The Alien series needs no introduction if you are of a certain age; it’s 80s Sci-Fi horror at its best (OK, fine, late 70s). An iconic film with an unforgettable introduction to one of popular culture’s most horrifying xenomorph. In a world built from tape decks, CRT monitors and dimly-lit spaceships, it was a long distant future with its grounds firmly planted in then-modern tech.
Alien: Isolation is not a game that is set out to reinvent the past; it does quite the opposite. Instead of shunning old, clapped out, bulky hardware – it embraced it, gave it a home, then did everything it could to destroy it. There are no fancy flatscreens here, holographic displays, streamlined and aerodynamic ships, lasers or shields; this is hardcore space exploration on the backs of hard labour, ignorance and 80s style capitalism.
While Isolation is not a reinvention of the past, it does bring us something new: A story arc based around Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda. It is some 15 years after the disappearance of the Nostromo, and the past rears its ugly head as the ship’s flight recorder is found. It’s collected at the now dilapidated trading station, Sevastopol. Amanda sets course for the station to finally find out what happened to her mother. As one can imagine, things don’t go quite so smoothly.
I will tell you now, Isolation is not a run-and-gun, alien-slaying kill-fest that some may be expecting. This is a true to the core, stealth survival game. You are not a marine, you have no weapons training; you’re an engineer, you solve problems with a monkey-wrench and gadgetry. While guns are made available to you as you progress, they are little more than noise generators, designed to get you killed faster.
While the Alien takes centre-stage as the protagonist, skulking around dark and dingy corridors, ready to tear you limb from limb in oh-so-many ways, there is more than just a big, black, genocidal xenomorph with a drooling problem to worry about. In fact, you seem to be in an odd position where pretty much everyone wants you dead, you know, because fear… at least that’s how it’s explained. No one is friendly, and it’s all about self-survival.
That look on your face when you’ve left the oven on.
Stealth plays a very important part, and you will be forever crouching and skulking around, always on edge. Every bump, rattle or voice will send you scuttling to air ducts, lockers and any dark corner you can find. You know there is something around the corner, you know something will jump out at you, but every single time… wait, hold that thought, I need to change the batteries on this flashlight.
As much as you would like to stay in the cosy confines of someone else’s locker, you have to come out eventually, and for that purpose, the joys of the motion tracker soon become apparent… at least, while things are moving. You are often forced into difficult positions, the rock and a hard place so to speak, and timing becomes paramount. All actions like opening doors, hiding, crawling into vents, even using the save points, takes precious seconds on what can be at times, a daunting and frightful escape.
You’ll be seeing quite a few of these tunnels.
It soon becomes apparent that there is a healthy dose of both the dystopian and surreal themes from Fallout, a culture stuck in a classic mentality but with technologies that are ahead yet behind our own. There is the uncomfortable solitude brought about by Bioshock, and that nostalgic feeling of Doom 3‘s nerve-biting suspense, crawling around, always knowing something’s going to pop out any… hold on a second, batteries.
It only detects motion, use it wisely.
There are a multitude of mini-games to contend with, often placed around critical points, forcing you to strategize before attempting them. There are locks that need removing from certain doors with a wrench. A hacking tool for electrically sealed locks that requires pattern matching. QTE-based games when having to cut certain doors open; even simple actions like restarting generators requires a certain amount of action, rather than just simple ‘Press E repeatedly to win’. None of these mini-games detract from the whole, but actually enhance the fear, since panic can cause you to fumble and consequently kill you.
Fire, it’s so pretty!
Being the engineer that you are, there are a multitude of items to craft, made from parts you scavenge from around the station. From health items, to various grenades and distraction items. Ammo for weapons is extremely limited too, not that using a weapon is a good idea.
There are medkits… but it’s not as if it can heal a claw through the chest.
Problems do crop up with what can be only described as an inconsistent AI. Fairly early on, I was confronted with a situation familiar to a lot of stealth games, that of avoiding patrols. At some point, someone needs a clobbering over the back of the head; the way the AI reacts to this is just plain bizarre. All of the other people in the area freeze in their tracks and stare at you in disbelief; they become both psychic and petrified. They know where you are, they all point their guns at you, but none of them run towards you. Not only that, but they will follow you, too, waiting for you to pop into view so they can shoot. Other times it’s possible to be spotted, then crouch under a desk and laugh hysterically as the AI just gives up at your expert hiding. However, there are times when the AI will drag you out from under desks, wait for you to appear from a vent, pull you out of a locker, and chase you half way across the station.
The graphics are very befitting and the cutscenes equally enhance the game. The music and sound are definitely worthy of mention, as it certainly brings back memories of watching the original films. When the music builds up, you know something is going to happen, but you are always left waiting for it… mind games and torture, I’m sure the developers are grinning with glee.
That’s it, run! I never want to see you again!
What isn’t so funny is the Alien itself. Play this game late at night, in a dark room with headphones, barely clinging to consciousness after a long day’s work; the thunderous plod of a meandering nightmare will soon have you curling up in a ball under the desk. It creeps towards you, the thud of its footsteps sends coffee mugs falling off desks. You have to move and the only place to go is an unlit vent across the room. Staring patiently at the motion tracker, waiting for a chance to make a mad dash for the vent. An opportunity arises – throwing caution to the wind, relying on your flight response to carry you to the vent. Climbing into an abyss of barely visible tunnels, you hit your flashlight and… curse the universe as you fail to fathom how you arrived on a derelict space station after a faster-than-light journey in a stasis pod, only to be given a flashlight that can’t last more than five minutes.
Batteries, I hate you.
- Theme faithful to the 1979 classic.
- Excellent graphics.
- Good mix of fear, adrenaline and action.
- Wonderfully atmospheric and good use of lighting.
- Suspenseful music and use of sound.
- I jumped out of my seat a couple of times.
- Indecisive AI.
- Five minute batteries… seriously?