Game Name: Alien: Isolation (2014)
Developer: Creative Assembly (from the awesome Total War Series)
Platform: PC, MAC, PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One
Categories: Single Player, Pure-Stealth, Cat-and-Mouse, True Horror, Repeated and Violent Deaths, Crafting, Sci-Fi, First Person Shooter, Mini-Games
May Appeal To: fanatics of the original “Alien” movie, retro-future nostalgics, stoic horror aficionados, self-flagellation enthusiasts, art lovers, chaoticians, atheists, completionists, the unphased, and those with thick thick skin
May Repulse: fans of the “Aliens” second movie, run and gunners, the squeamish, the anxious, the impatient, the gung-ho, pattern-seekers, the aloof, the undedicated, the rage quitters whom are secretly terrified, IGN employees, and everyone who isn’t strictly in the “May Appeal To” section
Comparable To: (better theme, monster, and environmental interaction than) Amnesia: the Dark Descent, (trickier stealth than) the Thief series, (reminiscent of the first couple Human missions of) Aliens Vs. Predator original, (less BFG and more in line with the intro to) Doom 3
Learning Curve: Despite preparation, you may never become truly comfortable eluding the Alien -possibly by design. A couple hours in and the gist of it all should sink in.
Game Length: About 25 hours if you don’t lose too much progress from deaths, under an hour for the bonus missions together
Difficulty: Variable. From what I can tell, it’s high to severe for players depending on the appropriately selected difficulty in the beginning. This includes stress/emotional taxation.
Mastery: If you’ve got the right stuff, good for you Space Marine. There are four main difficulties in story mode and leaderboards for the timed trials -which are distilled down to just the bare mechanics. If you play past campaign mode, you’re a master in my book.
Story: Do you remember when Lieutenant Ripley mentions a daughter named Amanda in the movies? Me neither. This is her story though, how a 10 year old’s mother mysteriously disappears and the girl is all grown up fretting about just what the hell happened fifteen years past. Lured by promises of recovering the ill-fated Nostromo’s flight recorder, Ripley junior signs up for a small crew funded by the Weyland-Yutani corporation (the next best Company to work for besides Umbrella or Aperture). Docking with the Sevastopol -a dark, decomissioned space station orbiting a gas giant- doesn’t go as planned and Amanda is forced to deal with murderous scavengers, an army of second-rate synthetics with a hive mind, and an invincible Xenomorph (whom you become more intimate with than the alien’s dentist).
Presentation: A perfect organism. This is the one feature that is indisputable (unlike the rest which is divisive and a popular target for flamers and flakkers). The late 70’s vision of interstellar colonization has never been more realized or oppressively immersive than the agonizing load screens of Sevastopol’s monochrome CRT monitors struggling to boot four folders and an audio log’s worth of text. Similar to Fallout 4’s clunky -though characteristic- technology, Alien:Isolation masterfully captures its own merging of eras with flickering hallways of pale yellow buttons, plush leather bulkheads, walk-in computers, a classic arcade humming a soft glow through protective plastic covers, and the nightmarish whirring of disk readers crackling their hisses and purrs in protest of your presence. This artstyle is painstakingly crafted from a reported terabyte of production footage logged from the original Alien movie -a simultaneous blast from the past and a giant leap into the future all at once. The orchestral queues, sound effects, prop design, fog/smoke, fire, fathomless shadows, electrical cackle, lighting, textures and tools/devices blow me away in how “right” they feel to both the source material and this game’s mood. (The devs used Betamax as part of their animation pipeline, for crying out loud.) There is no other environment like this -and it is thoroughly exploited/explored to its fullest potential.
Unique Features: Aside from the stellar theme, Isolation plays it pretty safe in terms of gameplay. One could argue that the simplified mechanics allow for a focused (and thorough) love letter to the sheer terror that has been successfully captured here -though there isn’t much complexity that fetters the flow or to speak of. The Alien’s adaptable and chaotic hunting AI is notable however, since most stealth games are rudimentary once patterns are recognized. You’re always on your toes because of this.
Ah, I almost forgot because it isn’t implemented to good effect: there are power distribution nodes that are supposed to shift the battlefield by allowing you to make sound remotely, kill the lights, and clean the air…. but it’s too damn realistic and the affected areas are far too localized to be any good. It is a brilliant idea, though, that I want expanded upon.
