Alien: Isolation has an incredible sense of self. It’s an Alien role-playing game. Obviously not an RPG with stats and questing, but instead a simulation of being trapped aboard a spaceship where a terrifying creature is hunting the crew. It’s filled with some of the most impacting stealth sections I’ve seen in a game, but is also blemished by some of the very worst side effects of making something in that genre. The result is a game that feels entirely ‘whole’ —fleshed out enough to flawlessly support its ideas— that can be aggravating beyond believe when its gameplay tropes get in the way of achieving that very goal.
What makes the game’s suspense so effective is the interplay between patience and urgency — which is of course at the core what makes the film Alien (1979) work so damn well to begin with. Just like the movie, Isolation isn’t exactly frightening, but is brimming with suspense. In Isolation, you play as the engineer Amanda Ripley (Ellen Ripley’s daughter), who has become stranded aboard the Sevastopol, which is —for all intents and purposes— just a much larger version of the Nostromo. If you’ve seen the film, you know that the 1970s-styled spaceship is constantly humming with and clacking with the sounds of you and whatever else is lurking in the halls and ceilings. When everything comes together the game is able to conjure up moments where the whole ship feels alive even when you’re completely alone, and simultaneously ‘too quiet’ when you know that you aren’t.
By a stroke of genius (or dumb luck) Alien: Isolation manages to have regular encounters without ever giving up the notion that Ripley is in danger. For starters, this is because the game is willing to take breaks from enemy encounters, but also because the game scarcely gives you any indication how it wants you to deal with conflicts. Unlike so many other games that give you a specific kind of resource right around the kind you’re expected to use them, supplies are almost always scarce on the the Sevastopol. I’m not saying Alien: Isolation never shows its hand, but it’s much better about making you second guess how you should use your items than other survival-horror games. For a point of comparison, I’d compare its resource-management and pacing to the original Resident Evil (1996), and the bulk of its encounters to Outlast (2013) — these gameplay choices amount to a fantastic representation of Alien.
Where all this starts to fall apart is when you’re forced to repeat a section one too many times. It’s a fairly difficult game (if you’re spotted by an enemy chances are good that you’re done for) that requires copious amounts of patience to be good at. Also, enemies don’t necessarily behave the same way every time you attempt to sneak past them —which is great for world building— but obnoxious when you’re stuck repeating the same section without actually getting any better at it. These issues are made worse by long load times on consoles, and a complete lack of checkpoints in general. It’s upsetting because these are mostly sections that could have been fixed by an extra save point, or by scaling back the number of adversaries in an area.
The quiet claustrophobia of Alien: Isolation is exceedingly good at breeding anxiety. It is a very long game, and it has its problems, but more often than not it is a patient title that happens to do well by its source material. Stepping into Ridley’s shoes is the constantly stressful experience it ought to be, and Creative Assembly deserve high praise for building something that can so deftly have its players experience the horror of being hunted.
- It’s brilliant how often waiting for a tram is tense, tense, tense, and then the train just shows up and you get on.
- Reminds of Metro: 2033. It’s long, but has constant sense of urgency pushing you forward.
- PS4 controller speakers are terrific in this. More than once I told my controller “shush” cause I was afraid it would alert the alien.
- First time I can remember since Metroid: Prime (2002) where I’ve been initially puzzled by a map, only to find myself constantly staring at it.
- For whatever reason, I always feel like my character is really short when I’m playing first-person games. Height feels right to me in this game.
- Loading on consoles really sucks.
- It starts off with the 20th Century Fox logo, as if on a bootleg VHS — the effect carries on all video through the game (and the map). Didn’t bug me at all, I thought it was cool.
- Sometimes you have to backtrack through an area and it seems like they’ve added enemies, that’s zero fun. Backtracking itself is problematic to begin with.
- The engineering animations –ala Far Cry 2 (2008)– all have surprisingly effective button prompts associated to them. They work a hell of lot better than motion controls to get you immersed. For example, pulling a two-handed lever is: L2 + R2 + both analogue sticks down.
- The save point system is such a conundrum. When it works it’s great. When it doesn’t it is the very worst. I really do think it’s a balancing problem.
- Almost all items you can craft (i.e.: noisemaker, flare, etc…) are really useful against a single enemy, and kinda crummy against a group.