With two different approaches to the same material in Alien and Aliens, Ridley Scott and James Cameron inspired a generation of film and videogame creators. Once stripped of Cameron’s sardonic war protest, Aliens’ machismo and large calibre firearms has been an easier graft for games, which, for most of the 30 years since Aliens was in cinemas, have been expert in peddling testosterone-saturated power fantasies to young men. Just look at last year’s abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines: a schlocky and superficial first-person shooter that had none of Scott’s tension or Cameron’s subtext.
Alien: Isolation draws most of its inspiration from Scott’s original 1979 film. The game is almost pure survival horror, an obvious but almost totally overlooked genre fit for the Alien license. It has been 15 years after Ellen Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo mysteriously disappeared, and Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, is working as an engineer. When a salvage vessel discovers the Nostromo’s flight recorder, the Weyland Yutani Corporation offers Amanda a working position on the recovery crew and a chance at closure.
Inevitably, what should’ve been a straightforward retrieval mission goes terribly wrong and Amanda soon finds herself alone in the sprawling darkness of the Sevastopol space station.
Much moreso than Amanda and the alien, Sevastopol is the real star of Isolation. The Creative Assembly has captured with exquisite precision the lived-in retro-future of the H.R. Giger’s Alien universe. In it, magazines with ’70s design sensibilities and advertisements for cigarettes are scattered amongst the discarded clothing and detritus. Boom boxes play cassettes. Even the floral prints on shirts are dreadfully, rapturously dated.
Naturally, The Creative Assembly’s dogged attention to capturing that aesthetic extends to the series’ iconic technology. Dimly luminescent green text and rudimentary 2D images display on curved CRT monitors: Space Invaders would be entitled to scoff with haughty superiority. Communication is carried out over crackling, two-way radio; over. A hopelessly uninformative motion tracker blips with increasing panic. Closed circuit feeds relay heavily granulated images of a space station that, in these few shots, is deliberately designed to look like a model from an ’80s movie set. Even the most demanding Alien fans will delight in exploring The Creative Assembly’s slavishly exacting realisation here.
It’s just as well because in most other ways, the characterisation in Alien is poor. It’s a continued indictment on gaming that The Creative Assembly can be congratulated for creating a capable female protagonist who dresses appropriately for the job at hand. Nonetheless in her dialogue Amanda often comes off as too cold and distant to be interesting. Furthermore, the supporting cast largely fails to do just that, instead hacking up fur balls of poorly lip-synched exposition before being dispatched in predictably gruesome fashion by the alien.
Taking its pacing cues from Scott, it’s some time before The Creative Assembly reveals the alien. Once it has, the real genius and frustration of Isolation comes into sharp focus. Rather than appearing solely at scripted moments, The Creative Assembly’s alien runs on a complex AI system, and can show up almost anywhere with very little notice. The alien cannot be killed by any means available to Amanda, but The Creative Assembly cleverly plays on gamer expectations by providing them an arsenal of guns. In fact, firing one – perhaps in self-defense at another desperate and unhinged survivor looking for a way off Sevastopol – will more likely attract the alien. Instead, Amanda must hide under tables and inside lockers, or crawl into air ducts.
It’s difficult to convey the terror that The Creative Assembly’s alien can induce through its one-hit kill and its randomness. Often, it will stalk past Amanda’s hiding place, only to pause, retrace its steps, rip into her hiding place, and kill. Worse still is hearing that horrible hiss coming from behind when crawling through a vent. You’ll find yourself holding your breath along with Amanda, and startling when your phone goes off with a text. It’s the sort of game you’ll take frequent breaks from just to settle your nerves.
Often, it feels just plain unfair, and it’ll take a certain old school gaming mentality not to be incredibly frustrated at least once by the lack of checkpoints and, usually, the long passages of play between saves. It’ll also provide you with some of your best gaming stories for a half a decade. It’s a highly personal experience, but also a highly communicable and relatable gaming experience.
It’s not entirely flawless. Beyond the lousy dialogue and poor lip-synching, some of the animations also fail to inspire wonder. Where the game really lets itself down is in its over-long duration. It’ll take between 15 and 20 hours to play through Isolation, which will largely depend on how the alien behaves in your game, and correspondingly, how much time you’ll spend cowering under desks. That’s a long time to suspend terror, and The Creative Assembly pads it with plenty of busywork and content that drags down the overall experience.
Until recently, Sevastopol was run by the Seegson Corporation, which manufactures a line of faceless androids called Working Joes. There’s a long and decidedly dull passage of gameplay focuses almost exclusively on combating Working Joes, and here Isolation begins to make some of the same mistakes that have damaged past games based on the films. Playing it, you’re left to wonder how much better Isolation might’ve been if it had focused more tightly on its more unique qualities.
Even some lumpy padding can’t hold Isolation down for too long. Sevastopol is a remarkable achievement in environment building, and the emergent terror and opportunity created by the alien’s AI is a unique experience that all fans of survival horror should experience.