When The Creative Assembly (the Total War series) announced their decision to create a survival horror game based on Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci fi masterpiece Alien, the sour taste of Aliens: Colonial Marines was still strong in our mouths. It was difficult to view the decision as anything other than a profound mistake. Thankfully, The Creative Assembly appear to have been well aware of the fresh stigma surrounding the Alien license and have worked very hard to avoid suffering the same fate.
The game’s single player story mode focuses on Amanda Ripley, daughter of Alien hero Ellen Ripley, and is set around 15 years after the events of the film, and some 42 years before the events of the sequel. She’s an engineer, as capable as she is gruff, and has inherited both of her mother’s defining attributes: surprising durability and powerfully shit luck.
Amanda has been fruitlessly searching for information on the disappearance of her mother and the ship she was on, the Nostromo. Now, she’s got a lead, with the Nostromo’s flight recorder turning up on a space station called Sevastopol. She’s transferred to the space station to retrieve it only have disaster strike on approach. She is separated from her crew and arrives on the station to find the place has gone all Rapture on her. The walls are covered in angry graffiti and it seems that the station was the scene of a massive riot or uprising of some kind. Now, it’s a derelict except for a handful of crazed survivors, deranged (inferior, non Weyland-Yutani) synthetics and, oh yes, one eight foot tall, malevolent killing machine that will leap out of nowhere and devour you if you make too much noise. Your goal in all of this madness: Survive. Find supplies. Keep moving.
Straight off the top, let’s talk about how completely The Creative Assembly have nailed the look and feel of the game. Everything looks just the way it did in the film, and the environments are filled with items that further enforce the feeling of a future past. Computers are boxy and only output vector graphics, videos look like they’re coming through on a worn out old Betamax tape. The lighting and particle effects are extremely realistic and I frequently found myself stopping to admire the texture and environment design. Sevastopol is full of ambient sound – the clanging and booming of debris against the outer hull, the hissing of broken pipes, the sounds of metal bending as unseen things hurry through the vents around you and the rhythmic thudding of your own heavy boots on the metal floor. The music uses orchestrated version of the film’s original score to impressive effect and it drives the tension through the roof.
The same visual flair, unfortunately, wasn’t really brought to the game’s cut scenes, at least on console. Character models, bizarrely, take a huge jump in texture quality and frame rate jumps all over the place as a result. The mouth animation also leaves a bit to desired with much of the lip sync either going way over the top or doing little more than opening and closing the characters mouth. The voice acting is a bit patchy as well, with most actors sounding like they’d rather be almost anywhere else. Any time the action heats up, with multiple characters models on screen, the frame-rate drops dramatically. Thankfully, this does not happen often at all.
There are certain gameplay elements that make up a great survival horror game – controls, the environment, the enemies you face and the manner in which you progress – and to it’s credit, Alien Isolation does many of these things right. In the main campaign, your main task is to traverse Sevastopol Station, achieving your objectives. On the way you’ll have to dodge all manner of things that want to kill you: other survivors, hostile synthetics and, naturally, the alien Xenomorph. Taking it’s cues from the film, the Xenomorph itself doesn’t appear until well into the game and your first real encounter with it is one of the game’s most intense, memorable moments.
So often, video games are an out and out power fantasy. You are always an unstoppable force of death and destruction, raining endless beatings down upon your enemies. That’s just not true in Alien Isolation. You are a prey animal and this shift in mindset takes some getting used to. The Xenomorph stalks the halls and rooms, searching for you – hunting you. It’s footsteps and shrieks echo off the steel-reinforced walls as you hide in locker, staring at your motion-tracker, hoping that the monster doesn’t get close enough to hear it beeping and willing it to go away. It peers through the vents in the locker and you hold your breath until it moves on, praying it doesn’t hear you exhale and rip the door off. Through the vents, you see it leap up into a cavity in the roof and start moving through the air ducts. You exit the locker and move run towards your objective across the room but the sound of your feet pounding the floor attracts the creature. You pass under another cavity in the roof and are pulled up by your throat to meet the drooling, screeching face of the enemy.
