Backlogging: 'Alien Isolation' or Why 'Alien Isolation' is the Best Survival Horror of this Generation
It has been a lot longer than I figured it would be since I last had the opportunity to write a "Backlogging" article. Between life, a mini-vacation, the epicness of our ongoing Top 100 episodes of The Simpsons, and a reason we will chat about in a bit, Creative Assembly & SEGAs Alien Isolation took me longer to complete than I thought it would. That said, Isolation was a game that I perhaps savored, and took a break or two from, both because (as everyone who knows me/is aware of any other part of The Guys From is already well aware) Alien is my favourite film, meaning this game had a pretty easy go of it to win me over, and because of its pure, tense survival horror gameplay, I occasionally needed a day or two off to decompress. At the end of the day however, Alien Isolation is, without question, the best survival horror game of this generation, and easily moves into my consideration for my personal top 25 games of all-time.
The plot of Alien Isolation is that 15 years after the events of Alien, Amanda Ripley (Ellen's daughter) is working as a mechanic for Weyland-Yutani, when she gets word that the flight recorder of the 'Nostromo' has been found, and is currently on the Seegson (another, much less successful interstellar corporation) space station Sevastapol. Desperately looking for some answers as to what happened to her mother, she joins a couple other W-Y employees in jumping to Sevastapol to recover the box. Of course, there are problems in raising the station, so Ripley and the others spacewalk over to Sevastapol, to find the station in disarray: the people are openly hostile, the (creepy as hell) Seegson synthetics (called Working Joes) are lurking, and there's a monster stalking, and killing them all.
i don't want to spoil anything for those who have not played the game yet, particularly if there are other Alien fans out there who may have skipped Isolation after hearing what were mostly positive, if not slightly tepid reviews (most of what I had heard when it came out was that the game over-stayed its' welcome; I'll get back to that shortly). Thankfully one of the writers at iHorror tipped me off that I would love this game (if only for the story). He was right: Isolation fills in a gap in between Alien and Aliens beautifully, telling a story that, giant fan of the original film I am, I definitely wanted to see. I would go so far as to say that the plot of the game, and the way the story unfolded was better than the last "three" Alien films. This takes characters that I'm already inordinately fond of, and puts them into the background of a story wherein I get to discover a bit about more about them, while at the same time experiencing (what feels like) my own creepy Alien story...as "my own" Ripley.
For people whose favorite film of all time isn't Alien? There is still a lot to love here: the story, even when it is occasionally let down in voice acting (and I mean only occasionally), is tense and interesting. There is so much to do in Sevestapol that will keep you on the edge of your seat...and while you don't even have to have seen Alien to really enjoy the story, you would invariably get so much more out of Isolation if you have at least a working knowledge of the film. I know I was pleased beyond all rationale more than once while playing, just in uncovering bits and pieces of a universe I have so much fondness for.
Here's the Launch Trailer:
The gameplay is largely centered around stealth and survival horror, wherein you are moving around Sevastapol as Amanda Ripley, with limited resources, and restricted save opportunities (tied down smartly to what is essentially a pay-phone) to complete objectives toward getting off of the station to safety. These generally ranged in difficulty, and were mostly about working your way through situations with hostile survivors, robots, or a xenomorph in between you and what you needed to get done. This means that every encounter can be handled in a number of ways, and that you will often find you needing to change tactics on the fly. The best part of this setup is a combination of the aforementioned limited resources preventing you from attempting every situation 'guns blazing', and the fact that this xenomorph actually feels like a xenomorph: it cannot be killed, you cannot out run it, and it hunts you.
This is one of the things that I have noticed some complaining about when it comes to Alien Isolation: the AI of the xenomorph makes the game occasionally super hard--see the alien is not programmed on a predetermined path, it actually is set up to work like a xenomorph would: he hunts you, using sight and sound. This means that sometimes in the game, you just get unlucky and make a noise, or do not turn a light off fast enough, or what have you, and there is literally nothing you can do about it once the xenomorph is on you.
In other words, you start to get used to the alien killing you animations pretty darn quick.
I can see how this could be frustrating for some gamers; that feeling of hopelessness, or that the game "isn't fair" is something that often hits us because of mistakes, or glitches in the game itself. That is not the case in Alien: Isolation. You have to be willing to accept that in making a realistic AI for the alien, that it is going to be hard, and sometimes realistic means that you are just randomly going to get mauled, whether you like it or not. There was only one time, in the second to last mission in the game where I was frustrated enough that I needed to put the game down and walk away from it for a day. Once.
Oh, and for the record, I played (and finished) the entire game on the hardest difficulty (why it took me longer, and part of my wanting to really savor it), and I have the trophy to prove it:
I suppose if you are not a gamer who is up for that sort of challenge (one where you could be punished for not even making a mistake), you could find Alien: Isolation frustrating to the point that you don't really like it, but this is a survival horror game...is it not better if you actually have to work to get through it? Plus, the fact that you have to be a mix of stealthy and aggressive to be successful means that you will literally feel tension while playing this game.
While there are a few jump scares throughout the game, Alien Isolation largely relies on atmosphere, and that sense of dread for its horror: I know I, on more than one occasion, heard that metallic thumping noise of the alien dropping out of a vent and instantly had my heart rate jump, as I began searching for a place to hide. I did not find it "scary" perse, but at the same time, being me, I was more excited to see the xenomorph than scared...because I love the damn thing so much.
Which brings me to what might be the crown jewel of Alien Isolation: the design (art & sound) is brilliant. This game feels like it exists between the two movies; the technology looks right, and it has that 'real-life, science fiction' grit to it that Alien has in spades. Everything still felt like it was not that far removed from the "future in 1979", and sure, you'll see some repeated set decorations, but that did not really bother me at all in this game, as a rundown space station would not have access to a diversity of goods...The sound is spectacular: this is the first game that I have ever insisted on playing with headphones on. They almost felt necessary so I could truly isolate (ha) myself in the game, and listen for that xenomorph, or hear the small particles bouncing off of my space suit....
There were several occasions when I would by hiding in a locker, and listening to the alien's footsteps with my eyes closed, mapping out where he was in relation to me to decide on when to move. I have never, in all of my years of playing stealth games, done that. Usually it is just pattern memorization, or some quick murders, but Alien Isolation prevents both of those to force you into what is a much more realistic, harrying, and sure, scary situation than you would usually find yourself in a stealth/horror game.
Does Alien Isolation overstay it's welcome? For me, no...however as I said above, I took my time with it. I could understand, especially if you are not a huge Alien fan, getting frustrated and stopping before the end of the game due to difficult sections, or just getting tired of playing a game where you could, if you play one way, spend an inordinate time in lockers and vents, waiting for things to walk past you (and sometimes, they don't). There was one time (again, that second to last mission I mentioned above) that I didn't care for the level design, as it made me go back and forth a few times between the same rooms to do things that just felt awful, with about 2, very far apart hiding spaces, but aside from that, I was pretty much enthralled the entire time.
At the end of the day, you do have to consider my fandom for Alien, and how that is surely giving me a bit of a bias toward Alien Isolation, but this is a game that fans of horror games, survival horror fans, and fans of stealth games in general should definitely check out. I was lucky enough to grab the game for <15$, and it is easily worth double that in my opinion.
Alien Isolation is, for me, the best survival horror game of this generation, without question, and I hope against hope that there will be an Alien Isolation 2--for which I will be first in line.