There’s a quote from one of my old White Wolf books – I think Richard Dansky wrote it in Wraith:The Oblivion – that goes like this:
“The other aspect of horror is its sense of finality and the inability of a character to change it. If terror is the moment when the monster charges down the hall, horror is the instant you discover your feet are rooted to the spot.”
Everyone who’s seen Ridley Scott’s Alien remembers the scene where Lambert is cornered by the Alien. Yaphet Kotto’s Parker is yelling at her to get out of the way so that he could use his Flamethrower, but she replies, crying..”I can’t!” I always thought that all she had to do was just kind of jump down and crawl or roll and then Parker could blast the damn thing. The movie would end. There’d be a gaping hole of acid in the Nostromo, but our heroes would get in the lifeboat and leave.
And yet, in playing Sega and Creative Assembly’s “Alien Isolation”, I found myself in almost the exact same position, huddled inside of a locker minutes after being introduced in the Alien and utterly terrified to move. Even worse, I’ve had situations where it appeared and I’m frozen in place, completely drawing a blank on my next move. I owe both Brett and Lambert an apology, rest their characters souls.
In the game you play Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley in the Alien films. In the special edition of James Cameron’s Aliens, there’s a brief scene between Burke and Ellen Ripley mentioning her daughter. For you trivia fans, the image used in that film was actually Sigourney Weaver’s actual mother. Anyway, It’s been 15 years since the disappearance of the Nostromo and Amanda is searching for any kind of clue that will help her find her mother or find out what happened to her. Supposedly, the flight recorder for the Nostromo was recovered and taken to Sevastopol station, a ship of roughly the same size. Basically, it’s a starship the size of Hogwarts. After finding herself separated from her crew, she has to both get her answers and find her way out of the station.
Easier said than done, of course. This game knows no mercy, even on it’s easiest setting.
The lighting effects are wonderful in next gen (especially PC). That molotov will only make the Alien mad.
The first rule of Alien Isolation is knowing that there are no safe places. Where most games have mechanics that allow you to take a breather to gear up and plan ahead or pause to get out the right weapon, Isolation will keep flowing as you take action. In Metal Gear, your game pauses when you use your backpack to look through your weapons. In Resident Evil (at least the earlier renditions), you had areas that were designated Save Rooms, places where the monsters couldn’t get at you. Alien Isolation does just the opposite. Unless you’re checking your map for your next location, the game doesn’t pause. I’ve died while reading information on a workstation. I’ve died while rewiring a door. I’ve even died while putting myself in a locker and walking away from the console for food. It’s a strange kind of game design that forces you to keep one eye on what you’re doing and the other scouting around you to make sure you’re not being stalked. You essentially become a meerkat, poking its head up and going..”Did you hear something?”
And the sound is downright fantastic, especially where the Alien is involved. This is where the true horror lies. Anyone who is familiar with the Alien franchise knows what a Xenomorph looks like. We’ve seen so many of them over the years that they’ve lost that fear factor. The horror doesn’t come from having it charge you, but knowing how close it can be before everything gets to that point. There are tons of playthrough videos out there, and it’s great to see the reactions of players as they navigate this. If I worked at Creative Assembly, I’d chuckle at some of them with pride.
Case in Point: In one area, I open a door to a hallway. It’s clear, but I hear something behind me, causing me to duck behind some boxes. Taking out a noisemaker, I figure I can throw the noisemaker out the way I came (before the door closes) and quickly make my way towards my objective. As I slowly step backwards and to my left ready to pull a Romo-like pass, I just happen to turn to look at the direction I need to go.
The Alien is right there in that entraceway, standing at full height and is peering into the room behind me. There’s a collective “Holy shit!” from everyone in the room I’m in, and I freeze. It must have shot up a vent and came down a vent behind me somewhere. The Xenomorph doesn’t see me, and goes into the room it was looking at. This frees me to make my way down the hallway I need to travel, leaving a trail of fresh urine in my wake.
Heavy footsteps echo in the dark, and when it moves from the ground to the vents, there’s a distinct difference. The game begs to be played either on an extreme surround sound system or noise canceling headphones. If you even more courageous, you can enable your Xbox’s Kinect or PS3/4’s Camera – the microphone in both will pick up the sounds of your room. So, if you’re hiding in a locker with the Xenomorph outside and a friend yells out…”Are we ordering Chinese tonight?!”, the Alien will assume you’re a tender morsel dipped in duck sauce and take you out.
From a control standpoint, Alien Isolation is simple enough that you might not forget what to do when in a panic. For the more complex acts, like lighting a flare and throwing it, you’re given on screen instructions to help you follow through. This becomes a hit or miss at first. While you’re learning that action, there’s always a chance you’ll find yourself under attack by the Xenomorph. A training room feature would be nice here, but at the same time, you’re figuring out what to do with these items just as Ripley does. You’ll find yourself scouting safe areas (and by this, I mean under a table somewhere for a minute) ahead of time to craft different items out of the spare parts you find. At your disposal are flares, medkits, EMP’s, Noisemakers, Smoke Bombs, and more. Of course, before these items can be made, you’ll have to search around for the actual blueprints (which can be anywhere). The game will thankfully teach you how to use items as you get them (if you pay attention). Eventually, you’ll get Molotovs and Flamethrowers, but the Alien understands the nature of fire. To quote Newt, “It won’t make any difference.”
As Ripley turned the corner for a bite to eat from the lunchroom, she suddenly lost her appetite.
