REVIEW – Alien: Isolation

Oct
18

REVIEW – Alien: Isolation

  • Gameplay
  • Graphics
  • Sound
  • Control
  • Technical
  • Platform: PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
  • Developer: The Creative Assembly
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Release: October 7, 2014

It feels like its been so long since a true survival horror title hit the mainstream market. Most big budget titles that deem themselves ‘horror’ these days seem to lean towards more on action and set-piece sequences than carefully paced tension or engrossing atmosphere. How appropriate then, the title to give resurgence to the genre would be one based on one of the most influential science fiction and horror franchises of all time. Often imitated but never duplicated, the Alien franchise has been the groundwork for inspiration in the video game industry, and like a corrupting life form that writhes unseen in the darkness, has spread its influence into modern culture for over three decades, and still continues to do so.

The original film was a simple story about blue-collar space truckers that stumble on a deadly alien spore, but made compelling through its stylistic direction, patient pace, its gritty science fiction setting and most memorable of all, its original creature designs. It’s a terrifying scenario to be trapped with a deadly predator that is continuously hunting you, a predator stronger and faster than any human, ever evolving and adapting. A creature that is a surreal blend of humanoid, insect and sexual allegory that is parasitic in nature, that even violently kills when birthed. Such was the fate of the crew on the vessel ‘The Nostromo’, as one by one they succumbed to a gruesome end at the hands of this nightmarish creature.

You are Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, the last Survivor of ‘The Nostromo’ who was last seen drifting through space in an escape shuttle after the events of the first film. Fifteen years later, having longed for answers over the disappearance of her mother, she is offered a job through the company to pick up the recovered flight recorder box on the space station ‘Sevastopol’, and perhaps finally find the closure that she has sought after. Of course things don’t go as intently planned, and Amanda quickly finds herself in a desperate situation as she becomes stranded on the station, along with the deadly iconic creature that is out to indiscriminately kill everyone in its path.

Triumphantly, Alien: Isolation flawlessly simulates the terror and atmosphere the franchise has been renown for, the attention to detail and faithfulness to the source material is remarkable, that ironically even exceeds Ridley Scott’s most recent effort with Prometheus. It’s game-play is definitely not for everyone, this is a true survival horror game, which rewards patience and sometimes even strategy to overcome situations; a far-cry from your typical first-person shooter. Like true horror movie fashion it is purposely slow-paced, biding its time to build up suspense. You will spend a fair portion of time simply wandering through corridors, rooms and ventilation shafts with little actually happening, but its all made successfully engaging thanks to its superb use of art design, lighting and sound. The game is unrelenting in invoking you with an ominous feeling through-out the entirety of its game-play, from the rumbles and creaks of the deteriorating structure of the rundown space station; the strobes of malfunctioning lights and wailing sirens of alarm systems; to the beeping on your motion tracker warning you of impending doom as ‘something’ moves upon your location.

The space station ‘Sevastopol’ is an enormous and expansive place to wander through, filled with countless narrow corridors, air ducts and massive complexes. The majority of areas are intricately designed, few look the same, and all effectively give off an impression of being rundown and lived-in. You will curse doors as they habitually stall and obnoxiously beep before opening an eternity later, which potentially can alarm enemies of your position. Areas lay cluttered with an assortment of items previous inhabitants left behind; from shoes, broken down machines, family photos posted on the walls in living quarters, adult magazines, to the dipping birds left on cafeteria tables – a homage to the original film – it all perpetuates the already uneasy atmosphere as you wander through these seemingly abandoned areas, as you reflect on the potential fate the former residents had likely endured.

Areas can sometimes feel overwhelmingly large and labyrinth like, especially when mission objectives only generally indicate where you’re supposed to go. It can be easy to get lost, especially after a frantic situation that diverted you in another direction. It is essential to refer to your map often, and update it at stations scattered through-out ‘Sevastopol’, otherwise you will haplessly find yourself backtracking to areas over and over again.

