able to sustain the constant trial and error nature of the gameplay is personal to you as a gamer. For me the game started to lose its charm somewhere around the half-way mark. Another corridor, another duct and more creeping towards another keycard that’d been lost. In all honesty the game could probably have been tightened and shaved 1/3 off easily without really negatively impacting anything.
As well as the main story you also have the challenge maps. These are small isolated occurrences where you have to take on a specially designed series of challenges across a small map as quickly as you can. It’ll be you against the alien in the worst possible scenarios to earn bragging rights with your friends via the leaderboards. To be honest Alien: Isolation’s main story feels like it was constructed as a series of challenge areas strung loosely together with story elements so it’s not that different from the main campaign. Other than it’s a little more immediate.
Alien: Isolation is a huge step forward to Alien games and something that treats the original Ridley Scott movie with loving attention to detail. It’ll delight fans with its little touches like the VHS tracking look to the video sequences and nods to the events of the Nostromo. The art direction and general feel of the game is superb and brings us closer to the game Alien fans have been asking for.
A series of gameplay niggles with the random AI, some terrible frame rate issues, laughable lip-sync, the trial & error nature of the gameplay and some terrible calls in regards to saving all take their toll leaving you feeling frustrated more often than frightened. And as the frustrations set in the atmosphere seeps away leaving a mechanically flawed, slow paced, first person survival horror title. Worse than that is the feeling that an amazing 8 – 10 hour game is struggling to burst from the chest of this 20 hour trudge. Many will play the first 5+ hours of this game and wonder what all the negativity is about – but longevity will bare out my concerns.
When Alien: Isolation is firing on all cylinders it’s exactly what you want from an Alien game. There’s no pulse rifles blaring, no glib remarks. This is terror as personified by Scott’s initial vision. A claustrophobic world where by bumping a desk can lead to your horrific death. It’s palm sweatingly tense at times and you can feel physically drained after a particularly long play session.
Creative Assembly set out to make a single focused Alien experience. To capture the ethos a look of the original movie and expunge the skidmarks left by all recent attempts on the franchise. For the most part it succeeds. How well it fits you as a player is highly subjective with many getting frustrated before the real twists and turns really kick in. Alien: Isolation hands us something that is very much “almost” what we wanted – just with a few rough edges and a lot of filler content.
Creative Assembly have put together an incredibly strong vision for Alien: Isolation. It might not suit all-comers, but it’s thankfully unapologetic about that. Choosing to stick to the design vision and tension of the first movie, rather than the gun-ho attitude of the sequel, Aliens. And for a “blockbuster” title, that needs to be applauded if nothing else.