Saving the game can also be a nuisance at times. Rather than having an autosave, the system incorporates the added task of having to find Save Stations disguised as phone booths to save your progress. Just as with everything else, you have the ability to die if any enemy happens to be near. It can become annoying if you’re in an area where you have a large task and find yourself all the way back at previous place once you die. It’s a drawback, indeed, but it also inspires the player (or it did for me anyway) to treat these stations like an oasis in the middle of a long stretch of desert. You’d think you were playing Ninja Gaiden sometimes, without all the flipping.
Navigating Sevestopol is done in a Metroid / Metal Gear like fashion. Basically, some areas will be locked to you without the right tool. Once you find it (be a blowtorch or a wrench), you can come back to that area. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about this just yet. It’s not exactly linear in that sense, but at the same time, I stopped playing Metroid Prime for almost the same reason. If it works for you, you’ll love it. If not, you might find yourself groaning in agony. If you’re lost, your handy Motion Tracker will help you find your nearest objective by way of a marker on the outside of your display.
Even in Space, the Alien can hear that beep. Put that Motion Tracker away if you have it in your line of sight. Note the marker on the outer edge telling you where to go.
Alien Isolation is slow. I mean………slow. Not in the story so much, but in the movement. You’ll want to run from point A to Point B, but with the enemies around, you’ll will sneak around for nearly the entire duration of the game (from what I’ve played so far). Don’t even bother sprinting, especially on the hardest difficulty. If you feel you’ve enough patience to play the game in this fashion, it’s a treat. If you’re hoping for something more Splinter Cell / Metal Gear like in that you’re stalking prey, it’s not happening here. Alien Isolation may have On Site Procurement of weapons, but you’ll find these are to be used sparingly, either due to the lack of ammunition / fuel, or from the echoing boom from firing the weapons. In using them you’re indirectly screaming “Hey! I’m right here on the southwest corner of the 3rd floor, kill me now! Do it!! I’m Here!!”
There are other threats on Sevastopol. You have the remaining humans on board who are just trying to survive, synthetics that can swarm you (like Bishop or Ash but not as technologically advanced), but these are enemies that can be defeated depending on what you have on you, and even then, they’re formidable. The Xenomorph, however is an 8 foot beast who delivers a one hit kill to you every time. Its presence will have you hiding in a locker frantically checking your motion tracker – but note that even enemies can sometimes hear the beep coming from it. You may even contemplate how long it’ll take for you to adjust to living in said locker for the rest of your days. According to Creative Assembly, the Alien was built with an adaptable AI that changes on the fly. I’ve had strange interactions in my experiences:
The Alien has no set patrol patterns as far as I can tell. You can watch it walk into a side room from a hiding point at the other end of the room, only to find it double back to the next room you enter. Despite how slow or silent you can be, the doors you move through still make noise, so as you progress, you never really “lose” the Alien so much as you throw it off for a minute or two.
The senses on this thing are creepy. If you are walking fast enough to hear your own feet on the floor, I absolutely guarantee you the Alien knows, too. Again, the Motion Tracker is your friend when it’s at a distance, but it’s also a problem if you’re close. My rule of thumb is that if I have a visual on it, the Motion Tracker isn’t necessary. Even then, use it sparingly to find where you need to go.
Vents. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had a chance to escape via a vent and chose a closet or death over it. I’m told you can use these to move around and escape even, but I haven’t even bothered.
Visually, I’ve played this on both the PS3 and the PS4. There’s nothing wrong with the PS3’s version of the game graphically (which is amazing), but if you have access to one, the lighting engines are just better on the next gen consoles. Shadow affects are nice between the two, but there’s a better gradient on the PS4’s newer hardware and smoke / fire effects are that much stronger on that system. Also note that the PS3 runs the game at about 720p, while the PS4 easily handles a 1080p playthrough. I am told that there can occasionally be some glitches where in crawling, you can fall through a room, but I have yet to run into these.
Renderings of the Sevastopol feel like they’re taken right from the first Alien film, as Creative Assembly was pretty much given as much access as they could get to 20th Century Fox’s archives. If you ever wondered what it would feel like to walk those dark halls of the Nostromo with a giant man sized Bone Dragon at your heels, this is the game for you. From the title sequence alone, you get an idea that CA were fans of the first film, and tried to design a game that does its best to immerse you into that universe. It doesn’t get everything right, but it does present the player with a sense of fear and stress unlike anything I’ve played before. Perhaps it’s just me.
In terms of drawbacks, one of the problems comes in the renderings of humans. They don’t seem to have the same sense of care that the Alien gets, most of them walking around with “dead eye” syndrome (like in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within). The voice acting is okay, but isn’t particularly memorable. It’s like watching a Friday the 13th film. Do you really remember Kevin Bacon’s last lines before he was killed? Maybe, maybe not, but you do remember how he died.
If this is what you see from your Point of View, you’re probably already dead.
Part of the soundtrack is built off of Jerry Goldsmith’s original score, and the same also features that weird “space wind” sound occasionally, which is so damn eerie. This may actually be (despite it’s flaws) the best movie tie-in/adaptation I’ve ever played. Most movie related games are either rushed projects (I’m looking at you Gearbox. I love Borderlands, but I remember the bad taste of Aliens: Colonial Marines) or fail to completely capture the feel of the movie. I’m very eager to see what Creative Assembly does next, Alien related or not. I’ve truly had fun with this game, despite it being as frustrating as Dark Souls.
Overall, Alien Isolation is a solid game for any fan of the original film. It’s the closest you’ll get to experiencing that universe (or at least playing the ultimate version of Cat & Mouse), even though the slow pace, saving mechanic and unforgiving AI may prove frustrating / unexciting to some.