Back at SDCC when we got to take a run at Alien: Isolation, I was left with conflicted feelings: it managed to hit all of the checkmarks of nostalgia and horror, and balanced solid gameplay with incredible atmosphere.
Yet, like most of the people who got a taste at Comic Con, I wondered exactly how long a game that prized itself on creepy thrills and atmospheric chills could truly last. After all, don’t jump scares get rote and boring after awhile (I’m lookin’ at you, Dead Space 3)?
Add to that, during our interview with Alistair Hope (that you absolutely read, of course), he mentioned that the game took around 15+ hours to complete.
15 HOURS! As a developer…who also happens to know where everything is.
It took us just under 20.
If Dead Space wrecked my startle response after a measly 9 hours, would I spend the remaining 6+ of Alien: Isolation listlessly wandering corridors, like a morose gothy teenager?
Rest assured, even though it seems lengthy at times, Isolation delivers on every possible level. Contrary to popular belief, though the Alien is featured prominently in the game (and in its marketing), there are other variables you’ll need to navigate, in order to survive. Simply put, the whole experience–yes, it’s an experience–is soup-to-nuts fantastic.
The main story of Alien:Isolation takes place, chronologically, between Alien and Aliens. At the end of Alien, as the final survivor of the Nostromo (and after “blasting the alien out of the goddamn airlock”), Ripley puts herself into cryostasis and pilots her ship towards earth. Unfortunately, she doesn’t reach her destination until 57 years later, wherein she discovers that her daughter, Amanda, is dead at the age of 66. It’s a heavy beginning for Aliens, but Amanda Ripley was basically a plot device in the film, to show why Ripley would instantly bond with Newt, the young girl they encounter.
The game starts with a full-grown engineer Amanda being approached by Samuels, a member of Weyland-Yutani (the profiteering company in the Alien/Predator franchise), who offers her the chance to retrieve the flight recorder from the original Nostromo, so she can get some closure on her mother’s disappearance. Easy peasy. Unfortunately, they forgot to mention that the location of the pickup, Sebastopol Station, has been “decommissioned”, and is now occupied by trigger-happy looters and rogue security androids.
The story is told in five distinct “acts” (though they aren’t marked as such), and though each one essentially boils down to “keep Amanda alive”, they introduce new elements that can drastically shift your prior style of play. I’m sure that many people will decry Alien: Isolation’s length, but we were stoked with it. There are honestly so many different ways to play the game, that the modifier in each “act” really kept us on our toes. Plus, the unscripted, unpredictable actions of the alien keep you on constant edge. But, y’know, in a good way.
As the title implies, Ripley spends 99% of the game on her own. Not only that, but the emphasis is on survival, so if you fancy yourself a run-and-gunner, you’ll need to change your approach…’cause you won’t last long.
I don’t know any other way to say it, but the game has a tremendous flow despite its length (TWSS! TWSS!), and it has an absolutely unrivaled pacing. And, provided that you stick to your trusty motion tracker (which serves as a compass of sorts, in addition to it’s primary use), you’ll be guided just enough that you won’t ever feel lost. Well, physically lost, anyway. I can’t say anything for your emotional state.
Yes, even though it’s first person, and though you’ll handle weapon, improvised and otherwise throughout the campaign, it’s NOT a traditional “first person shooter”; in order to get into the right mode to fully enjoy the game, you’ll need to divorce yourself from traditional FPS mechanics. Most notably, your emphasis should be on stealth and survival, not “kill every bad guy on the level.” From the get-go, Ripley is a “survivor”, and much like the title foreshadows, you’ll need to rely on yourself, and only yourself, if you want to make it out alive. That means hiding, managing your items and being invisible whenever possible. And above all: learn to adapt to your surroundings.
It’s frightfully obvious that the team at The Creative Assembly are huge fans of the Alien series…or they’re really good at faking it. Every single facet of the level design is not only a direct homage to the original film, but to the franchise as a whole. They manage to balance the stark white plastic feel of the 70s “future” ships, with the cramped mechanical feel of a submarine’s innards. Access corridors have noticeably lower ceilings, and the dozens of side-hallways that you encounter are barely wide enough for two people. And don’t get me started on the booming ventilation ducts that you’ll find yourself traveling far more than you’d like.
