3 Nov 2014

Alien: Isolation - Review

Greetings my fellow gamers, friends and family; I welcome you all to my latest video game review, and what a convenient entry given the very spooky holiday that has just gone past. With Halloween just recently gracing our lives, there is no better time than now to publish my review of Creative Assembly's latest high budget exodus from their signature Total War series, Alien: Isolation. While previous efforts such as Viking: Battle for Asgard and Stormrise were either entirely forgettable or downright awful, Alien: Isolation breaks new ground for Creative Assembly and proves that the Total War series is not their only high quality outlet. As their first true attempt at a modern survival horror game, Alien: Isolation ranks as among the genre's best and stands strong even without its' faithful devotion to the source material. While my love of the original Alien - a true masterpiece even despite my general dislike of horror movies - might cloud my judgement in the case of Isolation, I feel it is definitely one of the highest quality games released this year and is a strong competitor for my game of the year vote.

Alien: Isolation (Playstation 4)


When reviewing a survival horror game, this tends to be the most difficult section to assign a rating to; if what defines a great horror experience is the scares and immersion rather than the technical or interactive aspects at play, how do you really judge whether the gameplay qualifies as poor, good or even great? Ultimately, I feel the gameplay in this kind of title should be rated based on how it complements the overwhelming sense of dread and terror accompanying the presence of the Xenomorph or any one of the game's various other obstacles. In this context, Alien: Isolation succeeds at creating a gameplay experience that features numerous "mini-games" and context sensitive actions to create a sense of pure control over main antagonist Amanda Ripley, with the choice of a first-person viewpoint resulting in Amanda acting more as a personal conduit rather than just a mere extension of your will. The fact that the game is only paused when you choose to look at your map or go into the menu screen solidifies this feel of truly being in the shoes of Amanda Ripley, not just viewing her actions and the predations of the Xenomorph but actively trying to influence them yourself - it is a core aspect of any survival horror game and Isolation nails it with all the aplomb you would expect of a true Alien successor. The random nature of the seemingly immortal Xenomorph means that the real-time act of cutting through doors using a plasma torch, hacking into a computer console or trying to restart a power generator - all with well designed if simplistic control inputs - becomes all the more fearsome a task, leaving you potentially apathetic to exploration and branching out from the many paths directly leading to your objective.

However, the game actively encourages you to explore not just for all the cool nostalgic value offered by the visuals and other throwbacks to the movies, but also because - like any good survival horror game - you will constantly have limited supplies and need to search all of the accessible rooms to ensure you are ready for whatever challenge next on your list. This becomes particularly crucial late in the game when the Alien is constantly hounding your every move and you can no longer rely purely on wits to survive through hiding or distractions; flame-based attacks come in short supply with only molotov cocktails and a flamethrower for defence against the Xenomorph, given that it is entirely immune to all other weaponry. The various hostile androids and humans roaming the halls of the station do serve to justify your hunt for ammunition to fuel your more conventional weapons, though if you play your cards right you can avoid most engagements entirely through stealth and careful movements - again though, this strategy quickly flies out the window in the last third of the game. Overall, however, that really is the name of the game here - strategy. Outside of a few scripted encounters and patrol routes, the Alien AI is entirely unpredictable and as such you will have to adapt a plan on the fly; you cannot simply run from it as it is both faster than you and will spot you immediately, while fighting it is only a temporary solution at best as you are incapable of killing it outright. For the vast majority of the game, you lack the tools even to save yourself once it catches sight of you, and even the security offered by a flamethrower is mediocre at best seeing as the Alien can easily catch you off guard and launch a surprise attack before you can react.

Seeing as some ceiling vents you move past have noticeable drool dripping from their open maws while running even for a second will draw the attention of all nearby enemies - particularly the Alien - you need to move with caution at a steady pace at all times, save for those moments where haste is both encouraged and necessary. Even when aliens are sounding everywhere and the area you are in is flooded with smoke, flashing lights and other distressing signs, you still need to be wary of the Alien's presence; your first instinct in those circumstances is to run, but doing so means certain death. However, hiding for an extended amount of time will not only lead to increasing dread and chance of hasty action on the part of the player, but it also increases the aggressiveness of the Alien - the more you linger, the more it hunts. Using your motion tracker (acquired early in the game) to spot its' presence can often be your downfall, as using it in close proximity of the Alien will often lead to it rapidly encroaching on your position and ripping you out of your hiding spot with a brutally punishing death animation to follow. In fact, using the motion tracker too much will often attract its' attention even if it is hiding in the upper vents, meaning that progressing through the more difficult sections of the game requires very rare glances at your trusty tool if you want to outsmart the Alien. Some sections - such as a detour through a huge medical wing - that feature just you and the Xenomorph are among the game's most tense and frightening, resulting in what ultimately boils down to a game of cat and mouse like no other.