The designers made obvious painstaking efforts to re-capture the now archaic retro-science fiction look of the original film, appearing as if elements of the game were designed and created back in 1979. Devices such as Computers are bulky, inelegant, Commodore 64 looking machines with classic CRT monitors, displaying simple vector like graphics. Modern devices such as cellphones and mp3 players are absent, instead replaced with primitive radio devices and audio tapes. The result is a fresh and unique futuristic world compared to current modern depictions, and shows admirable faithfulness to the franchise’s rich fiction.

The game’s environments are visually striking, employing heavy use of lighting and shadows with a subdued colour palette; the most dominant of colours being vibrant yellows, blues or whites which are strongly contrasted against deep shades of black. Its effectiveness even subtly plays into game-play; making you either see things that aren’t there, or things that appear as other things, preying on your escalating paranoia.

Ripley is a vulnerable fragile human on her own, who maneuvers somewhat clunky, can barely outrun most enemies, and can be quickly overwhelmed by numbers. Health does not regenerate, and healing items like the rest of the items you find, are limited. Stealth is definitely favored over brute force here, especially once you encounter the creature, which is immune to the majority of weapons in the game.

Your primary means of defense is your motion tracker, which tracks enemy movement in a 180 degree sweep in front of you. Be wary however, this excludes anything either coming up behind you or anything standing perfectly still, which ‘certain’ enemies are fully capable of doing. You also discover and construct improvised devices from looting scrap parts. The majority of them either function as a tool to get past areas previously inaccessible, such as the plasma torch which cuts open panels to switches, or provide either a means of distraction or to non-lethally subdue enemies, such as noisemakers which are grenades that generate sound, or flash bombs that blind targets. Further as you progress into the game you begin to obtain more lethal weapons at your disposal like the wrench, revolver, molotov cocktails and the flamethrower, but keep in mind even they aren’t entirely reliable to be counted on in every given situation. Ideally, lethal force should only be used as a desperate last resort.

ai_survivormode_001It just wants to cuddle, and (maybe) puncture your skull…

Your success at surviving the game’s encounters can heavily depend on how effectively you utilize and ration these items. It can be a matter of trail or error to figure out which works better than others in certain situations, which can be a bit frustrating, given that the resources you find to craft these items are very limited. You’re also able to interact with terminals or wire boxes, which may give you important pass-codes to open doors, or let you toggle off or re-activate systems, such as access to the ventilation ducts, which provide the safest way to travel through areas; or the air purification system which temporarily converts the air into a thick obscuring mist in sections of areas, providing helpful concealment if needed.

You will encounter few surviving residents on Sevastopol, but the majority of them will react hostilely towards you, desperately driven to violence from events previous to your arrival. You will also encounter humanoid robots called synthetics, which unfortunately suffer from malfunctioned programming, becoming even deadlier enemies that are much stronger and resilient than your average human. The synthetics are particularly creepy, appearing human, but at the same time unnaturally so as they move somewhat stiffly and robotically, staring with their eerily glowing red eyes. Once they have spotted you, they will give chase as they attempt to reassure you they are only trying to help, only to grab you, throw you against a wall then pick you back up and twist your neck in one clean stroke.

It will be approximately an hour or two into game-play until the creature finally reveals itself with all its twisted, terrifyingly elegant beauty, and from that moment onward for the rest of the game it will be the bane of your very existence as it will tirelessly stalk you, where ever and when ever it desires to, becoming an ongoing game of cat and mouse with you as the ill-equipped under-powered victim. Always at its mercy. Try as you may to avoid and outwit it, you will find yourself be constantly surprised by it, especially on the hardest difficulty, it can at times feel as if you’re faced against something truly intelligent. Encounters are genuinely nail-biting, forcing you to move slowly and cautiously as you hear it at your heels, hissing and thumping around; whether on ground in a nearby room or corridor, or crawling somewhere above in the ventilation system. It will thoroughly inspect rooms, make patrols, then at irregular intervals back-track to areas to investigate again. At moments it will move sluggishly, as if stricken with fatigue or procrastination, then without warning turn and suddenly move at blinding speed. Other times your motion tracker will go completely dead after a dragged out scenario of carefully tracking its movements, only for you to stumble under an air duct where it patiently waited to spring its trap from above. When you obtain the flamethrower you figure it will help equal the odds in your favor, but the creature will maneuver around your blasts of flame, or suddenly stop dead in its tracks after charging towards you, expecting you to prematurely fire and consume your precious ammo, just so it can leisurely have its way with you after you’re exposed and helpless. H.R. Giger can be rest assured, his bastard creation has finally been given back its rightful dignity it deserves.

