Review - Alien Isolation
Long have fans waited for a game to encompass and embrace the Alien universe such as Alien: Isolation. Developer Rebellion’s return to the franchise in 2010 with Alien vs. Predator sparked a new interest in the series as they had created the popular Jaguar and PC Aliens vs. Predator games, and while Rebellion’s new take was a fun experience, the multiplayer and paper/rock/scissors gameplay was a bit of a disappointment to longtime fans of both series. We had hoped that Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines would quench that thirst of horror and action but the game fell into development hell for years and when it finally did release, it received dismal reviews and major controversy surrounded the development of the game thereafter. For fans, Colonial Marines felt like one of, if not the, final nail in the coffin for the video game subsidiary of the Alien franchise.
A few years later, Sega returned and presented gamers with Alien: Isolation. Developed by Creative Assembly, known for the well beloved Total War franchise, Alien:Isolation subverted the franchise’s focus on action relegated to the second film and instead chose to focus on the horror aspect from the first film. Presented as a first person survival horror game, it piqued an interest in fans and casual gamers alike. They introduced a new concept that hadn’t been done before with the franchise: the player cannot kill the Xenomorph. Instead, the player spends the time scavenging for items and weapons while accomplishing objectives all the while evading the creature, as well as humans and synthetics. This unique take coupled with the attention to detail of the original film’s aesthetics and the main character being title hero Ellen Ripley’s daughter brought a lot of fans on board, but does the game live up to it?
Yes and no.
A lover of the film will immediately fall in love with this game. Like previously mentioned, the attention to detail is astounding. Every sound, every part of the level design feels like that universe, like few licensed properties have accomplished before. Set fifteen years after Alien you play as Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda Ripley, a character only referenced in the first two Alien films and who fans know passes away during Ellen’s fifty-seven year hypersleep between the films. An accomplished engineer working for Weyland-Yutani, Amanda is approached by a gentleman who may have information on the disappearance of her mother’s ship, the Nostromo, and that the flight recorder is aboard the space station Sevastopol. Seeing this as the only way for closure, Ripley joins the gentleman’s assembled team aboard the ship, the Torrens, and the journey commences. Once aboard the space station however, all hell seems to have broken loose and Ripley, much like her mother, must sneak and scavenge her way level to level, while evading the xenomorph and ensuring the survival of her crew.
Character-wise, Ripley is the star and a great protagonist, reacting to moments like any person would if they were in those situations. Voice actor Andrea Deck really brings the character to life with subtly whispered dialogue and nuances to the character necessary to ground the impossible situations she’s undertaking. There are great moments throughout where the player may scream out profanities and it’s a joy when Ripley screams out profanities with you. It adds a level of character attachment rarely seen in horror games these days. The rest of the cast and characters are by-the-numbers and really take backseat to Ripley’s nightmare, functioning only as damsels in distress or enemies in disguise. There’s really no time to attach to the character as the game continues to escalate and Ripley moves from objective to objective without any downtime.
Gameplay wise, the game functions well enough. Like most contemporary first person shooters, you can strafe, sprint, crouch albeit very slowly, the usual mechanics in these games. And like the rising first person survival games of its time such as Amnesia and Outlast, the player as Ripley will need to evade enemies by hiding in lockers and under desks. Ripley is given as little equipment as possible in the beginning, relying heavily on flashlight batteries and medical supplies; however, this game adds a few more gadgets to Ripley’s arsenal as the story progresses. There’s a motion tracker acquired early in the game, which can be accessed at any time with the press of a button and throughout the space station are blueprints for mostly non-lethal equipment such as flashbang grenades and smoke bombs. In order to construct these items, scraps are scattered in the levels, which the player can pick up in a limited inventory. A weapon wheel is present, but it works solely in real time so be careful switching weapons when an enemy is in sight as there may be frantic figdeting to select the right item as they are walking towards the player and the slightest twitch in movement could result in loss of health or even death. There are weapons such as a revolver and shotgun but the game disuades you from using them as Ripley is not a soldier so when the aim down sights come up, her hands are shaking, which is a nice touch, not only as gameplay mechanic, but as a character trait. Using firearms also attracts any enemies and the Alien to the player’s location. The enemies comprise of humans, androids, and the Alien. While the humans are capable to defeat with the melee weapon and firearms, the androids are harder to take down and nearly impossible to do with a melee weapon as they’ll grab the player in mid strike and the only way to escape is by a quick-time event
The Alien is by far the most terrifying and fascinating part of the game. When it is introduced, there is a sense of wonder and awe, but once enacted in the gameplay, it brings forth fear and frustration. The Alien acts like a search dog, reacting to every sound the player or the surroundings make and if at any point the player comes into contact with the creature, it’s a one hit kill and game over. If the player tries to sprint or discharge a firearm, the Alien will hear it and hunt them down. If somehow she gets away, Ripley can hide in lockers and under desks but it won’t always save her as the creature will sometimes find Ripley even after what was perceived to be a sneaky getaway. This can often lead to anger and frustration as every death will restart Ripley from the last manual save, made at Emergency phones moderately placed between areas. While the player can deter the Xenomorph by using non-lethal and even lethal weapons, the creature cannot and will not die, it’ll only be pissed off.
The level design works similarly to that of Outlast, moving from point A to point B, while evading enemies and securing objectives, which usually range from turning on a generator, escaping the Alien, or obtaining equipment to access new areas. While fun in the beginning hours, the strain wanes as the player will often return to familiar areas and accomplish the same meddling tasks done in the previous level. There is not much variety in the environments as the game emulates the film’s tight metallic corridors and white to chrome colors so anyone looking for a more robust game may need to look eleswhere. The game is beautiful though. There are windows throughout Sevastapool so the player can see other parts of the space station leading to moments wondering if those are areas already trekked through or even heading towards
The true problem with this game lies in its length. While first person horror games like Outlast and Amnesia in this genre last three to six hours, Alien: Isolation is comprised of eighteen chapters and takes around 12-20 hours to complete and the game is difficult, even on normal. The player will often replay the same areas over and over because of the difficulty spikes and death count, resulting in impatience and frustration. The first four to six hours are an exhilirating experience but as the game meanders on, there are multiple times the game cresendos as if it is ending, but then a new objective appears at the top of the HUD, informing the player to activate yet another generator nearby to restore power. And because the game presents these climactic events so often, when the actual ending does happen, it feels hollow and even less climactic than the events leading up to it. Alien:Isolation would have been a much better experience if it were a six to ten hour campaign, with incentives for multiple replays. Because this game is so long, there’s little reason to replay it unless for trophies or achievements.
The weapon gunplay is not so great either as hitboxes on enemies sometimes dance between too large or too small, even when using a shotgun. But as previously stated that Ripley is unfamiliar with firearms, there is the question whether the gunplay is awful on purpose by forcing the player to rely more heavily on stealth tactics.
Alien: Isolation is a good game for gamers and film lovers alike. While it is a little long in the tooth and the gameplay becomes a little monotonous after several hours, the game is an example of how licensed games could be done as long as they receive the respect and care they so rightly deserve. There is love behind every nook and cranny of this game. Tt was a pleasure playing it and I thank the developers for it. I, for one, cannot wait to continue Amanda Ripley’s adventures.
Written by Jacob Johnson on 7/13/16