I’ve just finished Alien: Isolation, and I’m almost glad. On the plus side, it hopefully means an end to the xenomorph-related nightmares and the dangerously high heart rates I’ve experienced while playing the game. On the other hand, it’s one of the best things I’ve played in years, and I’m very, very sad it’s over.
If you’ve never heard of the game, basically it’s just like the first Alien film – a terrifying haunted house in space – but this time you’re playing Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda. She’s on the hunt for clues to her mother’s disappearance, which leads her to the Sevastopol, a crumbling space station that has become home to the flight recorder from the Nostromo. Along with something else.
I read an interesting article on Outside Your Heaven recently that compared Alien: Isolation with The Evil Within and criticised the former for essentially being a retread of the first Alien film. That’s a fair enough point – the designers have painstakingly recreated may elements from the 1979 film and, as the author notes, it would never have been greenlit as a film sequel because it shares too many similarities with the original. However, as a game it feels highly original – I can’t think of many others that pit you against an essentially invincible enemy and then make you cower for your life for the best part of 20 hours. It’s a nerve-shredding experience, but a highly addictive one.
You can distract the Alien, even scare it off, but you can never, never beat it. Whereas other games empower you with exotic weapons and give you a sense of superiority, here you’re bestowed with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. During the few times when you’re sufficiently tooled up, it feels extremely cathartic to do some damage to the space station’s psychotic androids, mostly because for the rest of the game you’ll be hiding in a locker, leaning backwards and holding your breath (there’s actually a button for that), and hoping to god that the Alien doesn’t see you.
For all the terror, it’s strangely compelling. Although it can get a bit too much. At one point I was trying to sneak to an elevator, and the Alien kept spotting me and devouring me before I could reach it. One time I was almost there – I’d managed to sneak through the vents, and I’d paused just before exiting into the corridor so that I could check the coast was clear. Suddenly, the Alien appeared out of nowhere and grabbed me/Amanda, and yanked her out of the vent as she desperately scrabbled at the metal surface. I mean, it came out of nowhere, man. Seriously, I had to turn off the game and just sit quietly for a bit after that one.
And that was right near the end of the game, too. You’d think by that point I might be quite blasé about being repeatedly gobbled by an Alien, but it never seemed to get any less shocking. Watch the video below to get an idea of just how traumatic it is.
Graphically, the game is astonishing. I was playing on the Xbox 360 and it looked pretty amazing, so it must be utterly astounding on the newer consoles. At one point you get to go outside the space station, and the view is gobsmacking. But perhaps more importantly, the attention to detail is spot on. The designers have painstakingly recreated the 1970s future tech and interior design from the original film, and it gives the game a unique feel. They’ve even put in that little bobbing bird thing from the movie, you know the one I mean.
If anything, the sound is even better than the graphics. The Alien’s footsteps still send a shiver through my spine, and towards the end of the game (I won’t spoil it) there’s an aurally amazing sequence that made me wish the speakers on my TV weren’t so knackered.
Some people have criticised Alien: Isolation for being a bit too long, but the length was just about right if you ask me. One thing I would say is that it’s a bit slow to get going, and the plot is a little weak to start with, but it picks up the pace in the second half. It also plays it a little safe in plot terms, sticking mostly with ideas that have been developed in the films – I’d love to see a sequel that stays true to the hide and seek gameplay of the original but takes the series into seriously uncharted narrative waters.
In the meantime though, buy this game (if you haven’t bought it already). It’s just passed one million sales after three months on release – a figure that the dreadful Aliens: Colonial Marines passed in just over a month. Show your support for good games, make sure it surpasses the sales of A:CM! Then, hopefully, we’ll get a sequel…