The Alien franchise has had a rough time. Alien is one of the greatest horror films of all time to many, and the same could be argued of Aliens in terms of action. To say that the series is influential would be a grave understatement. Since the 1986 release of Aliens nothing has really lived up to the name’s astronomical expectations, especially in the gaming medium. With the release of the abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines only a year behind us, there was seemingly not much hope for the franchise at all.
Enter Alien: Isolation, a survival horror game by developer Creative Assembly. Taking place fifteen years after the events aboard the USCSS Nostromo, you play as Ellen Ripley’s daughter. Amanda Ripley is justifiably very concerned over the disappearance of her mother all those years ago, so when given an offer to come with an android named Samuels and a Weyland-Yutani employee she accepts. Anyone with experience knows that this group is definitely not a good combination, but thankfully Alien: Isolation doesn’t bother retreading the footsteps of the movies before it. We already know that Weyland-Utani is evil and androids are a mixed bag, so seeing the game gloss this over for the sake of getting onto what we really care about is refreshing to see.
Alien: Isolation instead focuses on the Sevastopol, a space station that reportedly has the flight records of the Nostromo and by proxy possible information about her mother. What starts as a run-of-the-mill retrieval job quickly devolves into a fight for survival when it’s discovered that not only has the community within the Sevastopol been mostly eliminated, but those that are alive aren’t very welcoming. Amanda also quickly finds out that something aboard the vessel has been causing chaos on the Sevastopol, and it isn’t human. Introduction aside, Alien: Isolation tells a pretty straight forward story of survival with Amanda Ripley that effectively gets you into situations you most certainly would not want to be in. An interesting and diverse cast of characters round out the game with some really top notch voice acting and dialogue that feels at home in an Alien production. Amanda Ripley is an awesome character, and if you’re one of those who want to see more women in video games Alien: Isolation certainly has you covered with one that really doesn’t feel forced.
Though atmosphere is the name of the game when it comes to Alien, and Isolation is no different. It’s actually really shocking to play through this game and see just how well Creative Assembly nailed the setting. The Sevastopol feels fantastically inspired by the Nostromo before it, and everything in it feels exactly the way it should. The retro-fitted future of Alien is not lost in 2014, ugly scan lines on small CRTs and all. The cramped interior of the Sevastopol never fails to impress with its outstanding design and accuracy to the 1979 classic. You can absolutely tell that Creative Assembly put so much work into making sure that this beloved universe is replicated with excruciating detail. Even new designs like the xenomorph, which is a mostly iterative change, feel right at home within the almost beautifully dated world of Alien. The same can be said for the sound design in Alien: Isolation, which has some of the best effects and noise in a game you’ll hear this year. Everything from the tail of the xenomorph sliding across the floor and it’s bumbling in the vents to the decrepit creaking of the Sevastopol’s failing architecture, everything sounds spot on and terrifying in all the right ways.
As Ripley you have no means to kill a xenomorph, so instead you spend more time hiding and distracting him until you can get away from it in order to move in. Isolation becomes a compelling game of hide and seek that can get unbelievably suspenseful. The xenomorph’s AI is completely dynamic, so when and where it comes out to find you is for the most part decided on the spot. Aside from a few pre determined parts of the game, your experience with the xeno will be on its terms. This is an interesting dynamic that makes for a type of suspense since you actually never know when the thing is going to come out and find you. It’s easy to get lost under the stress, but a motion tracker you get early on helps keep you on track with an objective marker along with a way to keep an eye on where the xenomorph is, but the contraption won’t save you. Do understand when going into Alien: Isolation that you are going to die way more than you’d like no matter how much you try. The xenomorph is built to screw you over without much warning or way to counter for the first two thirds of the game. Many people see this as an extreme negative, but it seems like a necessary evil of a survival horror game to keep it’s tension for the 15-20 hour run time it possesses. Thankfully, as the game progresses more means of self defense and and avoidance do become available with a basic and functional crafting system.
The xenomorph isn’t your only problem on board the Sevastopol, not by a long shot. People trying to survive add another layer to the experience that makes confrontations interesting. Most of the men and women you encounter will be relatively hostile while not firing at you on sight. This is good, because the sound of a bullet will inevitably attract the xenomorph and only make things harder for you. At the same time, it can be used as a strategy to dispatch of nuisances without much work at your own risk. The choice becomes whether you want to try and sneak past the survivors in order to avoid the xenomorph’s presence or risk it in order to make an easier route for yourself. All of these little stratagems that come out of the mechanics is what makes Alien: Isolation so special. It’s a relatively simple survival horror experience that has just enough nooks and crannies within its game design to allow for a surprising amount of creativity while stile still retaining its suspense and horror. Creative Assembly’s decisions are an evolution in survival horror game design that really brings the genre forward, and is something that their development team deserves to be applauded for. Too often we see survival horror delve into action in order to create more variety, and Isolation is a class act on how to avoid that pit fall while still allowing people a bit of choice and agency.
Probably the lowest point of the entire game are the Seegsan androids. They do not add much to the experience and eventually become a nuisance detract from the experience. While having a valuable role in breaking up the pace from a game design perspective, androids tend to be more of a complete pace stopper that don’t really achieve much to scare the player outside of a few jump scares and creepy design.
Small nitpicks aside, Alien: Isolation is a masterfully designed survival horror experience that finally does the Alien franchise justice in the video game realm. It’s been a long time coming, and we’ve felt a lot of pain as Alien fans along the way. It is safe to say that Alien: Isolation was worth that pain. There’s finally a game we can point to and use as an example for why this series is such a treasure. The xenomorph is a force of nature that you cannot stop no matter how hard you try. Something that no Alien game has ever realized until now, Alien: Isolation is as much a step forward in the survival horror genre as it is a leap ahead in bringing Alien back to the legend it once was. You can pick up Alien: Isolation here.
In space no one can hear you scream, but you might find yourself smiling at Alien: Isolation; something that can be seen no matter the gravity or lack of oxygen.
The game that Alien deserves. A solid survival horror experience with incredible sound design. While not perfect, it does the series justice; something you can't really say for anything else Alien-related from the last two decades.