Alien: Isolation Review
The survival horror genre has fallen by the wayside over the past generation. Horror games have simply devolved into shooters with less light sources and grotesque enemies, but that is not what constitutes a scary game. Last gen’s attempts at horror were pitiful. From Dead Space‘s play on power fantasy with its overpowered starter weapon to F.E.A.R.‘s poorly telegraphed “psychological” scares, gaming hasn’t seen a truly terrifying experience since the generation of the Playstation 2, Xbox, and GameCube(P.T. excluded as it’s just a teaser). For the first time in nearly a decade a developer has been able to tap into what makes a truly effective horror experience.
Creative Assembly’s first attempt at horror with Alien: Isolation has big shoes to fill. It needs to satiate the Alien fans with its ties to Alien lore while also proving itself as a horror game on its own merit. Alien: Isolation stars Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, 15 years after the conclusion of the original Alien. Her and her crew receive a signal from the flight recorder of the Nostromo. Unsurprisingly, Amanda is overcome with the innate desire to find her mother and they take leave to find the recorder somewhere aboard Sevastopol Station.
The story works and it has its moments, but any emotionally pivotal scenes lose their impact thanks the horrendously coded cinematics. All cutscenes in Alien; Isolation are pre-rendered and the frame skipping present through each and every one of these scenes is unacceptable for a release in this day and age. Regularly dipping to 20 frames per second, sometimes even lower, these cinematics are inexcusable and it’s a mystery how this passed quality assurance.
With such horribly coded pre-rendered video, you’d be fair to assume gameplay might be impacted as well and you’d also be somewhat right. The game generally does a good enough job at sticking to its target of 30 frames per second. Dips in frame rate come here and there, but never often enough to become unbearable. Controller response is generally fine considering the slow paced nature of the game, lending it a little more leeway when it does chug. Creative Assembly has almost exclusively worked on PC games the majority of their career and with Alien: Isolation that console inexperience shows with its optimization issues.
The saving grace is that the game hidden underneath these technical shortcomings shines through with sheer confidence. The developers know what they have on their hands and don’t adhere to contemporary genre conventions. Perhaps more than any game before it, Alien: Isolation captures the spirit of true survival horror that has been on the downturn for years now. This is no “action horror shooter”. Hiding and avoiding encounters take precedent over direct encounters. Even aiming with a gun equipped slows down aiming speed dramatically. Throughout the entire game, the player receives access to only a handful of weapons and ammo for each weapon remains scarce throughout, but these are to only be used as a last resort as death is constantly looming over the horizon with the impending fear of the xenomorph roaming around.
Much has been made of the alien’s artificial intelligence, with the developer’s claims of a 99% dynamic and reactive A.I. It supposedly thinks on its own, has no scripted patrol patterns, and adapts to the player’s tactics. It turns out the developer’s promises were mostly met, though not without some quirks. The alien travels throughout the station through a series of vents and air ducts. The player may or may not encounter it in any room depending on whether too much noise is made or if the alien just so happened to check out the room you’re searching.
If it sees you, it kills you. This singular xenomorph in Alien: Isolation is capable of instilling more fear than most games’ entire campaigns. Video games more than any other medium have the potential to be horrifying due to their interactive nature. It’s difficult to be scared because someone else in a movie or novel might die, but you taking control of the protagonist makes you completely vulnerable. Player agency is imperative. This adherence to vulnerability, the biggest hallmark of horror, is what makes Alien: Isolation such a terrifying experience. Death is always a very real threat. The artificial intelligence is very impressive for the most part, but there are a few issues, namely the alien’s line of sight. On multiple occasions, Amanda stood inches away from the xenomorph, only to remain invisible. It’s a minor inconsistency that does little to mar the experience, though it’s peculiar how such a glaring oversight made it to store shelves considering the huge P.R. push behind this A.I.
Players can craft items such as EMP mines, pipe bombs, flash bangs, noise makers, and molotov cocktails, though learning when to use them is crucial. The game doesn’t exactly hold your hand, therefore learning the rules of the world and how each of these items affect the humans, synthetics, and the alien comes through player trial and error. The alien is invincible. The only effective way to combat it is through use of fire, be it a flamethrower or molotov, though hiding until it leaves the area is always the safest option. It may temporarily retreat after being hit by fire, but it may also come back seconds later or even not show up again for half an hour. Such is the nature of the xenomorph’s A.I., making each encounter an excruciatingly tenseful affair
Alien: Isolation sets up its horror by giving the player time to soak in the atmosphere. The attention to detail paid to every inch of the station is absolutely maddening. Harkening back to the original Alien‘s late 70’s approximation of the future, not a single detail remains out of place. The over use of the color white, the monochromatic displays, the bulky CRT’s, the minimalist imagery displayed on supposedly super computer screens; all of it is replicated to a “T” in Alien: Isolation, making it one of the most fleshed out video game worlds in recent memory. Even the motion tracker with its rudimentary tracking of living organisms fits in with the universe. Taking in the low-fi surroundings instills a certain sense of place and belonging very few games are capable of achieving.
