You Are My Lucky Star

Prometheus excluded, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to raise enthusiasm for anything related to Alien these days. In the thirty-five years since the late H.R. Giger’s iconic monster burst from John Hurt’s chest cavity, the seminal sci-fi horror franchise has been subject to a slew of diminishing sequels, crossovers and, of course, videogames to the point where it’s almost become a bad joke.  The videogames in particular, though, have been a major sore point in recent years. Rebellion’s Aliens Vs Predator was an archaic embarrassment in almost every respect, and Gearbox’s canon-skewering Colonial Marines an unforgivable, glitch-ridden slap in the face to everyone who endured the painfully slow wait from day one. But when it was revealed in May 2011, via a tweet from Tory MP Ed Vaizey of all things, that Creative Assembly (of Total War fame) were working on an Alien project (and not Aliens) aiming to give Dead Space a run for its money, my interest couldn’t help but peak.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt uplifted when the curtains were finally pulled back on Alien: Isolation at the beginning of last year. At last, here was a cracking-looking Alien game that felt true to the original source material, tonally as well as aesthetically, from a team who understood exactly what it was about Sir Ridley Scott’s timeless classic that scared cinema audiences shitless all those years ago. Strong showings and positive press coverage throughout the year gathered momentum for publisher Sega’s marketing-machine right up until launch, and now the game’s been out in the wild for some time, the reaction has been… a little divisive, shall we say.

I’m not a fan of the term “marmite experience” – saying something isn’t for everyone is one the least helpful things anyone can say about anything – but in some instances it proves to be exactly the case, and in my eyes Alien: Isolation is definitely one of those cases. The reasons gaming outlets such as CVG, Destructiod and PC Gamer liked the game seemed to be some of the same reasons why GameSpot, IGN and our very own reviewer disliked it: the unpredictable and adaptive AI, the sporadically placed save points, and the arguably stretched-out length of the story being just a few.  I have to say I find myself siding with the former on this one. As a fan of Alien and survival horror, Isolation does everything I hope for from both of those camps, and I enjoyed it so much that I awarded it my personal Game of the Year 2014 gong. Yeah, that was partly down to the fact I played very few new games last year, so couldn’t speak with too much authority, but regardless Alien: Isolation had me hooked from start to finish like only the best games do.

As Amanda Ripley, takes her first tentative footsteps aboard the Sevastopol space station on a quest to collect the Nostromo’s flight recorder and find out what happened to her mother in a tense, slow burner of an opening act, the immediately perceptible thick, brooding atmosphere makes it quite clear you’re playing an Alien game unlike any you’ve experienced before. The combination of the labyrinthine station’s exquisitely lit corridors, unsettling noises coming from unseen corners and deft use of the movie’s original score will have you peering over your shoulder and edging off of your seat before a single drip of Xeno slobber has even been sighted. Signs of life prior to your doomed visit, including the old writing-on-the-wall cliché, suggest there have been some sinister goings-on at Sevastopol for quite some time. Everything’s either in lockdown or powered down and, other than a trio of civilians you briefly glimpse making a break for it, and one corpse clutching a wrench vital to your progression, it appears there’s nobody at home.

That is, until a gun is placed to your head.

Rambling about a killer loose on the station and courteously refraining from blowing her brains out, the shifty-looking Axel agrees to assist Amanda in locating Sevastopol’s comms centre in order to contact the Torrens, the ship that brought her here and a seat on which she’s promised to Axel in exchange for his help. Unfortunately for him, he’ll never make it that far. After a brief encounter with some less-friendly locals, Axel receives a spiked tail through the torso before being pulled into the abyss of a vent situated behind him, a trail of blood decorating the floor. As Amanda, you run the only way you can, towards Sevastopol’s transit station which cruelly makes you wait what seems an age for a carriage to arrive. Alone, cornered, defenceless, your heart pounding against your ribcage as the trademark Alien space fog seeps into the area and the nerve-jangling music ratchets up, you edge around the walls looking, hoping, praying for another way out, but to no avail. The Alien doesn’t make its proper entrance until a little later, during a cutscene, but if you wait long enough it can catch you here. As transport arrived, I hugged the walls until I reached its opening, and as I backed in a dark figure dropped from the ceiling in front of me as the doors sealed shut between us, the ping of the ‘A Perfect Organism’ achievement substituting my skipped heartbeat. It took a few minutes for my pulse to return to normal after the whole ordeal.

If the aim for Creative Assembly was to make the Alien scary once again, they certainly succeeded. It’s true the creature loses its fear-factor as the game goes on, but those first meetings, that first meeting, is utterly terrifying – pure gaming gold. Naturally, its subsequent appearances can’t ever hope to match its debut, but the high levels of tension are superbly maintained throughout. For starters, the Alien learns your movements, studies your strategies and remembers your tricks from previous experiences – it almost knowingly stands between you and your objectives, and it will punish the tiniest of slipups with a gruesome instakill, usually resulting in a punctured skull. Plot set-ups also do a good job of keeping your heart rate elevated. A particular standout sequence takes place mid-game and sees Amanda ceaselessly stalked by the Alien before culminating with the pair trapped together in an ejected segment of the station, with all but one desperate escape route. Not only here, but for the majority of the game, it’s just you against this single unpredictable killing machine, and that’s scarier than any number of zombies, parasites and chainsaw-swinging madmen combined.

