Review: Less would have been more for 'Alien: Isolation'
Alien: Isolation is a slow burn. Most Alien games have mimicked James Cameron’s action-packed Aliens sequel (often to disastrous effect, as with last year’s Alien: Colonial Marines), but Isolation is slavishly devoted to Ridley Scott’s quieter, more terrifying 1979 original, which informs nearly every aspect of the game. Set 15 years after the first film, Isolation follows engineer Amanda Ripley as she seeks information on her missing mother, Alien heroine Ellen Ripley.
Much like the film, the game takes its time to get going, allowing you to soak in the rich atmosphere. Developer Creative Assembly has painstakingly recreated the look and feel of Scott’s sci-fi classic, from the chunky CRT monitors to the green monochromatic display of the motion tracker that quickly becomes your best friend and lifeline. Just like the movie, you don’t meet the game’s single alien for the first hour, so soak up the gorgeous atmosphere while you can. Once the alien shows up, you’ll spend most of your time hiding in vents and lockers, praying it doesn’t hear you breathe.
Isolation plays like the world’s deadliest game of cat and mouse. The alien can’t be killed and will hunt you relentlessly, relying on its senses to track you down and pierce your skull with its retractable inner maw (amongst other gruesome finishers). Ostensibly a stealth game with horror trappings, your only chance at survival is to outwit the alien using items that Amanda can craft from scraps found throughout the environment. If the alien sees you, chances are you’re already dead, so it’s best to stick to the shadows and tread lightly, slowly working your way to your next objective.
Get used to seeing the motion tracker, as it will inhabit a large portion of your screen for a large portion of the time. (If I had a plasma TV, I would seriously worry about screen burn-in.) Seeing the alien blip on your radar for the first time is a terrifying experience, as you know it’s near but you can’t be sure where. I recommend playing in the dark with a pair of headphones, as the sound design is among the best I’ve ever experienced, and you’ll actually use audio cues like the staticy beep of the motion tracker or the clanging of vents to help make your way through levels. The developer has rightfully touted the alien’s artificial intelligence, which dynamically adjusts to your actions. If it sees something move or hears a noise, it’s going to investigate. (The Xbox One version has an option that uses the Kinect’s microphone, so if you scream in terror, the alien could hear you. Um, no thanks.)
Initially, this tense game of hide-and-seek is exhilarating—your heart pounds as you hide under a table, holding your breath as the alien’s long tail slithers by. You never feel safe, as running or firing a weapon will cause the alien to come darting out of a vent and instantly kill you. Expect to die—a lot. The game requires you to manually save your progress at save stations, which is almost unheard of nowadays. I get what Creative Assembly was going for with the save system: it’s a nod to old-school games that were actually difficult, and it requires you to think constantly about the risks involved. But because Amanda is so vulnerable and death comes so easily, it feels unnecessarily punitive. The first time you play twenty minutes without seeing any save points and then die right as you reach one is incredibly frustrating, since you then have to repeat the entire sequence over again. There are times when this will happen repeatedly, and it get significantly less fun each time the alien gets in your face and murders you.
Alien: Isolation is also a looooooong burn. And worse than how frustrating it can feel to constantly live, die and repeat, it becomes less and less scary the more you see the alien. Part of what makes the original Alien so terrifying is that you rarely see the monster, who is on screen for just over three and half minutes of the film’s two-hour runtime. With horror movies, what you don’t see is often scarier than what is shown, and while Isolation follows this to a point, the game is so damn long (clocking in around 15 to 20 hours) that you’ll have seen the alien for hours by the time it’s over. By the end, whenever I would encounter the alien, I’d simply yell, “Get away from her, you bitch” at the TV and shoo it away with my flamethrower. However much Creative Assembly strived to recreate Alien, it couldn’t keep it from getting a little Aliens in the end.
Far from the travesty that was Colonial Marines, there are hints of greatness in Alien: Isolation, which is by far the closest we’ve ever gotten to living out our Alien fantasies. But I wish Creative Assembly had realized that when it comes to horror, less is more. As mixed as my feelings are on the game, I’m actually still looking forward to the “Crew Expendable” downloadable content that reunites Sigourney Weaver and the cast of the original film for what I assume will be a much shorter experience, which could prove to be the optimal way to enjoy the game’s many strengths.