Those of you who’ve been around for a while might remember that one of the first titles I reviewed for Midlife Gamer was Alien: Colonial Marines. I wasn’t shy about expressing my deep dislike for the title, describing it as “an embarrassment to the franchise”. When the rumours of a ‘real Alien game’ started circulating a mere few months later, it’s fair to say my enthusiasm had been somewhat dampened. An official announcement came in January of this year, with the developers Creative Assembly, better known for their work on the Total War series, stated “we have taken the series back to the roots of Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie, the original survival horror“, before boldly adding, “This is the Alien game fans of the series have always wanted.” Bold words, and we’ve heard them before. Can Creative Assembly deliver an Alien game befitting of it’s title, or is this another title that should be jettisoned off into space?
Set 15 years after Alien, Isolation follows Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen, as part of a Weyland-Yutani team who are sent to recover the Nostromo’s flight recorder from a space station named Sevastopol. After gaining entrance to the station, Amanda finds it severely damaged and the remaining humans on board reduced to murderous scavengers, who are terrified of something else within Sevastopol. Amanda soon discovers this predator to be the titular Alien, leaving the rest of the game as her battle to leave the stricken space station, battling not only the Xenomorph but also other humans, androids and underhand intentions from Weyland-Yutani themselves.
For any fan of the Alien film, one of the things things you’ll notice is the absolutely stunning recreation of the universe Isolation is set within. While I wouldn’t class myself into the category of an obsessive fan who analyzes the minute details, as someone who enjoys the films everything in Isolation felt ‘right’. From the design of the interior of the station to the lighting models used, Alien Isolation is the first franchise game that has got the design side absolutely correct. Sound direction is wonderful too. The soundtrack is minimalist at best, and often completely nonexistent, leaving you only with the sounds of your movement, of distract creaks, of mysterious clatters that forces you to spin around to see if you’re being followed, and, most iconic of all, the blip from your motion tracker.
One interesting technique employed by Creative Assembly is that the Xenomorph itself is less of something that you need to defeat or kill, and instead is something you are to avoid, essentially as a somewhat more terrifying game of hide and seek. While it will turn up at certain scripted moments, for the remainder of the game it employs its own AI, stalking you through the station.
I’m not particularly a man who plays games for a challenge, I’m more the type who sticks the difficulty on Normal and enjoys them for relaxation. Sure, I don’t mind the occasional section that’s a bit tougher but I’ll generally avoid anything that I’ve heard to be particularly difficult (hence why I’ve avoided Dark Souls like the plague). True to form, I started Alien Isolation on standard difficulty…and soon came to completely regret that decision.
To give you an idea of how insanely difficult I’ve found Isolation, this review should have been handed in by early October. Admittedly, I’ve been distracted by other things, but I’ve gone back to this game at every opportunity possible and it’s still taken me this long to get anywhere near to being able to submit a review. As early as the third level, I spent 2 hours every night for a week trying in vain to just get through one section, just one room. I wasn’t even being pursued by the Alien, it was just 4 other human enemies. Eventually I gave up, consulted a Let’s Play video on YouTube and discovered that it should take less than 5 minutes to get through the room…and it still took me another 2 nights to manage it. Every night I was going to bed angry, unable to figure out what I was doing wrong.
On top of this anger was an incredibly large dose of tension because, my word, Alien Isolation will have you perched on the edge of your seat. Every sound, every shadow, every blip from your scanner, in fact every damn thing in this game is designed to keep adding more torque to the rack you’re on and, I’m not ashamed to admit, on more than one occasion I’ve simply had to walk away and stop playing because it’s become far too much for me. At one point I was froze on the spot for 10 minutes because I saw a fleeting glimpse of the Alien. Terrified that Kinect would pick up some movement or sound from me, I just sat there, silently paralyzed, until I forced myself to continue onwards. I later found out that this is all that happens at the brief moment, it’s simply a scripted moment and the Xenomorph won’t/can’t come find you, but that’s an indication of the state Isolation left me in.
The save system employed in Alien Isolation was another frustration for me. While I quite like the method employed (the player needs to activate little devices dotted throughout the levels), I often found them deployed far too sparingly and often at the ‘wrong’ place. I can see exactly why Creative Assembly have employed this method, the lack of any automatic saves greatly increase the tension and needing to look for the save points means you’re spending more time paying attention to the fantastic world they’ve designed, however it just didn’t work for me. It’s entirely possible that it’s just a personal frustration linked to, in particular, the section above I found extremely difficult. When I spent over a week replaying one tiny section, and each time dying with little indication of what I did done wrong, I was crying out for the ability to manually save.
When reviewing a game, there’s sometimes a difficult decision that needs to be made. Do you dislike the game because it’s bad, or do you dislike the game because you’re bad? In this case, I firmly believe it’s the latter. I know that in many ways Alien Isolation is superb; the setting is perfect, the enemy terrifying and the tension is utterly crushing, just as it should be. That tension though, and the difficulty in general, it destroyed me. I title this a ‘(sort of) review’ because I’m also not going to give Alien Isolation a score. I’ve not finished it and I’m not sure I will ever mange to fully understand the mechanics employed here, meaning that my personal inability to play the title would unfairly drag the score down. I do hope though that this collection of thoughts will allow you to make a decision on whether to purchase it or not.
35 years on from Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, we have an Alien game that the source material deserves, however it isn’t a game for the common masses. Many will find it frustrating, claustrophobic, and the constant tension almost smothers the game and becomes unbearable at times. If you’re a fan of stealth games, can handle the trial and error style gameplay and some moments where you feel as if you’re just banging your head against a brick wall, there’s probably a gem of a title in here.
Format: PlayStation 4 / PlayStation 3 / PC / Xbox One / Xbox 360 Release Date: 07/10/2014
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Alien Isolation by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 3 months on a Xbox One. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.