I’m trapped, hiding – cowering, really – in someone’s locker. I can see a little of the room outside through the slats on the door, but what’s keeping my spine pressed against the back of the locker are sounds: heavy, erratic footfalls that become something tinnier (is that the ventilation system?), and the occasional hiss. I’m too afraid to move, but I know if I stay here, it will find me.
Alien: Isolation came out to opposite poles of expectation – on the one hand, the steady trickle of screenshots and information that prefigured its release all seemed to strike the right notes for fans of Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror masterpiece, and on the other, players’ consistent disappointment with titles using the license (most recently and notably, the abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines in 2013).
A big part of what makes Alien: Isolation successful is in its basis on the original film. Most video games have, for understandable reasons, relied more for inspiration on James Cameron’s bombastic sequel, Aliens. Just as that film was more a war movie in space, Alien-licensed games in the last decade have generally put a pulse rifle in your grubby mitts and had you set about mowing down hordes of squishy xenomorphs.
Instead, Alien: Isolation returns to the franchise’s roots, placing you in the (very familiar) high-tops of one Amanda Ripley, daughter of Lt. Ellen Ripley, 15 years after the events on the freighter Nostromo (the original cast, including Sigourney Weaver and Yaphet Kotto, reunited to voice their characters in this game).
Amanda is a take-no-guff engineer who is approached by a “company” (the ever-present and ominous Weyland-Yutani Corporation) executive to retrieve some flight recorder data that might shed light on her mother’s disappearance. It’s been taken to the distant station Sevastopol, which orbits a stormy gas giant.
The game has clearly been made by and for people who are giant dorks about the first Alien film. Such as me. Immediately, you’re treated to lovingly-recreated sets and props that really nail the atmosphere of the movie – the beige pads along the octagonal corridors, the industrial lighting that throws harsh shadows onto damp walls and pipes, and the clacky-sounding future-by-1970s computers that run on blinking lights and CRT monitors. Even your map and heads-up display show a kind of used Betamax tracking stutter. You want to touch everything at first.
Like the film, too, there’s quite a slow leadup to even seeing the “creature” for the first time. As Amanda begins to explore Sevastopol, it becomes clear that things are not going well. The station is owned by a Weyland-Yutani competitor called Seegson, which produces a kind of knock-off android “synthetic” they call “Working Joes.” Unlike Weyland’s, which pass as human (Ash and Bishop from the films), Seegson’s are very obviously inhuman – they all have identical CPR-dummy rubber faces and eerie, glowing eyes. These, and the rattled survivors aboard Sevastopol, will be your primary obstacles for the first hours of the game.
Ripley is an engineer, not a soldier. There are firearms in the game, but because they create so much noise, I was almost always deathly afraid to use them. Instead, picking up various parts scattered around the station allows her to cobble together devices that can help give her an advantage – there’s a “noisemaker,” for instance, that you can toss down a hall or into a group of hostile survivors and create a distraction or – more ominously – a lure.
This is where Alien: Isolation’s best moments come from. The alien, once you first encounter it, begins to hunt. While there are a few scripted events in the game, it generally does not follow any pre-set courses or routines – it is an AI that moves around the ship based on its stated objective: killing everything. You can’t kill it, so your survival depends on trying to predict its movement, avoiding its detection, and perhaps distracting it with alternative targets.
I once had to sneak by three renegade survivors with itchy trigger fingers to get to a medical exam room. They had bunched up near the only way in, so I crept up with a noisemaker in hand and tossed it their way, and then dashed into a nearby wall locker. Nearly as fast as I got the door closed, I heard the signature hiss of the creature from the way I’d come (it had been right behind me!) and watched it dash by my hiding place. Gunshots rang out. There were screams.
Then it was quiet again.
I could hear it creeping around through the air ducts; I decided to make my way to the exam room.
The alien AI not only behaves according to its inherent goals, rather than by scripted routine, but it also learns from your behavior and thus becomes increasingly difficult to avoid. It’s a real enemy, and one that instilled a constant sense of tension and dread as I played the game. The visceral feeling of being hunted never really goes away. This, rather than corny jump-scares, is what drives the game’s horror.
However, the game is not without its flaws. There are sections that seem arbitrarily punishing, and I was only able to successfully navigate them after dying countless times and determining through brute force the optimal path. At times like this, the alien becomes less a menace and more a frustration. And while the creature is for the most part very well modeled, there are times when its AI doesn’t work well with its animation, leading to weird, wooden movements and turns that can momentarily ruin the illusion, similar to a boom mike dropping into frame.
Further, the game’s denouement is a massive slog, sending Ripley back and forth across vast areas of the station to press this or that button or pull whatever lever. Generally I enjoyed the way the game involves the player in these normally mundane processes, but by the end they had become annoyances. Where the meat of the game had my hands sweating bullets into my keyboard wondering how I’d manage to make it out of a given situation, the final act felt like jumping through hoops on an increasingly chaotic, but very directed, rollercoaster ride.
This ending bit felt tragically like padding, and Alien: Isolation is a long game for survival horror. Other reviewers have suggested 20 hours; my playthrough took about 26.
This is a shame, because in the main, Alien: Isolation is a fantastic game for fans of the film – easily the best game ever set in the Alien universe. That isn’t an across-the-board recommendation, because this kind of experience is certainly not for everybody. As much as I enjoyed my harrowing time in Sevastopol, I had to take breaks periodically to unclench my teeth and de-whiten my knuckles.
Fans will certainly nitpick its adherence to canon (that’s what fans do). But I think old Ridley – and Ripley, Sr. – would be proud.