Set 15 years after the events of the original Alien movie and 42 years before the events of Aliens, Alien Isolation follows Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley from the movies. Her mother’s been missing during this 15 year period, her last known location was the ill-fated Nostromo ship. Word has reached Amanda that the Nostromo’s flight recorder has been found after all these years, and it's been taken to the space station Sevastopol, where she must go to find the truth behind her mother’s disappearance.
Clearly this simple courier mission doesn’t go without a hitch, and Amanda and her crew find the Sevastopol in a dilapidated state. Most of its inhabitants are either long gone or dead, and the few that are still left are invariably not of stable mind. Amanda’s mission rapidly alters from finding the Nostromo’s flight record to attempting to make it off the space station alive - not helped by the abundance of space pirates, rogue androids, and of course the dreaded Alien stalking its decks.
You shouldn't be there
The Sevastopol itself is a sprawling network of claustrophobic tunnels and corridors, cloaked in darkness interspersed with the harsh neon glow of blinking electronics. Never since Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader has a filmic environment ever been recreated so authentically. Everything about it oozes atmosphere, from the harsh metallic piping to the buzzing electric wires, wheezing steam and flickering lights. It calls to mind South Park: The Stick of Truth in the manner in which it feels like you’ve entered the set and you’re playing out the film or episode on your TV.
What The Creative Assembly have achieved here isn’t an authentic vision of the future, but a true-to-life interpretation of how we thought the future would look back in the 80s. Monochrome PC screens seem ridiculous in this day and age of Retina displays with 4.6million colours, but TCA have nailed the aesthetics of the movies to a tee. The computers themselves are big and bulky, the phones are chunky, and everything exists in this strange microcosm where everything seems so dated it’s futuristic.
That’s the Sevastopol basically, but this playground is nothing without something to do in it. At its heart Alien Isolation is as pure a stealth game as is possible, Amanda has access to extremely limited weaponry but the Alien itself is invincible and firing a gunshot is never a smart idea, for obvious reasons. Essentially you creep from objective to objective in this slightly open-ended world that funnels you on a trajectory through the space station, meeting up with people, using keycards, pressing switches and the like. It’s gaming by numbers but it’s not where Alien Isolation’s strengths lie, and that's with the Alien itself and the near-constant sense of pant-soiling dread you feel while inching around the environments.
She's in the vents
Alien Isolation is incredibly difficult to play. I’ve endured many a horror title from the likes of Outlast to Condemned, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and of course Silent Hill, but few have ever scared me with the consistency of Alien Isolation. Integral to this is that you never feel safe. Anywhere. Once the Alien is introduced (no handshakes round these parts) it feels like it can get to you anywhere, and that’s because it can. Even the save points aren’t safe, in fact it’s a time when you’ll feel most exposed. Resident Evil’s save points seem like a cosy, roaring winter fire in comparison.
The androids are creepy but ultimately easy to manipulate. Despite this there is something slightly unnerving about their ceaseless slow march towards you, it kind of reminds me of how Albert inexplicably terrified me in the original Tomb Raider, constantly creeping towards with his tray of tea and biscuits.
It’s the Alien itself that packs the real scares though, and boy is this beast a sight to behold. When the Steam achievement unlocks when you first lay eyes on it, you can’t help but force a wry smile as it’s labelled “A Perfect Organism.” This particular xenomorph is quite a bit larger than your typical Alien from Aliens vs Predator and the like, it looks about 8-foot tall and the thudding sounds of its footsteps when it runs are now burned into my brain with no hope of escape.
It’s terrifyingly fast, unnervingly unpredictable, and shockingly lethal. One wrong move and you won’t have a chance of survival. Alien Isolation isn’t like Outlast or Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it’s not about a well-planned sprint for survival. Get spotted by the Alien and you are dead. Your one and only task is to make sure it doesn’t see you.
This is easier said than done of course, and the inclusion of the trademark motion detector does little to help situations. Once that warning beep registers the easiest way out for my fragile brain was to just freeze and hope it wasn’t coming my way. The monster’s use of the ventilation system means the motion detector can often detect it coming right out as you panic in a corner, only to pass harmlessly overhead. Before I move on it's worth noting that the audio and sound effects at play here are absolutely top drawer. A lot of the noises such as the classic motion detector beeps and the Alien sounds have clearly been lifted straight from the movies, but their integration with the atmospheric effects brings the Sevastopol to life. The ship creaks emphatically while whistling steam jets, dripping noises, and scuttling sounds coming from the vents amalgamate into this audio event that is both gripping and nerve-shredding.
I admire its purity
For taking on the Alien there's some basic weaponry at hand to blast away at the pirates or the androids, but the Alien itself is practically impervious to any form of attack. You can shoot it with a pistol if you want although that’s probably only going to wind it up, but the flamethrower can be used pretty effectively to keep it at bay. Unfortunately the more power you put in the player’s hands the less helpless they are going to feel, and despite extremely limited ammo the very fact you’ve got a flamethrower equates to throwing you a bone and giving you a little courage - at odds with everything else about it.
Luckily there's a host of other craftable gadgets to make use of on your adventure, including flares, noisemakers, flashbangs and the like, giving you the opportunity to mix things up and try a new tack occasionally. Not that this is usually by choice; The Creatively Assembly is deliciously brutal in the manner in which things are mixed up, stripping you of essential tools on a regular basis, while also playing on the 3-way battle between pirates, androids, and the xenomorph that will require every trick in the book.
Many modern weapon-less horror titles rely on a system of trial and error to make it through in one piece; Outlast hinged itself on this as you replayed chunks to learn enemy movement patterns and timings. It’s a system that works, but only for a short while, because repetition breeds familiarity, and no one’s terrified of the everyday and banal are they? Alien Isolation avoids this to some degree, which is both one of its greatest strengths and weakness. The Alien moves like greased lightning and is unpredictable to boot. You never quite know where it’s going to crop up next, and that sense of ease always keeps you on your toes. Or hunched over in a corner facing the wall as the case may be. Much of the player’s movement is in the very pipes and vents themselves that the Alien uses to get around, so scuttling through these is always a terrifying prospect.
The ever-present variance in the Alien’s movement patterns makes Alien Isolation feel both dynamic and frustrating. When it goes well you’ll feel like a stealth god, kicking Sam Fisher to the curb and laughing at his gimpy goggles, but when it goes badly the cracks start to appear. Through no fault of your own you can have your face eaten off by the Alien, and when the death count starts to rack up the fear factor creeps down. That’s not to say that Alien Isolation becomes anything other than scary, but there are moments and lulls that will knock you abruptly out of its world and remind you it’s just a video game. The moments where the lack of scripting works for you are sublime though, and it’s here that Alien Isolation shines.
Ripley, signing off
It’s for this reason and this reason alone that Alien Isolation isn’t quite the perfect horror game, but it’s also a criticism that can labelled at practically every horror before it. The lack of meaningful consequences to death are always going to be a thorn in genre’s side, but Alien Isolation does enough throughout its 20-hour or so length to keep you thoroughly engrossed in a world that can often truly be film brought to life. Some might find its length a drag, and it’s possible this becomes more of an issue on the higher difficulty settings, but I personally found it a ferociously intense adventure dripping with dread from every pore.
Contrary to what we were perhaps expecting, Alien Isolation performs incredibly on PC. Armed with just a GeForce GTX 750 Ti we were able to max everything out and achieve respectable frame rates without a hitch. The Creative Assembly's technical marvel is a visual and atmospheric tour de force, particularly once all of the volumetric fog and dynamic lighting is enabled. Don't spend too much time gawping at the environment though, you're always only seconds away from a grisly end.