The Alien franchise is no stranger to adaptation, with games modeled on the series possessing a checkered history. Most attempts at translating the film series usually take the action route, fashioned after the second film in the series Aliens. Alien: Isolation ditches that idea, keeping its focus on the original cinematic masterpiece from 1979, whilst creating its own story and narrative. Make no mistake; this is a horror game; and one which relies on stealth and tactical play rather than gun-toting heroics or cheap explosive thrills. It is this slower, darker tone which helps deliver one of the best horror games in recent years.
The Creative Assembly made a wise decision to introduce the character of Amanda Ripley (Ellen Ripley’s daughter) in a new scenario: one where she searches for clues on the Sevastopol space station about her mother’s disappearance. But of course, you arrive on the space station after everything has gone to pot, creating several terrifying encounters. Here, you are not an undeniable badass. You are an engineer way out of your depth, forced to deal with androids trying to overthrow their fleshy creators, surviving crew members who’ll shoot at anything that moves, and the unstoppable xenomorph ready to tear you limb from limb. The Sevastopol is a derelict place where anything rarely works properly. And it’s this world that sets the stage for a unique feeling of horror.
Alien: Isolation’s environment is one of the most brilliantly, and intelligently, designed in video games. It achieves one of the greatest sensations of immersion: the feeling that you really are in this world. All items on the ship, whether it’s the computer terminals or the thick electrical cables running along the walls, are designed with the 70s vision of the future depicted in the original film. It all has its own concurrent logic which never falters. Even the items you don’t interact with contain masses of detail. On top of this, the dingy lighting illuminates trashed rooms and isolated hallways in moody blues and greens, adding to the tense melancholic atmosphere whilst also maintaining a colour palette matching the films. At times you will find yourself looking in awe at the degraded beauty of it all. But it doesn’t stop there. The physical layout of the map builds on this, designed with logical pathways and interior design for an actual space station in mind, rather than a video game world for a player to achieve linear tasks. But it still works within the context of gameplay. It contains a sense of history and is dripping with a feeling of unease that rarely dissipates.
Of course, when it comes to the horror aspects of the game, everyone is interested in the xenomorph. Put simply, it doesn’t disappoint. It is every bit the magnificently horrific creature H.R. Geiger envisioned, programmed with fantastic A.I. that will leave you guessing its every movement. The brilliant part is that you are left to figure out how it behaves via your encounters, learning as you progress through the game. Although you develop your own strategies, there is always a sense of mystery and surprise as it hunts you down. Although you can run from it, you will only have a few seconds before it catches up, and then its lights out. The fact that there are no in level auto-saves, with some distance between save points, means you need to be conscious of your every step. Admittedly the game is harsh in its penalties for failure, but it is a challenge which forces you to think and gives you a real fear of death.
How you deal with the threat is what makes the core gameplay of Alien: Isolation a fresh and exciting. Now, anyone who has played the genre in the last five years knows that first person horror games have dominated the scene, but without much variation on the run-and-hide approach. Alien: Isolation solves this problem by adding different tasks which are all relevant to your survival. As you carry out objectives and evade various threats, you are required to hack electronic devices, rewire access panels and collect scrap materials to craft them into tools that can help you distract or pacify. But there is one tool which makes the game unique: the motion tracker. Having it in your hands is one of the most terrifying aspects of the game as you only know roughly where a threat is. And if an enemy is close, the beeping of the device will lead them straight to you, so you need to use it extremely carefully. If you have the PS4 version, the top of the controller turns green and emits a beep from the speaker in synchronicity with your tracker on-screen, adding another layer of terror to late night plays. There are guns and other weapons included, but ammo is scarce, and any threats you do encounter will either laugh off your attacks, take a long time to kill or only be momentarily deterred.
All of these layers of gameplay mean you are constantly thinking about which rooms you can explore, which tools you should craft, how devices can be used to help you or if you even have enough time to use them before being attacked. Through these aspects you’ll develop your own strategy. If you need to create a distraction, you can set off an alarm in another room to send the xenomorph running, or turn out the lights so you’re harder to see. In this way the game requires you to think like an engineer, just like Amanda, in a bigger puzzle of survival. And thus, every button press or touch of the analogue stick feels important. A rare feat indeed.
Unfortunately, Alien: Isolation doesn’t manage to sustain these aspects of brilliance. Although the core section of gameplay is terrifying and tense, there is a portion within the last third (concerned with rogue androids) where the feeling of helplessness is removed. It is partially linked with the narrative, but it is a misstep and this section should’ve been made a lot shorter. Fortunately, the game throws a curveball and introduces a wonderful “oh crap!” moment which brings your heart rate back to ridiculously high levels.
But then there is one aspect which Alien: Isolation doesn’t take full advantage of. Narrative. The foundations of amazing storytelling are here, but they feel unfocused, with only some parts seeing development. The strongest aspect of the narrative is allowing the player to piece together the backstory of Sevastopol through discovering documents including electronic communications, videos and audio recordings. Not all of these are essential but the way the story is delivered is intriguing to the point of wanting to discover the bigger picture, regardless of present threats. This is something that is unique to video games and here the narrative feels immediate as well as ironic.
However, Amanda’s narrative does not fare so well. Her creation is great in concept but her character is not fully explored. There are a few cut scenes in the opening portion (complete with poor writing and stuttering frame rates) but after this, the rest of Amanda’s narrative mostly occurs during gameplay. And even then, the story of Amanda’s connection to her mother is largely forgotten until the end portion of the game, with little integration taking place. On top of that there are events which affect characters we’re supposed to feel for. The fact that they’re given sod all screen time or any resemblance of a personality beyond “I am a lawyer” or “I am the other crew mate” makes it hard to care. It feels as though a few individuals in charge of the narrative’s direction all wanted to have their way, but all of their ideas made the cut, giving the story a lack of focus. If the narrative was focused on fewer characters and delivered primarily in real time it would have a far greater sense of immediacy and weight. A moment where they get it right is during a playable flashback mid-game. It would be wrong to spoil it but it is astonishingly good. One can’t help but think that using devices like this to explore Amanda’s past and feelings of melancholia, would’ve deepened the experience in a way that only a game is capable of.
But don’t let these negatives put you off. Any nit-picks are purely the result of a game that does so much so well and displays several moments of genius. It is nearly a masterpiece. And although it doesn’t quite reach that benchmark, it provides some of the scariest moments you can experience while playing a game, with a uniquely sustained sense of dread and depth found in few other titles.