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“ALIEN: ISOLATION: (Video Game Review)

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The concept behind ALIEN: ISOLATION, a single alien, and no weapons to fight it, may sound a bit foreign in an age of annual CALL OF DUTY sequels. So much of gaming has become shoot-everything-in-sight and worry about the rest later that this feels like a breath of fresh air in the word of AAA titles.  

Set fifteen years after the events of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, ISOLATION puts players into the shoes of Amanda Ripley, a resourceful engineer determined to find her long-missing mother. She accompanies a Weyland-Yutani search crew to Sevastopol, a nearly abandoned space station in remote space. Once there, things feel off instantly. The skeleton crew is nowhere to be found, desperate graffiti is scrawled across the walls, and there’s something moving around inside the vents.

It bears repeating: ALIEN: ISOLATION isn’t an action game. While there are weapons to grab, crowbars, pistols, and shotguns, none of these will help you when it comes to facing off against the dreaded xenomorph. The alien in this game plays for keeps, and once it gets your scent, it’s not going to stop hunting you. This is how it should be, restoring the xenomorph to a rightful, terrifying status. You’ll spend most of your time crawling on the floor, hiding under desks, jumping into lockers and holding your breath as the creature sulks past. It’s all you really can do to get from one objective to another, and the creature is almost always right around the corner. In this game, one false move is often your last.

ALIEN fans will appreciate the great care taken to replicate the atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s film. There isn’t a hint of James Cameron anywhere. All of the weaponry, gadgetry, and computers, are dazzlingly neo-retro—the logical fifteen-year progression of what existed in ALIEN. The care and love for that film extends into every facet of the game: sound effects and level design have been meticulously replicated and the story, while not terribly deep, serves as a worthy extension of ALIEN. Learning what happened to the station and how the Alien got on board is one of the many fun things about the game, giving players the chance to experience it first hand in a nifty flashback sequence that fans will adore.

Credit must go to developer The Creative Assembly for staying true to the general premise. The temptation must’ve been there to deteriorate this into an ALIENS-style climax with Ripley killing bugs by the dozens, but that never happens. Instead, ALIEN: ISOLATION is a twenty-five hour cat-and-mouse game that offers relentlessness for it’s entire duration. At times the tension is almost unbearable, the suspense incredible. I tip my hat to these devs for delivering so well on what was promised.

Like most, the game has a few flaws worth noting. For starters, it’s incredibly difficult. I played the first few missions on hard and had to reduce it to normal after an evening where I did nothing but try and escape a single corridor for the better part of two hours, only to die about thirty times. Most games have safety checkpoints, where the game automatically saves at moments when you make story progress, and if you happen to die after one of those, you simply restart at the last one. It’s almost a shock to discover this game doesn’t have that feature. It gives the game an increased sense of difficulty across all modes that it doesn’t need, creating a challenge boost that feels cheap and needless.

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What’s worse, you must save your game manually, and this can only be done at save stations found throughout your travels. It’s not uncommon to die before reaching one, and having to replay the last half hour or so of progress as a result of this mechanic. Also, if you save your game with an enemy close by, you may be killed as soon as you’re done saving. If you make this error (and I did), the game thankfully allows the option of reloading the previous save as well.

Those qualms aside, ALIEN: ISOLATION is also a difficult game in the best of ways. Ripley loses health at the drop of a dime, and in the moments where you must fight non-alien foes, you’d better play smart because you’ll take more damage than you can often give out. Oh, and if you make too much noise during battle, you’re going to get the alien’s attention too. Sometimes this can be used to your advantage, prompting the creature to wipe out enemies for you. Other times, the creature may decide what it really wants is you. It’s often erratic and unpredictable, which makes it much more frightening.

When the alien hunts you (which is frequently), the game really forces you to fly blind. You always feel like you’re making it by the skin of your teeth, and that’s one of the best things about the game. It’s survival horror at its finest.

Some have criticized the game for its length. I only felt it drag during a few spots in the middle. Without going into spoilers, there’s a section where Ripley has to consult the space station’s computer, forcing you to wade through needlessly difficult environments, unarmed and dodging violent androids for what feels like an eternity. This dynamic might have been better served at the start of the game, but placed in the middle, it’s tiresome and reeks of padding. It’s otherwise paced well, with the final few missions taking Ripley into some pretty hellish environments that you just don’t want to see up close. It feels as if we’re doomed to die at any second and the game is absolutely amazing at ratcheting up the tension higher than I thought possible.

Those who played OUTLAST will find similar game mechanics here. While you can craft weapons that help keep the alien (temporarily) at bay, ISOLATION is still a passive experience, one that requires you to keep low and stay quiet in order to survive. And while I didn’t think anything would match the horror of OUTLAST, I think I prefer ALIEN: ISOLATION. It might’ve taken a year or two off my life in the best possible way. Even with a lackluster finale (from a narrative perspective), I reflect upon my experience with nothing more than admiration. It’s an experience unlike any other, and it’s an absolute must for those who think video games can’t be as terrifying as their cinematic counterparts.

3.5_skull

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About the author
Matt Serafini
Matt Serafini is the author of horror fiction that includes UNDER THE BLADE and FERAL. He holds a degree in Professional Writing from Fitchburg State University and is currently at work on his next novel. He spends his free time tracking down obscure slasher movies and ranting about them to whoever will listen. He also likes scotch, and, as such, hopes to find himself embroiled in a real-life giallo one day.
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