Alien: Isolation Review
Bad pacing and AI flaws eat away at the environments like drops of acid blood
Alien: Isolation contributes more evidence to the case that creating video games based on the iconic Alien franchise is difficult. Rebellion took on a tri-species experience with Aliens vs Predator in 2010, but the generic campaign was underwhelming. Gearbox tried to focus on Colonial Marines last year, but created one of the poorest shooters in the last decade. Alien: Isolation's shift towards survival-horror removes any trace of pulse rifles or smartguns. Aiming for a stealthy experience, it is more about dying than killing. On paper this sounds like the best chance for the franchise, but implementation is everything.
In Alien: Isolation you take the role of Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley, set after the events of the first movie. She receives word from the 'company' that they located the flight recorder from the Nostromo and it is aboard Sevastopol station. Amanda joins a small crew and attempts to board the station after ignoring a radio message that sounds like a warning. After barely making it aboard, she conveniently loses contact with her crew and fellow boarders. Amanda soon discovers the station is in chaos and a Xenomorph is onboard killing people. Alone and ill-equipped, Amanda must summon courage to find the flight recorder and get out alive.
You know the party is getting started when the Alien appears
The Sevastopol Station is rich with atmosphere and based heavily on the design of the first Alien movie. The crippled station will lurch and rumble, suffering through collisions and system malfunctions. Aesthetics from the movie are preserved with a retro sci-fi design and padded walls. You may walk down a corridor, enveloped by flashing lights and klaxon alarms, only to react at the faintest sound or shadow. Or you may admire the reflections on the floor before receiving a telltale blip from your motion tracker. The atmosphere is perfect for the Alien threat and the retro design is a refreshing change from the sterile modern approach to sci-fi.
The layout of the station is not open, but there are transit hubs framing the objectives. While moving through the station you will spot doors requiring tools you have yet to acquire, an ominous sign there will be back-tracking. Major objectives consist of establishing communications, finding a trauma kit or aligning a satellite dish. Minor objectives involve finding a key card or restoring power to an area. Often the context provided for these objectives minimal, you will get most of the information from the helpful 2D map telling you exactly where to go. The amount of important story-related dialogue could probably be compressed onto a single page and the voice actor for Amanda is flat. The presentation qualities of the story are nowhere near as slick or precise as games like Dead Space.
Unlike Dead Space, stealth is the primary component helping you avoid the many deaths you incur throughout the station. There are minimal cues from enemies about your impending detection, so you must learn the tolerances on your own. You are harder to see and hear while crouched, so crawling around is practically required when hostiles are nearby. This is one reason why it takes a long time to progress through areas: you crawl for twenty minutes, only to die seconds after making a minor mistake. The save system is punishing, but it can be rewarding to hear the beep from the save station after dying several times in the same area.
This Working Joe is tired of your working flashlight
There are three types of foes determined to kill you, and their routines can be terrifying or game-breaking. The first of these are the Working Joe Androids, who are surprisingly effective in both role and game lore. They only walk towards you, but their persistence should be respected. If they get close, you will need to struggle free from their clutches. Setting them on fire is not enough, as they tell you about their fire resistance. It is disappointing that stronger Androids appear later to counter your improved arsenal. Still, the Androids function as intended and become a reasonable threat with vulnerabilities.
The Human scavengers are undeniably brainless and the worst of the three enemy types. Humans initially open fire on sight, yet in other areas they warn you before wasting their infinite supply of bullets. You can use this to your advantage, tempting them to fire in order to lure the Alien out of hiding so you have fewer enemies to face. The animations for humans are not great, as they turn on the spot and may fire before their weapon is aiming in the correct direction. They aim for headshots even when your head is obscured and one enemy spent two minutes trying to headshot me through a vent when the rest of my body was visible.
Human foes can stand next to their dead companions for minutes with their aim frozen in place. They aren’t frozen in fear; their AI scripts have just hit one of those endless loops. Even the non-hostile humans, however few there are, scurry back and forth behind advertising signs while Amanda Ripley nonchalantly tries to block their navigation paths. Another problem with the Humans is you are never sure if they are friend or foe. In one area you sneak up behind some characters that turn out to be friendlies. When returning to this same area twenty minutes later, hostile humans shoot you before dying at the claws of a scripted Alien. The presence of human combatants almost single-handedly ruins the believable atmosphere despite their relative infrequency.
Best part of Human enemies? When you see them die horribly
Alien AI is crucial to the entire experience, as it is the super predator on the station and the only foe you cannot defeat with weapons. The best qualities of the Alien are its erratic behaviour, speed and persistence. The creature will patrol areas in no obvious pattern before heading into the ducts. It will hear sounds and spot flares, heading to investigate, giving you the opportunity to move to another room. The game is most entertaining when you are tracking the Alien through multiple walls as you circle your objective.
Unfortunately, the Alien follows you a little too well you when moving to adjacent areas. If you need to find a key card in a set of rooms, the Alien circles through those rooms to make your task arduous. It follows in the ducts above even if you maintain flawless stealth. It’s best to think of the Alien as a parent who is trying to find their child in a game of hide and seek. The parent knows where the child is, but they will circle the area pretending they are still searching. Amanda Ripley is that child, and she gets killed when the Alien decides it is time for bed.
You will die frequently because the Alien changes routines. In one escape sequence, the Alien would position itself in subsequent vents all the way to the destination, as though it knew where Ripley was heading. On the fifth attempt, the Alien dropped from the third vent and spotted Ripley before she had any chance to react. Alien: Isolation employs trial and error aspects, because it keeps players honest. But when you die enough times in one area, death becomes trivial.
Advanced hint: Fast-moving blips at 2m are bad
The Alien often comes out from hiding so you can admire the perfect organism. Various scripted scenes play out identically on replay, such as bursting into a room in an act of aggression, even when Amanda is hiding behind an air-hockey table. At various points throughout the game, the Alien leaves the ducts and traipses down open corridors as though it was on a brisk morning walk. The loud footsteps, a helpful aid to reduce the reliance on the motion detector, indicate the creature is unconcerned about stealth. This shatters the concept of an Alien desiring to be seen only when it wants to be seen.