Make no mistake here, you are prey to the Alien and once it grabs you the game is over, forcing you to restart from your most recent save spot - and these are often quite spread out. These encounters often devolve into planning your actions around guesswork and hope rather than any solid, consistent strategy, seeing as the Xenomorph is designed to be random and is even capable of outsmarting you. More than a few times I was hiding in a vent but alerted the Alien as to my general location by using my motion tracker; I would watch with baited breath as it explored the area, even being forced to hold my breath (by holding down a button) while it sniffed at the closet I occupied. As it exited the area, I spent roughly ten seconds weighing up whether to exit the closet or not, and then the Alien suddenly burst into action by running back into the room and looking around expectantly; the devil knew I was still in the area and guessed that I might leave my closet seeing as it had apparently left the area and moved on. It is examples like these that really emphasize how expertly crafted Alien: Isolation is, and why being patient and knowing your environment are paramount - once you learn to discern the noises the Xenomorph makes when it leaps into a vent and makes its way to another area, you will know that is your best chance to move once more.

It helps too that the Alien is not the only threat you face on the Sevastopol Station which greatly reduces the chances of the game becoming stale for your average gamer, with numerous humans and android workers potentially proving docile or hostile depending on the situation. While most humans will try to avoid you and go about their own business by hiding from the Xenomorph, many will shoot you as soon as you get to close; their aural warnings are all the indication you get that they are about to open fire. On the flip side, fighting against the androids is downright disturbing as they steadily advance to your position with their devilish glowing red eyes, stalking you over a great distance until they finally grab hold of you and perform any number of actions such as ripping your throat out or beating you to death. The gunplay in this game works fine in this regard with the humans being mostly a challenge to fight through, especially seeing as supplies to heal yourself or keep your guns firing are decidedly rare as with everything else in the game. The guns feel as they should and the controls work fine, with the shakiness and reliance on careful precision under great duress - particularly if more than one android advances towards you - serving as a callback to Naughty Dogs' The Last of Us. I realize that some players may find this either strange or frustrating given how we have all adapted to the modern shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield, but I quite like this type of shooting control in the context of a survival horror game where you can easily imagine your character (or yourself) panicking and struggling to hit a target regularly.

I also found no real complaint with the hacking mini-games that serve as a nice little diversion from all the gunning and hiding, seeing as performing them in real-time and making them necessary to progression is yet another tool to heighten the tension as it is entirely possible an enemy can spot and kill you while you continue your work. The game controls well and even earns a few mentions as a strategy game as you really need to adapt your tactics on the fly or fail at nearly every step, while it is challenging enough that even gamers just trying to push through it on Easy mode will still have to contend with the "one-hit-wonder" that is the Xenomorph. Everything feels right when you look at it under a scope searching for terror and other such delights, with a crafting system that is performed entirely in real-time leaving you vulnerable to attack as you make new weapons to defend yourself with, while the many tools at your disposal serve only as deterrents to the titular monster rather than an easy way out. It is a joy to play in the sense that you will constantly be forced to evaluate your surroundings, and any game that pushes you to action through the threat of a monster incursion alone deserves applause. There is little doubt in my mind that Creative Assembly have not only managed to craft a passionate and loving tale that displays its' inspiration openly, but also one that is expertly designed and furthers their standing as masters of mechanics just as much as they are faultless in their presentation.


