Few monsters within the realm of popular fiction are more revered, or more iconic, than the mysterious Xenomorph from the “Alien” franchise. Granted, the fear has been diluted somewhat over time, the result of decades of exposure and the creature itself’s ascendancy to well known pop culture icon. But it’s also partly due to a pair of hideous cross-over films with the Predator series, and partly due to some less than stellar videogames. All of these properties missed the point of what made the thing as scary as it was in the first place.
But in 2014, The Creative Assembly winded back the clock on the Alien saga to 1979. You see, this was a game looking to draw it’s inspirations from Ridley Scott’s original seminal sci-fi gothic horror, rather than James Cameron’s Aliens, an altogether more bombastic sequel that, in itself, lent it’s core themes to many a first person shooter since. And they would do it by making a genius creative decision.
While most recent Alien games, such as Aliens vs Predator and Aliens: Colonial Marines, pitted the player as a powerful character, mowing down wave after wave of Xeno’s as if they were a swarm of agitated ants, Alien Isolation took a refreshing, and horrifyingly novel approach to the premise. An idea so perfect for this franchise that it’s staggering that it hadn’t already been done. They’ve taken out the guns, explosions, marines and alien hordes. Instead, your trapped on a failing space station, trapped that is, with a single, sentient Alien. And not the mindless drone’s you’ve dispatched by the hundreds in other games. This is the original Giger nightmare. The Alpha predator, returned to his former glory. And he’s hunting you down. No heavy firepower, and nothing to tilt the odds in your favour, you’re just an ordinary person. Your only goal within this world is to survive this bloody extra terrestrial encounter.
The creature itself is a terror to behold. Standing 9ft tall, and with a propensity to kill on sight, it cannot be killed by the player. Instead, the player must make use of their wits, the environment, and some rudimentary gadgets, such as a noisemaker, in order to stay alive. The noisemaker for instance, can lure the Alien to a specific location, if it happens to be blocking your path. None of the gadget’s on offer however can provide you with anything but momentary relief. In this game, you won’t measure your success by the bodycount, instead you’ll measure it by the distance you manage to travel without being brutally killed. Perhaps the scariest thing about the Alien presented here though, is the fact that it breaks a traditional norm within the laws of a game’s AI. It does not follow a predetermined patrol route, instead it uses active senses to try to find you. It can suddenly change it’s mind, and double back to an already searched room, it can learn from the tactics you’ve used to try and bait it, and even after multiple playthrough’s, the son of a bitch still has the capacity to get the drop on you. Become over-reliant on the noisemaker, and he won’t buy the ruse, instead he’ll begin adapting his behaviour, trying to determine the direction it was thrown from, rather than go straight to the beacon. It’s these aggressive changes in his stance that make him the most unpredictable and deadly foe you’ll likely ever encounter in a game. And it is damn scary to see it learn from your actions.
Early on, you’ll acquire a motion tracker, which becomes absolutely integral to your survival in the later chapters. The ‘ping’ it let’s out will become the soundtrack to your nightmares. It’s not infallible though, as it’s only accurate directly in front of you, and it has no depth perception, and so consequently cannot tell if the Xenomorph is above or below you. You eventually get a flamethrower, which is capable of lighting the Alien up, and forcing him to retreat (though he’ll be back, and pissed off), but in honesty, particularly on the harder difficulties, you’ll only ever use the flamethrower as a last ditch defensive measure. Indeed, in later encounter’s, after the flamethrower had been wielded against the creature multiple times, I found he’d started to play with me. Hissing and snarling, occasionally darting in my direction, while being careful in staying outside the radius of the weapon’s throw. It was the realisation that it was goading me into wasting my fuel that gave me a genuine shiver. All hope is not lost however. Just as the Alien learns from every encounter with you, you’ll also, if you pay close enough attention, learn from him too. As the story progresses, the creature’s own grim actions will start to inform your own. You’ll learn the noise it makes as it thunders overhead in a vent, or beneath your feet, you’ll listen for the growls of frustration as he gives up the hunt and moves on. Occasionally, you’ll even look upon it with relief as it arrives to murder a pack of violent looters on your tail, unwittingly saving you. In a very real way, you’ll actually become accustomed to surviving in it’s presence. You’ll learn to be more afraid when you ‘can’t’ see it. You’ll actually go through an experience quite similar to the one a certain Ellen Ripley had, and you can’t get any closer to the source material than that.
Amanda, the daughter of Ellen, briefly seen in a photograph within the director’s cut of Aliens, is the star here. She joins the Weyland Yutani synthetic Samuels and company exec Taylor on a mission to Sevastopol Station, where the flight recorder for the disappeared Nostromo (the ship from the original movie) has been recovered. Sevastopol is a freeport, a former cosmopolitan hub, which had long fallen into disrepair. It’s ragged hallways and dimly lit corridors creak at every footstep. There are many, who suggest, quite rightly, that the designs on show here actually stick much closer to the ‘Alien’ universe’s aesthetic more closely than Ridley Scott’s own sort of prequel ‘Prometheus’ managed. Seegsun, a sort of low cost alternative to WY, had been running the platform at a loss for years. Already struggling to find investors, it was dealt a crippling financial hit when the interstellar flight path from Sol to Thedus was altered in the wake of the USCCS Nostromo’s disappearance. The broken down old station’s fate was thus sealed. As the game begins, it’s already been in the midst of a long and drawn out decommissioning process. What the group find upon arrival however, is a worse case scenario. With the beast on the loose, the station’s dwindling population has been reduced to small groups of survivors, many of whom will shoot on sight to defend what’s theirs. The fact that the game never clearly states which humans are hostile and which aren’t is another generator of tension. The only way to be sure what anybody else’s intentions are is to get close and try to get a bead on the group’s dynamic. It’s always best to exercise extreme caution around any survivor. After all, a loud noise such as a gunshot fired by a spooked civilian, will likely draw the Alien out to investigate, a far more sinister threat than any man.
The game’s main storyline, is delivered mostly via the live game engine, with only a couple of rare cutaways included. While this is an acceptable means of delivering the story, (it worked for Half Life and it’s sequel) and helps player immersion, it does make it difficult to have any kind of development amongst the characters. The question of how the Alien came to be on Sevastopol is answered in suitably “Alien” fashion, and along the way, the narrative even finds time to plug up a major plot-hole which had existed between the first 2 movies. Overall the story is a satisfying one, even if the ending was a tad too ambiguous for some. The game has also, notably, become the first videogame adaptation of the series to be welcomed into the official canon, the event’s within now considered to be part of the official Alien franchise’s timeline.
Alien Isolation is not a game for everybody. The oppressive tone set by the environment and the foes lurking within it can be quite intimidating, as can the unforgiving difficulty. Any near encounter with the Alien itself will almost certainly end in death, and the resultant pressure can make for an unpleasantly tense experience, as you cower in the darkness waiting for the opportunity to move on. Throw in the obstacle of having to complete tasks such as hacking and cutting open welded panels (simple enough tasks taken by themselves but made ostensibly harder while under the duress of the creature) and you can understand the game’s content will not be for everyone. Those brave enough to see the game out though, will find themselves richly rewarded by a game that’s everything an Alien game ought to be. It’s smart, it’s scary and it’s unpredictable. It’s a living, breathing and very dangerous place. And guess whose at the bottom of the foodchain? You’re outmatched, out-muscled, and your biggest goal will be managing to stay alive. The air of entitlement and empowerment you’ve enjoyed in most other games will not be present here. So if you dare to, strap yourself in. It’s going to be a long night.