When it comes to movies that video games ape the most for content, a lot is owed to James Cameron’s film Aliens, giving us the timeless set up of space marines vs. deadly creatures from another world. Even though the trope has become one of the most overused in the medium, the backlash didn’t fully begin until Aliens: Colonial Marines released to terrible reviews and considerable controversy. Years later, Creative Assembly and Sega have teamed up to give fans Alien: Isolation and hopefully find their way back into our hearts again.
By changing gears and taking inspiration from Ridley Scott’s original film Alien and focusing on the tension of being hunted by a lone and extremely deadly Xenomorph, Alien: Isolation delivers as the best game to ever be based on the franchise. However, it also manages to be an incredibly flawed title that stretches an intriguing premise into a frustrating slog of backtracking and fetch quests that overstays its welcome far too long.
Before we get to the bad, let’s take a look at the good. The story follows Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, as she embarks on a trip to the space station Sevastopol to find the flight recorder from her mother’s ship, the Nostromo. Hoping for closure, Ripley instead finds the station in ruinous condition, with looters shooting on sight, androids killing humans without mercy and a lone Xenomorph wandering the vents, stalking the citizens of the station.
Rather than load Ripley up with weapons and send her against the alien for a fight to the death, Alien: Isolation smartly turns your time on the Sevastopol into a game of cat-and-mouse, and you are definitely the mouse. Rather than encourage gunfights and protracted battles, it’s better to stay in the shadows and move slowly, avoiding contact with just about anything on the ship that isn’t already talking to you on your earpiece. Ripley is a vulnerable protagonist, and although she’s more than capable in a fight, she won’t survive long out in the open.
The Xenomorph remains the main antagonist throughout the game, an unstoppable creature that cannot be killed and can’t even be hurt or sent away until later on. Rather than create a few scripted events for the alien to show up for, Creative Assembly have allowed it full reign of the ship, giving it the ability to crawl through the vents and attack you at anytime. The AI used for the Xenomorph is incredibly intimidating, making every step forward feel like a monumental achievement and every saved game a huge relief.
Alien: Isolation is definitely a survival horror title, with emphasis on the survival aspect. Your first official encounter with the alien is a terrifying experience, from watching the creature slowly unfold itself from a ceiling vent to hiding in a locker and praying for it to walk the other way long enough to make it to the next room. The tension is almost unbearable, making this one of the most stressful horror games to come out in years. The design of the alien is incredibly detailed and reminiscent of the original, including the sounds it makes as it hunts, the way it stalks through the hallways and even the way it kills Ripley by shoving its second mouth straight into her face.
To this end, Creative Assembly has created an amazing gameplay system, allowing players to use a rudimentary crafting mechanic to create distractions and weapons such as noisemakers and pipe bombs from materials looted from around the station. Weapons are also available for dealing with humans and androids, but ammo is scarce and loud noises will almost always draw the Xenomorph to your location. While this can be used to good effect to clear a room full of looters, it also leaves you alone with the ultimate predator, creating more than a few terrifying scenarios to escape from.
Save stations are few and far between at times, and since there’s no checkpoint system, the real challenge is getting from one to the other without getting killed and losing your progress. Each station takes a painful few seconds to boot up, leaving you vulnerable to an attack and making your heart pound unbelievably fast. Never knowing when or where the alien will strike next makes every single stage a tense affair, especially given the old-school tools you have at your behest.
Taking inspiration from the film, Creative Assembly has gone to great lengths to recreate the style of the original, and they’ve done an excellent job, painstakingly crafting the Sevastopol into a memorable locale that easily brings images from Alien to mind. Walking through the misty hallways as the lights slowly turn on in front of you is creepy, but something about the 70s-influenced computer systems still existing hundreds of years into the future is even more eerie, as if we jumped straight from 1979 to 2122 without any time between the two.
It’s easy to see the amount of love put into every inch of the Sevastopol and every aspect of the gameplay. From the wonderfully cryptic motion tracker to the interactions with the Xenomorph, it’s clear that Creative Assembly obviously have a great amount of respect for the series. However, for every detail they get right, there’s another holding Alien: Isolation back from being a perfect game or representation of the series.
For starters, this is one of the most frustrating titles to come by in a long while. Since Dark Souls became a massive hit, players have been craving a punishing challenge, and that can definitely be found here, but it doesn’t feel like the same learning experience it was in Lordran. The spontaneous nature of the Xenomorph’s AI is a double-edged sword, creating some incredibly tense moments, but also becoming frustrating and tedious soon after the first encounter. Rather than being a horrifying game of hide-and-seek throughout the campaign, these encounters become obnoxious ways to slow your progress towards your goal, and the frustration seeps all of the horror away in just a few hours.
This brings us to one of Alien: Isolation‘s deadliest sins: simply put, it’s way too long. Even without taking each encounter slowly and carefully, the game clocks in at well over 20 hours, and a majority of that time is spent either fixing, fetching or activating whichever MacGuffin the mission has you after. In fact, with the exception of the first four or five missions, the middle (and longest) stretch of the game feels incredibly padded, sending Ripley from one end of the station to the other, with either the alien slowing progress down to a crawl or absolutely nothing happening at all.
This is where the similarities to Dead Space come in. Since Ripley is an engineer, it’s universally decided that she must be sent alone to every corner of Sevastopol to smack things with a wrench, cut open panels and do literally everything for everyone. Ripley has a great personality, following in her mother’s footsteps and generally being awesome, but she plays too similarly to Isaac Clarke, constantly risking her life just to flip some sort of switch that usually either doesn’t work as planned or just leads to a few more hours of flipping other switches.
What’s even worse is finding out that almost all of the excitement and story progression takes place towards the end, which itself is another frustration. Towards the end of the game, there’s a huge climactic series of events that definitely feels like a finale is about to wrap things up. But after that’s completed, the game just keeps going. Alien: Isolation presents two or three different sections that feel like definitive endings before just continuing to throw the alien and numerous amounts of enemies at you. It’s one thing to move the goalpost back for a twist ending, but to do it a handful of times when nothing interesting is happening is incredibly frustrating.
While I’m all for a game being lengthy, especially when they cost upwards of $60, it’s hard for a horror title to sustain the horror for long, and Alien: Isolation loses its edge quickly. As I said before, the Xenomorph quickly becomes a frustrating obstacle that’s more of a walking insta-death than an organic threat, and after staring at it head on for so long, it’s hard to get scared when it drops out of a vent for the thousandth time. The gameplay itself hardly ever changes, meaning the last half of the game isn’t different from the rest, but just a lot more of the same. It’s one thing for a long game to continuously evolve and throw a number of varied situations at you, but it’s another to present the exact same scenarios for hours and hours with no change.
In the end, it’s not incredibly difficult to recommend Alien: Isolation to fans of the series, especially if you want to check out the first few hours and experience some incredibly tense and terrifying moments. However, my opinion of the game wavered the entire time I played it. While I would absolutely adore it one moment for its strong protagonist, creative gameplay elements and tense atmosphere, I would find myself cursing it for its terrible pacing, boring padding, frustratingly brutal punishment for the tiniest mistakes and repetitive nature. Towards the end, it’s hard to believe you’re playing the same game you started over a day ago, with all of the horror sucked out of it and no end in sight.
If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands and enough patience to go with it, then Alien: Isolation is definitely worth playing, simply because when its pieces come together, there are some incredible moments on display. It’s just a shame that those moments are so few and far between, with the game ultimately becoming spread far too thin to support the ambitious idea it’s based on. While it is definitely the best Alien game created thus far, it’s far from the best survival horror title.