Alien’s translation from celluloid to joypad has been a trial, to say the least. The series that began with director Ridley Scott’s eponymous 1979 masterpiece is an icon of cinema, while sadly the games conceived in its image have fallen short of the mark. 2013’s tragic stillbirth of a game, Aliens: Colonial Marines signalled a ‘shit or get off the pot’ moment for SEGA and the IP, after roundly disgusting players and critics alike. The Alien games have been entirely missing the point of the series from which they were spawned, until now. Developers, The Creative Assembly, have wound back the clocks and brought the focus away from the sequels and back to Scott, writer O’Bannon and lead artist H.R. Giger’s vision, and Alien Isolation is all the stronger a survival horror experience for it, and perhaps even one of the most enticing titles of the year so far.
The oversized, shiny, black phallus (read Xenomorph) we know and love is back, warped through space and time from the silver screen of the late Seventies direct to your consoles, to wreak havoc and instil sexualised terror in a very different kind of audience.
Playing as Amanda, daughter of the film’s heroine, Ripley, we’re sent on an interstellar ghost train of epic proportions in the search for clues as to what happened to dear old Sigourney Weaver, those tighty-whities and Jonesy the ginger tomcat. Word reaches Amanda that the black box flight recorder from her Mother’s doomed vessel, the Nostromo, has been located and is being held on a Freeport space station, Sevastopol, and so our mission begins.
Upon waking from hypersleep – in a chamber perfectly replicated from an early scene in the film – it becomes clear that the devs must have been living, eating and breathing the original Scott flick throughout Isolation’s production. The ship Amanda takes to Sevastopol is not the Nostromo, but the Torrens, modelled to be instantly recognisable to fans of the film, all design similarities noted and explained within the dialogue.
The now dated prop work of the film is faithfully recreated and this lends Isolation a peculiar, contradictory juxtaposition of retro-futurism, which is an excellent garnish of further weirdness to the generally unsettling meal that The Creative Assembly have plated up for us.
Speaking of dinner, the general aim is to avoid making a snack of yourself for the Xenomorph whilst you guide Amanda about her business. The elegance of Isolation comes in its pacing; the rhythmic segue back and forth from discomfort to anxiety to pure shuddering, sphincter-busting terror. After being gently lowered into the blackened abyss that is Sevastopol, with a story that initially drags its feet in a clearly intentional, and successful, attempt to conjure up a false sense of security. My only advice: enjoy it while it lasts.
As a survival horror title, Isolation succeeds in its mandate, delivering bucketloads of the heebie-jeebies by asserting the powerlessness of the protagonist. So many games get this wrong, supplying the horror elements, the environments, the characters, the plot, but forgetting to neuter the control of the player character. As a gamer, knowing that the unseen foe can be countered renders it a puzzle, rather than a virtual embodiment of fear. Isolation provides limited tools to overcome perilous obstacles, and is constantly reminding you of Ripley Jr.’s vulnerability.
The developers have played a masterstroke by holding tightly onto an old precept of horror and capitalising on the fear of the unknown. For the titular character, the Alien, spends a minute fraction of the game’s runtime on-screen, much as in the film. This bulks its mystique and, by limiting its appearances, the player is unable to get comfortable with the presence of the Alien. Manipulating atmospheric lighting and ambient sounds with laudable artistry, the devs have created a game that’ll turn you brittle with nerves, taking you almost to the point of shattering over and over again.
A grainy film layer recalls the movie and some impressive depth of field effects join a lineup of brilliantly smooth visuals to present Sevastopol and the terror within as effectively as possible, the believable and painstakingly-crafted environments at once friend and foe – the perfect setting for the tortuous 12 hour story to unfold within.
The motion detector and map are utterly essential for survival aboard Sevastopol; without them navigating the labyrinth of corridors and vents would be an impossible task. The arsenal available to you is varied but sparsely distributed in randomised locations throughout the levels, so decisions to expend precious ammunition or equipment must be carefully weighed, adding further to the pressure on the player, and therefore the tension.
Despite being showered with praise, Isolation is not perfection. Playing on Xbox One, there are noticeable frame-rate issues, cutscenes getting so laughably choppy at times that I almost considered thinking twice about having another glass of wine. These issues are less noticeable but still present in the gameplay.
The style of game here is naturally frustrating, but certain points are prone to inciting wanton recklessness and unhinged joypad-destruction, such is the extent of annoyance Isolation can conjure. Unless players are quick off the mark and eagle-eyed in their spying out of the game’s manual save points, they can find themselves repeatedly backtracking as they get gutted and/or shot on occasions beyond count. Taking the effort to regularly save pays great dividends, particularly on the harder difficulties.
Item crafting provides emergency distractions for those tight squeezes where the Xenomorph is bearing down, but is simplified to an almost arbitrary extent. It’s a similar story for the door hacking, all style over substance. Perhaps that’s the point, to avoid distracting from the tension of the main event, but some players will undoubtedly find these additions and minigames lacking.
Having exhausted the story, or simply become exhausted by it, Isolation offers alternative amusement in its survivor mode, a separate, objective-oriented level platform in which the mechanics and tension of the main game are compressed and concentrated into shorter, even more intense packages. Survival Mode also fulfils the role of being the game’s platform and soapbox for distributing DLC. Rather than risking tainting the story, which in all honesty is long enough as it is, and evading the pressures of conforming so tightly to established plot and atmosphere features, The Creative Assembly have created Survival Mode, which should offer them maximised creative freedom in coming up with additional content.
Such an abundance of tension, right through the game, can prove overwhelming, making Isolation a difficult title to binge on. There comes a point, nerves shredded and bowels loose, where enough is simply enough…for an hour or so at least. As much as it’s hard to play for extended periods, it’s hard to leave alone too, which is itself of merit.
Fans of the original film will be grateful for the dev team’s faithfulness in their continuance of the story and perhaps also that they eschewed the canon of the later films to return to the series’ roots. This back to basics wonder gives a stripped back but hardcore gaming experience that is at once something you’re not sure you’ve the stomach to play again, but something that compels you to regardless.
Alien Isolation could prove to be something that the survival horror genre has needed for a long time, something more than just a kick up the arse. Stripped back and distilled, this is a game of pure tension, one that actively does away with anything that might negate the immersion and one that should come with extra underpants included as standard. In space, no one can hear you scream, but if they could everyone would know that you shriek like a little girl.