That brings me to the real star of Alien:Isolation–the sound design team. In all my years as a game reviewer, I can’t tell you the last time I played a game that has the tonal richness that this one does. If you have the setup, I’d suggest either playing in an environment with top-tier surround speakers, or a really good headset. We played through it with our custom rigged Turtle Beach Ear Force Tangos and were absolutely blown away. Step through a blood puddle, and your shoes will squeak. Step on a body bag, and it’ll make a loud crinkle sound. You’ll crunch if you step in broken glass and you’ll clank if you step carelessly on a vent lid. Switching between sneaking, walking and running makes gives noticeable weight to your footsteps. Hell, the first time you remove an external door latch with the maintenance jack, I flinched when Amanda dropped it on to the ground.
Every single thing in Alien: Isolation has a noticeable and trackable sound, from the ping of the motion tracker to the thuds of the Alien as it moves through the Sebastabol. Oh, by the end of the game, you’ll be the Jane Goodall of xenomorph behavior, learning to distinguish between the “thud-and-hiss” of an Alien dropping from the vent to the ground, to the “thud-and-scrape” of an Alien tracking you through the vents. I can’t tell you how many times I sat, tucked under a desk, waiting for the telltale “screech-and-leap” of an Alien giving up, and crawling back into the ceiling ducts. Good times. Or there was that one time I stood around a blind corner, and listened to survivors make small talk about how they were going to kill me…which I answered by winding up a noisemaker and tossing it into their midst. Noises attract the Alien…
One of the core components of Alien: Isolation is Amanda being an engineer. Not only does it add credibility to her technical know-how in navigating, re-powering and manipulating the environment of the run-down Sevastopol; it also allows her to craft improvised items on-the-fly…provided that you get the right materials. Throughout her journey, Amanda will come across materials and blueprints which allow her to craft a variety of items, from health ampoules to pipe bombs. To be fair, like most stealth games, I stockpiled my stash waiting for that “big bad showdown”…and even with that, I still ended up running out of crucial items and ammo, which forced me to improvise.
At it’s heart, Alien: Isolation makes improvisation a requirement for survival. How will you navigate a room full of armed looters knowing that there’s an alien above you, somewhere in the ducts? Will you fiddle with the access panels and fill the room with carbon dioxide clouds? Will you throw a flare or a noisemaker, hoping to bait them in the other direction? Or will you simply hide and wait to move? It’s a constant crapshoot, and you never feel like you can do the same thing over and over to survive.
I should also mention the game’s soundtrack, which should be an album in itself. The creative team somehow managed to marry the original plinking strings and howling violins with a pounding, percussion-heavy tones of its sequel. I will say, however, that there were moments where the soundtrack overshadowed the action, so if you’re anything like us, you might want to bring the background music down a couple notches in the options menu.
Speaking of spiffy options, there’s a toggle that allows you to include as much (or as little) film grain, which gives it even more of the 70s feel that it replicates. And don’t think for one minute that 70s vibe = cheese; the visuals in Alien: Isolation are gorgeous, from the stock 70s twinkling light panels on the computer dashboards, to the gore-soaked corridors and grime caked corners of the all-but-forgotten Sevastopol. I know I’ve talked about the attention to detail in the level design, but the game is also filled with nifty little graphical additions that have zero bearing on the game itself.
Plus, if you hurry out and pick up the Nostromo edition, you’ll get the “Crew: Expendable” DLC set, which features four of the original cast members voicing a trek through the original Nostromo, culminating with an attempt to dispatch the xenomorph the same way Ripley did in the original film. Of course, things rarely go according to plan, so a single playthrough can take anywhere from 15 minutes to just under an hour. It’s an interesting take on “survival” modes, and future DLC will include more Survival modes and locations.
I feel like I’m leaving massive pieces out of this review…and for good reason. There are fairly shocking story elements in play, which add a host of new problems to Amanda’s plight, but I can’t really talk about them without giving major plot points away. Let me put it to you this way: if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll get to explore areas you’ve only dreamed of. But the best part about it, is that you never even see it coming.
I will say this, however: for the last two-ish hours of the game, it would behoove you to have your controller fully-charged…and it couldn’t hurt to throw down a layer or two of Scotchguard on your sofa.
Are you a cinephile who revered Scott’s atmospheric tour-de-force, and loathe Cameron’s bug-filled-shoot-em-up? You’ll love A:I.
Are you looking for a different FPS; something creepy, familiar and, at times, terrifying? You’ll love A:I.
Are you looking for something that shows off the snazzy abilities of next/current-gen systems, while bringing new elements to the survival genre? You’ll love A:I
In fact, short of the bro-heavy CoD/FratPS gamers and sports-only blowhards, I can’t think of anyone with a system who won’t dig it.
So do yourself a favor and pick it up. You’ll definitely want to strike while the iron’s hot, if only to get the Crew Expendable DLC for free!