News of the upcoming release of Alien: Isolation was met with a fair bit of trepidation. Coming only a year and a half after the not so fondly remembered Aliens: Colonial Marines (I enjoyed it, but it was hardly game of the year material) the big question was if it would deliver on its promise or be another dud.
Developed by The Creative Assembly, best known for their Total War series of games, Alien: Isolation is one of a few games created by them over the last few years of a different genre. The last I played was Viking: Battle for Asgard, which was perfectly fine but nothing ground-breaking so I had somewhat mixed expectations going in. I’m a huge fan of Alien, and generally end up playing any game set in the universe but they often don’t quite end up living up to the series pedigree.
Alien: Isolation is set between the first two films of the Alien franchise, while Ellen Ripley is lost in space before being found at the start of the second film. It’s been 15 years since the first film and Ripley’s daughter Amanda has grown up and has taken it upon herself to try and discover the fate of her mother. The flight recorder of the Nostromo, the ship from Alien, is discovered in space and is taken to the space station Sevastopol, and Ripley is among a small team sent there to recover it.
This being Alien of course things don’t go according to plan and Ripley ends up separated from the rest of her group and on the station herself, only to find that things aren’t going as they should on the station. Sevastopol is on the verge of being decommissioned and the local population are suffering not only from the station falling apart but also from something mysterious that’s happening to them.
It’s an Alien game though, so it’s hardly a surprise what’s happening. Before you first encounter the xenomorph though, Ripley spends a while working her way through the ruins of the station and encountering some of the locals. Some are friendly, some decidedly less so. This initial portion of the game reminded me quite a lot of Bioshock, with the same feeling of a great experimental city that showed promise gone horribly wrong.
Before too long though, the Alien appears and the game changes gears. Suddenly, you’re being hunted by an invincible killing machine. Unlike your typical Alien game where you’ll play a heavily armed Colonial Marine mowing down thousands of the Aliens, Ripley is at first not armed at all, and even as you gear up over the game the Alien can’t be taken down by anything you carry and at best all you can do is scare it away. And so the rest of the game has you exploring Sevastopol, all the while the Alien is always close by. You’ll hear it moving around in air vents and occasionally snarling while not being able to see it, and then suddenly it will pop out into the corridors.
When this happens, you need to try and get away from it as quickly as you can, as quietly as you can. Running is a terrible idea, as the Alien will hunt you down immediately – in fact running in general is a bad idea as even if the Alien doesn’t seem to be around running will almost always cause it to appear and kill you. Most areas will have lockers and cupboards you can hide in, air vents and ducts as well as under desks and beds also give good hiding places. If you’re lucky, it will get bored and move away and you can keep going.
If the Alien finds you, and it will find you, your chances of survival drop massively. It’s huge, fast and incredibly dangerous and most interactions with it will end up with you dead. Dying in Alien: Isolation is something that happens frequently, usually quite suddenly and often unexpectedly. If the Alien gets close enough to you that’s basically it, as it will grab you and kill you.
Not that the Alien is the only enemy in the game, just the most threatening one. On the station you’ll also encounter residents who have gone over the edge and will attack on sight, as well as the synthetic residents of Sevastopol, the android Working Joes. These are a new creation for Isolation, and have a pretty cool design as they look basically like a person wearing a dodgy rubber mask which is exactly what they would have looked like had they been invented for a 1970s sci-fi film.
At its heart, Isolation works rather like the classic Metroidvania format. You’ll acquire new weapons and items, such as the cutting torch and security tuner that will allow you access to new areas. You’ll often see an uncuttable or sealed door that you can’t open, but will receive an upgrade to either of these tools that let you into there later on. Sometimes this is for story progression, and other times it’s generally a room that is a little more secluded and will contain collectables and equipment.
While the game doesn’t put that heavy an emphasis on fighting, you do collect a number of weapons on your way through the game. While most have no effect on fighting the Alien they do make fighting other humans or Working Joes much easier. You have to use these with care though, as if the Alien is nearby the sound of gunfire will have it coming to investigate and you can probably guess how that often ends up.
As well as the tools and weapons you pick up, Ripley is able to craft items from the parts she finds around the station such as medkits, Molotov cocktails and EMP bombs. Blueprints can be found in various places that will allow you to create more powerful versions of these items. One helpful item is called the noisemaker, which attracts the Alien to its location. Naturally, you want this as far away from you as possible but it can come in very handy when faced with a room full of enemies that you’re having trouble getting past but don’t want to attack them for fear of making too much noise.
Rounding off your equipment is the motion tracker, which has become almost a mandatory item in Alien games due to its appearance in Aliens. The motion tracker here works just like you would expect from the films, highlighting the location of the Alien as well as other threats, giving you a good idea where in the vents the Alien is so that you can try and avoid that area.
As well as the crafting tools, there are other collectables such as the audio and email logs of the crew of Sevastopol, ID tags of the station’s residents and also the Nostromo logs – audio recordings by the crew of the Nostromo, who are in the most part played by the original actors reprising their roles for the first time in decades.