Several hours of the roughly eighteen hour adventure consist of crouching or walking slowly from objective to objective. That may sound dull on paper, but it never felt like it. No matter how routine the objective, how slow paced it may become, the simple act of touring this station remains engaging. Each new room is almost a treat to the player– a chance to give him/her the opportunity to gather crafting materials and to closely observe the architecture and design. What Alien: Isolation lacks in technical visuals with its ugly character models, it makes up for it with magnificent art design and atmosphere.
Encounters against humans and synthetics are paced well enough to keep the game enticing, leaving plenty of room to admire the aesthetics of the environment while the alien still is even more rare. Out of the eighteen chapters, the alien actually shows up perhaps for half of them. It was a smart move on the developer’s part. By keeping a firm handling on pacing, they were able to figure out how to best spread the high tension moments among the slower paced atmospheric romps. It rarely felt as though the alien was overused or underused. It is commendable that such a feat and grasp of the basics of building fear has been reached by a developer with no experience in the genre.
Seeing as most weapons and items are ineffective against the xenomorph and the few that are only make it retreat temporarily, hiding is the name of the game. Hiding under desks, inside cabinets, and lockers leave you feeling vulnerable and powerless. The sight of its tail slowly dragging across the floor right in front of you as you’re crouched under a desk is incredibly tense. Hiding in a locker or cabinet and holding your breath in, hoping the alien doesn’t catch a whiff ratchets the player’s level of stress and anxiety tenfold.
Alien: Isolation surpasses even the primal emotion of fear, instead going deeper to instill a sense of anxiety, stress and dread. Attempting to make it to the next save station while averting confrontation is simultaneously satisfying and stressful. Save stations alert the player to whether hostiles are nearby and the same station can’t be used to save again until an allotted period of time passes for it to boot back up. This keeps players from being able to abuse the save system, instead encouraging them to continue along with their objective in the hope of making it through unscathed.
The xenomorph isn’t the only scary enemy. While humans may pose little threat, the synthetics are almost as scary as the alien. Their glossy white appearance, beady red eyes, and monotone voices do little to make them feel friendly. The robotic manner in which they move doesn’t do much to help things. Hearing one of these robots say “are you lost?” as they inch toward you with their glaring red eyes and stiff movement will likely make you wish you weren’t playing the game. They can’t be fought head on unless using a stun baton and weapons work, though they take quite a few bullets to take down. They’re impervious to fire, walking through it as flames continue to spark as if out of one of those horror movies with the villain that can’t seem to die.
Unfortunately, as the game goes on, the anxiety and stress does begin to lift as it overstays its welcome. Eventually, you’ll go from running away from a synthetic as urine trickles down your legs to confidently facing it head on with a stun baton or EMP mine before finishing it if with melee attacks. The alien also becomes less of a threat roughly halfway into the game as access to a flamethrower is given. Nearly any encounter afterward simply devolved into me using the flamethrower against it to make it run away. Once the flamethrower makes an appearance, it unexpectedly makes the player feel a bit too powerful. Ammo for it is plentiful enough that it can always be used if the alien sees you before you have a chance to hide anywhere.
At that point, it becomes more of a minor nuisance than a truly terrifying foe. It also would have helped things if another four or so hours had been cut. Alien: Isolation never feels too long in the sense that it becomes daunting realizing more game is waiting for you, but it is too long to keep the tension and moments of high anxiety. The sound design, on the other hand, never lets up. Long after the game stops making its enemies feel threatening, the sound design continued to make me fidget and second guess myself. The footsteps and clanking of metal in vents and air ducts make you feel like you’re constantly being watched even if enemies are nowhere to be found for long stretches of gameplay. Ambiance dominates the soundtrack and helps sell the low-key moments, but careful use of more intense high frequency music makes the simple act of being alive feel like a punishment. This is a game that requires a surround sound setup or pair of head phones. To play Alien: Isolation without either would be gimping the experience.
Once all is said and done, there is an extra mode entitled “survivor mode” in the main menu. Players are given the option of playing as Ellen, Amanda, Dallas, or Parker. Each character seems to have a slightly different load out of weapons and items to craft. Dallas, for example, is able to carry a shotgun and use pipe bombs, whereas a character such as Amanda can use a stun baton. Survivor tasks players with a series of objectives and asks them to complete each one as soon as possible. Take too long and you’ll fail an objective. It’s a surprisingly good distraction from the main game. The added worry of time management coupled with a more scarce supply of crafting materials gives Survivor an interesting twist on the mechanics of the single player campaign. Exactly how long it may last for people remains to be seen, though it certainly feels like more than a simple throw-away mode.
Alien: Isolation does a lot of things very well. The confidence with which it introduces its seemingly mundane mechanics of running and hiding is admirable. It shies away from genre conventions and actively encourages aversion over confrontation through an eighteen hour game and it mostly succeeds. It is scary and stressful beyond belief until the slight issues with the alien A.I. and slightly bloated game length rear their ugly heads. Constant frame skipping leaves the cinematics feeling like a broken mess. The gameplay itself runs far better, though it is still susceptible to inconsistencies with one encounter in particular with three synthetics and an EMP explosion easily bringing the game down to slide show levels of smoothness. Underneath the lack of polish and optimization remains a game that is easily worth a try for any Alien or horror fan that can appreciate the slow paced nature of it, though it hurts just how close the game could have been to being a classic had just a few things been a little different.