Alien: Isolation Review
We don’t know if Ridley Scott plays videogames – he seems like the kind of guy that would, though. If he happened to play Alien: Isolation, we can’t help but think of how he’d react to it – we’re sure it must make him feel proud, but uncomfortable at the same time. Alien: Isolation is more than just a survival-horror game – it’s the best Alien game that’s ever been made, impressively and uncannily similar to Scott’s original film.
The team at Creative Assembly kept the original Scott film playing on loop around them as it was developing the game, and that maniacal level of dedication shows in every inch of the Sevastopol station it created. The story takes place some 15 years after the original Ellen Ripley’s ordeal aboard the Nostromo, and daughter Amanda Ripley’s journey for closure begins as a colleague informs her of its arrival at a decommissioned colony hung in space across the galaxy.
The quality of Isolation is obvious from the second the game boots up – there’s this cinematic grain that coats everything and makes the uber-realistic lighting carry this darker weight: every shadow looks loaded, every glint and reflection is sharp and meaningful. From the opening tutorial that sees you wake from hypersleep and stumble around the Torrens transport ship in your underwear, getting your balance, it’s clear that Alien: Isolation isn’t going to hold your hand… you’re on your own from here.
The UI is stripped back and as minimal as it could be – it felt like Creative Assembly wanted to immerse you in a cinematic world as much as possible, so even on-screen prompts and notifications are tiny. It suits the way you’re made to inspect everything – Isolation operates on a macro-level: spend too long gazing down Sevastopol’s corridors and something will creep up behind you and impale you. Even waypointing is done through the Motion Tracker – the game world is as icon-free and clean as it can be.
The first few hours are purely tutorial – establishing the scene and dropping story beats that serve to outline just how bloody terrifying the Alien is. It isn’t long until you meet him – from a distance – and Creative Assembly is smart with its reveal: you never see the full thing, in all its Lovecraftian glory, until later. The developer toys with you, and from the first reveal every creaking pipe and every muffled shuffle on the station will leave you wide-eyed and ready.
Isolation manages to pull off horror well. While it might not be packed to the gills with jump scares like Outlast or obsessed with gore to the level of the Dead Space series, Alien manages to be consistently tense. Isolation isn’t about making you jump or shocking you for shock’s sake – it relies on a more subtle terror, building up tension from before you even board the Sevastopol, making you more scared of not seeing the Alien than seeing it (because then, at least you know where it is…).
The campaign weighs in at a good 15 hours, probably more if you go back to explore the Metroidvania inspired open levels. Alien: Isolation doesn’t lose anything from its longevity, though – in fact, it’s just the right length – and the way it drops in new mechanics little-by-little (you don’t have the Motion Tracker right away, for example, nor the tools necessary to access early locked doors) is a good lesson in pacing.
You’re armed only with a few melee weapons to start, though guns do become available as you push on. You’re going to rely more on the Motion Tracker – it’s far more valuable than any gun. One discredit to Alien’s pacing is the flamethrower – we played through the game on Hard, and while the weapon doesn’t speed it up too much there, on Easy and Medium the flamer was like a licence to waltz through the rest of the game. We never found ourselves out of fuel for it, and it was usually sufficient to keep the Alien at bay whenever we ran into it. Setting fire to the Xenomorph does piss it off a bit, though.
When you’re not being pushed on with an action-heavy story scene or cowering for your life under a table as the Alien stalks you, you’ll probably be slinking from room to room in search of scrap. Ripley is an engineer, and her fiddly electronical know-how allows her to use blueprints collected from around the place to craft slipshod devices – Noisemakers, flares, healthpacks, improvised bombs… it’s a skillset directly suited to surviving aboard the Sevastopol, and it adds another layer of gameplay to Alien’s already watertight base – resource management.
The game also offers flashbacks to the events preceding Alien and Isolation, and peppers the narrative with references to wider Alien lore (but mostly rooted in the first film, don’t worry). Loyal to all the Alien tropes, Creative Assembly isn’t afraid to change things up later on, but this only serves to compound the tension and throw more red herrings your way. Isolation is a long game, but one that’s never going to let you relax.
Even the save stations don’t offer sanctuary – we got killed after we sprinted to a machine to cram a save, thinking (stupidly) the game would let up. The save machines are manual, requiring about seven seconds to work. We got five seconds in and – BAM – the Alien grabbed our head, pulled it back and the last thing we saw was that little Alien mouth going for our eyes.
It’s a game that keeps toying with you, telling you you’re going to do something and then going against it. It teases you, even – no spoilers, but there’s a cheeky reference some way into the game, and the way the game taunts you with it is fantastic. You have to remember in Isolation – you’re powerless, you’re prey and that’s never going to change.
You can’t just figure out the mechanics and work through the game without really thinking about it – the designers at Creative Assembly have come up with a masterpiece in the Alien’s AI: you can feel it evolve and learn how to tackle you. Throw too many Noisemakers, and it’ll know to search for where they came from; keep escaping through vents, it’ll get its tail around your legs.
If that’s not enough, there are also human survivors that will shoot at you if you threaten their personal space, and unpredictable ‘Working Joe’ cyborgs that have this ‘for the greater good of the ship’ mentality that can be just as terrifying as the Xenomorph. All together, the three levels of AI form puzzles around some of the best level design we’ve seen in a horror game – the Sevastopol is a maze, and it takes some real thinking to get through.
The cyborgs have this hollow, uncanny quality to them that somehow makes the ship seem even more desolate than it is, and once angered, they’re practically unstoppable; if you can get a three-way rumble going between them, the humans and the Alien, you’re free to sneak around the back of it all and escape… if you’re quick and quiet enough.
We were told by the game’s designer Gary Napper that he played through Isolation on a ‘cannon run’: having the Alien kill everyone while never dirtying his own hands. We tried that, but it’s hard. The story makes you kill at one point, but Ripley’s reaction and subsequent attitude is a damn sight better realised than Lara’s was in the 2013 Tomb Raider. After that, it’s in your hands – it’s better not to kill, but often we couldn’t immediately see any viable alternative.
The persistence of the AI (both Alien and ‘Working Joe’) makes you keep changing up your playing style – Creative Assembly has built a detailed lo-fi science fiction universe, and it wants you to make the most of it. The permanent threat of death keeps you forced to the ground – we can’t remember the last game where we willingly snuck around so much – and it feels like the claustrophobic corridors and catwalks of the Sevastopol were built from that angle. Being crouched, looking up at everything… it really does give you that feeling that Creative Assembly wanted it all along – that ‘prey being hunted’ effect. It makes a refreshing change from the feeling of being overpowered and able to kill anything that appears.
The graphics in Isolation speak for themselves, and it’s one of the best-looking games we’ve played on the PS4 – the familiarity anyone that’s seen Alien will take from it can’t be understated. The sound design is equally as evocative, with every squeak of Ripley’s sneakers on the linoleum floor making you cringe and every distant thud making you breathe deeply. The soundtrack actually reminded us of BioShock Infinite in the way it used music to misdirect you, building up violin trills and tempo before suddenly fading: ‘there’s no danger here,’ it says, ‘gotcha!’.
Alien: Isolation has been in development for over three years, yet releases on the tail-end of a prolonged Indie-horror movement. Isolation is refreshing for a triple-A title, though, because it shows the dedication and passion of an indie project, yet is as refined and polished as you’d expect a bigger-budget game to be. For a studio that’s never made a survival-horror experience before, we are impressed with Creative Assembly because it has done a far better job than a lot of bigger studios have done in the same genre.