Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Alien: Isolation (Video Game Review)

Of all the horror games released this year Alien: Isolation was always going to be the big one. Even before getting into the obvious hype behind the trailers, even before getting into the competition with Evil Within, Alien: Isolation was going to be fighting an uphill battle. Aliens: Colonial Marines had been an unmitigated disaster, with promotional material outright lying about its quality and enthusiastic fans had been outraged about what they had been given. Worse still, Prometheus had faced an extremely divisive reception and it had been the better part of an age since we had last seen a truly great Aliens game. The franchise quite frankly needed a shot in the arm, and with The Creative Assembly being best known for their RTS titles (not all of which underwent the best QA testing, as shown by Rome: Total War II) , the hype behind this title was extremely tempered. Thankfully, Alien: Isolation is everything the fans were promised.

Set some time after the events on-board the Nostromo, Amanda Ripley is contacted and informed that Wayland-Yutani operatives have found the vessel's black box recorder. Wanting answers, she joins two other operatives from the company to collect it from Sevastopol station. Unfortunately for them, Sevastopol has an unwanted guest stalking its halls...

Let's be very clear here: The trailers did not lie about this game. Everything you've seen in the gameplay, even the bits in the CGI'd trailers, all of that can be replicated in the game. You spend nearly all the time running, hiding and scavenging for your life, and the xenomorph itself is effectively death incarnate. Facing down this thing directly is not an option. You need to run, hide or sneak about it however you can, and you will certainly die to it many times over. The creature has been elevated from its previous status in so many titles as cannon fodder, and entire levels can be depleted of all life by this thing working on its own.

The alien's programming is its true genius, following no distinct patrol patterns which can be predicted, learning from choices the player has made and even waiting to ambush them at key points. The monster never feels truly familiar or ever begins to seem like a threat which can be easily dodged with the right tactics, and every action about it has an element of chance. Shadowing its movements might allow you to stay safe for a while, but it might suddenly turn around and head right back down the corridor towards you. Throwing a sonic device to distract it might work or, if horribly botched, it could lead the beast right to your hiding spot. Managing the calculated risks of your each and every action is crucial to playing the game, and it never fails to make the xenomorph a terrifying presence.

The alien isn't alone however, and there are countless other threats present throughout Sevastopol which could bring Amanda to an equally sticky end. Panicked, frightened human survivors stalk the corridors in groups, driven to such heights of paranoia they often shoot first at anything in sight. A few bullets will take down Ripley just as quickly as a barbed tail, and their behaviour can be outright irrational at times. Even without seeing Ripley a few might opt to put shots into vents if they consider her to be hiding nearby, giving the xenomorph sound to zone in on. 
These are the last of the player's problems though, and they can be trusted to serve as a good distraction. The Working Joe synthetics on the other hand are an entirely different matter. Cumbersome and slow moving, their true menace comes from the sheer amount of damage they can soak up. Any fight against one will be an arduous affair, and even if you opt to flee, they will likely herd you into a location where the xenomorph can finish you off. With the added problem of never earning the alien's ire they remain a constant obstacle which can often be a bigger threat than the gribbly alien itself, often operating in groups to make up for their flaws.

As anyone who has seen any of the promotional material can attest, The Creative Assembly went the extra mile when it came down to replicating the dystopian design of this future. The late 70s sci-fi look has been praised many times over, from the minor quirks of the computer screens to the dated designs of so many environmental elements. The entirety of the station retains the oil rig look of the Nostromo and kudos has to be given for the sheer level of detail they went into here. While it does not feature quite so many human elements as fans might have wanted (signs that this was once a truly thriving station home to workers, families and the like), the deep shadows and curving designs force you to always remain on edge. So many of the pipes, alcoves and air vent systems allow for enemies to hide or blend into the background, turning them into true terrors. It becomes remarkably easy to stumble into a foe by rounding a corner too fast or mistaking them as a part of the environment, building a palpable sense of paranoia in any player.

