You Almost Had It
Alien: Isolation has me torn. On one hand, it is leaps and bounds above basically every other video game that has used the Alien IP (with perhaps an exception for the original Alien vs. Predator). It finally understands that Alien isn’t just purely an action franchise. It has elements of horror and stealth in it, which is actually what makes Alien: Isolation so much fun to play.
On the other hand, it still lags behind other games in all genres that is toys around with. Its action elements are fun but clunky and stiff. Its stealth elements are interesting, but basic. Its horror elements are genuinely scary, but are few and far between and separated by long sections of game that just don’t build tension correctly. Alien: Isolation is a constant back and forth of “OOOOOH THAT’S AWESOME!” and “oh man this is so frustrating.”
In Alien: Isolation you take control of Ellen Ripley’s Daughter Amanda, wandering through the space station Sevastopol. This broken down hunk of junk just so happens to have a problem with the titular Xenomorphs, and it’s up to you to investigate what happened, discover the truth about your mother, and generally do everything you can to not die.
The game shines brightest whenever you are having an encounter with a Xenomorph that would really rather have you for lunch then talk about good old Mom. Far separated from previous games in the Alien franchise, the Xenomorphs here aren’t simply cookie cutter enemies for you to unload an SMG into. They are a dark and malevolent force, ready to end your life if you make on mis-step. They are characterized much more like the ominous presence in Silent Hill, and this is a HUGE step forward for the whole Alien series.
You see, Alien movies work because we are afraid of the Xenomorphs. We are on the edge of our seats, waiting for the point where the Alien drops through the ceiling and thins the ranks of our plucky group of survivors. That’s what you feel like while playing Alien: Isolation. You know that an Alien can attack you at any moment, and your job is to survive when it does.
You will be able to use several different gadgets in your quest for survival. You can use a motion tracker that maps out the location of other moving objects (note: likely an Alien trying to kill you). You can use a couple guns and a flamethrower to hold enemies at bay (note: likely Aliens trying to kill you.) You can use noisemakers to cause a distraction (note: in order to run away from aliens trying to kill you.)
However, the most useful tools you will have are your eyes and ears. Get a good pair of headphones or a good surround sound system if you are going to play this game. Being able to hear Xenomorphs skittering through ducts is not only terrifying, but also a great way to avoid them. It breeds this sense of immersion in the game, where you aren’t being given an on-screen prompt to say “uh-oh, the enemies are coming.” Instead it’s your, the players, own survival instincts that kick in any time you hear clanging metal.
Aside from this, your most effective method of avoiding Xenomorphs is hiding. Keep your back to the wall, crouch down low, peer around corners, and slowly make your way through dangerous areas. If you notice an Alien and it hasn’t noticed you, turn in the opposite direction. If an Alien has noticed you, run for the nearest hiding space, like a locker or behind a door, and hope that it didn’t see you get in there. There is even a “breath holding” mechanic that lets you stay even more silent and invisible to Aliens, but holding your breath makes you lose health, so you can’t just do so randomly and frequently. This also means that, if you already took a lot of damage from an Alien encounter, it will be harder to stay calm and hide, an interesting little play on stealth mechanics that we really haven’t seen before.
So, I’ve only sung the games praises so far, but note that I’ve only been talking about the Aliens themselves. Whenever there isn’t an Alien on the screen, the game progresses at a snail’s pace. The story progresses through bits and pieces of exposition that play as you explore the space station. However, even these bits of exposition are dealt out slowly after long periods of wandering. In the beginning of this game, this wandering serves to create a feeling of… wait for it… isolation (#TitleDrop). However, as the game goes on, these exploration segments just feel like padding to draw out the game. You’ll frequently feel yourself groaning and waiting for something to happen, and that’s not a good feeling for a horror game.
In addition, the puzzles in the game are an absolute joke. Frequently, you will find the solution to the puzzle in the exact room the puzzle is. The button to open the door is next to the door, so to speak. This is the case with nearly every puzzle in the game, and most of them don’t even mean anything. Beyond malfunctioning doors and security cameras, all of these stop gaps feel like contrivance at best. We know that the space station is worn down, but it is worn down in such a way that there is a specific set of problems barring the progress of a specific person in a specific linear way. You backtrack every so often but you don’t feel like you are unlocking new secrets like you do in a Metroid game. You are simply retracing your steps to pad out the game length… again.
Then there is the latter half of the game which seems to ditch everything the game was building up to. It takes a bunch of steps back and starts to fall on basic action tropes again. You’ll end up fighting Androids several times, and even a few human opponents as well. Note, you can shoot friendly humans, but doing so immediately ends the game. So now you have the problem of figuring out whether or not the human shaped silhouettes in the distance are going to shoot you. It was a lot easier when you were just dealing with Aliens.
I’d hesitate to call Alien: Isolation “good” but it’s certainly “better.” It feels like there was this great idea for an honestly tarrying Alien game, but halfway through the design team fell back on the same tropes we have seen over and over and over again. If you are a die-hard Aliens fan, this is the best game yet. However, the game certainly outstays its welcome. The game takes about 15 hours to complete, but more than half of that time is spent wandering around and waiting for something to happen. Even so, I suggest at least trying the game out, through rentals or demos. It’s a game that deserves to be played if only so we can imagine how the series can get better still.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.6 Graphics
The Xenomorphs are honestly scary, but the hallways are long and boring. 4.0 Control
The controls are basic and work well enough, though limited in certain aspects. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The sound design is probably the best thing about the game. Every single sound effect will make you twitch. 3.0 Play Value
Half of the game is this awesome Alien experience where you are running in fear, the other half is just a bland shooter. 3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|