October 16, 2014 by Paul Curtin
In an attempt to quickly salvage the beloved Alien franchise after the power load Gearbox dropped on gamers last year with Colonial Marines, SEGA tasked Creative Assembly with bringing the video game series back to its sci-fi horror origins. Great horror games and great Alien games are two things that gamers are always demanding more of, so combining the two via a survival horror game based in the Alien universe seems like a no-brainer.
2013’s Colonial Marines was a deceiving throwback to James Cameron’s pulse-rifle-pounding 1986 sci-fi action classic, Aliens. This is not the case with Isolation. As soon as you boot up the game it becomes apparent that the franchise is in good hands with Creative Assembly who have even gone the extra mile and added nostalgic worn-out VCR visual effects to the opening company logos and credits. Staying true to Ridley Scott’s 1979 Academy Award-winning masterpiece, Isolation focuses on a single alien, rather than multiple aliens, and puts Ripley’s daughter up against the perfect organism and insurmountable odds.
Set fifteen years after the events of the original Alien, Isolation’s story focuses on technician Amanda Ripley after she is informed that the flight recorder of her mother’s ship, the Nostromo, is being held aboard a space station owned by Weyland-Yutani’s competitor, the Seegson Corporation. Searching for her missing mother, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Amanda travels to the Sevastopol, only to find a broken down ship and the only remaining crew left in a state of panic.
Isolation’s gameplay is a very slow burn. It’s not until a good hour or so into the story that Amanda discovers the alien for the first time and another hour later that the alien becomes a real threat. You won’t have a pulse rifle or auto-turret to mow down endless waves of mindless aliens charging at you and instead will be conserving every single bullet in your pistol. Most times you’ll be too scared to even use a weapon as the noise alone is enough to alert the alien hunter to your whereabouts and doing so will almost always result in your immediate death.
Creative Assembly’s take on the series is a cold, hard, and unforgiving game that’s not just a throwback to the original film, but also a throwback to classic games that really challenged players. Like Dark Souls in space, you will die over and over again. Not a single member of our staff was able to complete the challenge mode at E3 and even after beating the game and going back to play the challenge mode now, it took me five tries with none of the additional side-tasks completed. The game recommends playing on Hard… and unless you’re a glutton for punishment… stick to Medium or Easy!
As any good stealth game should, gameplay consists mostly of experimenting with trial and error and requires players to have a great deal of patience. There are multiple paths Amanda can take to get from point A to point B when trying to make her escape, and almost every room has some sort of container she can quickly duck into to evade the alien. While not as good as say Dishonored or Deus Ex, which both offered more in terms of alternate routes when your original plans didn’t pan out as intended, Isolation is still one of the best stealth-based games in recent years. It’s a nice change of pace when a developer challenges players to use stealth tactics and punishes them for rushing too quickly through levels.
The many long hours I spent creeping through the narrow corridors of the Sevastopol and poking my head out around corners were some of the tensest I’ve experienced in any stealth game due to the alien’s intelligent A.I. that almost always knows where you are. It becomes nerve-wrecking as you hide and hear the distinctive bumps, hissing, and loud clanking noise of footsteps on the ship’s metal floors and ventilation systems running around you.
Isolation feels like one 20+ hour-long boss fight in which the boss cannot be killed and your death can only be delayed by quick thinking in fight-or-flight situations. Constant exploration to uncover more parts to use in crafting items can help distract or scare off the alien and buy Amanda some extra time to make her escape, but there’s no way to actually kill the alien. Even when equipped with the iconic motion tracker that allows players to focus in on and know the alien’s exact location when it appears and the flamethrower, it’s still not enough to tip the scale in favor of the player and requires careful conserving of fuel.
To break up the alien encounters and help gameplay from getting too repetitive, there are numerous human and android encounters, along with other little surprises, that add to the challenge. Both humans and droids will sometimes attack on sight, and the noise you create when trying to defend yourself will attract the alien to your location. Watching stupid humans get picked off one-by-one by the alien as they try to attack you creates a twisted feeling of delight that quickly turns into dread when you don’t know who the alien is going to come after next.
Though the stealth system and game of cat-and-mouse that Ripley plays with the alien makes for truly exhilarating moments, over time your screams of fright can easily turn into screams of frustration due to certain gameplay elements. Isolation only automatically saves after key moments in the story, so just getting past the alien a few times isn’t enough to trigger an auto-save and instead requires you as the player to find save stations on your own. This can be a heart-pounding experience as you’re weighing the odds of your demise and trying to determine if you should take the extra few seconds to save or just simply keep running from the alien.
