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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: Alien: Isolation (Sony PlayStation 4)

Alien Isolation Survival HorrorReview by Nick H.

There has been a fair share of Alien games over the years, including the recent complete misfire that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. The franchise suits the game medium, since the developers can use the intimate first-person perspective to deliver a visceral sense of fear as you, the player, are watching a hulking biological weapon coming directly at you. With Alien: Isolation, the team at Creative Assembly has created a brilliant atmosphere, and though there are some flaws here and there, the end result delivers scares appropriate for the month of October.

You take on the role of Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver's Ellen character from the films. Events pick up fifteen years after the original Alien. Amanda is given the opportunity to explore a space station that appears to hold some information about her long-lost mother. Naturally she goes to explore, and there's an Alien there and... in space no one can hear you scream.

Isolation absolutely captures that same sense of terror that must come from being isolated and alone in the middle of space with a hostile enemy actively stalking you. It's the kind of setting that is unrelenting, as the environment itself is deadly and incompatible with human survival, and this effectively means that any human that enters it needs to be constantly on his/ her toes in order to survive the experience.

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The Aliens themselves from the films have always been a physical manifestation of the hostile environment and a reminder of how pitiful humanity is cast against the backdrop of space. This is difficult to recapture in a video game, since the game needs to give players agency otherwise they will likely wind up frustrated with how powerless they feel. The Creative Assembly has achieved this sensation of isolation and loneliness through its clever use of the first-person perspective and some spectacular lighting and detailed environments. Where the ill-fated Colonial Marines was all about combat, Alien: Isolation is much truer to the spirit of the films. That is to say that there is still plenty of action, but the sheer ambiance of the environment is the true hero of the experience.

Things start off slowly enough as some backstory is explained and Amanda joins a small team going to the Sevastopol base to learn more about what is happening there. The first mission is basically a tutorial on how to move about and interact with things while the story is being laid out. Once that's dealt with, the true dangers reveal themselves and the tension never again lets up.

The rest of the game is all about one (that's right, one) Xenomorph that is stalking the station and killing people along the way. When the entire game is essentially based on a single enemy, its behaviour was always going to be critical in creating a memorable, cinematic experience, and while Isolation's AI exhibits the odd moment of weirdness now and then, most of the time it is does indeed behave like a brilliant predator stalking its prey. There are other dangers on the ship as well that keep Amanda on her toes and force her into making difficult decisions along the way, but at the end of the day it is all about that rivalry between Xenomorph and a Ripley, and that is a good thing.

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I was absolutely fascinated with the Xenomorph and its behaviour. Watching it on the motion sensor was certainly unnerving (especially when it was headed towards me), but thrilling at the same time. After playing other survival style games like Outlast where hiding under the same bed or locker every thirty seconds was enough to befuddle my enemies, it was a "clever girl" moment (yes, that's a Jurassic Park reference, but it fits, OK?) when the alien would sit calmly outside of my field of vision and wait for me to come out of my hiding spot. It'd leap out and kill me, and that was irritating, but at the same time exhilarating.

In the films, Ellen Ripley showed that her gene pool were resourceful, intelligent, but not trained killers. In Isolation, Amanda is not capable of simply eradicating the threat chasing her down in a physical confrontation, but she is far from helpless. There is a nice scavenging and creation system in place that represents the 'survival' side of this survival horror game. Because the action is so minimal, players more used to traditional blockbuster games might find themselves frustrated, but Isolation should be credited for trying to be different.

This is a stealth-heavy game that does rely on patience. Since the Xenomorph cannot be killed, those skills you've picked up from the million of me-too FPSers will not do you much good. You're going to need to sneak about and figure out how to avoid the Alien's attention for as long as possible. Varying difficulty levels impact just how sharp the alien's senses are, and for the really easily frustrated the good news is that one the lower levels of difficulty coming to a complete stop will often be enough for the Xenomorph to "lose" you. You're doing yourself a disservice playing the game on that difficult level, however. Turn it up and play the cat-and-mouse game of life and death which the developers clearly wanted you to experience.

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All the good aside, while I appreciate the many nods to the Alien universe throughout, the story itself is somewhat underwhelming. It is not necessarily bad, but I could not find myself caring too much about the majority of the characters I came into contact with, and critically, so razor-focused as the developer was on creating a horror experience that much of the thematic depth of the films is lost completely. Ellen Ripley, across her four films, developed an intensely complex relationship between herself, humanity, and the Xenomorphs. People often forget this - the Alien films were incredibly intelligent from a philosophical point of view (yes, even Alien 3). When people bemoan later attempts at bringing Aliens into films - such as the Aliens Vs Predator films - it's because they have all the philosophical density of a pebble. Alien: Isolation is a pebble. Character are flat and stereotypical, and obvious victims from the outset. The most important characters did experience some rudimentary exploration, however progress also starts to drag near the end, as Amanda starts playing a game of "fetch quest 101."

There have been a handful of Alien games over the years, but none have delivered an experience so close to the intent of the films as Isolation. With visuals authentic enough to have been ripped right from the movies and a terrifyingly intelligent monster as the primary antagonist, Alien: Isolation makes for a memorable experience, and clear proof that Colonial Marines was the fault of the developer and not the material.


- Nick H.
US Editor



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Review: Alien: Isolation (Sony PlayStation 4)
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