The original Alien is a better movie than Aliens, and I’m citing that as one of the many reasons why Isolation is the first quality adaptation of Alien into a video game since Aliens: Infestation. No, it isn’t a matter of new car smell or even the influence that makes the original Alien better. Hell, you can’t argue that James Cameron’s Aliens wasn’t influential itself. There is a brilliant Superbunnyhop video on the many ways that Aliens has been a template for so many video games, never mind its addition of the pulse rifle to the science fiction lexicon.

But, the original Alien is a masterpiece of meticulous pacing, suspense, and fright. Aliens? It’s a louder and dumber action flick with Cameron’s knack for rhythm. Not a bad flick, on the contrary it’s a damn good action flick, but it’s not the intelligently crafted thriller that the original is. It simply lacks the subtlety that makes the original such a delight to go back to, and it’s that subtlety that helps the first half of Alien: Isolation take its place among some of the best horror games out there.

Saying that exploring the Alien universe in a first-person stealth horror game is a no-brainer is one thing, but executing is another. After all, we’ve seen plenty of triple-A developers over the years try their hand at survival horror, but what entries like 2008’s Dead Space and 2014’s The Evil Within are lacking is subtlety. It’s not just their commitment to shooting things in the face that robs them of any tension, but it’s the rhythm of those experiences that robs them of any ability to frighten the player.

Isolation, in comparison, is gutsy and daring enough to “bore” you for the first hour or two. You’ll walk around to nothing more than the eerie silence of space with the dim lighting, while soaking in an environment built on nothing more than cold steel and the ambient noise of the retro-future equipment found on the station ‘Whatever-It’s-Called’, because the name of that station is as irrelevant and forgettable as the rest of the plot in the game.

It’s not that the game doesn’t talk about the Sevestapool (that’s the ‘Whatever-It’s-Called’ station) or makes no attempt to present a compelling narrative built around the daughter of Ellen Ripley, it’s just that those elements aren’t what make Isolation work. The silence works because it builds up atmosphere and tension, before you have to start dealing with the frightening obstacles in your way. This makes the initial gameplay reveal of the Alien or the cold-blooded, menacing approach of the androids all the more potent.

Isolation doesn’t deal with bombarding the player or even relying on heavily scripted sequences for frights, but instead chooses to create sequences built for more organic scares. Your initial worry on the ship is a group of humans who are willing to shoot you, Amanda Ripley, on sight and rogue Androids that have taken their duty of protecting the humans from harm in a dangerous direction. Initially, they serve as a solid opportunity to learn the finer aspects of the core mechanics at work in the crafting system, to what lines of sight your foes have and when you can consider yourself “hidden” and not hidden,” to things like loud noises attract a lot of attention.

While those enemies become sources of dull gameplay, the Alien itself rightfully becomes the star of the show. At some point in the opening stretch of the game, the Alien will actually come into play and you’ll begin your game of interactive cat and mouse with it. You’re Jerry and he’s Tom, except you’re not going to get many chances to drop anvils on him. With the atmosphere and tension built up, the onus then falls on Creative Assembly to make the Alien an entertaining foe for the player, and the solution is more or less an evolution of what Mr. X was in Resident Evil 2.

Where Mr. X was scripted, the Alien deals with a layer of randomness and unpredictability. You don’t actually always know when he is going to drop, but you’ll always know he’s around. He’ll shake the ship, he’ll make a little noise, and if he sees you he plans on getting down tonight. You know, by eating you and stuff. Because it is an instant death if the Alien spots you and is able to then grab you.

A punishing consequence, but one that creates a thrilling back and forth with the creature throughout the hallways of the Sevestapool. The creature also responds fairly quickly to any noise so simply sprinting through an area can create enough noise to summon the Alien and have him sprinting to your location. Pro-tip: he’s faster than you are. Your solution as a player is a whole lot of crouch walking through an environment with your scanner up to monitor if the Alien is getting close on the radar.

When he’s getting close, your best move is usually to hide or use one of your tools to distract it. Noise makers and flares are good for having it go in one direction, and allowing for you to go into the opposite direction. A temporary measure, because the Alien is joined to the hip of the player, and you won’t actually get far enough away to completely avoid the Alien. On some level, that breaks the illusion that the Alien is doing its own thing, but it’s a necessary move to make sure the Alien isn’t easily avoidable for the player.