Part of the reason why the original movie was so suspenseful was because you could always sense the Alien’s menacing presence, despite a bare minimum screen time; you rarely get to see it, but you always know it’s there, lurking in the darkness, waiting to strike. The same can be said here, too. The sound of scuttling through vents overhead, your all-important motion tracker bleeping into life as it picks up the movement, the bodies of Sevastopol’s more fortunate residents (as we all know, the less fortunate ones have an even worse fate in store) populating the corridors are all constant reminders of the dangerous predicament in which you find yourself. And when the Alien does inevitably descend to your level and you face the prospect of a fatal confrontation, you yourself must endeavour to give it as little time on the screen as possible, because if you can see it then chances are it can see you.

Certainly, the game’s lack of hand-holding means there’s a steep learning curve to endure during the preliminary hours. At first your almost-guaranteed deaths may feel unwarranted, unavoidable, or unfair, even. But persevere and you’ll soon realise that it’s all part of the process, that the tell-tale signs were always there for you to spot or hear, as were the means to avoid your premature demise (Hint: don’t walk under a vent which is dripping with drool). With quick wits you can always climb inside a locker, crawl under a desk or cower behind a piece of space-age furniture in a deadly game of hide-and-seek and, as a last resort, providing you’re stocked up, a throw of a Molotov or burst of your flamethrower can deter your slimy assailant. But only momentarily, for the Alien proves to be one persistent son of a bitch. And while the Alien is by far your biggest concern, it’s not the only threat you need to keep tabs on.

Just as persistent are Sevastopol’s cheap and cheerful, creepy mannequin-lookalike synthetics, courtesy of the Seegson Corporation, an ailing competitor to the superior Weyland-Yutani. Get spotted by one of these murderous red-eyed buggers and they’ll slowly but surely come after you to deliver a life-draining throttling. Luckily, the androids are susceptible to the same weapons which prove ineffective against the Alien. The problem is if you make too much noise the Alien will be drawn to your location and, unlike you and your fellow fleshy survivors, the Alien’s not got a taste for synthetic innards. Whether dealing with androids or hostile humans, you’ll never want to fire a gun. But sometimes you might have to, and sometimes it might prove to be a valuable tactic.  If there are too many human aggressors in the area, luring the creature can cause enough of a ruckus for you to get by unnoticed, while also keeping your conscience clean… sort of. Androids, however, prove more complicated, especially since they can take quite a pounding from you, so your best bet is to stay out of their beady-eyed view, and therefore avoid the Alien’s attention.

When it comes to the game’s Alien-less flabby third quarter, you can be a bit more reckless with the trigger finger. If only for variety, it was always inevitable the game would at some point pit you against an abundance of androids, and Alien: Isolation does it at the right time, but lets it go on for far too long. There are some good moments here, such as entering a synthetic showroom, dreading taking another step forward and not daring to turn your back, and the segment as a whole does a nice job of lulling you into a false sense of security for when the Alien does make a comeback, in the only way it possibly can. But android encounters are indisputably the weakest aspect of the game, and their most prominent part in the story needed cutting down in length. Whereas the Alien feels neither underused nor overused, the androids begin to outstay their welcome fairly early on.

Luckily, even during the game’s weaker parts, exploring the exceptionally detailed, accurately authentic, and surprisingly varied environments is always a wondrous pleasure. Sevastopol is an awe-inspiring vision of the future that could only have come from 1979. Creative Assembly made the artistic decision to not include anything that couldn’t be cobbled together on the set of the original movie, and the resulting retro styling is uniquely charming, fan-pleasingly faithful and credibly utilitarian. There’s also an element of Metroidvania at play here too, a steady stream of new gear meaning you have to weigh up whether you risk venturing back to that sealed door to collect any potential goodies stashed beyond. So while Amanda Ripley may be just as resourceful and kick-ass as her mother, and the Alien a legendary nightmarish creature in cinema and now gaming as well, it’s Sevastopol that proves to be Alien: Isolation’s biggest, best and most memorable character, standing proudly next to Rapture and the USG Ishimura as one of gaming’s greatest horror settings.

Even if Alien: Isolation has proven itself to be a marmite-flavoured cup of tea (yes, I actually just said that), few could fault the effort and passion Creative Assembly have clearly poured into their latest. Much like Rocksteady did with Batman: Arkham Asylum, Creative Assembly have boiled their game down to the core essential basics and created an Alien game that’s pure, focused and, at times, downright scary. To me it feels like part of the increasingly popular First-Person Exploration genre (think Dear Esther, Gone Home and The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter), where touring the space station’s myriad corridors and chambers, soaking up the atmosphere and sussing out what happened in each and every one of them before you got there can be just as thrilling as narrowly avoiding your brains being chomped on. To me, it’s a more relevant survival horror revival than The Evil Within, where you constantly feel vulnerable, where you’re left to figure out just about everything on your own, and where you never know when the next manual save point will come. To me, it’s a polished, canon-compatible entrant to a dearly loved franchise with excellent fan service (of particular note, the dead bloke with a rolled up magazine shoved down his throat) and offers great value for money. That is why Alien: Isolation was my 2014 Game of the Year, and I can’t help but wonder: now they’ve cracked Alien, what could Creative Assembly do with Aliens?

Last five articles by Tim


One Comment

  1. Chris Toffer says:

    I will likely never play this as it terrifies me generally, as do all horror games but golly does it look awesome. Really enjoyed the read, Tim. Glad someone is getting something out of it :D

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