There is no shortage of games that have been based on the Aliens movie. Heck, even Starcraft is basically an unlicensed Aliens versus Predator game! But games that have the Aliens name on them have a very shaky track record. Some have been good. Others have been absolutely terrible. Last year's highly-anticipated Aliens: Colonial Marines (by Gearbox) just might have been the worst of the bunch, and left a very sour taste in fans' mouths.
But this new game is different. It's developed by Creative Assembly (of Total War fame), and its actually based on the first film of the franchise: Alien (singular).
Where the sequel Aliens is a high-octane sci-fi action film about a battalion of macho space marines being put in their place by a hive of aggressive xenomorphs, Alien is a much slower and more cerebral sci-fi horror movie about a group of space truckers who get picked off one by one by a single hostile xenomorph. This shift in focus from the action-packed sequel to its smarter horror predecessor is a welcome change for the franchise and a breath of fresh air in AAA game development. For over a decade now, horror has been on the decline when it comes to big-budget games. This is thanks in part to Resident Evil 4, and the only major horror game that's come out since has been Dead Space. It seemed that the slower, more cerebral style of horror that was popular during the PS1 and PS2 era (with games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill) was all but dead in mainstream gaming.
So does Alien: Isolation live up to the hype and breath new life into the classic genre of survival horror?
If Dead Space and Fallout had a baby...
Alien: Isolation does remind me a lot of Dead Space. This is no surprise considering that Dead Space was heavily inspired by the Alien(s) franchise (among others). I don't just mean aesthetically either. The actual level designs are reminiscient of Dead Space as well. The use of a bright light to signify interactive objects, the presence of a tram system for navigating between sections of the station, the crafting system, the various objectives that you are given over the course of the game, and even the use of engineering and maintenance tools as weapons all gave me vivid flashbacks to EA's sci-fi horror shooter. The only thing that separated the two is the 1970's and '80's-era technology aesthetics of the Alien franchise, rather than the sleek, holographic interfaces of EA's Dead Space.
Creative Assembly's commitment to the movie's outdated aesthetics is commendable.
Speaking of 70's/80's design, the dev team mimicked the technology of the original film very closely, which gives the game a retro charm akin to another sci-fi gaming franchise: Fallout. Computers are boxy and monochrome, and the devs added further retro charm by requiring the use of the keyboard in order to interact with the text-based displays. There's even boom boxes scattered around. This game definitely didn't re-invent the technology of the source material to make it look like a sleek Apple Store in the way that Paramount did with Star Trek.
Intentionally or not, this also has the effect of making the setting feel very old and run-down, which helps with the themes of corporate decay and the sense of isolation.
In fact, this theme of corporate decay seems to quickly and thoroughly usurp the narrative of the game. Once you step onto the station, the game becomes less about Amanda looking for her mother, and becomes almost exclusively focused around dealing with the fact that the station is dysfunctional. The missing mother plot is practically completely dropped until it is resolved midway through the game, only to be replaced by the desire to prevent the alien from leaving the station becoming the main motivation of the character. But since the station's decay becomes the primary narrative of the game, that story is handled pretty exceptionally. The environment design, missions, and gameplay systems all reinforce this narrative theme almost expertly.
Even the game's start-up splash screens and menus have a distinct retro quality. From the 20th Century Fox logo, complete with film grain and static, all the way up to the game's loading screens, the devs were completely committed to replicating the classic sci-fi look and feel. And the main menu is pretty gorgeous to look at and listen to. The humming of the gas giant's atmosphere blends perfectly with the ominous music, and the flowing of the clouds has a mesmerizing lava lamp quality. I wouldn't mind having this game's main menu running as a screensaver for my desktop.
I haven't liked a title screen this much since vanilla Civilization IV
Modern stealth horror with some old-school twists
The gameplay is mostly pretty straightforward and standard first person stealth. You sneak around and hide behind and under things, and occasionally use items in your inventory to distract or disable enemies. There's nothing really novel here except maybe for the motion tracker. The environments are well-suited to the style of gameplay, with lots of desks and tables to hide under, vents to crawl through, and interactive objects always have a bright green light on them to signify that you can use them (this includes computer terminals, lockers that you can hide in, and shelves that contain supplies).
The motion tracker has a nifty control that lets you change focus between the tracker and the background environment.
The default peek controls did give me problems though. Peeking is toggled by holding the control key and using the movement keys. The dev team had to break from the old convention of using Q and E to peek left and right because they also added an up and down peek that can't easily be mapped around the W, A, S, D keys. OK, that makes sense, but the cntrl key was just uncomfortable for me. It's a long way for my pinky to stretch, and took my pinky off of the A key.
