HR Giger’s alien has often been dealt a disservice by videogames. Described as the “perfect organism” in Ridley Scott’s original movie, the videogame xenomorph has been anything but. This intelligent and merciless killer is regularly depicted as idiotic cannon fodder to be handily dispatched by a burst of plasma rifle fire, with videogames adopting the gun-toting marine approach of James Cameron’s Aliens over Scott’s cat-and-mouse struggle against a singular, unrelenting entity. With recent silver screen efforts embracing a disappointingly similar motif, Giger’s most famous creation has become more of a pop culture icon than the lethal dosage of nightmare fuel it used to be.
Alien: Isolation changes all of that.
Taking its cues from Scott’s classic, this is the alien as it should be – a ruthless, unstoppable force, built for the kill. There’s no way to fight back against or outrun it, your only option is to cower and hide and even that might not be enough. It’s utterly terrifying in a way the xenomorph hasn’t been since 1979; every creak and bump in the ventilation system, beep of the motion tracker and hiss of a door opening was enough to place me firmly on the edge of my seat, petrified of what was around the next corner. It’s clear from very early on that developer Creative Assembly are acutely aware of what made the original movie tick, and now they’re rolling to the same beat with a passionate homage to one of horror’s greatest triumphs.
You even play as a Ripley: Amanda Ripley, to be precise, daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s seminal Ellen. Set 15 years after the original Alien, Amanda is looking for answers about her mother’s disappearance, leading her to the deep space station Sevestopol and the location of the flight recorder from her mother’s missing ship, the Nostromo. With her Weyland-Yutani ties Amanda is able to travel to the station to retrieve the black box, but upon arriving she finds it in less than stellar condition with the place seemingly abandoned and completely falling apart. Something catastrophic has happened here and you’ll never guess what caused it.
“You actually feel like you’re being hunted by an intelligent predator, its persistent presence throughout the game placing a sense of dread deep inside”The narrative doesn’t stretch itself much beyond these humble beginnings. Themes of civil unrest and egregious corporate policy hit on a few fascinating beats within Isolation’s numerous text and audio logs, contributing some fantastic universe building with a unique corporation that isn’t Weyland-Yutani. But the over-arching narrative is fairly rote and by-the-numbers, keen to borrow ideas from its numerous Alien predecessors with some well-worn “twists” towards its conclusion. I will give props to the moments of fan service, though. They’re weaved into the narrative so astutely that I felt like I was allowed to geek out without feeling pandered to by contrived nonsense. It’s nicely done and further entrenches you into the world of Alien: Isolation.
Though how immersed you want to get in this world will depend on how much your nerves can take. The alien is, of course, the star of the show here. Encounters with it aren’t scripted (apart from a few choice moments); it’s a dynamic, unpredictable menace, reacting to your every movement. You actually feel like you’re being hunted by an intelligent predator, its persistent presence throughout the game placing a sense of dread deep inside, even when it’s not around, inducing sweaty palms and a tightened chest – it’s tense as all hell. You’ll hear it in the ceiling and beneath the floor, scuttling through the ventilation system like a large rat. Even the way it moves incites panic: it’s menacing. Then there’s that ominous sound, the thud, thud, thud of its heavy footsteps; it’s there with you, searching for its prey. If it spots you it’s game over. You can run but you’re only delaying the inevitable. You are completely vulnerable.
Playing cautiously with patience and some shrewd hiding is the best way to make it off the station alive. Stealth is key here; it’s entirely possible to sneak through a section while the alien is lurking in the vents without ever alerting it. This won’t always work due to the AI’s reactive and unpredictable nature, which may frustrate some, but its appearances are often subtly telegraphed if you know what you’re looking for, adding an intuitive layer to this particular game of cat-and-mouse.
