Alien: Isolation was anticipated by many fans as the Alien game that should have been. What took so long to make a decent game that stayed true to the original 1979 film? Most of the other games are first-person shooters based on the action-packed sequel Aliens and fans found these to be… less than adequate; going so far as to call Alien: Colonial Marines an absolute travesty that heedlessly contradicted major events of the films, barring it from canon in the minds of many die-hard fans (though 20th Century Fox would disagree).
When the first teaser dropped, fans were ecstatic to see stunning visuals that echoed the lo-fi feel of the Nostromo in what appeared to be a survival-based horror that pits the wits of the protagonist, Amanda Ripley, against a single, deadly adversary. A far cry from the run-and-gun style of previous games, Alien: Isolation is all about stealth and evasion and takes a huge risk in letting the player set the game’s pace.
While playing through the game, I was impressed by how well it fit into the Alien universe; the look, the feel, the abject terror were all spot on. So I was surprised to find extremely mixed reviews from critics and gamers alike; some even regarded it as one of the biggest let downs of the year. Like most things in the Alien franchise, it seems you either love it or hate it, but what caused such varying player experiences and, with little appetite amongst gamers for previous franchise games, can such a polarizing title find a place in the Alien universe?
The story occurs within the large gap set between the first two films, a void in the Alien timeline that has always attracted speculation amongst fans. The creators put forth how unlikely it was that no one sought out the Nostromo in the 57 years after Ellen Ripley’s first encounter with the Xenomorph, especially since a terraforming colony was established on the nearby exomoon LV-426 where the original crew found the derelict Alien ship. What we do know is that Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda allegedly lived out her life and died of cancer at the age of 66. A natural anchor to the franchise’s title character, the game takes you through Amanda Ripley’s first encounter with the Xenomorph on the rundown space station Sevastopol. Amanda is invited by Christopher Samuels, a representative of the the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (yeah those guys again), to join a team to retrieve the Nostromo’s flight recorder recovered 15 years after her mother’s disappearance. However, they find the damaged station without communications and as they attempt to spacewalk across a debris field their EVA line is severed, separating Amanda from the team and leaving her to face the chaos of Sevastopol alone.
The story was one of the most contentious points of the game. It’s a barebones narrative that doesn’t stray very far from the familiar threads of the Alien universe. Sevastapol is a commercial station operated by the Seegson Corporation, an off-brand competitor of Weyland-Yutani that appears to be just as shady (surprise, surprise). The station is already in the process of being decommissioned when Amanda arrives and the logs recovered throughout the game reveal that the inhabitants struggled against a failing economy overrun by corporate interests. From the lifeless Working Joe-murder-bots to the soon-to-go-rogue central AI, the beats of the story are all too familiar, leaving some to believe it missed an opportunity to really carve its place in the Alien mythos. None of the supporting characters are particularly memorable and the stiff voice acting doesn’t help. They certainly lacked the chemistry of the Nostromo crew, though the original actors reprising their roles for the game and DLC is a welcome treat for any fan.
The creators took inspiring risks in some aspects of the game, but played the story a little close to the vest and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The narrative is meant to take a backseat to the moment-to-moment gameplay experience. The game gives you little to cling to in such a simple story and alienates you from your crewmates before you can form much of a connection with their characters. You’re pretty much on your own from the start as you quickly become immersed in the game’s unsettling atmosphere. The absence of consistent narrative prompts to lead you, like highlighted ladders or clearly defined paths, sets an irregular pace that only heightens your anxiety while navigating through the decaying station. Alien: Isolation relies on its gameplay, and not the story, to provide the emotional tension that propels the player forward and I found it to be one of the most stressful and fiercely realistic survival games I’ve ever played. It definitely leans heavily on existing lore, but I think many aspects of the story are natural extensions of the world Ridley Scott created, allowing you to experience it from a disturbingly visceral perspective.
If the title didn’t tip you off, the creators wanted one of the main driving forces behind the game’s horror to be the player’s crippling sense of isolation. In earlier iterations, they toyed with using a third-person view where players could use their periphery to spot oncoming danger. It’s a good thing they settled on the first-person perspective, which makes being hunted by the Xenomorph a terrifyingly realistic experience. Limiting the player’s vision enhances the threat of the Alien’s presence and you often have to fearfully forgo your surroundings altogether to fulfill objectives, craft items, or hit a manual save point (did I mention there are no auto-saves? Lovely.) Some of the game’s animations when interacting with your surroundings feel agonizingly long and nerve-wracking; you never know what’s going on behind your back as you desperately try to hack your way into terminals, and when you hear that distinctive hiss off-screen, you know you’re done for.