Maybe I'm just behind on modern first person PC conventions, as I haven't played many first person games of late except for Among the Sleep and The Stanley Parable. Maybe I should practice putting my index, middle, and ring fingers on the D, S, and A key respectively, so that my pinky can be used for holding the run (shift) and peek (cntrl) keys? But meh... The compromise that I came up with was just to assign the peek toggle to one of the unused mouse buttons, and that seems to be working pretty well for me.
Flares and the flashlight feel kind of pointless
since interactive objects and pickups glow.
The rest of the controls work fine, except that it would have been nice to have more options for mapping inventory items to hot keys, since the real-time, radial inventory menu can be clumsy when the alien is charging at you.
The crafting system does feel completely unnecessary though. I would much rather have been able to just pick up stuff in the environment and use it as distractions, instead of having to create a noisemaking machine out of bits of scrap. Why can't I just drop a wrench down a ventilation shaft and escape while the alien chases it? And seriously, a molotov cocktail is supposed to just be a bottle of alcohol and a rag. Why does the one in this game have to have complicated sensors and detonators and look like it was assimilated by the Borg?
I also have the same complaints with the crafting system here that I had with The Last of Us. The game places arbitrary limits on how much of each component you can carry. Since you can't drop one component to make room for another, there is no strategy or thought required for crafting. You just pick up everything that you can carry. And since you can craft anywhere (instead of having to use a crafting table or something), I was almost always able to keep myself fully-stocked with every inventory item.
Crafting is an unnecessary mechanic that requires very little strategy or thought.
It's all about first impressions
The alien doesn't seem very impressive. It doesn't show the mobility and cleverness of the creature in the film. It basically just drops down from a vent in the ceiling and then just walks around in circles looking for the player. It might as well just be some dude, rather than an alien creature.
It doesn't feel like it stalks, baits, or traps the player in the way that it does to the crew in the film. It rarely actively searches an area, and usually just walks around in circles for several minutes before retiring back to the ventilation shafts. I remember exactly one time in which I saw the alien look in an empty locker and under an empty desk so that I could feel the smug satisfaction of knowing that I didn't chose those places to hide.
Every other time, it just walked around. It seemed that if the game decided that I needed to die, then the alien just ran right up to where I was hiding and dragged me out without a moment's hesitation. So there's also a feeling of frustrating randomness to whether I lived or died that takes away from the sense of a cat-and-mouse hunt that the game was striving to replicate.
The alien also doesn't seem to have acid blood. Or at least, the acid never becomes a factor in gameplay, even though you and other surviving human NPCs might try shooting at it.
But most players might not even realize these nagging limitations of the alien design and A.I. because the buildup and introduction to the alien is handled absolutely perfectly. And perfect buildup is what players will remember!
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The alien teases the player by jumping out early in the game to eviscerate an NPC tag-along (thankfully before he gets too annoying), and the player must make a mad dash to a tram before the alien decides it's time for dessert. It also shows up briefly to mutilate some human scavengers that caused you some problems earlier in the mission, and all the while you have to try to sneak by [hopefully] unnoticed.
These sequences convey the speed and killing efficiency of the alien and reinforce the idea that it is invulnerable and must be avoided at all cost, since you do not want to be around when it decides it's time for lunch.
After being mostly absent for a couple missions while you deal with aggressive androids - hopefully learning the basics of hiding and using the various tools in your inventory - the alien finally properly introduces itself. Up until now, it had only been teasing you with brief appearances, and the occasional sudden kill that acts as a teaching moment (i.e. learning not to step under vents that have suspicious puddles of drool leaking out of them). But now it's ready to really make its presence known and begin hunting you.
This meeting with the alien in the medical center is a perfect conclusion to the solid opening act.
After leaving a room at the end of a dead-end hallway, you head back down the hall to your next destination. On the way, a vent pops open right in front of you, and the alien slowly uncurls onto the floor, highlighted by a blinking overhead light and some mist. It's a genuine pant-shitting moment, as you realize that you're still in full control of the character, and you need to find a place to hide right friggin now!
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Leaving the player in control when the alien emerges from the vents for the first time creates genuine panic and organic horror because anticipation is slowly built up and the onus remains on the player to get away. The alien could have been introduced in a cinematic, non-interactive cutscene, but Creative Assembly knew better than to do this so that the player could experience the "oh shit" moment instead of just sitting back and watching it. And it pays off wonderfully!
Save points and health bars are poorly utilized
So the alien ends up being both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of this game.
Every now and then, it shows up at the moment of absolute highest tension and you are forced to quickly scramble for a hiding spot or distraction. And if you survive that heart-pounding moment, then the game really shines as you sit under a desk waiting for your pulse to return to normal. But surviving is much more frustrating and difficult than it needs to be thanks to the insta-death nature of the alien.
