GAME REVIEW: ALIEN: ISOLATION / DEVELOPER: THE CREATIVE ASSEMBLY / PUBLISHER: SEGA / PLATFORM: PS4, XBOX ONE, PS3, XBOX360, WINDOWS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
In space no-one can hear you scream. Your living room, however, is a very different matter. And scream you will – repeatedly. Granted, most of those will probably be screams of frustration, but Isolation is a game that will have many players shrieking and whining like Bill Paxton in Aliens. When I say that it's cruel, unforgiving, violent and blackly beautiful, those adjectives apply completely interchangeably between the game and the Alien itself.
Set during the interim period between Alien and Aliens, we follow Nostromo survivor Ellen Ripley's daughter Amanda as she investigates her mother's disappearance. When the Nostromo's black box recording turns up on an industrial station out in deep space, she sets off as part of a small crew, hoping to solve the mystery and maybe find her mommy. If you've seen Aliens (of course you've seen Aliens) then you'll know that this is destined not to be; but you try telling the Alien “no, you can't kill me – Burke from Aliens said I lived a full and happy life”. It doesn't listen. Xenomorphs care not for paradoxes.
The layout and system controls might look and feel like a first person shooter, but if you approach Isolation as such, you'll be meeting a very quick demise. Of course, the first thing you do upon finding the game's revolver is to take a pot-shot at the xenomorph's head – and expect the first death at his scaly hands not far behind. The first of many. Playing Isolation, one should expect to die, repeatedly. Breaking into a run? That will get you killed. Opening a door at the wrong moment? That will get you killed. Firing your gun or even swinging your wrench at an enemy's head? That will get you killed. Walking under the wrong air vent? You had best believe that will get you killed. There's no respite to the Alien's murderous predilections; not even when you get your hands on your very first flamethrower. As Ripley, you are woefully underarmed, underprepared and unready for what is to come. In that respect, it's the perfect Alien game.
The franchise hasn't done too well thus far where videogame tie-ins are concerned (the odd Aliens vs Predator and SNES game aside), so it's a relief to see one that so slavishly recreates the world of Ridley Scott's original movie. There's none of the bombast or triumph of Aliens – only the frustration and tension of the film which preceded it. The space station Sevastopol is a wonderful setting, evoking all of the atmosphere and moodiness of the Sulaco and the industrial future in which it resides. At times, you'll feel like you're playing a space station handyman simulator (there's a lot of restoring power and pulling levers) but the Alien is never far behind. At times, that's to the game's detriment.
While there's an undeniable thrill to being stalked by Scott and Giger's wonderful creation – and the bastard is truly terrifying at times – it's a case of diminishing returns in its constant, relentless pursuit of Ripley Junior. They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and that's no more true than when the game has you screaming things like “oh piss off, not you again!” instead of screaming in terror. You'll have more face-to-face encounters with the Alien in half an hour than Ripley had over the course of four films – and Isolation is not a short game. There's roughly 15-20 hours of the main story, not including its 'Survival' mode, Sulaco DLC and any further add-ons we might get in future. It's never boring and rarely repetitive, but it could easily have shaved a few hours from its playtime.
There are other imperfections, such as a complete lack of characterisation, leaving poor Amanda feeling like little more than a paper-thin cypher. There are a few glitches and bugs too, meaning having to actually restart the system at one point, early in the game. It's not just another bug hunt, but these irritants (floating guns and characters getting stuck on the furniture) do take you out of the story and the atmosphere. It's also very difficult and occasionally inconsistent in its placement of (manual) save points. Still, it never feels impossible – a solution to your woes never far away.
Alien: Isolation is an immersive, intelligent and often incredible experience. Many will be put off by its relatively slow pace and high difficulty curve, but just as many should adore its fidelity to the source material and attention to detail. For all its flaws, Isolation is the best Alien game ever made.