While Alien: Isolation certainly isn't a technical masterpiece that can really show off what the next-generation consoles and modern personal computers (PC's) are capable of, it nonetheless is arguably one of the best looking games of the year in respect to its' survival horror classification. The design of the Alien is reverent to H.R. Giger's original with the sinuous limbs, hulking frame and barely visible human skull present behind its membranous skin layers of the phallic-shaped head. All of the various computers and technology are in the classic CRT styling, adding to the gritty and clunky aesthetics of the future Scott's Alien universe imagines. The Sevastopol bears a striking similarity to the derelict hulk originally towed by the Nostromo in the original film, while a flashback scene deep into the story provides you with a mesmerizing glimpse of one of the most famous locales in the film series. In the visuals alone, Alien: Isolation stamps itself as the most faithful video game adaption of the year and possibly for the past decade as well, while the technology powering it is still impressive enough to warrant heavy appreciation. A key element of any horror game is the lighting and this is where Isolation delivers in spades; even the innocence of a brightly lit hallway is still ruptured by shadow in the many nooks and crannies, while the juxtaposition of an android's burning red eyes against its barren, ugly frame makes it all the more frightening as it slowly advances toward you with intent to kill.

About the only real complaint I have with the game in this regard is that cut-scenes feature very noticeable slow-down while character models have seemingly absent lip-sync during gameplay, though these issues are decidedly minor next to how stunningly realistic it is in its' virtual portrayal of the Alien live-action movie. There are some incredible set-pieces and backgrounds that help to break up the lavishly detailed interiors of the Sevastopol space station, including but not limited to numerous hellish "space walks" across the hull of the Sevastopol, or a detour into its' unstable reactor core where only the numerous electric surges give you the visibility to advance towards your next objective. This game succeeds in the attention to detail and truly this is no more evident than in its' numerous callbacks to Alien, where you can randomly stumble upon the original and grossly slain host of the Xenomorph or find a man who has seemingly been smothered by an android brutally shoving a newspaper down his throat (a fate Ash tried to inflict on Ripley). Heck, the 20th Century Fox logo displayed before the game begins is done in a style that evokes the 1970's or the "classic" era, with noticeable film grain and even distorted audio to sell the image. While I wouldn't use this game to show off your new television or monitor based on technical specifications, it is supremely appealing visually because of its unified art direction and endless homage to Alien, while creating a world just begging to be explored to find all the gruesome yet alluring details. The shifting of dust as the Alien makes its way through the vents or the pool of drool that forms beneath an opening that it stealthily inhabits are but a few of the many visual cues the game offers to the player as a sign of the Xenomorph's deadly intent. If selling your viewer on the concept of a terrifying monster requires a perceivable aura of fear and dread, Alien: Isolation succeeds where many adaptions have failed in the past. 


If there is one element to a horror game that you must get right - as a developer, an author or whatever profession you choose - it is the sound design and music, especially in regards to the primary antagonistic force. In the case of Alien: Isolation, these are some heavy shoes to fill when you consider the masterpiece it tries desperately to mimic. Alien is considered one of the best suspense horror movies in film history not just for the design of the Xenomorph or its many other defining traits, but because the music and audio cues perfectly convey the growing dread and sense of loneliness - of isolation - presented by being trapped on a spaceship with a remorseless predator. I am glad to report that this is one aspect of the game that succeeds almost flawlessly with respect to the many differing views of reviewers, even though the voice acting is somewhat flat and dull in contrast. While primary protagonist Amanda constantly provides aural feedback for the player in the form of convincing screams, grunts and desperate snatches for air when struggling to hold her breath, most of the other voice actors fail to really convey the emotion evident in the characters' current predicament. When a particular lady is forced to work against time to avert a potentially devastating explosion, the dialogue suggests a break-down in composure but the voice-acting suggests a level of control that doesn't really fit the present action. Similar examples are rife throughout the game, but I feel I must address just why I cannot let voice-acting alone drag this part of the game down - especially as the actors do a fine if uninspiring job rather than a particularly bad one.

The Alien itself is characterized by numerous unique audio cues indicating its' current actions to give particularly attentive players some clue as to its' location or intent if they can't sight it at any given point. The sounds emitted by the Alien are almost distractingly loud compared to other background noises including the music, distinguishing its' presence and highlighting how effortlessly a Xenomorph adapts to and dominates its' surrounding environment. Where a low hiss might indicate it caught a fleeting glimpse of the player, a distinct growl often means it is losing interest in the present situation. If you hear a distinctly feminine scream, you will know your life is about to end, while the low rumbling of its' breath could be the only warning you have that it is about to emerge from a nearby opening. If that wasn't frightening enough, the noise the Alien generates when it is either stalking the halls or crawling through the vents isn't easily discernible if you have a lot of background noise (I recommend playing this game at night in a quiet area for this very reason) meaning you will often struggle to determine whether it is an active threat at any given moment. The more frightening sections of the game often take place in an area where alarms are setting off everywhere, various fires and equipment rolling across the ground provide ample distraction, lights flash frequently and the sounds of the Alien can only barely be heard amidst all the "traffic" - Ellen Ripley's final minutes aboard the Nostromo seem disturbingly tame by comparison.

