In 1979, the face of Science Fiction was forever altered by the release of Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” The film blurred the lines between science fiction and horror by capturing the bleakness of interstellar travel and introducing a terrifying creature, beautifully designed by H.R. Giger. A creature that would blaze a path through popular culture for decades. Despite this long-running fascination with the universe that inspired 3 film sequels and a plethora of novels, spin-offs, and video games, the magic of the first film has rarely (or arguably NEVER) been duplicated. This is especially true of its history in gaming as most attempts to capitalize on the property have fallen victim to the curse that befalls most games that tackle an existing license.
With Alien Isolation, the team at The Creative Assembly set out to change all that. They spoke often of wanting to pay tribute to the original film and create a true interactive horror experience. After the disaster that was Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, and the countless other failed attempts to cash in on the franchise, it’s easy to see why skepticism was running rampant. Not to mention, Sega as a publisher has not had the best track record recently and The Creative Assembly is not exactly known for crafting cinematic horror games. In fact, you may know them better as the guys behind the Total War franchise. Despite all that, the game is here and it definitely has something to prove. But can it wash away the bad taste that has lingered for so many years? Can it remind people of exactly why that first film was so different from everything that came after? More importantly, can it re-validate Alien as a viable gaming franchise? If you ask me, the answer is a resounding yes.
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Release date: October 7, 2014
Platform(s): PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
The Perfect Setup
Taking place 15 years after the events of Alien, players find themselves in the shoes of Amanda Ripley; daughter of iconic character, Ellen Ripley. Amanda, now making a life as an engineer, is approached by a representative of Weyland Yutani and recruited on a mission to collect the flight recorder of the Nostromo, the doomed vessel from the original film. In an effort to discover the fate of her missing mother, Amanda agrees. The mission ultimately leads them at a massive space station called the Sevastropol and as you might have guessed, they get more than they bargained for when they arrive.
From the moment you step foot on the station, the story unfolds in spectacular fashion with some of the best pacing I have ever witnessed. Getting lost in the experience, it is easy to see that the developers have a deep reverence for the source material. The ship is oozing with a grungy, low-fi aesthetic that is a perfect recreation of the film that serves as inspiration. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end everytime I walked into a new hallway and the motion activated lights sputtered to life before me. The ancient CRT monitors and DOS based interfaces which would usually feel out of place in a game that is meant to depict the future feel right at home here and it all adds to making this game feel as authentic and true to the source material as possible. To my surprise, that authenticity never lost its luster over the course of the 20+ hour single player campaign. I was continuously blown away by each new environment and scenario that I found myself in and I was surprised by how rarely the game relied on forcing the player to backtrack. The station is massive and the game doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to telling it’s story.
What unfolds aboard the Sevastropol will ultimately shine some light on the expanded Alien universe and provide some welcome, but brief, insight into the life of Ellen Ripley and the events that transpired aboard the Nostromo. It is a story that revels in it’s simplicity and it benefits from it greatly. Amanda’s yearning for the truth feels very relatable and her fight for survival feel very believable. It’s a story that had me hooked right out of the gate and for me, that engagement didn’t dissipate.
Taking cues from games like Bioshock, Dead Space, and Outlast (to name a few), most of the story in Alien unravels before the player without jarring transitions into cutscenes. There are scripted moments and the occasional pre-rendered cutscene but for the most part, the player remains firmly planted behind the eyes of Ripley. It’s a technique that has become tremendously popular over the years and for good reason. Keeping the player in the first person perspective for the majority of the experience maximizes the impact of some pretty incredible set-piece moments. It proves especially effective here because many of those moments bring you face to face with the alien, a creature that should ultimately be remembered as one of the most frightening foes in gaming.
Survival Horror in it's Purest Form
Survival Horror is a genre that is plagued by mediocrity but occasionally blessed with excellence. Games like Resident Evil catapulted and shaped the genre to its current state through emphasis on resource management and limited defensive options. The more recent resurgence of the genre has often ditched defensive capabilities entirely in favor of running and hiding. Alien Isolation adopts a near perfect blend of these two ideas. At its core though, Alien Isolation is a game about survival and patience. For the majority of the game, you are under constant threat from a single alien creature that is governed by a harsh and unpredictable AI. To make matters worse, the creature cannot be killed, only scared off. The alien is large, incredibly fast, quick to alert, and can make a surprise appearance at any time via the ship’s vast maze of ventilation ducts and maintenance tunnels.
The incredible sound design that permeates the game never misses a chance to remind you of the looming threat either. I found myself periodically stopping to listen as I couldn’t quite tell if I was hearing the creaking of an old ship or the scuttle of the alien through the vents above my head. A portable motion-tracking device quickly becomes your best friend as it can alert you to the movement of the creature and other survivors aboard the ship. However, the soft ping that it emits can sometimes draw unwanted attention so it must be used wisely. Some clever design choice also help to make looking at the tracker intuitive and non-invasive. Being able to move freely with the motion tracker pulled up is a god send and the ability to use a shoulder button to switch your focus from foreground to background ensure that it never becomes a nuisance.
Until you start to get a feel for the behavior of the creature, you will spend a lot of time hiding inside of lockers, air vents, and under tables. While my early impression was that this would get tiresome or annoying, I was surprised by what actually started to unfold. Much like the progression of the character in the game, and her mother before her, I started to become bolder and more confident in my ability to survive out in the open. The Creative Assembly has also crafted a game that is void of permanent safety. Hiding is only a temporary solution as the Alien tends to be quite capable of sniffing out most hiding places. In fact, death can come at any moment if you aren’t too careful. I was pulled straight up into a vent with almost no warning while scouring the halls looking for items. It only took one time and I was careful to never walk beneath an open vent for the remainder of the game. That sense of fear and tension never left me but I slowly started to consider hiding as a last resort. I scoured the environments for resources that I could use to craft defensive items and I would bide my time until I had no choice but to use a flash bang, Molotov, or EMP; tools that could be used sparingly and in moments of desperation against the alien. In fact, it is through the proper use of this crafting system that I was able boost my confidence enough take my chances wandering the halls instead of basically hopping from one hiding place to another.
