Survival of the fittest
To answer your first question: Yes, it?s better than Aliens: Colonial Marines.
That?s not much of a feat, I know, but Alien: Isolation does a bit more than not failing spectacularly. In fact, I?d say it succeeds as a genuine effort to capture the spirit of the film franchise in playable form, rather than a lazy attempt to use it as an easy backdrop for a cash-in with an ill-fitting genre.
Oddly enough, very little of that success has to do with the storytelling. Yes, placing Ellen Ripley?s daughter, Amanda, in the role of strong female lead does help ground Isolation in the tradition of the film, but her quest to the space station Sevastapol to discover her mother?s fate and the inevitable Alien encounter that follows don?t really captivate the way the best films in the series do. Isolation offers a few clever subversions of what you?d expect from an Alien tale, but so many of the story beats are repeated verbatim that it?s hard to be too engaged or surprised. In some respects, it feels like a sort of greatest-hits compilation or extended remix: not necessarily unenjoyable, but not really a substitute for the genuine article, either.
And while I won?t spoil anything major, it?s worth noting that Isolation?s story has a fairly significant third-act problem. By the time the credits roll, things have gone from grounded and human to just plain silly. The stakes are too high and impersonal, the explosions are too frequent, and the abrupt reversals of fortune are just too absurd and too many. Alien was a wonderfully small and intimate film; Isolation captures some of that magic early on but eventually falls into the too-common videogame trap of hollow Michael Bay excess.
No, where The Creative Assembly really captures the spirit of the Alien universe is the actual experience of playing Isolation. It?s a lot of little things?the perfectly re-created environments, the look and feel of the retro-futuristic technology and interfaces?and one very, very big thing. I mean, of course, the Alien himself, who lives up to his reputation about as well as you could hope for from a videogame foe. He?s quick, deadly, unpredictable, and smart enough to keep you on your toes.
In effect, every time he?s around, the game becomes a blown-out version of the original film?s climactic final showdown. You have some objective to accomplish, but the simple fact that you?re trapped in a room with such a deadly force means that you have to slink behind counters and hide in lockers to get there. Because the Alien?s behaviors aren?t canned?and because you have so few options for influencing him?even simple, repetitive tasks like crossing a room gain a new layer of tension that keeps them interesting. Even after you have the means to defend yourself courtesy of the flamethrower and Molotovs, you?re really only sending him away for the few seconds it takes to find a new hiding spot in exchange for precious resources, so he never really loses his edge.
What might surprise you about Isolation, though, is that it?s not exclusively a series of showdowns with the Alien. The Creative Assembly decided?smartly, I think?to use their star judiciously as one of many components of gameplay so as not to diminish his importance. You?ll also go through basic navigation, exploration to gather collectibles and resources for the crafting system, light puzzle solving, and encounters with two other types of enemies?human survivors and the station?s Working Joe androids. The former essentially take on the role of standard gun-toting stealth-game guards, with dedicated patrol patterns, less-than-keen senses, and an option to take them out with your guns or melee attack if sneaking past fails. The latter are Isolation?s analogue for slow-moving zombies. While you can easily outrun them, they?re relentless in their approach and fairly brutal in close-quarters situations when you?re outnumbered.
Each gameplay facet has a very different feel, and they?re blended together in various combinations to give the game a surprising amount of variety throughout. You might be pursued by the Alien through an area populated by humans, giving you a chance to turn one enemy on the other while you sneak by undetected. You might have to contend with Working Joes with the Alien on your tail, both of them apathetic to the other and solely focused on taking you down. Or you might find yourself in the middle of a battle between humans and androids and trying not to get caught in the crossfire.
Despite how it may sound, however, you?re rarely placed in situations where combat is a preferable option. If you want to take down humans, you?ll need to pick them off one by one, and ammo for your limited selection of weapons is relatively hard to come by. The lineup of craftable gadgets?flashbangs and smoke bombs, for instance?is similarly limited, since you?re only allowed to carry three of each at a time, and accessing the crafting interface to make more takes time and leaves you vulnerable.
To me, though, the best thing about the gameplay is that it isn?t afraid to demand something of players. The gospel of modern game design is all about accessibility and transparency, but Isolation bucks the trend in a way that calls to mind the era of titles like Thief: The Dark Project and the original Deus Ex. Isolation is, if not quite opaque, then at least clouded. It forces you to observe, experiment, and learn its rules for yourself. There are no checkpoints or regenerating health to keep you from backing yourself into a tough spot, so good judgment and planning are crucial.
