PC/ PS3/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox 360/Xbox One
Taking Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien as their inspiration, British developer Creative Assembly have produced a truly terrifying and subversive horror experience. This is not a game that makes the player feel powerful like so many big budget titles; quite the opposite in fact.
Alien: Isolation is a first-person survival horror and stealth game where, playing as Amanda Ripley (the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s character from the original film), you travel to the space station Sevastopol to recover the ill-fated Nostromo’s flight recorder and learn more about your mother’s mysterious disappearance fifteen years ago. Unfortunately for Ripley and crew, Sevastopol is in crisis.
Like Bioshock’s Rapture, Sevastopol is a society in tatters. Desperate survivors stalk the station in search of supplies and dead-eyed androids attack any who defy their protocols. Most disturbingly of all, an otherworldly creature is prowling around the station’s ventilation system aggressively pursuing its human prey.
For most of the game, Ripley is tracked by a single Xenomorph and where she goes, it follows. This, coupled with the game’s dynamic AI that actively seeks out the player and reacts to noises in the environment, is one of the key factors in making this experience so distressing.
If you run, fire weapons, or interact with objects in the environment it makes noise and, if you make noise, it will attract enemies. Aggressive packs of survivors, creepy “Working Joe” androids, and – if you’re really unlucky – the Creature itself will all investigate noises and hunt for the source of it relentlessly.
The Xenomorph is particularly tenacious and you can expect to spend a lot of time hiding in lockers and crouching under desks desperately yearning for the opportune moment to escape. Additionally, outside of a couple of scripted events, it doesn’t have any set pathing or route and as such is unpredictable. Each time you load up a save or start a new game, the Alien will find new ways to surprise you and this results in truly emergent gameplay. It might track you and follow you into the vents or maybe it’ll get distracted by some other survivors and go for them; the AI reacts to events in the environment and can change on the fly. It’s capricious, it’s horrifying, and it’s fantastic.
Humans and androids, on the other hand, can be dealt with in a variety of ways using the weapons and items that Ripley finds or builds from crafting materials found in the environment but the Alien cannot be killed; it is totally implacable. Some weapons, like the flamethrower you pick up about halfway through the game, can be used to temporarily scare it off giving you a few frantic seconds to run or hide but it will return to the hunt soon enough.
Ripley encounters the titular Alien countless times throughout the game’s 15-20 hour duration and, inevitably, it loses some of its mystique after a while; becoming less frightening the more you see it. Like all truly great horror, however, the greatest fear comes not from constant gore or jump scares but from the tension generated while the monster isn’t in plain view. This is where Alien: Isolation really shines.
Listening to the soft bleeps of the motion tracker getting faster and more frequent as the Alien hurtles towards you is unbearably nerve-racking and reduced me to a panicky mess on more than one occasion. Similarly, hearing the Creature clattering about in the ventilation shafts above you or hissing as it slithers into the room you’re hiding in is truly horrifying. Be prepared to sweat out some seriously tense moments while you anxiously listen for some indication that the coast is clear for you to sneak away. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the game’s aesthetic.
The game’s art design truly captures Scott’s original bleakly industrial, lo-fi tech aesthetic and fans of the franchise will love exploring Sevastopol’s many environments. The developers also use sound and art design to toy with the player’s imagination. Crawling through a vent in the dark, it’s easy to mistake a coil of pipes for a tail or the hiss of steam escaping from a pipeline for that of the beast and Creative Assembly put this to good use in generating fear and panic in the player. What’s more, death actually has consequence in this game.
There are no checkpoints in Alien: Isolation. To save your progress, you must get to the nearest emergency telephone, punch your card in, and wait. At any point in this process, you can be killed. This mechanic is brutal but it does create a very real sense of balancing risk and reward; you desperately want to get through a room and reach the next save point but do so too hastily and you will be punished.
Doing away with automatic checkpoints is a bold decision – one that I fear will alienate many potential fans – and, if you have enough patience, it creates an even greater feeling of dread when you don’t know what’s around the corner. Regrettably, this feature can become immensely frustrating (especially when compounded with the Creature’s dynamic AI that can lead to it dropping right behind you at a moment’s notice) and this isn’t the game’s only flaw.
The experience is somewhat marred by technical problems. The frame rate occasionally drops significantly (especially during the cut scenes where, at times, it really stutters) and I suffered a game-breaking bug that meant returning to the start of the previous mission. These glitches are worth bearing in mind but must not be overstated; the game runs fairly well for the most part.
Alien: Isolation is not a game that’s designed to make you feel powerful, it’s built to take your power away. It’s a survival horror experience set in a lovingly crafted world fraught with tension and thick with atmosphere. The gameplay focuses on stealth rather than combat and, for those with the patience, there’s a lot to like here. Just remember that even if, in space, no one can hear you scream, your neighbours probably still can.