By the end of the game, I was quickly navigating the halls, my flamethrower or Molotov in hand; Ready to react at a moment’s notice. At times, the alien came up on me so fast that he actually triggered the kill animation as I was pulling the trigger on the flamethrower, cancelling out the kill and sending the alien into retreat. Moment’s like these are terrifying and harsh reminders that one must be on constant alert in order to survive. With that said, they are easily among the most exciting water cooler moments of the entire game. Moments that you may otherwise miss if you spend most of your time hiding.
The lack of mid-chapter checkpoints also raises the stakes and makes reaching each new save point an accomplishment on its own. With that said, much like Dark Souls, death is an inevitability. But as any avid Dark Souls player would tell you, each death is an opportunity to learn and hone your strategy. As the game progressed, I found my deaths becoming far less frequent. It’s a feeling that I certainly didn’t expect to find in a game like this but one that I welcome with open arms. Harder difficulty settings are guaranteed to provide a heftier dose of challenge for those gaming masochists out there.
We are Not Alone
Remember that pacing I mentioned earlier? Well the Alien is not the only threat aboard Sevastropol. The station is serviced by a collection of humanoid androids called “Working Joes” and something or someone has reprogrammed them to attack humans on sight. These Working Joes are creepy, generic versions of the synthetic humans that the series is known for; Complete with pale, expressionless faces and empty, soulless eyes. Suddenly, the game switches gears because weapons can suddenly prove useful. Aside from the weapons that can be crafted from scattered components, Amanda is armed with several standard weapons that will help you defend yourself if you find yourself cornered; a situation I would highly recommend avoiding. Finding creative ways to sneak by or eliminate these foes without drawing the attention of the alien adds another exciting dynamic to a game that already exists well outside the confines of the proverbial box. The cherry on top is that all of the weapons and enemies have a real weight to them, making combat feel visceral and engaging; a feeling that is hard to describe but something I would liken to the feel of combat in a game like Condemned.
Of course, what Alien game would be complete without a slew of human characters for the Alien to eviscerate? The supporting cast in the game are pretty standard fare for the franchise but the station is also populated by groups of human survivors who are struggling to survive and avoid the Alien just like you. Taking a cue from a game like I Am Alive, some of these humans are harmless while others will threaten or even full on attack you if you aren’t careful. These encounters are few and far between, making them that much tenser when they do crop up. Avoiding confrontation is often the ideal solution in these scenarios as gunfire and lot of movement tends to attract the Alien; a tactic that can also be used to your advantage… you evil bastard. The ability to hack maintenance outlets throughout the station can also be used to turn the tide in tough situations by doing things like turning off the air filtration system and creating a cloud of thick dust and smoke; the perfect cover for sneaking by undetected. When it comes to combat, whether it be offensive or defensive, I was blown away by the amount of options that I had at my disposal. This was especially surprising because it was a component of the game that I didn’t even know existed, at least not at this level.
All Who Enter May Not be Welcome
I’ve spent a lot of time heaping praise on Alien Isolation and for good reason but the game is not without its issues; as minor as they may be. The game is absolutely stunning to look at but during some of the pre-rendered cut scenes, the frame rate takes a nose dive. At some points, the effect was so bad that I had to look away from the screen because it was hurting my eyes. It’s a real shame because the cinematics themselves are gorgeous and for the most part, well-acted. Luckily, the issue hardly detracts from the experience since the game makes minimal use of cut scenes and instead keeps the player planted firmly in the game during most of the games scripted action sequences. The game itself runs smooth as butter.
The Alien can seem intimidating at first and there are times, especially early on where frustration may get the better of you. I didn’t come out of my shell, so-to-speak, until the 2nd half of the game so patience is crucial. It’s a fairly blatant barrier to entry for some but if someone like me, someone whose fuse is shorter than most when it comes to gaming, can get through it, it can’t be that bad. Once the frustration starts to dissipate, the void is filled with complete utter fear, something that may also serve as a deterrent. Luckily, the campaign takes enough twists and turns and the means in which the action is conveyed is so compelling that I found my desire to progress further, to see what would happen next, far outweighed my fear of picking up the controller.
What The Creative Assembly has accomplished here is nothing short of incredible. Alien Isolation serves as the ultimate love letter to the 1979 classic by paying homage to the original film while delivering some of the most intense yet satisfying survival mechanics on the market. It does so with such grace that I feel convinced that this is the follow up to Alien that should have been. The world is absolutely stunning and compelling throughout and the sense of dread that digs its teeth in early on never fades until the credits role. It is a game that demands patience and strategy from any player who hopes to survive for long. It is a game that doesn’t sugar coat the reality of the situation. You are a weak and vulnerable human that is being hunted by an intelligent, 8-foot tall killing machine…
Perhaps most surprisingly, it is a game that represents the potential within all licensed games and should serve as a reminder that a passionate team and reverence for the source material can go a long way. To them I say: Bring on a sequel, because at this point, I want more of this more than I want another film.
Final Score: 9/10
(90-99%: Phenomenal - A fantastic experience that surpasses almost all expectations.)(Please note that the screenshots above were not captured by the reviewer or the staff at 4PlayerNetwork.com. These images are provided to media outlets by the publisher and should not be taken as indicative of the final visual quality of the game. A review copy was was provided by the publisher.)