They say that in space no one can hear you scream, but that is not quite true. If you scream, someone, or rather something, will hear you, though you might wish they couldn’t.
As you play through Alien: Isolation, the newest attempt at translating the Alien franchise to video game form, you’ll find it difficult not to. Every flickering shadow, every sudden burst of steam, every blip from the motion detector will make you jump out of your skin with fright, but the glowing eyes of a murderous android or the ominous hiss of the Xenomorph are what will make you freeze in terror. The Creative Assembly succeeded in bringing back the horror to the classic sci-fi franchise, but more importantly, it managed to create something that hasn’t been seen in over a decade – a good Alien game.
It’s been 15 years since The Nostromo vanished in deep space. Ellen Ripley, one of the crew on board and the heroine of the Alien movies, has left behind a young daughter named Amanda, who also happens to be the heroine of Alien: Isolation. Amanda has been investigating her mother’s disappearance for all those years, and as the game starts, she finally catches a break – the flight recorder of The Nostromo has been recovered by the Seegson Corporation and is located on board Sevastopol Station. Amanda quickly joins the small team sent by Weyland-Yutani to retrieve the recorder and travels to the space station without knowing the horrors that await her there.
And for the first time in a while, the horror is real. Isolation forgoes the action and shooting we saw in previous games, and chooses to remain true to the spirit of the first Alien movie. That means no more heavily armed space marines – Amanda is a simple engineer without any sort of combat training, which makes her the perfect protagonist for a horror game. We’ve seen space engineers in horror games before, but they always came equipped with enough fire-power to bring down an army of aliens. Amanda has a very limited arsenal, and instead must rely on her skills and instincts to survive.
Amanda’s vulnerability is only accentuated by her surroundings. Sevastopol Station is in complete disrepair: flickering lights create pools of darkness, exposed wires send sparks everywhere, malfunctioning doors block your path, and the corridors are filled with graffiti and debris. Simply walking through Sevastopol’s desolate halls is an eerie experience all by itself, since it is obvious that something bad happened there, and it might not be over just yet. The game lays the atmosphere a little thick, but in the end it pays off as every little noise or visual cue immediately sends you crawling under a bed or jumping into the nearest locker where you wait until your heart stops racing.
But none of that would have mattered if there wasn’t something to actually be afraid of. That something is big, black and slithery, with the ability to reach just about anywhere and take a man’s head off with one bite. The Alien, or Xenomorph as some might know it, is the main antagonist in Alien: Isolation and it is terrifying. Hearing its footsteps coming down a corridor, or catching a glimpse of its horrible tail as it slithers into a ventilation shaft, isn’t something you easily forget. The Alien hunts you down relentlessly, drawn by any noise you make, and once it catches you (and it will) it unleashes one of its awesome kill-animations, which are probably one of the best things in the game. The one time I dared to make a run for the exit, the Alien popped out of a vent and skewered Amanda through the chest with its tail. Even though I had to reload a previous save, it was incredibly satisfying to watch. However, after the first few times it kills you, the Alien becomes more of an obstacle, even a nuisance, than an actual scary threat. Luckily, this feeling is pretty much gone once you move on to the next area of Sevastopol Station, where new and exciting dangers lurk.
Since the Alien cannot be killed by conventional means, Amanda has no choice but to hide and try to sneak around it. Unlike many other stealth games, where the enemy’s movement follow a certain pattern, the enemies in Alien: Isolation move more freely about the level and can even change their position depending on Amanda’s location and the amount of noise she is making. The Alien is especially cunning, and can lay an ambush for the unwary player or pop out of a vent the moment you start feeling a little too safe. This constant sense of danger is part of what keeps the player engaged and prevents the game from feeling too slow. If you enjoy stealth and the thrill of being hunted, Survival Mode challenges you to complete a series of tasks while avoiding detection by the Xenomorph. It also throws in some extra bonus objectives, like never using the motion detector or completing the level as fast as possible. This mode distills the game into its purest, nerve-wrecking essence.
Amanda isn’t completely helpless, mind you. She might not have the biggest arsenal of weapons, but that doesn’t mean she is unarmed. Being an engineer, Amanda can craft makeshift gadgets and devices, such as medkits, flashbangs, Molotov cocktails and even an EMP device. These can sometimes help against the Alien, but they are most useful against Alien: Isolation’s other enemies: killer androids and humans. When stealth fails, or you’re just feeling particularly aggressive, it’s fun to experiment with the various gadgets; one of my favorite methods of clearing a room is tossing a noisemaker – a small device that beeps loudly – in the middle of a group of hostiles and watching the Alien appear and rip them apart. Of course, you’re then stuck with an angry killing machine patrolling the immediate area… There are more traditional ways of dispatching an enemy, like a wrench to the back of the head or wasting a few precious bullets, but they are way too risky to rely on. Plus, they kind of feel out of place in the world of Alien.
And Alien: Isolation does an amazing job at recreating the Lo-fi Sci-fi world from the first movie. Sevastopol looks like a futuristic vision from the early 1980’s, with CRT monitors, tape recorders and hydraulic levers all wrapped in blinking lights and slick design. The amount of details in each environment is astounding, from the magazines, books and retro handheld devices strewn across the staff quarters to the outdated interface of the computers. It really shows that the folks at The Creative Assembly lived and breathed the unique mix of retro and futuristic technologies we were first introduced to in 1979’s Alien, and managed to create a living, breathing world. Unfortunately, clipping issues with the Alien and other hostile AI, inconsistencies with their behavior, as well as a noticeable drop in frame rate during cutscenes can ruin the immersion the developers worked so hard to maintain.
What brings the immersion back almost immediately is the sound design. When it comes to the characters, and especially the Alien itself, the sound is incredible. You can hear the Alien stomping around an adjacent room, or the metal clinging as it crawls into vents. You can hear human NPCs talk among themselves, or scream in fear when they are attacked, thus inadvertently alerting you to their presence and that of something much more dangerous. The sound effects themselves can be a bit underwhelming or sometimes even annoying, what with all the beeping and blipping that come with retro-futuristic settings, but they’re always completely appropriate to the situation.
Alien: Isolation is an excellent horror game, and most importantly, an excellent Alien game. The story fits well within the canon, and the reduction of combat in favor of a more visceral survival vibe is the best decision The Creative Assembly could’ve made. Some visual bugs and inconsistent AI can mar the experience, and at certain points the horror can be replaced by tedium. Nevertheless, from the settings to the gameplay, to the Xenomorph itself, everything about Alien: Isolation practically screams Alien, and we can hear it loud and clear.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.