Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. Harrison reviews Alien Isolation.
The specific formula that was set in place by Outlast has since been imitated time and time again, mostly by a multitude of Steam hacks trying to exploit the craze. It’s a style that regrettably lends itself to cheap rip-offs and cash-ins, as it can so easily be replicated with the minimum amount of effort. You don’t have to program in combat mechanics, the oppressive darkness can also be used to hide low-rent textures and graphical shortcomings, and you barely even have to try to be scary. All you need to do is throw the player in a dark corridor, have them be stalker by a single enemy, and add in some obligatory jump scares for good measure.
Now obviously that isn’t the case with Outlast itself, otherwise I wouldn’t have recommended that game. However, it remains the case that the legacy of Red Barrel’s hit has been less than stellar. I try not to hold anything against it of course, after all, you can’t blame it for being popular, it’s merely The Blair Witch effect. When Outlast did it, it was fresh, unique, and truly scary, but when everything else did it, it sucked. That is, if we exclude one notable exception; Alien: Isolation.
This was a game that by all accounts should have been terrible. It was a movie tie-in, and it was also following in the spectacularly inept footsteps of the now-infamous Alien: Colonial Marines. It goes without saying that neither of those things boded well for the project. As well as this, it was yet another first person horror game, one with generic crafting and stealth mechanics to boot. With all of this counting against the title, t’d be a miracle if you even managed to get your console to play the damn thing without exploding in protest.
And yet, against all odds, Alien: Isolation managed to not-suck. Who am I kidding? It managed to be bloody brilliant! Dripping in atmosphere, with expertly designed environments and one of the best antagonists in gaming, this is probably my favourite game from the current console generation. Now how the hell did that happen?
Stranded upon the Sevastopol orbital station, you control Amanda Ripley, who is following a lead to track down her missing mother. However, whilst the objective is initially to find out what happened to Ellen, the plan soon runs into a tiny speed bump. And by ‘tiny speed bump’, I mean that everyone on-board the station is either dead, or homicidal. The reason for their bellicosity soon becomes apparent, as it turns out that there is a xenomorph on board, and it has been causing all kinds of mayhem for the crew. Not only that, but the company androids (the once helpful and courteous ‘Working Joes’) have also inexplicably turned violent. Amanda must therefore put her search mission on hold, and focus primarily on getting out of Sevastopol alive, and preferably unmolested by the hideous, inhuman space rapist.
As aforementioned, the game heavily borrows from the precedent established by Outlast. As Amanda, you’ll engage in what is effectively a 20 hour long game of hide and seek with the Alien. You’ll hide in lockers, crawl through vents, sprint for your life, and generally cower like a baby whilst something mercilessly hunts you every step of the way. You even have to hunt for batteries again (YAY!).
But there are some valuable tweaks to the formula, ones that importantly raise this game above the quality of its forebear. For a start, there’s a lot more you can do here to outsmart your hunter. You can throw distractions, manipulate the ships systems in order to change the environment, and most usefully, you can ward it away with fire. You can even use the beast to your advantage in some situations, luring it to take out a room full of human enemies before you progress.
Generally the gameplay is a little more varied as well, including hacking mini-games, exploratory sections, and even some light gunplay. The biggest improvement however, is that the level design is much more open ended, providing you with labyrinthine environments which you can navigate in your own way. In Outlast, there was only ever one correct route through an area, be it via a ventilation shaft, a door, or a hole in the wall. Contrastingly, in Alien, you will have multiple paths and strategies at your disposal, which results in a much more dynamic experience.
Of course, you’ll need all of these options when it comes to dealing with the titular xeno. With exceptionally advanced AI, this predator cannot be cheaply exploited like many other gaming foes. It appears to learn your tricks, and not only that, but it seems adapts to them too. No matter how many times you play through an encounter, it will never pan out in exactly the same way, because this creature has no preordained patrol routes, it can go anywhere, at any time and it can find a way into any location. In short, it cannot be predicted. This makes the xenomorph is a truly formidable antagonist, one that is much more imposing than any other horror enemy.
It’s attacks are spontaneous, random, and unscripted, meaning that it will follow you anywhere and everywhere (even into vents). Meanwhile, it has the obvious advantages of being faster than you, more agile and incredibly perceptive, not to mention that it is additionally capable of killing you in a single blow. It’s for this reason that you have all of the aforementioned tricks up your sleeve, because you’ll need to utilise everything in your arsenal in order to survive.
Because of the largely unscripted nature of the creature’s appearances, you’ll never know when it will show up, which makes for an unbearably tense gaming experience. I’m serious, you’ll never feel truly safe, and will constantly be checking corners for telltale signs of saliva and looking at the motion scanner for hints of nearby activity. By the time you reach the end of the game, you’ll be a paranoid wreck, one who twitches at every meagre noise or shadow.
Speaking of sound and lighting, this has to contain some of the best in all of gaming history. It effortlessly captures the same audio-visual aesthetic as Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, as expressionist shadows and flickering lights beautifully converge with the ambient sounds of the station to create a haunted-house-in-space vibe. What’s most impressive about this, is that so much of it is ad-libbed, despite feeling meticulously designed.
