Whilst I may not be old enough to have seen the Alien movies when they were released, with the help of my brother, they became an important part of my childhood. The tension and fear encapsulated in a few beeps of the iconic motion detector immediately struck fear into the heart of any sci-fi loving filmgoer. Skip forward a few years and the same cannot be said for videogames. With offerings like Aliens Vs Predator and *sigh* Colonial Marines, the videogame industry was severely lacking in the fear inducing, edge-of-your-seat drama conjured up by the films. Until that is, Alien Isolation stormed onto consoles back in 2014. Having since been re-released for both Xbox One and PS4 with a small graphics boost and all the dlc included, Isolation yet again grabs the Alien fanboy inside me and repeatedly stabs him with it’s lethal black tail; but in a good way.
For the first half hour of the game you find yourself transported back to the 70s and 80s as you take control of Amanda Ripley and explore the lovingly recreated interiors of both the Torrens and the space station Sevastopol. The game sticks so closely to the original film’s visuals using the clunky-yet-futuristic terminals of the 70s movie and the sterile white corridors that have become synonymous with classic sci-fi. The graphics are great, creating interiors that still look amazing after close inspection. Even the sound of the doors takes you straight back to the first time you watched an Alien movie, and that’s before you have even heard mention of the extraterrestrial monstrosity.
The Gameplay is a shining example for any first person survival horror out there, allowing you enough freedom and maneuverability to make your own mistakes. And you will make plenty. Even before the Xenomorph drops into the game you will find yourself pondering how to get past the simplest of rooms due to your lack of weapons and the tenacity of the androids. This steep learning curve and tough gameplay may be off-putting for some but the real beauty of Alien Isolation is the knowledge that at any moment you could come face to face with something much bigger than you that can decimate your health in a matter of seconds. The tension created through the game with small sounds, silently patrolling enemies and the all-too-familiar bleep of the lovingly recreated motion tracker cause even the smallest of movements to trigger alarms inside your head and send you scurrying for the nearest vent. Yet even there you are far from safe.
In most games vents are a safe haven for the player, an area too confined to warrant the AI programming required for anything more than an alternate route to your target or the generic ‘stealth’ option. Alien Isolation takes this gaming trope and turns it on it’s head, because after all: “They’re coming out the Goddamn walls!” The first time you meet the Xenomorph in the vents its almost an insta-death, before you can react you realize the vents that have so long been associated with hiding and safety are no longer your friend. This does, however, lead on to one of Isolation’s more annoying features; often you find yourself entering a room after being chased by said alien or all the androids from that part of the station only to walk under a vent in the ceiling and be snatched up by the waiting Xenomorph. This in itself isn’t the problem as you simply add the ceiling to your room entry checklist along with the walls, the floor and your pants, the problem comes from that traditional survival horror save system similar to the typewriters from the Resident Evil franchise. Whilst its understandable that have frequent save points would ruin the tension and suspense of the game, Isolation begins to rub the players the wrong way when they have taken ages fighting through vast areas, hiding from androids and aliens and making one last ditch attempt to sprint for the door only to be snatched by a Xenomorph as they enter the room with the savepoint. I’m not one who usually rage-quits or launches controllers at the wall but I must admit I came close a few times during my play through of Alien Isolation. And yet, when you return to the game after a short break its even more satisfying flicking the bird to the vent as you slowly edge past it the second (or even third) time you pass through the room.
As you progress through the game you find more weapons to annoy the Xenomorph with. I say this because no matter what you use, he won’t die. Whereas the android and human enemies fall with one or two well placed headshots from most of the guns on the Sevastopol you can empty clip after clip into the Xenomorph and he just keeps coming. Its only when you find the flamethrower you can really do anything to the Xenomorph and even then I swear when it comes back it seems angrier and more lethal. Hiding is the only real viable option to combating the Xenomorph, forcing the player into some rather sticky and vulnerable situations. There isn’t a moral choice system implemented in the game itself but you often find yourself looking back at past decisions with a sense of unease when using another survivor as bait to sneak past the Xenomorph was the only option, to buy those precious seconds so you could run for the door.
If you own the kinect, Isolation displays it’s most groundbreaking and unique feature; real-life sound detection. You can be hiding from the Xenomorph in the most ingenious of places perfectly safe from the acid blood and it’s various murderous appendages when your parent/flatmate/significant other/beloved family pet etc makes a loud noise elsewhere in the house and BOOM! The Xenomorph’s head turns violently to your position and its game over, welcome to the all-too-familiar loading screen again. This inclusion of real-world actions in the game adds heavily to the immersion of the game and you will find yourself holding your breath in real life in an attempt to avoid the alien menace. It probably doesn’t justify buying a kinect if you don’t already have one but it really brings the game to life if your kinect is gathering dust on top of your TV.
Alien Isolation is not the perfect organism of the videogame world like its Hollywood counterpart, yet it is still a must-have for any fan of the franchise or indeed the survival-horror genre in general. The use of sound makes it almost justifiable to go out and buy a pair of decent surround sound headphones just to play the game; turn the volume up high and the lights off and within an hour you will be crying for an escape pod. Isolation stays loyal to the aesthetics of the original movies and the Xenomorph becomes the lethal nightmare of the movies not the slight bullet sponge of other Alien games for the last console generation. The story itself takes a slight dip in the middle when the Xenomorph all but disappears or a short while but this lets the player become lax and forget how punishing a foe it can be.