Luckily the save system alerts you if enemies are nearby, so that you don’t save right before the Alien attacks you. Forgoing checkpoints and soft saves was an interesting choice that made the game unforgiving. On the one hand, you can frequently lose your progress and sometimes searching or doubling back for save stations briefly pulls you out of such an immersive game. Not to mention the infinite death loop that could trigger if you reached a checkpoint just as the Alien was about to kill you (I think I’ve seen that death animation enough times, thanks). But it wouldn’t have close to the same level of tension without the manual saves. Players act rashly when they know they’ve just hit a checkpoint and there isn’t much progress at stake. You become much more invested in staying alive if dying means losing everything you’ve worked for. It really supports the core gameplay and keeps the stakes high for the player in each encounter. I didn’t let myself get too hung up on the annoyance of having to start from my last save point. The game is as ruthless as the Alien itself and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bottom line is you’re always vulnerable and worst (or best) of all the Alien is impervious to your attacks. That’s right, there’s no item you can craft or weapon you can find that will kill the Xenomorph; your only option is to evade a horrific death by stealthing your way to the next save point, knowing that the Alien could be right behind you (or in front of you) at any given moment. Many players were unable to get behind the idea of such a formidable foe, one which has no qualms with destroying your hard-earned progress right when the next yellow box is in sight, killing you instantly and making most of the weapons you find in the game basically useless. Having to respawn at your last save makes tricky sections of the game absolutely maddening and completing them offers little in the way of rewards towards the game’s basic crafting system.
This seemed like a let down at first, but it makes sense when you think about how the game is structured. You don’t need massively upgraded gear and weapons to be stealthy; realistically, it would probably be cumbersome to lug that stuff around with a Xenomorph on the loose. Instead the game wants you to get creative and use your wits to outsmart your enemy, like using a noisemaker to distract the Alien while you escape or leading it to mercilessly kill a group of hostile survivors standing in your way. There are multiple uses for the items in your kit and they can be combined in interesting ways, providing unexpected versatility to an otherwise minimalist crafting system. Parts are scarce, so you have to be resourceful and make every move count strategically if you want to make it to your next save. This requires a bit more foresight than most players are used to and the urge to pull out your flamethrower and roast that alien bastard needs to be reined in, to the disappointment of some who craved at least a bit of balls-out combat with the Xenomorph. I really enjoyed having to improvise solutions while trying to keep my wits about me in case the Alien decided to drop from a nearby vent. I was always on the edge of my seat because I knew I couldn’t rely on brute force (or my trusty shotgun) to carry me through encounters should things go south. This type of gameplay was tricky for me to get accustomed to at first and it seems many were unable to get past this aspect of the game, which was a sticking point for frustration and tediousness.
The game does keep you engaged by forcing you to adapt your play style to changing circumstances. There’s a point where the threat of the Alien abates and your primary focus shifts to fighting through an onslaught of murderous Working Joes (whose bloody handwork you see throughout the station). This is when your weapons get the most use and you think you’re going to mow them down in a satisfying rampage that releases all that pent up Alien rage… except for the fact that it takes like three to four headshots from the revolver to down an android and bullets aren’t exactly an abundant resource. I still found it to be a nice reprieve from the tension of being constantly hunted by an unassailable enemy. At least you can kill a Working Joe and the game gives you plenty of ways to do so. These encounters could have been spread out a bit more to alleviate some of the tedium of the first two-thirds of the game, instead of cramming it all into a small section that feels a bit forced.
Beyond that, the game requires you to do the usual exploration stuff and the objectives are pretty straightforward. The real heart of the game is the Alien and I’m amazed it took so long for game developers to figure that one out. The team at Creative Assembly took a huge risk with how they approached Giger’s iconic creature and let me tell you, it paid off.
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” – Ash (Alien 1979)
The perfect organism: that’s how Ash describes the Alien to the Nostromo crew in the original film. He informs them, almost with reverence, that it cannot be killed, that it is a “survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality”. The Alien may be ruthless, but as the crew quickly discovers, it’s its intelligence that makes it truly deadly. It learns, it adapts, it hunts; it provokes our primal fears. It isn’t simply about escaping, it’s about surviving. That’s the alien Creative Assembly wanted to design for its game, not just some mindless, bloodthirsty creature, but a hunter that has persistence and focus, that can’t be dismissed or destroyed, that intentionally stalks its prey as an active agent instead of merely being an encountered obstacle. This is an undertaking that could only have been imagined by true fans of sci-fi horror, who understand that the real driving force behind that feeling of absolute terror isn’t the creature attacking you, but the dreadful awareness of the unknown and that something wants to find you.