One particular improvised moment sticks out in my mind as evidence of this, wherein I stealthy worked my way through an area populated by human enemies, and then rewired the station’s systems (something which can be done in almost every room of the game), diverting the power from the interior lighting to the air purifier. The effect of this was that the room flooded with an ethereal smoke, that severely reduced my enemies’ visibility, as well as my own. Luckily, an emergency strobe light punctured through this mist periodically, creating helpful silhouettes of those in the room. I then returned to my objective (something to do with unlocking a door), but when I turned around, the room was eerily empty. There were at least 5 men in the area previously, and yet now they were all gone. Then I saw it. And it was looking for me.
Without a hint of ceremony or theatricality, the alien had slaughtered everyone in the room. There was only one man left. I couldn’t see him because of all the smoke, but I could hear his desperate cries. I could also hear the alien sprinting towards him. He unloaded his gun at the monster, but it was too late. As it grabbed him and thrust its tail through his chest, a flash from the strobe lights let me see the horrifying execution in silhouette form. The alien allowed it’s cold, dead prey to fall to the floor, and then it was gone. The strobe had flashed off, and by the time it flickered back on again, the beast was gone, and the body was buried beneath the mist. I knew the xeno was still in the room with me, I could hear it hissing and snarling, but I had no conception of where it was.
That moment has stuck with me for almost two years, yet much to my frustration, I couldn’t get it to happen again in my subsequent repeat playthroughs. It was a totally random occurrence, and yet it somehow seemed so perfectly directed! Everything from the lighting, to the sound-design, to the dramatic timing, it all felt so right. It’s a shame that I cannot guarantee that this moment will crop up for you, but what I can promise is that if you pick up this game, you’ll have a hundred uniquely terrifying moments all of your own. That’s what this game does so well, it sets up a few fixed conditions and then lets the diabolical magic happen on its own accord.
It’s also one of the few games in which I feel like I personally went through a character arc. At the beginning of my story, I was a terrified, defenceless victim, prone to cowering and panicking at the first sign of trouble. However, by the end of the ordeal, I had completed the traditional horror movie transition from would-be-victim, to resourceful badass. I had basically pulled an Ellen Ripley! My relationship with the alien had morphed from one based on a hunter-prey dynamic, into an equal rivalry. When I heard the beast skulking around nearby, I no longer scurried for the nearest hiding place. Instead, I crafted a few molatovs and readied my flamethrower. I wasn’t backing down anymore.
It’s a thrilling journey, and one that feels cathartic for the player, as it features a well-judged balance between making you feel totally helpless, and giving you just enough power to survive. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the working Joes, the game’s intimidating, but crucially vulnerable, enemies. These protocol androids are supposedly cheap knock-offs of their industry rivals, meaning that their synthetic exteriors are flimsy, rubbery, and overall quite uncanny. So they already look frightening enough to begin with, even when they’re performing as intended. Once they malfunction however, they’re almost as scary as the xenomorph itself.
In their combat mode, the Working Joes are very reminiscent of Yul Brynner’s gunslinger from Westworld in that, no matter what you do to them, they just keep on coming. Unload a revolver into their face, light them on fire, or strike them repeatedly with a wrench; it doesn’t matter, they wont even flinch. They get even more challenging when you start to encounter different variations of them, for example there are the ones protected by rubber suits, which make them impervious to any of your electrical weapons.
The Joes are yet another example of the game’s evolution upon the Outlast formula. Whilst most of these stealth horror games pit you against exclusively invincible antagonist that you can only hide from, Alien: Isolation makes the smart decision to allow you some kind of power. The Xenomorph might be tenacious and unstoppable, but you can still defeat the working Joes, allowing you some small victories.
So the game is faultless then right? I mean it’s scary, it’s aesthetically pleasing, it’s well balanced, and the mechanics are enjoyable and fresh. What’s not to like? Well, whilst it is true that this is one of the closest-to-being-perfect games that I have ever played, it still falls short on one account. And to be honest, while it might just be one problem, it’s a pretty big problem.
You see, this game’s ending is abysmal. It actually goes as far as to trump Outlast in the anti-climax department. Both in the narrative and in the gameplay, this title ends on a major disappointment, with the former providing no sense of closure or resolution and the latter wrapping up as tediously as possible. Seriously, it ends with you having to go to a completely safe, alien-free zone, and then press a few buttons in order to trigger the final cut-scene. It’s such a pitiful conclusion to a game that hasn’t put a foot wrong up until that point. If it didn’t fuck up so close to the end, this would be serious 10/10 material. As it stands however, it just misses out on that prestigious distinction.
Nevertheless, there’s so much to love with this magnificent game, that I can’t help but adore it. There’s the tight storytelling, the haunting score, the charming retro-futurism and the absolutely outstanding attention to detail, especially in regards to recreating the signature art design of the original films. If you love Alien, if you love challenging gameplay, and if you love horror, then I implore you to give this stunning gem a chance.
RECOMMENDATION: THIS ONE IS PERFECT FOR CINEPHILES AND NERDS ALIKE, ESPECIALLY THOSE WITH A FONDNESS FOR SCOTT’S LEGENDARY SCI-FI HORROR FLICK.