Very, as it turns out.
The Alien franchise has never had much luck when it comes to videogames, with adaptations generally ranging from mediocre to terrible – its nadir being 2013’s Aliens: Colonial Marines. While the xenomorphs have largely been used as Marine cannon-fodder or Predator punching bags, until now no game has captured the sense of dread and helplessness which made Ridley Scott’s classic so iconic. It was surely only a matter of time before fans were given the authentic Alien experience, and Isolation has undoubtedly done the film justice, making you as scared and vulnerable as the doomed crew of the Nostromo.
I played this game with what is probably the best (or worst?) setup – on a large projected screen, with the lights off, and the audio coming from behind me. This is coming from a guy who had to psych himself before even opening a door in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and then couldn’t bring himself to walk into the room because it was too dark. And then was unwilling to turn the light on in case of monsters. You get the idea.
Alien: Isolation puts you in the presumably sweaty shoes of Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s character from the original film. After a series of somewhat contrived events, you find yourself in a very recognisable scenario: alone on a desolate ship, defenceless, while something terrible is stalking you from the shadows. One of the first things I noticed in the game was the amazingly detailed and faithful production design - there’s nothing which would look out of place in the films. I’ve always loved the retro sci-fi look from 70’s and 80’s sci-fi films, with the big blocky analogue tech and static-y CRT displays. This is one of the game’s biggest achievements, to the extent that I sometimes wished I wasn’t being constantly hunted to simply admire the surroundings and impressive views of space. The opening of the game is somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of Bioshock, with a secluded society having already spiralled into anarchy and paranoia, complete with disconcerting writing on the walls.
Not only are weapons and ammo scarce, but gunshots and explosions will also alert the Alien. Your arsenal includes flashbangs, molotovs, and pipebombs, although these weren’t used often (which is something I’d play more with if I ever go through it again). I mainly found the EMP and stun baton to be useful against droids, while the noisemaker attracts the Alien, briefly making him your personal attack dog when in a room of hostile humans – until they’re all dead that is, and then he’s coming for you. In a game like Dead Space, you’re always armed in some way, so aside from a few jump scares (which are often pretty cheap, and you soon learn to shoot anything on the floor which has enough limbs left to grab your face), I never found it scary. It does a good job making you worry about ammo, but the point is that you can usually fight off whatever monstrosity is trying to make out with your intestines. In contrast, if the Alien sees you in this game, at least in the early stages, you’re dead – simple as that.
Later on, Ripley is able to defend herself with a few more powerful weapons, but ultimately they’re still just tools for buying time to leap into the nearest locker or vent. These moments, hiding in a small confined space with the bleeping on your motion tracker getting faster and faster, the Alien sniffing at the door and forcing you to hold your breath, are some of the most suspenseful and memorable parts of the game. The sound design is a big part of the game’s success, not only in the retro beeps and bloops, but also the soundtrack and ambience, which are again partly lifted straight from the film. There are also a few alien-like sounds embedded in the background sound itself, which is a cool touch. Even saving the game is an exercise is tension-building – seeing a save terminal provides a moment of relief, but the few seconds it takes for the terminal to boot up and actually save your progress feel like an eternity, with the possibility of the Alien tail-stabbing you the moment your back’s turned.
The Alien itself (I’m not sure whether I should be capitalising “Alien”, but it feels wrong not to…) is a perfect recreation of the perfect organism, nailing its mannerism and the aspects which really make it sinister. It’ll go from loudly lumbering across a room with its tail snaking behind it, to swiftly jumping into overhead vents, then into attack mode if it catches a glimpse of you. I remember the first encounter I had with it: after spending half an hour sneaking around it by crawling from table to table (with a few too many back and forths), I decided to head into a small cupboard-like room, thinking there might be something handy in there. A couple of my housemates had been watching me play for a while, also getting immersed in the intensity. The room was a dead end, but as I turned around, the Alien was suddenly screeching and charging at me faster than we could react, making three 20 year-olds jump out of their skin. That was just the first of many deaths, which I proudly know because of the “get killed by the alien 100 times” achievement. After the first dozen deaths, the Alien becomes somewhat less frightening – but more ‘regular scary’ than ‘paralytic scary’. In fact, by the end of the game I was confidently skirting a few inches away from it, holding my ground and blasting it with the flamethrower as he charged. I also remember booting up the game at the end of a slightly drunken night out, a time when the Alien’s menace was temporarily undermined by seeing how many times we could shoot it before he killed us. Nevertheless, it’s impressive that Giger’s creation, over 35 years later and endlessly parodied, still has the power to provoke a genuine reaction.
The game is faithful to the story of Alien (with a couple of welcome Aliens influences too), and most of the iconic moments from the film are recreated in some way. Saying that, the game isn’t without some weaknesses. Although there are some nice twists and turns, the plot isn’t all that inventive, and a lot of the situations just seem unnaturally engineered to further Ripley’s torment. Why’s the ship exploding? Just ‘cause. How did [spoiler] get there? It just did. There are many audio logs and diaries which build up a detailed picture of the Sevastopol’s decline, but Ripley’s tasks sometimes stray into ‘push a button to get a card to open the door to push a button’, and repeat. This isn’t so bad in the later parts of the game where there’s more of a focused drive, but there is a fair amount of backtracking, which is even more noticeable by the fact that it supposedly takes place on a city-sized ship. Although it’s an impressive game graphically (and how I wish I could’ve played it on a current-gen console rather than the 360), there were a few times when the frame rate dropped quite drastically when there's lots going on, and there were occasional glitches in the Alien’s AI. It would've also been nice (perhaps the wrong word) to see it climb along the walls and ceilings.
Despite these drawbacks, Alien: Isolation is a lot of fun, and a real treat for fans of the franchise who’ve been waiting too long for a true survival-horror adaptation. The entire aesthetic of the universe is lovingly recreated, and the gameplay is tight and tense while being diverse and broad enough for replay value. Having barely played anything for the last couple of years, it was a great time overall, topped off by the screen setup and some awesome company! On to you Blomkamp – please don’t mess this up…
(post Covenant update - it's no longer happening and I don't know how to feel about that).