Alien: Isloation Review (Xbox One)
The Alien franchise has been revered by sci-fi and horror fans for decades, but to this point, the defining experiences for the series in the world of video games have largely been action-fueled adventures. Almost no one has ever tried to invoke the sheer terror of the original film, and put players in a position where they were completely incapable of fighting back against the most terrifying monster to ever lurk in the cold depths of space. Until now. Creative Assembly's Alien: Isolation is not just a brilliant homage to the original film, it's also given us plenty of reasons to be completely afraid of the dark again.
Atmosphere is everything when trying to create not just a sense of immersion for the player, but also when trying to keep that player on his toes. Part of what made the 1979 film so intensely memorable was setting it aboard the tight confines of the Nostromo itself. Alien: Isolation takes this one step further, and traps its protagonist Amanda Ripley on the space station Sevastopol. There might be a few more places to run and hide on the larger expanse, but the overall feeling of claustrophobia is still incredibly strong.
The Nostromo was a character unto itself in the film, and here, Creative has done a nice job giving Sevastopol its own personality, though it's one that borrows heavily from the design work of H.R. Giger, Moebius and the rest of the phenomenal art team Ridley Scott put together. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that either. By adhering so closely to the design template, Alien: Isolation becomes immediately familiar, and the building blocks put in place all those years ago help Creative Assembly construct a new house of horror that instills fear just as much as awe.
If the continued callbacks to 'Alien' seem to be coming at a rapid pace, it's because Alien: Isolation is so closely tied to that first film. Set some years after the incident on the Nostromo, the ship's flight recorder has been recovered. Now in her mid-20s, Ripley's daughter Amanda has a chance to get some closure on her mother's disappearance. As an engineer for Weyland-Yutani, she's been allowed to travel with the recovery team to Sevastopol to attempt uncovering the truth about what happened to the Nostromo's crew. Of course, as anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the film franchise can attest, Weyland-Yutani's motivations are almost never sincere, and there's a larger get awaiting the Company on Sevastopol: a Xenomorph specimen.
While many of the main story beats are interesting and keep you engaged, Amanda herself is a rather uninteresting lead. Perhaps it's because her lineage works against her. Ellen Ripley has had an entire series of films to grow, but in particular, her character as we know her in the first film is still given plenty of room to shine in an ensemble cast. The same just can't be said for Amanda, even though she's supposed to be shining brightly at the center of the entire piece. The emotional attachment we have to Amanda is provided by our knowledge of Ellen, and the few big beats that are supposed to resonate for the daughter ring a bit hollow. We feel more for Ellen, who is absent from the game almost entirely. It's strange to feel more empathy towards a ghost than the "living" person we're embodying in a game, but that's exactly what happens in Alien: Isolation.
Then again, part of that lack of emotional resonance for Amanda could also lie in the decision to put Alien: Isolation in first-person. It's a brilliant idea, by the way. Quietly strolling through the halls, being forced to keep aware of your surroundings with only the eerie sounds of the Sevastopol to keep you company is part of what makes Isolation such a success from a gameplay standpoint. However, that success in immersion and putting you in the place where the bad things are happening comes at a cost to the connection you have with the character. The emotions are yours, and while the fear and terror and sweaty palms and elevated heart rate you're experiencing are likely the same Amanda would face, those feelings are not capable of making her more than just another person. Were it not for her name, Amanda Ripley would be one of the least memorable characters in the Alien canon.
The Xenomorph, on the other hand, is quite a bit of a bastard. It doesn't say anything, as it's much more content to let its actions speak for themselves. When you finally do first confront the perfect specimen, the tension is palpable. You can taste your fear. Coming face-to-face with a legendary and fabled creature such as the Xenomorph instills such a panic in you, it's genuinely terrifying. Plenty of sci-fi and horror games have put us in dark hallways before. None of them had the Xeno lurking in the shadows, or the vents, or maybe it's in the wall over there. When it arrives, the entire dynamic of Alien: Isolation changes, and every step you take could be your last.