Once the alien does make its presence felt it’s usually best to hide. I would often fumble my way into a nearby locker, eyes perpetually fixated on the motion tracker as the beeping gradually speeds up and the small dot inches closer – the alien finally appearing in view. It’s huge and horrifying, pausing in front of the locker, as if for dramatic effect. It paces around the room for what seems like hours, seeking signs of life like the calculated killer it is. And then it’s gone. I allow a few moments to compose myself before leaving the locker and methodically making my way down one of Sevetopol’s winding corridors. The journey to the next elevator is only a short hop away but it feels like the most arduous journey imaginable. Every fibre in my body is screaming “run!” but I know I mustn’t. I take things slow, moving at a snail’s pace, eyes planted firmly on the motion tracker, ears perked up just listening for the alien’s telltale signs.
Sound plays a crucial role in knowing when the alien might strike, though just listening out for it is unnerving in its own right. The insides of walls clank with mechanical life. Nearby machines breathe into action with a digital clatter. As I walk down another dank corridor steam hisses from overhead pipes as smoke rises and lights flicker – the Sevestopol is a character all its own. Every inch of its gigantic frame is filled with an oppressive atmosphere. It’s dark, grungy and claustrophobic, beautifully designed with the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the original Alien in mind, all 70s CRTs and manual levers and gears – capturing the bleakness of industrial space with all the authenticity of its 1979 forebear. Everything is mechanical and real. It feels lived-in. It feels like you’re in Alien.
The Working Joes are a product of this industrial environment, populating the station to give you something to fear that isn’t black and shiny. They’re androids like Ash and Bishop but couldn’t be more different. They’re the cheap alternative, like glorified crash test dummies – humanoid in shape but with no signs of humanity. Their rubber skin is sloppy and doesn’t quite fit right and their eyes burn bright red, unblinking. It’s frightening. When they spot you they give chase with a purposeful stride, calmly relaying passive aggressive threats like the stuff of nightmares.
“I killed a few people throughout my playthrough but it was always an act borne out of desperation”Humans with itchy trigger fingers pose a different kind of threat, too. You can try to take them on in a fight but Isolation is by no means a first-person shooter, rendering any head-on contact a fruitless endeavour. You’ll still pick up a handful of firearms on your travels with a small amount of ammo, but one or two bullets is enough to end you, and human’s will work together to hunt you down, so avoiding combat altogether is still the wisest choice. I killed a few people throughout my playthrough but it was always an act borne out of desperation. For a triple-A game that’s especially refreshing.
Your best bet in most situations is to utilise the plethora of gadgets at your disposal, perhaps throwing a noise-maker into a crowd of people to lure the alien towards them, or using a smoke bomb to conceal your escape. When you consider your arsenal before each encounter there’s a surprising amount of depth at hand that really allows you to experiment.
With the fearsome intelligence of the xenomorph, the emergent moments it consistently creates and with smart, stealth driven mechanics, Isolation never withers to repetition despite its lengthy 15-20 hour playtime. It does hit a lull during its final third, however, where trial and error becomes a common annoyance and the game begins to drag. I felt like I was on the final chapter at least four times only for it to continue going for another few hours. Up to that point the pacing had been impeccable, so it’s disappointing to see it end on a drawn out whimper. This doesn’t damper what came before, but with a little more restraint Isolation could have been a much tighter and more enjoyable package.
It also won’t be for everyone and the archaic save system is a shining example of that. The only way to record your progress is at save stations dotted around Sevestopol. There are zero checkpoints, and you can even be killed while in the process of saving, resetting your progress all the way back to your last save. Some will find this frustrating and it is a fairly cheap way of generating tension, but there’s no denying it works, and the sweet relief when you finally reach a save station is palpable.
But I feel like this is what Alien: Isolation is all about. It’s as subversive a triple-A game as you’re ever likely to find and I must lavish praise on Sega for ever going ahead with it in the first place. It’s also the first game to ever give the alien the respect it deserves, making it truly frightening for the first time since it originally graced the silver screen, with fantastic AI and some accomplished mechanics tying it all together. Alien: Isolation is a triumph and one of my favourite horror games ever. That it features such an iconic antagonist is the cherry on top of a delightfully terrifying cake.