Hiding comes in various flavors of ducking under desks, tables, chairs, under beds, or inside lockers. That scanner you want to use to keep track of the Alien’s position is something you’ll want to put away when the Alien is getting close because it makes too much noise. Sometimes, the Alien will get close to the locker you are in and you’ll have to lean back and hold your breath to avoid a game over. Simply put, the game does a great job of making the Alien a menacing foe, and the fact that the creature roams around your central area creates for more emergent encounters with the thing.

That’s not to say the game doesn’t have moments where that style of gameplay breaks. For instance, the game uses a save system where you need to find a manual save station to save your progress in an area. Given how spread some of them can be, and how often the Alien can find you and kill you, that can lead to a lot of trial and error. In other instances, you can get scenarios where the Alien randomly dropped near you and you had no viable way to counter it.

Some of it can come off cheap, unfair, or tedious, especially given that the core objectives in the game comes down to “go fetch thing” or “go hit some buttons” and then double back out of the area, but to me they are the catch-22 that comes with what works about having a roaming enemy like the Alien. Those moments of frustration were worth tolerating for the moments the game made me feel uneasy and unnerved by just the sound of the thing getting close.

Other shortcomings are less forgivable. For instance, the hard difficulty is meant to express that Alien adapts to your actions, and certain strategies will not work all the time. One of these strategies involves the flame thrower, an item that actually backs the Alien away. It’s so effective that one might argue it robs Isolation of any tension during its second half. To counter this, sometimes the flame thrower won’t work and the Alien will kill you anyway. Frankly that was cheap, because it was always an arbitrary death where the Alien simply ran through the flames and killed me. This was made more insulting when, on the very next life, the flame thrower was back to being as potent as it always is. It felt like a cheap twist as opposed to a meaningful change of the rules.

The biggest shortcoming, though, comes back to my initial praise that the first half would hold its own against some of the best horror games out there. The game is a 20 hour experience that is, frankly, 10 hours way too long. It’s bloated with gameplay encounters that simply aren’t compelling and lose the subtlety that made the initial run of the game so memorable.

The organic cat and mouse game with the Alien gives way to a sequence with an Alien nest where you deal with multiple Aliens, except the process is more scripted. The Aliens drop from the same exact vent, look exactly in the same direction, and have the same solution on every reload of that checkpoint. The shooting segments against the androids are largely unsatisfying because the game isn’t built around great shooting mechanics, and because the stuff with the androids feels like filler.

One stretch of gameplay has you going through a server room with none of your tools at your disposal. It's a bland stealth environment that amounts to nothing more than patiently waiting for your opening, and then running through an area as fast as possible. It’s something that should evoke a more cerebral feeling as opposed to the tedious one it actually provides. Speaking of tedious feelings, the biggest offender is lethargic walk through space to press a few buttons with no discernible threat in sight, other than a pretty view in the back ground.

This is not to say that the second half doesn’t have its fair share of the moments that made the first half enjoyable. When you get stretches with a single Alien, Isolation goes back to being the entertaining cat and mouse game that you were enjoying. But it’s one that already reached its climax 10 hours ago in a thrilling fight for Amanda Ripley’s survival. The many false finishes at the end ultimately lead to a roll of the eyes and an anticlimactic finish that was beneath the game, because the potential ending the game had 10 hours ago was better.

Beyond the game is an absolutely stellar in the presentation department. There is an attention to detail in crafting the environments that is enjoyable to anyone that has a major geek fetish for the original Alien. The aforementioned retro-future equipment consists of state of the art computers built on CRT styled monitors that is both endearing for its absurdity and a faithful adaptation of the world in the Alien universe. It’s also a game built to take advantage of your surround sound system, because the atmosphere is made all the more potent when you can hear and feel that ship rumble through your speakers.

Other aspects of the presentation aren’t as strong, because while the character models are pretty good, they have poor lip-syncing, which makes for jarring dialogue exchanges both in-game and in the pre-rendered cutscenes.

All in all, this makes Isolation impressive and disappointing all in one go. When it clicked, it was a beautiful piece of horror fiction built on meticulous pacing and rhythm that finally represented what made the original Alien film so special, only in video game form. Then there is the more bombastic, boring, bloated second half that robs the game of the tension it did such a great job building up. But to say I didn’t like it would be lie, because I dug the hell out of the game. Isolation is sloppy and way too long, but it’s also an exciting piece of horror done correctly in the triple-A space. I’ll take the good with the bad; it’s not like this is Aliens: Colonial Marines.

 

Ridley Scott’s Alien > James Cameron’s Aliens out of 10

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