There?s certainly freedom in how you play, but the choices you make are narrow, tense, uncertain, and sometimes unpleasant. You?re never picking between two or three empowering gameplay approaches. You?re deciding whether to sneak past a crowd of enemies and risk getting killed or to pick them off violently, use up scarce resources you might need later, and still risk getting killed. Stealth and survival-horror have mostly bled into action-adventure in pursuit of greater mainstream success, but Isolation is all too happy to pick up where those genres left off a decade ago.
I mean, can you think of any modern game where it?s possible to miss out on crucial gameplay tools just because you weren?t paying enough attention or exploring thoroughly enough? Apart from a few outliers like From Software?s Souls games, it?s practically unheard of, but Isolation pulls it off with confidence. In my playthrough, I had to make do without EMP grenades?handy for stunning groups of Working Joes?for a huge chunk of the game because I missed the blueprint to craft them. I was only able to add them to my arsenal when I found the upgraded version many, many hours later. I never found another piece of equipment, the pipe bomb, at all.
It?s not that I was lazy or rushing through the story, either. Isolation?s environments are complex areas that sprawl out just enough to make you believe Sevastopol exists as more than just a stage for Amanda Ripley?s adventures. Exploring them in depth requires you to pay careful attention to your map and your surroundings, to use rewire panels to reroute electricity to different parts of the station, to search for clues and passcodes on computer terminals?and that?s just what you have to worry about when you?re all alone. Whenever enemies are about, you have the added threat of death and the lost progress that comes with it, made all the worse by the fact that you?re always vulnerable to being spotted and killed, even while interacting with objects or using a save station. You?re never really owning space, just borrowing it.
For a game that?s all about survival, that?s a fairly ingenious design move. Tons of titles have tapped into that sort of risk-reward mechanic, but the presence of the Alien and the importance of the items that Isolation makes optional mean the tradeoff is more dire here. It?s not just a matter of not getting an extra medkit. You might lose out on an entire weapon and all of the strategic options it opens up. While it may sound a little brutal, the idea that your decisions to scavenge are meaningful?and that two people can have significantly different playthroughs based on what they do or don?t find?is undeniably neat.
Not every aspect of Isolation, however, manages to maintain the same level of quality. In addition to the aforementioned story issues, there are some noticeable technical problems. The framerate stutters regularly on the Xbox One, and the animation of the human characters just isn?t up to snuff. When they speak in-game, they?re dead-eyed and downright unpleasant to look at in an Uncanny Valley sort of way. A handful of gameplay sequences also fall completely flat; while they?re presumably intended as a way to break up the pacing, they mostly just involve walking around slowly while absolutely nothing interesting happens.
For some players, the biggest shortcoming might be that Isolation isn?t a consistently scary game?at least not in my experience. There were certainly some nail-biting combat moments against a horde of Working Joes and a few times the Alien caused me to jump out of my seat, but I didn?t feel the same pervasive dread I did with, say, the first Amnesia (or even the first Dead Space). If you were mainly interested in Isolation as a horror title, you might find yourself disappointed. It?s more like a 20-hour-plus survival game with the potential to deliver a handful of good scares throughout.
Still, it?s hard for me not be impressed with Alien: Isolation as a work of systemic design and a playable adaption of everything I love most about Ridley Scott?s 1979 film. Maybe I?m grading on a curve, but after a long line of uninspired or outright bad licensed games?Colonial Marines definitely included?I feel like I have to champion something that does so much interesting and uncompromising design work to make an established world come to life. To quote a decapitated android I once saw in a movie: I admire its purity.
|Developer: The Creative Assembly ? Publisher: Sega ? ESRB: M – Mature ? Release Date: 10.7.2014|
Alien: Isolation might not deliver the scary, intimate experience players expected for its entire running time, but smart design, good pacing, and a ton of gameplay variety more than make up for the lack of chills.
|The Good||Gameplay that captures the spirit of the original Alien film and demands something of players.|
|The Bad||Not as scary as you might have hoped; the story falls apart at the end.|
|The Ugly||Those zombified in-game facial animations.|
|Alien: Isolation is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Sega for the benefit of this review.|