This is a true horror game right down to its shriveled decaying heart, and the title revels in the ability to make players scared, vulnerable and ensure it's very clear just how hopelessly out of your depth you truly are. While this is something we saw done with great success in the likes of Amnesia, the title takes things to the next level in a very unexpected way: Giving the player options to fight back.

Amanda has the ability to pick up a few very scarce weapons here and there which allow players to hit or even shoot back. There's the odd pistol, scraps of ammo, even flamethrowers in places. However, these will have varying degrees of effect and using them is often a last ditch choice. Bullets will take down humans quickly but are loud, noisy and few in number, and it will take most of your stash to bring down a single Working Joe. The flamethrower is the same, but with an added short range to worry about. The real killer though? None of these work against the xenomorph, which is completely invulnerable to any harm. So while you have the way to fight back, doing so only makes things infinitely worse for you. In many respects this makes it far more effective than Amnesia or Outlast's own violence free approaches to gameplay, as the desire to fight back is there, but trying to do so will only damn you.

Now, let it be clear: This game is good. That said, it's also very flawed. Why? Because so many elements here are double edged swords, hurting the game as much as benefiting it. Alien: Isolation is definitely a high quality title, but for every step forwards it made, there was ultimately another problem it creates for itself.

The biggest point among these is the save system The Creative Assembly opted to use. With autosave completely gone, the player has to far more carefully manage risks and sneak from manual save point to manual save point. It creates greater tension, knowing that your every failure could mean sneaking through the station all over again and the loss of considerable progress. 

This is the good side obviously, the bad one is that it brings back the failings and reasons why these were largely abandoned in such games in the first place. More than once you can find yourself hung up on especially difficult sections or going through the same scene over and over again because the xenomorph opted to run into you on a whim. This is effective at first, but over time things can turn from terror to plane old frustration at this mechanic, especially towards the end. This might not even be so bad in of itself were it not for the additional fact that enemies can attack you while you're trying to save. So some players will run into moments where they are a second away from saving their data, only for some panicked scavenger to unload a revolver into their back.

The subject of being stuck and dying over and over again was a big concern with the build-up to the game's release, and it's unfortunately a failing Alien: Isolation doesn't entirely escape. To put it simply: The xenomorph is way too good at its job. The terror of its heightened intelligence, speed and sheer lethality are all major bonuses in its favour, but they can easily work against it. Knowing it can easily kill you at the drop of a hat and being taken down once or twice is fine. Being relentlessly killed over and over again because it's too good at its job can actually harm the game. It can mean the player stops seeing it as the xenomorph and more of an obstacle, as a result any fear is rapidly replaced by simple frustration.

It would be one thing to say this only happens on occasions, but there are a few distinct points where you'll just be banging your head against a brick wall. Difficulty is not a bad thing, but the frustration here sometimes came from elements which were completely out of the player's control, and could not be accounted for. Some of these also tie into another big problem - graphical glitches. While of a far better quality than Rome: Total War II, the game is plagued by a few aggravating graphical glitches. These will no doubt be patched out in time, but for the moment they remain a clear failing. These glitches range from immersion breaking moments such as the floor disappearing during the final area during a brief cutscene to ones which can kill you. How? By blocking off certain parts of the areas and blinding you to threats.

The creators say that the game should be played on Hard to properly experience the entire game in its full. While definitely a title well worth getting for anyone even slightly invested with the Aliens franchise or past survival horror successes, buyers should be mindful of the game's problems. so long as you're aware that there will be moments where you'll want to break your controller in half out of sheer anger at yet another unfair death, at having to fight a constant uphill battle, this is one well worth your time.


  1. I'm glad you brought up that save system and dying bit, I wasn't aware of those and that does sound frustrating and being attacked while you are saving sounds like a pretty major problem, though I'm still going to pick this one up since besides that, it looks like I'll enjoy it a lot.

    1. Yeah, it's a truly angering element at times. The game didn't need a full auto-save system but it really could have benefited from automatically saving your progress at some specific points or re-thinking the positioning of certain save points. The first few times you are killed and have to go through a section again are genuinely tense as it makes you want to die even less than usual, the tenth time on the same bit, not so much. That said, it's definitely one you should pick up this October and the best horror title of this Halloween.