A kingdom of isolation, and it looks like you're the Queen
Never in the history of gaming have I been hurt so bad by a game as I was with Aliens: Colonial Marines. It looked like the exact game I always wanted, even right up to seeing that infamous demo (which I wrote a preview for), and then the game came out and my dreams went up in smoke (and mirrors). SEGA now has to pull something major to make me start caring about the Aliens franchise again. Dropping the 's', making one single unkillable Xenomorph, and putting it in a first-person stealth/survival horror title? That'll do nicely, even if developer Creative Assembly are entirely known for RTS'. Oh well, Monolith are mostly FPS developers and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was a cracking third-person Batman-em-up, so I'm prepared to give CA a chance.
Alien Isolation is set 15 years after the original Alien, so about 40 years before the events of Aliens, and no one quite knows what happened to Ellen Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo. Her daughter Amanda signs up with a group from the Weyland-Yutani company to visit the space station Sevastopol after they receive a report that the Nostromo's flight recorder has been found. Unfortunately things aren't going too good on the station, and after being cut off from their ship Ripley, Company agent Taylor and "synthetic human" android Samuels soon discover the reason: there's an Alien loose on the station, and no one has the firepower to stop it.
Amanda Ripley, looking all serious. Probably because she doesn't have a cat
The story is actually pretty damn good, at least for gameplay purposes. There are a few surprises, some you'll see coming a mile off and some you won't, but the writing and dialogue is of a very entertaining standard. I particularly like the introduction of rival corporation Seegson, who make cheaper low-quality androids and are generally so incompetent they can't even spell their own name right (they were originally known as "Sieg and Son", but somehow lost an 'i' when they changed it to Seegson). It's nice to have an Alien game where Weyland-Yutani isn't causing every problem, but of course they do have a presence... no spoilers folks. I can tell you there's a great playable flashback scene though, which not only adequately explains why there's an Alien around but also ties up a lingering question from Aliens (why did it take so long to find the Engineer ship again?).
The biggest delight for me actually came in the form of the design, and I'm not talking the intensely lovely graphics. Creative Assembly went with the decision to create a world styled on the "1970s Future" that Alien had, and it's a superb choice. Clunky computers with vector graphics, drinking birds and toy robots, boom-boxes, even the odd box of cassette tapes lying around. Furthermore exploring Sevastopol itself is very reminiscent of System Shock (or for newer babes, Bioshock or Dead Space), with the creepy abandoned space station, dead bodies scattered around, warnings graffitied on the wall, and audio/text logs to discover that fill in the backstory. The robots that politely ask "how can I help you?" as they try to murder you are pulled straight from System Shock 2. I love it.
And then we get to the Alien - and indeed, the gameplay of Isolation. This isn't a first-person-shooter or even a survival horror, it's a stealth survival game. Furthermore always remember you're not the predator, you're the prey. This really is a game unlike any other. Whereas in most stealth or survival horror titles you have some advantage over your opponents, whether in terms of movement, hiding skills, or just being a lot more intelligent than the dumbos you're facing. In Isolation though the Alien has every advantage. It cannot be killed. It's faster than you at every pace. It's got a better sense of where you are than you do of it. It's smart, far too smart - hide in one place too long and it'll find you, and distracting it with a flare might work the first time but eventually it'll look for who threw it instead of the flare.
Oh f**k oh f**k oh f**k oh f**k oh f**k
Perhaps most impressively it's unpredictable. It hasn't got a set pattern to learn, sometimes it won't go in a room and other times it'll explore it thoroughly, then just when you think it's gone away it'll jump out of a vent right in front of you. Several times in the game I thought I was safe, sometimes in a section I'd played several times, and it suddenly appeared - or I simply hadn't noticed the slimy drool pouring out of a hole in the ceiling, walked under it, and got my head bitten off. Facing the Alien is an utterly nerve-shredding experience, because you never know how it's going to go and if it spots you then you're dead. It's an unforgettable experience facing it, and the pounding of its footsteps have honestly been haunting my dreams.
Of course it's not the only enemy you'll face on Sevastopol. Looters, rebelling security officers, and several varieties of crazed androids also make life difficult. Unlike the Alien these guys can be killed, and there are a variety of guns and craftable devices (like Molotovs, Flashbangs, and Noisemakers) to help against them. Make no mistake though, this isn't a shooter. You'll only have a small amount of ammo and have to aim carefully, especially when it comes to the stronger androids, and most of the time it's better to try and avoid combat as it's generally discouraged. A single gunshot will bring the Alien straight down to you, although you can use that fact to humorous effect if any looter tries to shoot at you.
These moments provide good variety to the gameplay, and while nowhere near as buttock-clenching as an Alien close encounter they do help to pace things out. There is a lot of game here, about 15-20 hours' worth depending on how many times you die, and most of it is great. That said there is definitely some unnecessary padding in there. You'll visit some rooms multiple times, and one time I arrived at a T-junction where my objective was down the Left corridor but I was forced to go Right through some empty rooms just to flick a switch. The game's already a decent length so I don't know why Creative Assembly felt the need to bog the fun stuff down with a bit of pointless fluff. Nevertheless, the vast majority of play-time is awesome.
Great, now I have survivor's guilt. Oh well, c'est la vie
I do have things to mention though that annoyed me while playing. Nothing critical, but frustrating. The save system for starters is utter bollocks. There's the occasional rare Autosave but primarily you have to save at manual checkpoints that take too long and are badly spaced out - either you'll see loads or not enough. Objectives are sometimes unclear, and when you're facing an eight-foot-tall space monster the last thing you want is poor waypointing or the sudden requirement of an item you didn't know you needed. While the Alien is wonderful and the androids are creepy, the humans, both friendly and antagonistic, are rubbish. They're stupid, they have poor lip-synching, they get in the way, and they're not that believable. Finally I don't like the way that using something pins you to it, so that if you're looting a body or examining a computer there's no quick way to get off it - which is deadly in a game like this.
ALIEN: ISOLATION VERDICT
All these are just minor things however, and while they did drag the score down from the hallowed 9s they don’t stop Alien Isolation from being a superb game and quite possibly the best Alien game ever (although Monolith’s Aliens Vs Predator 2 comes close). At the very least SEGA have redeemed themselves and the franchise. Alien Isolation is a nerve-wrecking, stomach-twisting, bowel-moving, edge-of-your-seat experience and is unlike every other game out there. Now this is true “survival horror”.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Coming face to face with the Alien for the first time, which happens later than you’d expect…