Even saving your progress is a nerve-racking task in itself; there are no autosaving checkpoints here. Scattered throughout areas are save stations which you must reach and interact with in order keep to your current progress, but doing so leaves you temporarily vulnerable as you interact with them, and there are absolutely no safe rooms either. So when the station warns of nearby hostiles, use it at your own peril.

The game does contains an assortment of mini-games and brief sequences that use the tired mechanics of time sensitive button prompts, but they are at least very short, and do integrate well within the game’s setting and game-play. The set-piece sequences on the other hand are fortunately few and far between each other, making up only a very small portion of the overall game-play, which is a comforting welcome.

The story is competent but unexceptional, never really going beyond its initial basic premise, and the ending leaves much to be desired. It is still however powerfully nostalgic to fans of the series, especially when hearing the recognizable musical ques from Jerry Goldsmith’s powerful score, or Sigourney Weaver lending her voice to reprise the role of her titular Character.  For the most part the voice-acting is solid, being appropriately sober and impactful, mostly. There are occasional parts were the in-game dialogue does come off as a little too cheesy. There are some elements that lead to some compelling game-play segments, with one in particular alluding to James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, which easily stands as the most intense and terrifying portion in the game. Another worthy mention is a small, almost irrelevant plot inconsistency – likely only known to those most intimate with the franchise – that was never explicitly addressed between both Alien and Aliens, but now has been admirably rectified during a flashback portion in the middle of the game, further demonstrating the creators devotion to the source material.

pc_online_preview_screen005_copyAmanada is resourceful and resilient, just like her mother.

The campaign will take you between 20 to 30 hours to complete, depending on the difficulty setting, and after completed there is little content left to experience, aside from the derivative survival mode, which literally feels like they have taken and reused small portions of the game and implemented a score and time trial gimmick to the game-play.

The PS3 version of the game does suffer from a number of quirks and technical issues that detract from the experience. The game suffers from very long load times, which can be tedious after dying so often, over and over again. Rendered cut-scenes can be strangely choppy and suffer from screen tearing; the frame-rate can also dip during heavily lighted areas, or at strange moments, like when doing a killing animation on an enemy. In-game human characters aren’t accurately lip-synched and sometimes have robotic animations. There were single occurrences were the game froze while loading a zone, or the player character clipped through the environment and got stuck, forcing a reload to an earlier save. Sometimes a piece of the environment doesn’t render or is invisible, allowing you to literally see out into vast space, or objects would strangely float in mid-air. It’s disappointing for such things to occur in a game that relies so heavily on immersion, but at least that majority of issues are trivial things that don’t really break game-play. Be rest assured, the rest of the game is solid enough for such things to be overlooked.

Overall Alien: Isolation is a successfully intense and immersive science fiction horror game. It’s quite bittersweet that it has taken this long for a definitive Alien game to emerge from the countless mediocre attempts suffered in the past. Perhaps it’s a testament to how ahead of its time the films were when they were conceived decades ago.

About Wes Draper

Nicknamed 'Wedge', is a pseudo-connoisseur of video games who also happens to be a pseudo-writer. He loves the macabre, which usually ties in with his morbid sense of humor. In his spare time he continues to work on his on-going novel, when he is not sidetracked playing video games, reading manga, or watching anime and other various TV shows and movies. Oh, and writing articles too of course! ^_^

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