The Xeno AI is wonderful to watch at points, both frighteningly smart and strangely hypnotic, but there will come a time when its algorithms just make you plain frustrated. When it works, the Xeno stalks you like the best of hunters keeping a watchful eye on its prey. It's not wondering if you're going to be a good meal; It's already decided on what dessert will follow your main course. The lumbering thumps and cautious way it checks sightlines and corners would have you believe the Xeno was trained by the best military personnel on the planet. And then, there are those moments where the logic loop breaks down, and the Xeno just walks a continuous path around the same table over and over, preventing you from making the slightest attempt at escape. The instances happen infrequently, but since the Xeno is completely random and has no set path, save for a few major sequences, they'll still occur to you at least once or twice during your 18 hour playthrough.
Just as important as the Xeno's AI, though, is the incredible sound and lighting design that turns you from a normal human being with a good life into a tightly wound ball of stress that could snap at any moment. Sevastopol is an aging hunk of junk space station. The creaks, blowing gaskets, clacking and clicking, bursts of flame, flickering lights, all of it combines to craft a place that's real and that you definitely don't want to be in any longer than necessary. Even the formerly populated areas, with the couches and magazines and still burning cigarettes left in the ashtrays, do their absolute best to convey a sense of dread and despair the likes of which you will crumble before. At first, it's easy to dismiss sounds as mere space noise. Oh, that pipe clattering to the ground? Probably just a shift in orbit. Until it isn't, and instead of a shift in gravity, it's a seven-foot-tall lifeform bred for the singular purpose of consuming life and continuing its own breeding process through your death.
Fortunately, you do have a handful of tools at your disposal to help you make it through the day. The Xenomorph isn't the only threat on Sevastopol, and sometimes you'll have to dispose of a rogue grouping of scavengers or the occasional Asimov's law-breaking synthetic. Ammunition for the handgun and shotgun are rare, and are meant to be used as a last resort. Amanda is not a killing machine in the Colonial Marines. Weaponry exists, but its usage is not only rarely necessary, but it's also hardly recommended. You know what alerts a giant, murderous creature to your location really fast? The sound of exploding gun powder.
As an engineer, Ripley will also be able to craft Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs and noise makers (among other rudimentary tools) from parts and blueprints she salvages from the Sevastopol. Towards the final act, Ripley will also earn a flamethrower, not unlike her mother, which does a nice job of scaring the Xeno away for short durations. Don't ever think you'll be able to kill it though. Scare it. Run away. Live to do it all over again in a different part of the station. The motion tracker will also come in handy, but it doesn't do much to alleviate the sense of fear knowing that something is lurking ahead of you. Besides the flamethrower though, the motion tracker is your most valuable tool. Sometimes you'll be able to pit the unfortunate other survivors on the Sevastopol against the Xeno as a distraction, but in general, it's almost always better to avoid all contact with anything and anyone aboard the space station.
Beyond the main story, Alien: Isolation also includes a Survival mode, where you can test your mettle on timed stages to see if you can clear it faster than everyone else on the leaderboards. It's more of the same exciting terror, but this time it's intensified by knowing you have to make it out of a section alive in a certain amount of time. It's a fun distraction, but the core of Alien: Isolation's experience lies in the lengthy campaign.
From the art direction to the sound design, Creative Assembly nailed every single aspect in creating a believable world in which we were immediately immersed. Though the story may not have completely lived up to its namesake, the experience of being there on Sevastopol facing off against the most dangerous lifeform in the known universe was terrifying, chilling and absolutely nerve-wracking from start to finish. It's everything a longtime fan could have wanted, and should do well to dissuade newcomers from ever stepping foot near anything with the Weyland-Yutani name on it.
This review was completed using a retail copy of Alien: Isolation provided by the publisher for the Xbox One.