It’s heart pounding, nerve-wracking stuff. The alien is ruthless, impervious to gunfire and cannot be outrun so if you mess up you will find yourself murdered almost instantly. You are going to die a lot. Like, Dark Souls a lot. To heighten this sense of helplessness, you spend much of the game without any way to really defend yourself against the alien, or many of the other enemies you encounter. Synthetics will catch your arm and force it away if you try to hit them with your wrench, and soak up far too many precious revolver bullets. Survivors can shoot you accurately from a great distance and won’t hesitate to do so. The alien can only be driven back with fire so, unless you’re keen to take the 100% stealth route, stocking up on molotov cocktails in case of emergency is advisable.
The bulk of the items Amanda can craft are defensive rather offensive. Smoke bombs, flashbangs and noisemakers will all lure enemies way from you if thrown correctly. The handful of offensive items she does possess comes down to pipe-bombs, an EMP mine (for dealing with synthetics) and the aforementioned molotovs. Ripley can also build herself medkits to replenish her health, and all of these things are built with components you find scattered through the levels.
You’ll also run up against doors that have been forced shut through a variety of ways – massive clamps that can only be undone with your wrench, keycard locks, passcode locks that will require the use of your small hacking omnitool and some doors that have been straight up welded shut and will require a blowtorch to get through. All of this has to be done in real time and if you get mauled by the Xenomorph or snuck up on by a synthetic, you’ll be in trouble so being fast and sure of your surroundings is essential.
The Xbox One version of the game features head tracking and sound detection via the Kinect as well, allowing you to hold L1 to move your actual head to peek around corners and having the game respond in kind. the sound detection will cut through any background noise in your living room and use any sounds you make to alert nearby enemies to your presence. Both are interesting but I ultimately switched them off – the head tracking was a bit wonky due to the shape of my lounge room and my talkative roommates wanted to see what the game was all about and kept getting me killed.
The controls are, in classic survival horror style, rather heavy and clunky, which serves to heighten your panic and fumbling in tight corners and scary situations. The control scheme is well implemented and does it’s job well.
It’s all really solid, engaging and genuinely nerve-wracking to play through.
So. Having said all of that, I’m now going to tear Alien Isolation a new one.
There are a number of glaring faults that bring the entire experience it’s knees, chief among them the game’s decision to have in-game save stations rather than any autosave feature. I hate this mechanic the same way my friend Tom hates beetroot – with my whole heart. What this means is that you’ll find yourself being forced to play the same sections of the game over and over again if you get stuck and die.
This bleeds into save station problem #2 – you can only use it once per section traversal. Generally speaking, when you find a save station you descend upon it immediately, singing it’s praises. But let’s say you do that, and then proceed to activate a cutscene in the next room? Want to save your game once the cutscene ends so that you don’t have to watch it again if you die? Nope. Can’t do it.
I found myself stuck in a section in which I had to be let into the medical wing by a doctor. I saved my game prior to a 45 second conversation between Amanda and said doctor before he lets me in. I then have to hike down a series of two long corridors, and use my hacking device to unlock an office door. Inside the office I have to access a computer terminal and find an email that contains a passcode to get through a second door back up the hallway I just came down. Halfway up said hallway the Xenomorph busts through the roof and starts stalking the halls. I have to make my way to the passcode door, enter the code and get through quickly and quietly so as not to attract its attention. I locate a board with doctors names and rounds on it find out which rooms I need to investigate for ANOTHER keycard, so I sneak down in the bowels of the medical facility, keeping away from the Xenomorph, to find the doctor’s corpse and loot it. Upon finding the keycard, I then have to exfiltrate the area, again avoiding the alien, and make my way back to the doctor’s office I started in.