Without spoiling one of the many major twists the game offers, diving into a truly horrifying area late in the game provides all the disturbing aural evocation you could possibly imagine, with the muffled cries of humans, twitching of half-eaten bodies, distant screams for help and completely alien "speaking" are more than enough to lead myself and other players to outright reject continuing the story. The musical cues to accompany the various events in the game - whether random or scripted - are delightfully frightening and stark against the otherwise mostly silent background; I often found myself jumping from my chair in fright once a far-away Android pierced the darkness to locate my small frame. The developers knew exactly how to exacerbate a players' distress at any given moment based on my experience, and using many of the iconic tracks from Alien only helps to sell the terror; the game's main menu not only effortlessly captures the powerlessness or insignificance of humans against nature (the tiny frame of the otherwise gargantuan Sevastopol against the nearby gas giant) but also plays alongside the very first song featured in Alien. Much like the game's visual style, while one could probably find legitimate technical criticism to levy against Alien: Isolation's audio design, it seamlessly and immediately immerses a player into the illusion that they are safe - truly, in space, no one can hear you scream.


My time with Alien: Isolation reminded me why Creative Assembly should really be held to far greater standards for their Total War series in regards to bug-fixing and functionality, as Alien: Isolation is proof that they do have quality control and the capability to release mostly-working games. If only the original Rome II: Total War release enjoyed the level of testing Isolation obviously went through, as the latter game is about as stable as you could possibly want from a survival horror game where immersion - and making sure not to break that immersion - are paramount above all. However, I did run into a few bugs, including one that forced me to restart the game entirely - this was due to a visual glitch where random surfaces in the game were displaying only as a flat black texture with no detail. At some points the collision detection can fail with character models - noticeably the Alien itself - clipping into walls or nearby objects, though thankfully such occurrences are extremely rare. The AI can sometimes fail to recognize you when you are standing in close proximity to it in full view, but this seemingly is intentional - my theory is that the Alien itself lacks peripheral vision due to its' "eyes" nesting within the barely visible "skull", though obviously this raises the question if Xenomorphs even have traditional vision (the way it reacts to you standing up would indicate it can see to some degree). Overall though, in my thirty plus hours with Alien: Isolation I encountered an average of one glitch or bug every ten hours or so, meaning I could enjoy tearing my hair out in fright without interruption.


An issue some reviewers often take with survival horror titles is that they don't offer enough content to keep players interested for more than a few hours per sitting, whether through lack of diversity or simply little maximum game length. This has as much to do with the genre typically being the domain of independent developers with smaller budgets (that deliver amazing games in small doses) or the core issue that keeping the target audience on the edge of their seat for more than a few hours proves quite difficult, as many filmmakers will no doubt indicate. It is thus that Alien: Isolation stands in direct contrast to most other entries in the genre, providing a minimum twenty hour long game if one covers only the primary campaign, meaning an extra three to five hours can be spent on the various challenges and secondary campaigns - such as a dive into the original Alien film with many of the old cast reprising their roles - outside of the main offering. While this does mean that a fair number of locales are repeated, it is never to the same offending degree as Dragon Age II - successful horror is all about immersing the audience in the experience and creating a believable and constant area in the form of Sevastopol Station helps to sell the fiction better than almost anything else. It makes your various actions and those of the Xenomorph seem tangible with potentially far-reaching consequences, while re-treading previous areas of interest can often lead to some shudders as the player remembers what obstacles - living or not - they had to previously overcome, furthering the already high tension.

Though more than a few reviewers have criticized what seems like an excessive campaign length, I personally feel this is yet another intentional nod to Alien; suspense horror is the name of the game (and the movie) and the sacrifices made with respect to action sequences epitomize this. There are long stretches of the game - particularly the opening chapter - where you don't have to worry about any enemy entanglements or strike conversations with the various supporting characters littered throughout the story, and while many might find these boring or wasteful I personally feel they merely help to serve the suspense. Aside from a few moments where you know the Alien has been "neutralized" or is otherwise preoccupied, every area is designed with numerous potential openings that the Xenomorph can exploit, keeping you on edge no matter how safe you actually are. Of course, one could boil the game's formula down to "move forward, hide from Alien, shoot human/android, hide from Alien, repeat" but I find such complaints trivial when the enemy AI, multiple paths through missions and seemingly utterly random Alien serve to spice up and diversify the experience between players.