The result of their efforts is a free-roaming, unpredictable enemy that not only cannot be killed by any means available to you, but also learns from your encounters. The Alien AI uses set programming to adapt itself to your play style. It won’t be fooled twice by your tricks, so the third or fourth time you use that noisemaker to distract it, the Xenomorph will ignore it and hunt for the true source. If it hears a locker hastily close in the distance, it doesn’t matter that you aren’t in its field of vision; it knows you’re there and it will tear open that locker to find you. It will double back, abruptly change course, and drop down from vents completely at random. Its movements aren’t scripted. It could be anywhere, at any time; not even the game knows what the Alien is up to. Crossing open areas will make your palms sweat and you’ll dread having to go into vents for even the briefest time. Defending yourself against hostile inhabitants is a sure fire way to get the Alien’s attention. With minimal offensive capabilities, stealth is always your best, if not your only, option. If you do encounter the Alien, you might be able to scare it off with a flare or a blast from your flamethrower, but this will only work for so long before it gets wise to your tactics.
A key reason Alien succeeds in evoking such palpable fear and dread is the fact that the Xenomorph only has about four minutes of screen time in the entire film, using our fear of the unknown to build tension. This is something that the creators incorporated into their gameplay design, but by nature of the game, you will be seeing much more of the Xenomorph than in the original film. You spend a fair portion of the game hiding in lockers or under tables, fearfully watching the creature hunt for you. I found a disturbing relief in knowing where the Alien was and every time it passed near my hiding spot I felt a petrifying chill. But do these frequent visual encounters of the creature result in overexposure, taking away the terror of the unknown that the original film was so famous for? Personally, I don’t think it takes anything away from the game’s experience. In fact, I think it immerses you even further into the world and boldly attempts to repurpose a crucial dynamic explored in Scott’s 1979 classic.
When experiencing the film we are a passive viewer and this removes us from the immediacy of the danger. We have no control over what the camera shows us and the conscious choice to limit our exposure to the Xenomorph manipulates our emotional experience. But the game’s visceral perspective places us at the focal point of danger; we are now an active agent instead of a passive viewer and that changes the nature of our encounters with the Xenomorph. I felt exposed and vulnerable, and seeing the Alien roam freely in the same space I inhabit only reinforces those feelings. The creators wanted the player to truly experience being hunted by the Alien and part of that is realizing that your best chance for survival is keeping it within your sights (when you can that is). The game almost necessitates that you form a sort of bond with the creature. The Alien doesn’t have any set attack patterns or telegraphed movements for you to exploit, you need to spend time understanding how it interacts with the world it inhabits. You even consider it an ally at times when facing other hostiles elements of the station. It may be learning from your encounters, but so should you. You need to realize when the Alien is adapting to your tactics and utilize the few cues it does give away to your advantage. The soundscape is one way you can track the Alien. It sounds different traveling on foot than in the vents and you can utilize its hiss to judge its proximity. Tuning into these intricacies of the game really immerses you in the experience.
We can all agree on one thing though: the game looked fucking beautiful. Sevastopol is a sprawling space station in disrepair, full of dark corners and eerily deserted passages that only add to the game’s unsettling atmosphere. The production design is remarkably authentic and is by far one of the strongest facets of the game. The creative team had access to a trove of concept art and set photos from 20th Century Fox and created a world that perfectly builds on the original film’s low tech, industrial approach to sci-fi.
To get the most out of Alien: Isolation, you need to embrace the style of gameplay, not work against it. It can be difficult to uproot our gaming instincts, but it’s a must if you want to appreciate what the game has to offer. It’s a harrowing, survival horror that focuses heavily on its core gameplay and takes big risks for a franchise title by moving away from the common traits of a AAA release. It really only supports one kind of play style that can make progressing through the game a frustrating exercise in trial and error, which definitely restricts the game’s broader appeal and is one of the reasons it had such a mixed reception. But fans would be remiss to skip this title. Alien: Isolation is shamelessly unforgiving, and boldly taps into what makes Alien such an enduring franchise.