You know, Alien is one of my favourite movies of all time. It’s often overshadowed by the thrilling and action-packed sequel Aliens, in which the number of creatures is increased significantly (thus making them less effective. See: The Conservation of Ninjitsu) because it’s more exciting. And excitement is easier to make a video game out of.
…but sometimes I don’t want excitement. Sometimes I want fear. Sometimes I want to know death could be around the corner and Alien: Isolation is the first game that I’ve seen in ages that delivers on the scare it promises.
Alien: Isolation tells the story of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen. After the disappearence of her mother and any trace of her ship (the Nostromo from the original film), Amanda works as a mechanic taking the jobs that might answer so many of the lingering questions she has. Straight away I was hooked with this angle. Ripley’s daughter was one of her driving motivations in Aliens. We all wondered what happened and here’s a great way to get an insight into that story. More importantly than that, this new Ripley is also her own character. She is extending the universe that she’s in, and telling her own story. It’s a fascinating study in how to world-build in an existing franchise.
Amanda finds out that the flight recorder for the Nostromo is on the Sevastopol, a space station where something has gone… wrong. There’s no communication, no signs of life as far as you can see. Just a brilliant, creative, retrofuturistic environment. The characters are special, but the environment is what takes this game to the next level. Everything you see in this game looks like it’s been reconstructed to exist in Aliens. From the slow loading terminals that sound like they were built with old Atari parts to the save points that take an honest to god five seconds to complete (they’re manual by the way, thematically correct but also frustrating). There are so many deliberate choices in graphic and sound that have worked out for the best. The vent opening behind you tends to sound like an alien hiss. this keeps you on your toes. And if you aren’t on your toes, you are going to die. You’re probably going to die anyway. A lot.
You see, the station isn’t abandoned exactly. There are still roving bands of scavengers (some of whom are friendly, others will shoot you on sight), and the incredibly creepy Working Joes. These basic androids lack facial features and would not be mistaken for humans (unlike Ash, Bishop or Call from the movies). As a result they completely embrace the Uncanny Valley. It’s impossible to tell when they are hostile and when they aren’t. Which is one of the most fantastic things about them. They are happy to help you until they arent. At which point you should run. Fast.
The star of our show is, of course, the Alien. From the moment it unceremoniously shows up, it dominates the game. Rightfully so. You cannot reason with it, You cannot kill it. You cannot run from it. You can hide, you can scare it off with what little fire you have, but these are temporary measures. You will die. This thing will kill you. Repeatedly. Hell, I think the AI might hold a grudge for me setting it on fire a bunch of times. Its animalistic nature is by far the most frightening thing in recent gaming memory. The death screens from your encounters with it are masterful, but not easy viewing. I personally found allowing my human and android enemies make noise and be dealt with by the Xeno the most effective strategy, if incredibly risky.
The game controls really well, if a little clunky at times. I am almost certain that this is a deliberate design choice. The game feels heavy because it is. You are slowed down doing basic tasks (opening doors, waiting for tram cars etc) because that’s what’s scary. You know the Alien is coming for you. You’re never told what noises attract it, but you know some do. You spend a lot of time second-guessing what you’re doing. This, combined with a map system that really could have used some improvement, creates an incredibly slow burn. Let’s be clear about this. While this game is exciting and fun, this is NOT a first person shooter. If you are looking for something action-heavy this might not be the game for you.
It has been a good year for horror. Both of the year’s biggest releases for me are The Evil Within and this – and this is a masterpiece. It’s a stunningly effective, atmospheric scare fest with a great favour. Everything makes sense and everything works. Alien: Isolation is a game where some people who LOVED the Alien franchise clearly put everything they had into creating that experience. This is one of the truly great tie-in games and a fantastic horror game to boot.