“I’m putting tinfoil up on the windows
Lying down in the dark to dream
I don’t want to see their faces
I don’t want to hear them scream.” –Warren Zevon
There’s been a disappointing lack of hype for this new Alien game. Maybe it’s the bad taste of Colonial Marines still in the mouths of franchise fans, or maybe people just don’t believe that it’s possible to make a video game that truly captures the spirit of a tense cinema classic. Believe the hype (or lack thereof, I suppose), horror fans. Alien: Isolation is the real deal and possibly the shape of things to come in horror gaming.
But I’ve not come here to offer up a glowing review like so many critics have. Reviews are so passé. This is Gamemoir and rather than chalk up all of the game’s pluses (great gameplay/graphics/nostalgic detail!) and minuses (bugs/loading screens/lame ending) or list gameplay modes I’d rather discuss the thing that makes this game so much more than the Bioshock clone it may appear to be. The thing that goes bump in the air ducts and keeps you silently praying to whatever in-game deity you depend on to keep you safe and turn its attention somewhere else: that wild and wacky titular bastard of a xenomorph.
One thing that this game does and does extremely well is atmosphere. It learned its lessons from the first two films that the longer the build-up, the more satisfying (and terrifying) the reveal, especially when you already know what’s coming. Amanda Ripley’s initial few hours stranded on the massive ruined space station Sevastopol exploring the dark corridors littered in graffiti where violent, paranoid looters roam and open fire on anything that moves are intense. The loneliness and desperation are palpable as she searches for a trace of her mother’s fate and for some way to contact her ship and get off of this anarchic, decaying heap. It’s already a psychologically effective horror title from the get-go. And just knowing that one of the most classic monsters in the history of fiction is out there waiting for you somewhere makes every unexplained sound sinister.
The first time you encounter the Alien is scripted and you’ll see it coming from a mile away. But beyond that, anything can happen. As a pulse-pounding soundtrack kicks in for the first time since arrival, you have to make your way to a commute system and wait for the tram to arrive. And it takes its long, noisy time. Meanwhile, unknown to the player, the xenomorph is now off of its leash. Up to this point in the game, you’ve been free to sprint around like any other game. But now when you run, you make noise. And something is listening.
The transport arrived as I crouched behind cover some distance away, peaking out and certain from the intensity of the music and racket of the tram’s arrival that the Alien must be closing in. When the doors opened, I dashed from my cover into the car and began frantically looking for the button to get me out of there. I heard a horrifying screech followed by rapid footsteps and turned around just in time to see this:
In space, no one can hear you scream. But I was in my room. Thank God my wife had her earbuds in because she startles easily and is not used to the sound of her horror-addict husband being audibly terrified by a video game. On my second try the tram arrived, the doors opened, and I slowly/carefully made my way in and found the switch to get going without further incident. Lesson learned. From here on, it was crouchwalk city.
The game does not script most of your Alien encounters. It simply gives you tasks to complete, populates your world with a spattering of (mostly) hostile humans, creepy low-rent androids with a polite murderous streak, and a relentless invincible predator that does what it wants, when it wants. The Alien is run by an AI that not only reacts to what you are doing, but has a mind of its own. It’s unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. And yes, I admire its purity.
Sometimes the xenomorph doesn’t even rear its ugly head for hours at a time. If you’re quiet, that is. Sometimes, you may deliberately bring it out with an improvised flashbang or other noisy device when a group of looters stands in your way and you’d rather pick their corpses clean after watching the monster shred them one by one than try to sneak past them and risk a noisy firefight. Just remember what a double-edged sword is. Once you unleash the beast, you don’t know what it’s going to do and there’s no guaranteed way to avoid it.
Even during those stretches when the Alien doesn’t appear, it colors your every action and thought. You can hear it in the ducts. You might see it following you on your motion tracker. You may think that as long as you walk around with the tracker in front of your face, you’ll know what to expect. But then it’ll be awfully easy not to see the slime dripping down from that vent opening above you and find yourself pulled up into a well-placed ambush.
Or maybe it’s cornered you in a room and you’re hiding inside of a locker peering out of the tiny slits trying to see if it’s still there, straining your ears for the sound of footsteps. You take out your motion tracker and hear a rapid beeping. So does the monster that’s been standing right next to you, out of sight, waiting for you to do something stupid.
Sometimes, you even have to hold Amanda’s breath to avoid being heard and watch her health dwindle away while you wait for the creature to move on. If this all sounds like it’s unforgiving and hard as hell, you’ve been listening. Alien: Isolation is not a game that cares about making anything easy on you. This title will put you through the hell Amanda Ripley is experiencing. But it’s a fair kind of hell. Every single death was either the kind of bad luck one could expect a woman stranded on a decommissioned post-apocalypse microcosm of a space station slowly falling into a gas giant to encounter, or my own damn fault. You need stealth skills, savvy, and a little bit of luck at times to get to the end of this game, but it feels like a true accomplishment when you do.
There’s one particularly trying sequence that I would estimate took me about 4 hours to beat. If one were to play this mission flawlessly, I suspect it would take about five minutes or so. I can’t lie to you about your chances….but you have my sympathy. I died more times than I could even begin to count, but it was also the best sequence in the game; one nightmare after another. Finding your way through the Medbay with the Alien in full prowl mode, a crew of trigger-happy looters randomly wandering about, and some killer androids thrown in for good measure is a lot to take. Especially when you find out the hard way that the rogue strangle-happy robots and the horrific rape-monster from outer space get along just fine with each other.
In case this hasn’t been made clear, if the Alien lays eyes on you for most of the game, you are just dead. All you can do when it decides to investigate a noise or if it just feels like stretching its legs is hide and hope. Hope it goes away, hope it doesn’t look in your direction, hope it decides to stop wandering around the exact freaking corridor you need to pass through and finds a route to an exit that won’t take it right to you. There are a number of devices like flares and noisemakers you can use to lure it in a direction of your choosing for a moment provided you can clear enough distance to use them without exposing yourself, but once it loses interest in your distraction, there’s nothing to stop it from hauling ass right to where you’re slowly and quietly creeping away to on a whim.
All of this adds up to an immense amount of sustained tension. I’ve never played anything like this game. For all of its legitimate annoyances, Alien: Isolation is as much a landmark masterpiece of video game horror as the original film was for horror movies. They’ve both got aspects that could have been handled better, but for their respective times, they are both classics.
Ridley Scott’s vision of a dirty, run-down, dystopian post-space age and a woman’s struggle against an organism of potentially apocalyptic proportions changed the feel of sci-fi horror forever and I get the feeling that Creative Assembly’s homage to that movie and their use of a near-constant artificially intelligent threat could potentially change the way developers approach survival horror in the future. This is an experiment that really panned out in my opinion.
Moments like the triumph of the first time you light your extraterrestrial antagonist up with a flamethrower and see it retreat from you for a change, and the second time where you bring it to bear and the Alien recognizes it and backs away with a cringe are amazing. Watching the xenomorph stalk you and test you as you confront it with the one thing it fears, all too aware of how limited your fuel is is something unlike anything else I’ve experienced in a video game.
It’s not too often games these days show you something you’ve never seen before, and Alien: Isolation does it more than once with its exceptional creature AI. Blended with one of the best virtual environments I’ve ever experienced, the end result is that this game makes you scared and paranoid; it makes you think on your feet and improvise, it makes you learn from your mistakes, it forces you make the most out of everything you can lay hands on, and it challenges you relentlessly without ever making you feel that you can’t win. Basically, it’s a template for the perfect survival horror game. If that sounds like something that may interest you, I’ve got to recommend you stock up on valium and give this game a shot.