This is a game that rewards patience - through safety - as much as it does constant action - the Alien becomes more aggressive the more you remain stationary - and as such you will likely find your experience in any given area to be wildly distinct from that of another player, and this is a key strength of Alien: Isolation. Even though most survival horror games would fail to scare the audience over such a huge wealth of time, I always found myself just waiting to be frightened again and again because the game is constantly tense and nails the suspenseful nature of the classic film - and Creative Assembly never failed in this regard, to my great pleasure (or displeasure, if you ask my pants). The game has some fair replay value with a long list of collectibles scattered throughout the Sevastopol as well as the chance to relive some of the more iconic encounters with the Alien by using different methods, while exploring more of the locations you often feel pressed to ignore by the chance of death waiting around every corner. Ultimately though, this is a gargantuan video game - a feat made all the more impressive by its' classification - and I would argue that every gamer will get their money's worth out of it, regardless of whether they are a fan of the movies or are merely looking for a good scare around Halloween.

Final Score

The final score for Alien: Isolation is a 47/50, or a 94/100, or a 9.4/10. In this reviewers' humble opinion, Alien: Isolation is not only easily the most faithful video game adaption of recent years, it sets a new high standard for survival horror games backed by its incredible production values and mastery of suspense - frighteningly alike to Ridley Scott's timeless classic. Even if you aren't a dedicated fan of the immensely successful Alien movie franchise, Isolation provides all that you could want in a survival horror game; if you aren't playing the ultimate match of cat and mouse, you will be frantically trying to defend yourself from disturbing androids and equally desperate humans. The levels are large and generally quite open with the intelligent AI breathing a sense of life into the otherwise largely deserted halls bereft of sanity and hope, while the visuals and audio perfectly evoke the terror audiences felt when viewing the original Alien. Knowing that death potentially awaits you around every corner but is as likely to avoid you as it is to actively pursue you means the player is always on the edge of their seat, bathed in waves of tension and fear as the ultimate hunter stalks your every move. This is the Alien game we have all been waiting for, and it is a credit to Creative Assembly that they have managed to do justice to the unstoppable Xenomorph in a way many other developers with lengthy accolades have all failed to accomplish. I hope that Alien: Isolation survives in the minds of gamers and developers everywhere as an example of how to perfect a genre, for certainly it deserves at least some of the praise of its' forerunner and primary inspiration.

The scoring system explained earlier is divided into 10 rating based on a game's score out of 100 (or 10). This is the key used for each of these 10 ratings.

1 - Horrible, do not purchase.
2 - Pathetic, nothing to really recommend it.
3 - Awful, one or two good things.
4 - Sub-par, a few redeeming qualities.
5 - Mediocre, not terrible but not good.
6 - Average, thoroughly ok and nothing else.
7 - Good, some issues but mostly recommendable.
8 - Great, a high quality purchase.
9 - Fantastic, recommended for all.
10 - Perfect, does everything right.

I want to thank you all so much for reading this latest video game review, and express my gratitude to each and every one of you that has supported me over the past few years. Your feedback and acceptance have been revelatory to me and I hope I can continue to provide you with great content for as long as I can still put pen to paper - or finger-tips to keyboards, anyway! As a massive fan of the original Alien move myself, Isolation is quite easily my favorite ever survival horror game and definitely ranks among my game of the year contenders. Never has there been a video game adaption as faithful as this, and Creative Assembly deserve enormous plaudits based on that particular success alone. As terrifying and nerve-wracking as it was, any stress I felt throughout Alien: Isolation was purely based on fear rather than actually taking issue with the game's quality; truly, this is the mark of a great game and one that I love dearly. While I dread to return to Sevastopol Station's endless maze of death and conspiracy, I know I won't be able to resist its' allure for long - truly, failure has never been as satisfying than to be seductively slain by the infamous Xenomorph. This is Learn2Eel, last survivor of the Sevastopol, signing off.

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