Gameplay: Survive by dodging line of sight and crafting a handful of things that flash or go bang. And turn on a zillion generators while you’re at it. Duck and Hide are the orders of the day and you’ll be scrambling for cover every several minutes. More often than not, some villainous biped stands between you and the dull ache to press the next button that represents your current objective and the options are narrowed to either distraction, dispatchment, or hunkering down until the problem resolves itself (the Alien can inadvertently trump human obstacles). Often, you’ll have to bust out a welding torch to cut a hatch open, pour through logs for a 4 digit password, and crack open a wall-mounted engineering station to readjust the power distribution to dim the lights, create fog, or open a sealed door. Judicious use of the motion tracker sketches the lay of the land and although its alarming pings can be detected, it’s your best friend besides scattered caches of electronics parts and the promises of salvation manifest as Emergency phone booths for saving. Data logs and audio clips flesh out what little your infrequent acquaintances don’t fill you in on story-wise, and are the true purpose of playing to some degree; the fun is in isolating yourself in this world after all. The terrors are real, and not just cheap jump scares -a facet of this game I can’t stress enough. It’s quite clear what you need to do and how to survive, but do you have the mental fortitude and dexterity to follow through?
Additional Comments: Oh, you have guns but may not feel as power-giddy long after first acquiring each new heavy piece of shiny metal. Your run-of-the-mill red eyed synthetic can take 6 bullets OR 3 shoutgun blasts directly to the face before profusely spewing ranch dressing and giving up all pretense of strangling you, forever.
What I Liked: I outright love that a game like this can get modern accolade since I was convinced we were done with the pure stealth genre; and what a horrifying experience it was! Not for a long time have I had such trepidation about loading a game and traversing the next hallway, a testimony on how unpredictably scary the main antagonist is. I like that the maze of hallways was smartly created with purpose while still exhibiting character, itself, and that it is dripping with the ambience that made this series what it was supposed to be. I can also appreciate the little artistic and conceptual touches that were added for no other purpose than that fans would want to see them.
What I Disliked: This mere alien drone is tough…. ridiculously tough. I sprayed the damn thing with napalm enough times it should have erupted in a fiery burst of yellow, bubbling froth instead of bowling me over and hastily evacuating through an air duct (all other weapons barely phase it as well). The flamethrower allows you to go toe-to-toe with the creature [finally], but this also alleviates most of the suspense for the latter half of the game (unless your chosen difficulty provides little ammo). The whole situation echoes Ripley Senior’s own disagreement with the black, penile bastards rather strongly and that could be considered yet another gripe (although the fine line between an homage and plagiarism is indeed tricky to walk).
Glitches Experienced: Alt+Tabing away from the PC version gives the game windowed mode that you can’t undo. The alien’s locker detection seems awfully bugged, especially the tiny lockers in my playthrough -the alien zeroes in on them and opens without delay (seems independent of its learning mechanics and the motion detector). A small quibble: there’s no way to initially “put away” whatever item you’re holding early in the game.
Hours I Played: 27 on Hard difficulty – which includes the Lone Survivor and Crew Expendable missions
My Personal Reaction: Many reviews will tell you that the game suffers from bad pacing and too many situations with the Working Joes. Personally, though, I’m a bleeding advocate of suspense building and a false sense of security. In my opinion, the journey was a complete experience of highs and lows with an undercurrent of foreboding dread and everything deserved to be included, as it was. I’m not going to say that the game has never cheated or killed cheaply, though I will explicitly state that the alien’s sporadic behavior is a breed of chaos that instills the lingering doubt it plays by the same rules. This fact adds a nonquantifiable element to the enjoyment of the cat and mouse engagements. Despite loving it, I was so keen on extracting myself from its emotional torture that the ending couldn’t come soon enough; though in hindsight, the journey was long and fulfilling and worth slipping past every obstacle it threw at me.
Noob Tips: The alien has a near-laughable inability to see over tables: crouch behind low obstacles and dance around until it bounds away. Computer terminals don’t pause time: log in, access each note, then pull them up within your archive to read/listen at your leisure. Do not get overconfident with that flamethrower; just like everything else, the alien builds a tolerance. Lastly: never run and never use the lockers.
Depth and Replayability: None. Unless you played on Normal difficulty and found it lacking. There are time-attack challenges and bonus missions but the former didn’t appeal to me and the reality of interacting with glassy-eyed versions of the alumni cast in a single jaunt across the Nostromo wasn’t very appealing.
Suggested Value: I bought this, the two story DLC missions, and a season pass for $30 on a Steam sale though I would have gladly paid $60 for the main game, alone.
Where to Buy: Steam, Gamestop, most common retail Outlets