“In space, no one can hear you scream”. That is the tagline behind Alien, one of the most iconic horror films of the late 1970s. Directed by Ridley Scott, it made Sigourney Weaver and her character Ellen Ripley a household name, also starring talent such as John Hurt as Executive Officer Kane. But it was H.R. Giger’s Alien design that became ingrained into our subconscious minds. But subsequent instalments of the franchise either took a more action-orientated turn or failed to live up to the tense horror of the first film.
Alien Isolation is therefore a brave effort from The Creative Assembly of rekindling that suspense into a videogame setting. Many would associate the Alien itself as the sole terror, but really this survival horror makes even nervous humans or corrupt androids a real threat. As Amanda Ripley, you receive intelligence that the flight recorder of the Nostromo, which has clues as to where her mother Ellen Ripley might be, was recovered by the Space Station Sevastapol. It immediately becomes apparent that all is not right.
“It’s using the air shafts.”
As soon as you boot up the game, the attention to detail in the visual fidelity is apparent. It may not be the most impressive looking game, but it matches the set design of the future depicted by the films. The temperamental lighting, the random clanging of the ventilation shafts above, and the suspenseful music that accompanies you throughout only add to the atmosphere, ensuring edge-of-the-seat tension. Some of the voice acting is B-Movie quality, but this is rarely an apparent problem.
The horrors of each inhabitant become abundantly clear. Humans have resorted to flee or loot after a revolution on board. Androids seem to be suffering a system malfunction that enables them to break Asimov’s laws of robotics, the revelation being a brutal display of violence. These threats can be somewhat dealt with by sneaking past their more predictable patterns or exploiting ventilation shafts, but occasionally you will need to sprint past them.
In fact, the stealth orientated gameplay is the bulk of the gameplay experience. You can use rudimentary radar to keep track of anything that moves, hide under tables or inside cupboards, and peek around or over cover. But as a space engineer rather than a soldier, you’re not well trained for combat, meaning that firearms are limited to a small number and of varying effectiveness depending on your assailant. By choosing to make engaging in combat more troublesome than simply gunning your way through, The Creative Assembly have purposefully made every scenario tense.
“I admire its purity”
But where things get really tense is when the Alien is skulking in the shadows. Unlike most of the enemies, the Alien is a living AI that is able to learn how to detect you. If you have avoided it by hiding under tables beforehand, it will soon begin to look under every table in the hopes of finding you. A heavy reliance on crafted gadgets, such as the Noise Maker, will soon teach it that the gadget came from somewhere and begin scoping the nearby area more carefully. Even on the easiest difficulty it will learn patterns based on your actions.
This results in two important elements that make Alien Isolation intense. By changing the rules often associated with both stealth and survival horror games; it’s difficult to ever feel safe. While the Alien may not be visible, it might be in the ventilation shaft above you, stalking you, waiting for you to make a mistake or to trigger a loud noise. It wants to be certain of where you are.
The importance of making this game in the first person perspective is apparent when you are hiding. You can see the Alien through the slits in that locker you are hiding in. It’s scoping the room carefully. Sometimes it leaves. Sometimes it wanders out of view only to come back for another look. The anticipation reaches breaking point and this is where the most primal fear kicks in. The fear of being discovered. It’s genuinely thrilling.
Eventually you will be discovered and meet your unfortunate demise. This sadly leads to one major flaw with Alien Isolation – saving progress. It’s a ruthless game where both save points and hiding spots become more difficult to source as you head further into the depths of the Sevastapol. Having saving take time to initiate is a great touch to add further tension, but we could have done with a few more dotted around certain sections depending on difficulty. Having large chunks of gameplay time wasted thanks to an overly observant Xenomorph is frustrating, especially if you spent a lot of time planning your moves. As such, this game soon becomes a bit of a slog.
“I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”
You’re also not doing a great deal beyond finding key items, unlocking doors, and hacking into terminals to fiddle with the lighting or grab an access code. The imprecise nature of the waypoint system can have you wandering aimlessly trying to find a particular item, only for the Alien to sneak up behind you and stab you with its tail through the stomach.
But if you forgive the shortcomings, Alien Isolation is probably one of the most exciting survival horror games to come in recent years. It gets the tone, tempo, and terror right; but it’s how you can see the inner workings evolve over time that is the most impressive. Typically survival horror games have had rather basic AI, making the scare factor limited to jump scares. Alien Isolation scares you through that feeling of dread and impending demise, scares that psychological horror films have used for years; that fear of the unknown, the stuff of nightmares. It took 35 years, but we finally have that Alien game that truly gets what the original film envisaged.