You can’t simply save whenever you want, as there is no save option on the menu. Instead, you have to make use of Sevastopol’s emergency contact stations. To save, Ripley enters her keycard into the unit and waits while the three lights go out before finally being able to save, leading to some tension while doing so if there are any enemies nearby as you can get killed while trying to save. Get used to this sight, because you’ll see it an awful lot as it’s very much recommended to save every time you come across a save point as you never know if you’re about to die.
For me, the story clocked in at a little over 16 hours, which I feel is a decent length for a single player game. While I think the very end of the game felt a little padded the pace generally keeps up throughout and it’s certainly compelling. The plot is well crafted and feels completely accurate for the Alien universe – while I kind of feel that having Ripley’s daughter also encounter the Aliens is perhaps a little unnecessary, it’s less contrived that the retcon of Hicks’ death in Colonial Marines for example. Noted sci-fi and comics author Dan Abnett worked on the game’s script and I’m always a fan of his work as he delivers consistently good stories and the same is true here.
Despite the title, Ripley isn’t completely isolated on Sevastopol. There are a number of other characters on the station who she interacts with and while I didn’t think any of them particularly stood out for me except for maybe Samuels, they were all done fairly well.
The music is one of the high points of the game. Blending elements of the original score of both Alien and Aliens as well as original material, the soundtrack adds a huge amount to the atmosphere of the game. Waiting for a tram to arrive while you know the Alien is nearby, all the while the music is building and building, adding more and more tension it’s the perfect fit to the game.
The voice acting is generally fine and I didn’t come across any voices that were bad enough to drop me out of the game, which is always nice. Almost none of the voice actors are ones who I am familiar with from past projects, which is quite surprising for a major game these days. The only one who I was familiar with is William Hope who voiced the head of the station’s Colonial Marshalls, making his return to the franchise after previously playing Gorman in Aliens.
Visually it’s a very good looking game. The locations are modelled mostly on the designs from the original Alien movie, with the same design aesthetic present throughout Sevastopol. Well done lighting only emphasises this, with fully lit areas sometimes being few and far between in the darkness. The rest of the in game models are also pretty decent, though the lip-syncing in some of the cutscenes is a bit off at times. The Alien generally moves very well, though I did notice a few times where it seemed to get a little confused and do a bit of a dance of broken animation in a corner.
It’s very well optimised too, defaulting to ultra settings even on my now aging HD 7770 and running smoothly throughout without any frame rate issues or tearing.
That’s not to say it’s all perfect, mind. I found that far too many of the animations like using the switch boxes or computer terminals took far too long to release you from them, which isn’t helpful when you’re wanting to make a quick getaway because you’ve just heard the Alien drop down from a vent behind you.
The Alien’s AI was also quite wildly unpredictable. Sometimes you can walk behind it without it noticing you at all and be quite safe. Other times it can be clear across a room from you while you’re moving very slowly, quietly and crouched then suddenly you’ll hear it snarl and start running at you. Some mission objectives have you to do things that make a ton of noise and the Alien isn’t interested, but you run a few steps and it appears from nowhere and kills you.
While I know that The Creative Assembly are aware of the issue, at the time I played the game there was a memory leak issue (which I believe is in combination with AMD graphics card drivers, as I haven’t heard of it affecting Nvidia owners) where they game will, usually just after a load, consume all of the system’s memory and grind to a halt. It happened to me three, maybe four times and I usually had to restart my system for it to recover as the memory stayed in use even after the game closed.
My copy of the game also came with both of the launch pieces of DLC, Crew Expendable and Last Survivor. Both of these are set during Alien, and feature the crew of the Nostromo. Impressively, considering that these aren’t part of the main game, most of the film’s cast reprise their roles including Sigourney Weaver as Ripley.
The first of the two, Crew Expendable is set about half way into the film, while most of the crew are still alive. The objective here is to seal off various parts of the ship and lure the Alien into the airlock and vent it into space. You have a choice to play as Ripley, Dallas or Parker here, so I chose Dallas as it is him who does this in the film. You can have a brief exploration of the Nostromo, seeing many of the locations fans of the film will be familiar with before going down into the lower decks to begin locking sections down. You’ll also have to go through the ships air vents, where Dallas met his demise in the movie, before finally making it to the ships airlock.
Last Survivor is set right at the end of the film, as Ripley sets off the Nostromo’s self destruct before escaping on the shuttle Narcissus. This is fairly faithful to how it plays out in the movie, though Ripley is armed with a flamethrower so that she isn’t completely helpless if she gets cornered by the Alien.
Last Survivor is arguably the stronger of the two, having probably the best atmosphere particularly once you’ve armed the self destruct and the ships alarms start going off and the corridors fill with steam – it really does feel like you’re in the movie. Both are very short though, clocking in at maybe 20 minutes each, so while both were enjoyable pieces of nostalgia I don’t think I would have enjoyed them as much if I’d actually paid for them instead of them being included.
DLC or no DLC, Alien: Isolation is still a very compelling game, and one that any fan of the Alien franchise will no doubt be happy exists as hopefully it marks the beginning of more fantastic games set in the universe. It’s one of the most tense and atmospheric games I’ve ever played, and one that I can recommend fully.
Alien: Isolation is out now on PC, Xbox 360 and One and PlayStation 3 and 4.