Over 35 years ago, Ridley Scott's Alien broke new ground for both science-fiction and horror films and launched a popular franchise that persists to this day. Despite its sterling reputation across a variety of media, there have been few, if any, decent video games that use the license. Most recently, the highly-anticipated Aliens: Colonial Marines became instantly notorious as one of the biggest and most disappointing flops since E.T. nearly destroyed the entire industry. The team behind Alien: Isolation, however, asks you to forget all that as it returns to the franchise's roots with a direct sequel to Ridley Scott's classic. The question, then, is whether this is just another failed attempt to bring xenomorphs into the gaming fold or whether they've finally managed to produce an experience that would make long-time fans proud.
|Wait, you play as a chick?
Fifteen years after Ellen Ripley blew up the Nostromo and shot the titular alien into the vacuum of space (spoiler?), her daughter, Amanda, is working in the same general area of space, devoting much of her energy into finding her lost mother. She is visited by an android from the company who tells her that the Nostromo's flight recorder has been recovered and that she can be one of the first to look at its contents at a nearly-decommissioned space station called Sevastopol. Once she arrives at Sevastopol, though, she finds the station in total chaos, with its citizens armed, terrified, and trigger-happy, its bargain basement androids in a murderous rampage that goes against their most basic programming, and an unknown creature roaming the halls and air-ducts, picking people off one at a time.
Amanda Ripley's story is similar to that of Dead Space's Isaac Clarke: she's an engineer who spends the majority of the game going from place to place on a derelict space station, fixing various systems while trying to uncover the secrets behind the alien presence on board. While she is as good at fashioning make-shift tools and weapons from the junk she finds lying around, she isn't as equipped for combat as Clarke. Indeed, in a firefight with a group of violent survivors or a confrontation with the Alien, she doesn't really stand a chance. She must instead rely on her capacity for stealth, carefully making her way around conflicts to reach the flight recorder she covets and make contact with anyone outside the station who might provide rescue.
|Looks like Ash's idea of news consumption is catching on
There are some surprises in store for Ripley, but most of the plot is fairly predictable for audiences familiar with the franchise. It's not hard to guess how the alien got on board or why the androids are running amok, but while those mysteries drive Ripley, the narrative is driven more by how she reacts to the revelations and how she can possibly make it off Sevastopol alive. Well-versed fans know that Amanda must survive, because we see a picture of her as an old woman in the extended version of the film's true sequel, Aliens. Still, that doesn't detract from the suspense, especially during the game's most harrowing moments in the final few chapters.
As a story, this doesn't offer anything new, but it is nonetheless satisfying for anyone who wants another taste of the Alien universe. The use of a new company, one that is losing out to the familiar Weyland-Yutani, is clever and cool, and much of the ancillary universe-building--largely discovered through computer terminals and audio logs--is well thought-out and interesting. The game is also careful to be wholly consistent with the universe we know, and to the best of my ability, I can't find any continuity errors or nitpicks. (There is one unanswered question that gnaws at me, but I can't write about it here without spoilers.)
[Story: 8 - The plot isn't ground-breaking, but it's tightly constructed, satisfying, and full of fan service.]
|Protip: don't walk under drooling air vents
While the genre of survival horror has been dominated by shooting mechanics practically since its inception, Alien: Isolation is best thought of as a stealth game more akin to Splinter Cell than Halo. For one, the halls of the station are largely empty, a big playground in which the sole alien can hunt you. There are guns and offensive weapons, but you use them at the risk of drawing unwanted attention. Besides, none of your weapons can kill the xenomorph. Humans and androids are fair game, but if you're outnumbered, your chances of surviving an encounter are very low.
In other words, this is a long game of hide-and-seek. You can hide in the station's plentiful lockers, under desks, or in one of the many vents (which all have the familiar sphincter-shaped doors from the movie). You can also distract enemies with improvised smoke bombs and noisemakers, and temporarily disable them with EMP mines or a stun baton. While your tool set makes you feel ill-equipped to handle the tasks in front of you--you can't even jump--you do gain the assistance of a motion-tracker early on. The tracker--explained in the game as a tool to find rodents--will let you see any enemies nearby, but it isn't fool-proof. For one thing, androids have an annoying tendency to stand perfectly still, so they don't always show up on your screen. Also, if you bring up your tracker with an enemy nearby, it will draw their attention. Using it near the alien is a guaranteed death sentence. (I also don't understand why the motion tracker doesn't pick up the movements of doors or heavy machinery, but that's just a nitpick.) There is an in-game map, but it can be more confusing than helpful, probably by design.
|Here we see one of the station's "working joes" providing the best in customer service
Of course, no survival horror game would be complete without mini-game puzzles, and Alien: Isolation incorporates them as relatively simple security hacks. Your security access tuner must be upgraded a couple of times throughout the game (along with a plasma torch), opening the map up to the possibility of Metroid-style backtracking. While hardcore collectors (such as myself) will be driven to roam familiar paths to get a lost ID tag or Nostromo log, most gamers will probably consider that unnecessary busywork. Luckily, the collectables aren't mandatory, so this game lets you play however you prefer.
The game does have an uneven difficulty curve, however. Your first run-in with violent survivors is frustratingly unforgiving, but once you get your motion tracker and a few blueprints (used to contruct the improvised devices), the game becomes easier for a long stretch. There is a point roughly half-way through the game where the game gets much easier, but then, once you get comfortable coasting along to the final act, the game very suddenly (and very dramatically) ramps up the difficulty once more. Luckily, save stations are incredibly common so the inevitable string of deaths you will face don't set you back very far.
-e. magill 11/3/2014