Saving the game can leave you temporarily
exposed and vulnerable.
I appreciate the presence of a health bar and manual saving. Most save points are a little bit out of the way, and using a save point requires several seconds of waiting. This adds to the tension of the game, as a save point isn't an automatic "safe point"; you are completely vulnerable and exposed during the few seconds standing at the save console. This sense of partial vulnerability is augmented by the audible beeping that the save consoles make. You know when a save point is nearby, and it toys with your emotions because you want to make a mad dash to it, but you know that doing so might get you killed! I love these elements of the save system's design!
But the overall implementation has some problems. Traditional survival horror games that required the player to save progress at pre-determined save points relied on attrition and inventory-management as being one of the primary challenges of the game and the source of the player's sense of vulnerability. Many of those games also had non-linear exploration and puzzles that could be approached from different angles if you had to replay a large chunk of gameplay.
Alien: Isolation doesn't have any of those design elements consistently through the game, so the existence of save points and the use of a health bar feel kind of moot for most of the game. It all works fine in the few early missions where you are battling the androids. If they catch you, they only do small amounts of damage, and running away from an encounter is possible and viable. It creates a sense of vulnerability as your resources are slowly depleted. It's just too bad that the androids aren't scary or difficult to deal with.
But in the areas where you are sneaking past gun-toting humans or the alien (especially prior to obtaining the flamethrower), being spotted usually means an instant death. That sense of vulnerability that was created earlier now transitions into a sense of futility.
Areas where the alien's activity level peaks can be particularly frustrating due to its insta-death nature.
These areas also tend to be very linear, occupying set pieces made up of only a few hallways and rooms. So if you die, you restart at the save point and have to walk back through the same steps verbatim. There's very little - if any - freedom to try an alternate route or strategy, especially if you are low or out of supplies. And you can't decide to try an alternate objective either, since the game never gives you more than one possible solution to a given area. So it ends up being the same as if the game did have autosaves, except now you might miss a save point and have to start over from further back.
Wasting time hiding in lockers get tedious
if you keep getting dragged out and insta-killed.
There are also annoying peaks in difficulty, where the alien is particularly active and aggressive, and has an annoying habit of pinning you in a position where you can't leave a hiding spot or else it will drop down right on top of you. In these areas, you spend so much time in hiding just waiting, so if you are killed, going back through the area again is boring and tedious. This isn't an action game like Uncharted or The Last of Us in which you replay exciting action scenes when you die. Here, you have to replay sitting in a locker.
Getting the trauma kit from the medical center, and locking down the maintenance area were particularly challenging for me because the alien wouldn't even give me ten seconds of leeway to advance. During these section, I suffered dozens of deaths, many of which felt unavoidable, even though I was fully stocked on crafted inventory items. It was so frustrating that I eventually lowered the difficulty back down to Medium (Hard is the recommended default setting) just to get past the section. Though, once I got the flamethrower, I set it back to Hard.
These repeat deaths also served to desensitize me to the alien, so that it stopped being scary for the remainder of the game.
The linear paths does have the advantage of allowing the designers to better control the pacing of the game, and unlocking new areas is handled pretty well. As you progress, you'll acquire tools that will allow you to access previously-inaccessible locations. But you don't have to backtrack because the game's missions will bring you back to those locations later to allow you to use your new tools. Returning to a place you've already explored, thus, maintains some interest and excitement, since you can still explore new rooms for supplies and backstory. It's very similar to how Batman: Arkham Asylum handled its unlockables, and it works very well. The designers could re-use existing locations without feeling repetitive, instead of having to add more content.
Unfortunately though, the second half of the game does drag a bit. It becomes a lot of just walking from place to place without much getting in your way. It's presented as a long sequence of "puzzles" and problem-solving exercises, but the answer to every puzzle is just "push all the bright, green buttons". Fortunately, the final few chapters pick up the pace and racket up the suspense quite a bit even if they do throw out some of the core mechanics that you've been practicing for the past 20 hours.
Still the best Alien(s) game that I've ever played
This game excels in terms of aesthetic design and faithfulness to the source material, and is competent in most fundamental mechanical regards. But it drops the ball a bit on its horror ambitions by desensitizing the player to the alien's presence. And without the alien being frightening (or present, as the case may be), the rest of the game is just a boring walk through a decrepit space station.
I've definitely played better horror games, and Alien: Isolation doesn't quite live up to the film on which it is based. But this is still a very solid horror title and easily the single, best game based on the Alien (or Aliens) franchise that I've ever played. If you're a fan of the franchise, then it should be very easy to overlook this game's shortcomings and frustrations, and it will likely make you forget all about last year's abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines.