If you were one of those people who wanted an apology for Aliens: Colonial Marines, well here it is, because Alien Isolation is the game that the Aliens franchise has long deserved. It is a game that looks past the space marines and pulse rifles and remembers that the Alien isn’t supposed to be startling, it is supposed to be god damn terrifying. This is a game that strives to recreate the suffocatingly claustrophobic atmosphere of the original Alien film and envelops you in it perfectly. It incorporates everything that a good piece of Aliens fiction should have and does so with meaning, making it feel like more than just a sight-seeing tour. To put it simply, this is a game that every hardcore Aliens fan needs to play, because despite some minor faults it stands up as not only the best Aliens game but as a proper companion piece to the original film.
Fittingly the story takes place between the events of Alien and Aliens, Ellen Ripley is still sleeping out in the void somewhere but her daughter Amanda is now all grown up; it turns out she’s been searching for her mother all these years though with little luck. One day she is approached by The Company to join an expedition to Sevastopol, a backwater space station owned Weyland Yutani’s rivals Seegson Systems, to collect the black box from the Nostromo which was recently recovered by a salvage team. Of course upon getting to Sevastopol they quickly find out that they’re not the only new arrivals, the station has been thrown into chaos and there are bodies everywhere. Everyone’s favorite Xenomorph is of course responsible but it’s far from the only threat on the station. In the wake of these issues and loss of authority, factions of colonists have broken up into groups, some of which are violent, and the Seegson “Working Joe” androids that service Sevastopol are acting more than a little twitchy. The game smartly jump backs and forth between which threat you’re focused on dealing with at any given time; the human colonists provide a good basic introduction to the game’s mechanics and stealth, the Alien provides tense cat and mouse style action, and the androids are pure inhuman murderous dread.
In fact let’s talk about the androids because facing off against them is actually pretty interesting. You see they act as a counterpoint to the Alien in almost every way. Where the Alien is alone, they have numbers; where the Alien is reactive, they are predictable; where the Alien is fast and sneaky, they are slow and direct. It’s an entirely different kind of horror that the androids bring because while you are terrified of the Alien, there’s some solace to take in that it is essentially an animal and therefore somewhat understandable; when you shoot the Alien, it will scream. The androids however are cold and emotionless, they seek you out with an inhuman dispassion and when you shoot them they simply shrug it off and utter a politely worded warning before calmly walking up and pummeling you to death with a blank look in their eyes. Hiding from the Alien turns you into a scared skittering animal, reverting back to humanity’s most basic instincts, the androids represent the antithesis of that and how evolved man has become, which is exactly what makes them so frightening. The android sections provide not only some much-needed catharsis (as you can actually kill them, though not with ease) but also act as an interesting parallel to the Alien, they add some interesting texture to the fear that the game breeds overall.
I think I’ve buried the lead for long enough though, so let’s talk about the Alien. Obviously this game’s big selling point was the Alien’s adaptive AI, that it wouldn’t follow a set path but would instead stalk you through the level, learning your tactics and hunting you down; thankfully that hefty claim is one that proves true and the Alien ends up being a very formidable adversary. You see the Alien learns stuff whether you live or die, if it finds you hiding in a storage locker a couple of times, it will then start searching storage lockers right away as soon as it enters a room, forcing you to switch up your tactics. The Alien is thorough too so you can’t just hide in a cupboard and hope he won’t look there; you need to be both smart and brave to escape the Alien, knowing when to hide and when to bravely (but slowly) move forward. The Alien is even good at figuring out your more offensive strategies, later in the game you receive a flamethrower which you can use to scare it off, but that doesn’t make it go away. Instead (at least in my case) it went up into a vent and then started testing me from different sides, seeing where it could jump down and get to me before I could quickly light it up and send it scurrying back up into the ducts. As I said earlier, it turns you into a scared paranoid animal, into prey, relying purely on gut instinct and those ingrained fight or flight stress reflexes that served our ancient ancestors so well.
Thankfully both the android and Alien horrors are nicely balanced by Alien: Isolation’s well tuned gameplay systems. In addition to the robust but more or less standard sneaking mechanics, there’s also some light crafting and hacking to be done. The hacking takes the form of basic little mini-games but each feels perfectly suited to the Alien universe as they’re filled with the obtuse symbols and complicated looking math that defines the look of Wey-Yu’s software. The crafting is also pretty simple and basically just involves finding the right materials and blueprints and then pressing X a bunch, but it ties into one of Alien Isolation’s most important gameplay themes: resource management. You see supplies are very tight on the Sevastopol and the remaining survivor’s hoarding certainly hasn’t helped things. Ammo and crafting supplies are at a minimum and your ability to actually carry that stuff is pretty limited too. This means that even when you can go on the offensive, you need to do so with the utmost care and cleverness, because two shotgun shells will only take you so far and Working Joes rarely roam alone. The resource management reminds me a lot of Bioshock, but much more hardcore and stealth focused, it’s a game where your skills matter only as far as your cunning can take them.
The thing that really ties this game together though is its absolutely outstanding presentation that, barring a few minor technical hiccups, manages to emulate the look and feel of the original Alien down to the last bevel. It has that very specific look that only late 60’s/early 70’s sci-fi has, where everything is done in chunky white walls and straight rounded lines that evoke the look of the actual space shuttle just with a few decades worth of scratches and wear thrown on top. It’s all lovingly low-tech, clunky but functional, and saturated in the faded hope of the space race. All the computer programs you’ll see feel the same way, done in super crunchy pixels with impossible to understand button configurations that perfectly evoke a time when no one understood computers because they were the size of a family sedan. The game also has some fantastic animation to it; the deliberate way the unnerving off-white Seegson androids move about will put you off even before they decide to start politely bashing your skull in and the Alien moves like it’s alive. The Alien’s tail in particular feels wonderfully done as it will creepily snake around desks and equipment as it trails behind the Xenomorph. Moving onto the sound design, it is a work of pure and perfect homage; the dread silence of space pervades Sevastopol and every sound that manages to pierce it will send chills down your spine. The mechanical clunks and hisses of the station’s vast complex of machinery subtly wafts underneath each scene and the Alien’s growls and low guttural emanations blend into it in such a way as to make you think it hides in every crevice and vent. The music will also ramp up in that ever familiar cinematic way when things get tense and as that music finally peaks and your chest gets perforated by the Xenomorph, you will feel it as much as Ripley does.
I did mention a few technical bumps though and while they don’t really affect things too much, they do bear mentioning. One thing I noticed, at least with the PS4 version, is that the framerate is very erratic during the cut-scenes though it seemed stable enough during actual gameplay. I also saw a few weird AI glitches where human characters would be walking into walls or running away in weird patterns, these occurrences weren’t common though and it was only with human NPCs which are rarer in this game than you might expect. Aside from those minor hiccups Alien: Isolation is a gorgeously produced game and frankly even the odd glitches its unique AI spawns can end up looking pretty awesome.
Alien: Isolation will not be a game for everyone, it’s difficult and lengthy and complex, and for some those things will be an issue but they are as much a selling point as they are a deterrent. Lovers of the Alien franchise and stealth game fans in general will find a game that has been lovingly crafted especially for them and is unlike anything else because of it. Even as someone who is-at best-a casual fan of the franchise, I was overwhelmed by the clear love that Creative Assembly has for the Xenomorphs and Ridley Scott’s genre defining universe and how much it shows in the work they’ve put in to bring that across here in their game. As such I’m giving Alien: Isolation a 5 out of 5 stars and my full recommendation; it’s dreadfully scary, unyieldingly faithful to its source material, and one of the most interesting and genuine horror experiences I have had all year.