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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: Alien: Isolation (Microsoft Xbox One)

Review by Jim S.

For the 35th anniversary of the Alien franchise, Sega and The Creative Assembly have released Alien: Isolation. I can't think of a more perfect way to celebrate one of the most beloved sci-fi horror films ever made.

The game takes place 15 years after the events of the original Alien film. In that film, Ellen Ripley and the crew of the star freighter Nostromo were on a return route to earth in 2122 when its course was redirected to investigate a signal of unknown origin. After landing on the planet where the signal was being broadcast, they encounter a unique life form not seen in nearly 300 surveyed worlds. Once the alien arrives on the Nostromo, Ripley and the others realise that their ship has become a death trap.

The Nostromo is finally set to self destruct with the last hope of killing the alien and Ripley escapes as the sole survivor. But her shuttle was never actually found. Well, until the sequel, anyway. In Alien Isolation, players take control of Ripley's daughter, Amanda. While working for Weyland-Yutani as a technician, she is told that the Nostromo's flight recorder has been found and is being held at the space station, Sevastopol. Commerce, resoursing and trade are prominent on the Sevastopol as humans cross new borders into deep space colonisation. Ripley sets out to find more info on her mother's disappearance by getting the flight recorder. Not all goes as planned, and upon arrival, Amanda finds a battered and ransacked station. And so begins her terrifying struggle for answers... and for survival.

'Survival' is the key element to this game. The development team suggests playing on the 'hard' difficulty for the most authentic experience and it is both tense and exhilarating. The Alien that Ripley encounters and becomes the primary threat is a natural predator and formidable hunter with strengths that far surpass humans. So, if you found yourself in the presence of such a creature and had limited access to weapons and ammo, what would you do besides soil yourself? That's right... you'd hide. There are countless places in the game for Ripley to hide from the Alien when assault isn't an option. Taking cover and being stealthy are frequently vital parts of Isolation. The pace of play is affected by this, but is broken up well between action sequences. I felt engrossed with tension each time I took safe haven inside a gym locker of questionable security.

Alien: Isolation belongs to a horror subgenre that we don't see a lot of; the stalker horror genre. The genre had its greatest heights back in the PlayStation 2 era with titles such as Haunting Ground, Clock Tower 3 and Gregory Horror Show. Rather than fighting back against enemies, the player has little option but to run and hide, and removing this sense of agency has a potency that is hard to develop for (after all, 'run and hide' as a mechanic can get tiring quickly), but done well it captures genuine horror far better than any game that gives you a gun.

The alien in Alien: Isolation is the best example of a stalker horror villain that we've ever seen. It is an intelligent life form that will adapt to the player's actions. If Ripley hides under a table too often, the alien will figure this out and grab her from her hiding spot. The creature's movement is also always changing, which makes it hard to predict, leading to more surprises. It's even possible to turn the alien to your own uses - if Ripley is fighting other enemies, for instance, she can make a lot of noise and the alien will come hunting, only to take them out while she hides.

Amanda, being a skilled technician, can craft tools to help her in times of combat. By finding components, she can assemble tech such as the noise maker, with the aforementioned benefits to causing a racket. But there's challenges to using this crafting system, since time continues as you craft, so you need to be able find the right time to get crafting. Everything about the game is carefully constructed to ratchet up tension and keep you second guessing yourself. As on edge as you're going to be, it's great to see that it continues to find ways to surprise you.

In a game where atmosphere is so important, the sound team at The Creative Assembly did an amazing job with the game. I played the game with 5.1 surround sound and you can hear everything from the ambiance of the ship, through to the alien's footsteps and the skittering as if moves through the maintenance tunnels. The voice acting is also spot on with almost all of the original talent from the first film coming back to do their rolls once more. The commitment to authenticity there is admirable.

The Alien films, through the characterisation of Ellen Ripley, is rightfully lauded for the positive portrayal of women in feminist criticism. Ripley is a motherly character, as shown by her maternal attachment to the aliens in later films that she indirectly was responsible for 'birthing,' and the development team deserves credit for continuing the franchises' development team did a good job of continuing the franchise's traditional for strong female leads in Amanda. The game never sexualises her. Instead, we see a woman of amazing endurance and resourcefulness and we hope more games take notes from how to handle female characters from this one.

Overall, Alien: Isolation is a well made sci-fi horror game that stays true to the Alien formula. The game's length is a good value, considering it clocks in at around 18 hours while not becoming dull as stalker horror games often do become. It does deserve to be remembered as a classic of the genre.

- Jim S. 

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Review: Alien: Isolation (Microsoft Xbox One)
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