What I have just described to you takes around 30-to-45 minutes, depending on how brazen you are, to accomplish in game. If you screw up at any time, you will be killed and have to start all over, beginning with listening to that douchebag doctor for 45 seconds before he’ll open the door for you. I must have died 20 times in this section.
Save station gripe #3! For every save station that is well placed, there are three that aren’t. Some of the save stations blend so completely into the background decoration that you’ll miss them and wander past them, further increasing the amount of ground you’ll have to cover again if you die. All too often, I’d by on my sixth or seventh attempt of a section before realising that there was a save station in a corner room the whole damned time and I’d been dying and repeating sections for no reason. Worse still, sometimes you’ll run into three or four of the things in close succession and at other times, you won’t see a save point for what feels like far, far too long. These three points in tandem are infuriating and suck all of the fun, tension and atmosphere out of the game. This one bad design mechanic takes what should be a harrowing, interesting journey and turns it into an often irritatingly repetitive one.
It feels really good to get that off my chest. But I’m not done! Speaking of repetitive, Sevastopol is a huge place, so why does it feel like you’re only allowed into four or five different areas of it? So much of the single player campaign sees you traipsing down the same hallways again and again, chasing down fairly similar objectives – go here, switch that on, unlock this, power that up.
Also, why do I have to spend twenty minutes sneaking into a particular area of the station to retrieve a keycard in order to get through a computer-locked door when I have a hacking tool on my belt that seems to work fine on most other doors?
Many of the enemies suffer from some significant AI issues too. Some enemies – the Xenomorph included – can be on top of you and not even detect that you’re there. At other times they’re hyperalert snipers who can pick you off from a hundred metres out. Sometimes they even gang up on you by accident – at one point I got sprung and as the alien lifted me up to finish me off, it was joined by a survivor with a shotgun. Instead of shooting at the alien like, I don’t know, a person might, the super best friends tore me to shreds together before presumably sharing a high-five and heading down to the mess to get a beer. The alien will tear most humans nearby apart, so it’s not all bad, but it won’t touch the synthetics which seems a bit weird. I hid in a cupboard watching the alien and a synthetic bump into each other and exchange pleasantries for a good six minutes before the alien buggered off and I could sneak out.
You do end up getting very used to the alien’s presence and thus your fear of it diminishes to the point where you start to get very ballsy indeed. The tension and atmosphere that the game works so hard to build starts slipping through it’s fingers by the 10 hour mark and by the end of the game, it’s gone completely. By the time the game equipped me with a flamethrower to keep the Xenomorph at bay, I was rather carelessly sprinting through the halls and only really using my motion tracker to point me at my next objective.
Speaking of the end of the game, it’s rare for me to feel like a game should have been shorter but Alien Isolation accomplished that by having more endings than Return of the King. Every time I thought the game was over, it would give me another objective and Ripley and I would kick on for another few hours. Part of this has to do with the aforementioned dying and save point problem and part of it feels like the writers just didn’t know how to wrap up the story. There’s also a tonal shift around three quarters of the way through the game where it feels like the game abandons it’s “Ridley Scott inspired Alien game” mission statement and goes full James Cameron, and it’s a stumble the game never quite recovers from. At one point, very late in the piece, Ripley sighs wearily “I just want it to be over.” I felt very close to her in that moment.
I’ve been very critical of the game in the second half of this review but it’s only because I can see how good the game really is underneath all of it’s problems and that’s incredibly frustrating. But for a few really bad design decisions that ruin it for everyone, it’s so close to being the perfect Alien video game it hurts. Honestly, if Creative Assembly had gone with a more traditional autosave feature, the game would have been orders of magnitude better for it. I hope, if they get to make a sequel, that they will learn from this because they’re within striking distance of a true classic. I want that really badly.
Review Score: 6.5 out of 10
Highlights: Incredible visuals, amazing atmosphere (while it lasts), exceptional sound design
Lowlights: Infuriating, game-breaking save system, occasionally clumsy AI
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Released: October 7, 2014
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on Xbox One.