The process of unlocking doors and terminals or saving of course leaves you vulnerable to being discovered and instantly killed from behind, so the choice to try and quickly save is not always the best option. As the difficulty ramps up, getting to each save station gives the same rewarding satisfaction you would find in other games when beating a level. Sadly, the disappointment of being killed before you can save and being returned 10-15 minutes back in the game and having to repeat the same stealth sequence over and over again not only becomes frustrating, but over time dilutes the sense of fear you originally had when first encountering the alien.
Certain gameplay elements, such as the saving process combined with the alien’s randomness, can make Isolation sometimes feel downright unfair and cheap. The alien’s intelligence should be “alien” to a person just discovering it, but there were times when I played by the game’s rules and still lost. Sometimes I would be leaning back and holding my breath in a locker just as the game instructed me, only to still be pulled out and killed by the alien when I thought I was doing everything right.
Other times after using the flamethrower to scare the alien off and watch it run away, I would still get randomly grabbed by the alien seconds later after not being alerted of its presence in the ceiling by my otherwise trusty motion tracker. There were even times that I found just crouching on the other side of a table as a better tactic than hiding in a totally different room’s locker or smaller container. And don’t even try to outlast the alien by spending all your time hiding in one spot, because it will always come back looking for you.
If you don’t rage quit, over time you’ll also occasionally come across new characters who in typical Alien fashion are killed off so quickly that they sometimes don’t even get the time to finish their own introduction. It’s somewhat understandable that characters with such short life expectancies wouldn’t be given much talent to voice them, but by having so much flat voice-acting the deaths of these characters have far less of an impact than in the movies.
Andrea Deck’s voice-acting as Amanda is all over the place and many times it comes across feeling unnatural. It’s surprising that the developers didn’t just have Amanda’s motion capture actress, Kezia Burrows, play the entire role. Burrows has already proven herself with a strong voice-acting performance in Remember Me and would have probably been the better choice here.
With each character introduced contributing even less than the last, Isolation relies on its beautiful graphics and atmosphere to create a truly immersive experience that feels like you’re right aboard the Nostromo. Without question, Creative Assembly has absolutely nailed recreating the look and feel of Scott’s classic that die-hard fans will love. From the retro-futuristic interiors and computers to the steam rising from vents to the majestic yet terrifying score, Isolation is the best Alien game adaptation yet.
Unfortunately, while not as bad as Colonial Marines, Isolation is also plagued with many technical issues. On PS4 and Xbox One, the framerate during cutscenes drops to horrendously low levels that make them hard to watch or sometimes even comprehend during chaotic moments. Gameplay is slightly better with both current-gen consoles trying to keep a constant 30 fps, but the game still struggles when a lot is happening onscreen.
With such great lighting that sets the eerie mood in each room you enter, it’s odd that the developers didn’t include a shadow on Ripley herself… looking down and seeing no shadow and Ripley’s legs swinging around like a ventriloquist dummy’s are disappointing immersion-breaking minor issues that you wouldn’t expect to find in a brand new current-gen game.
PC gamers will be able to run Isolation at its best 1080p 60fps settings, but even on PC you’ll still not be able to avoid technical issues like inconsistent lip-syncing, guns occasionally not showing/firing, or objects and people clipping through each other. Seeing the alien’s head clip through the locker you’re hiding in completely breaks the tension and immersion that the game does so well to build up. The first couple times this happens you even worry that the alien’s character model might just collide with Ripley’s through the locker and result in more cheap deaths. Thankfully, that never happened to me, but it’s still a shame that the developers didn’t take the time to fix these issues.
Alien: Isolation’s atmosphere, focus on stealth mechanics, and unpredictable alien A.I. make it the best video game adaptation of the franchise yet. This is the Alien game that gamers have been demanding for years… but certain technical problems, character development/story-telling issues, and its punishing difficulty are enough to turn off many gamers who aren’t already fans of the franchise and keep it from being the perfect gaming experience. Alien: Isolation gets 3.5 out of 5 stars (Very Good).
- Perfectly recreates the atmosphere and feel of the original film
- Great stealth gameplay mechanics
- Beautiful visual and sound effects
- Unpredictable alien A.I. makes for unique experiences
- Truly challenging even on Easy mode
- Fright can quickly turn into frustration
- Weak story and character development
- Numerous technical issues