FEATURE: Why Alien: Isolation Gets It Right

Last year I published a post on my own website called Counting Xenomorphs, bemoaning the way that game developers always seemed to focus on the Aliens film for inspiration, rather than its earlier and more sinister relation Alien. Aliens: Colonial Marines was not yet out and I was already having misgivings about its eventual success at capturing the sci-fi chills of one of my favourite film series. Aliens: Colonial Marines turned out to have far more problems than I expected and at best, did turn out to be just another bug-hunt at the end of big guns.

I think a game based more on the style of the first Alien film might hold more scares and more interest rather than another pulse rifle infused acid-fest. Imagine a game taking place on the Nostromo or even the Sulaco (after the events of the second film have played out). It could still be a first person game, but you take control of Ripley and it is only you, and one Xenomorph on board. You cannot kill it, you don’t have the weapons or tools. All you have are some flares and a map of the ship. There then ensues a game of cat and mouse, in which you try to move around the ship to gather your arsenal, access the ship’s systems and find where the alien has set up its nest, all of the while trying to avoid said alien until you are better prepared to deal with it. All that would be needed to add more tension would be the knowledge that the ship is slowly heading back to Earth, and you can’t afford to let it get there with this thing on board. Is it just me or does that sound scarier? It does sound doable as well. With only one Xenomorph to pit against you, all of the AI programming could be focussed on that single enemy, making it cunning, random and deadly. If an element of randomisation could be added to where it nests, what ship systems are working etc. for each game playthrough, the re-playability would be excellent as well. If that wasn’t possible, a more scripted game that played out the same way each time (in the vein of Dead Space) could still be well worth playing. – Counting Xenomorphs

I may be biassed but most of what I hoped for was spot on with what Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, the latest game attempting to bring to life the horrors of the Xenomorph, delivers. Sure, I got the location wrong and the Earth part, but most of what I anticipated is in Alien: Isolation, and it works!

That’s why I have decided not to turn this into a game review. As a game, it gave me everything that I wanted and I doubt my ability to be impartial enough to pick holes in its design, systems or anything else for that matter. Partly, I don’t want to look close enough to notice things that are amiss as then they will forever be in my mind. I have watched films with someone who loved pointing out continuity errors and after ten minutes almost ended up punching them.

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Strangely, my love of the game began with the titles and loading screens. I just loved the lo-fi grainy pictures of Sevastopol (the space station where things play out). The pictures just oozed the technical aesthetic of the Alien film, and this is something that continues once you take control of your character. All of the technology is clunky, retro and modelled on the film, even your save game point is a large box with flashing lights with a slot to take your key-card. I think it’s the first game I have played in some time where everything feels like it has a weight and presence in the world. When you add in the authentic sounds of doors sliding open, conduits flexing as you crawl through and the musical score, you feel like you are pretty much there.

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The early game builds tension, showing you the grimy and dilapidated interior of a space station that is midway through being decommissioned. It doesn’t take long for you to see that this isn’t the only problem: gangs patrol, androids kill and there is mention of a dangerous creature roaming the corridors. The reveal of the Xenomorph is a stand-out moment for me, watching it gracefully unravel itself from a vent and forcing your character (Ripley’s daughter Amanda) to dive under a desk, the long undulating tale of the creature sliding by your legs. It stomps off in the direction you have to go, creating an atmosphere of tension in me that I have rarely experienced in a game.

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The thing is smart too. You can draw its attention by bashing the wall with your wrench but you best have somewhere to hide nearby or you have no hope of getting away. This is an understatement. Alien: Isolation could have easily been called the “Hiding in Lockers Simulator 2014” as this is what you will do with great regularity. For me at least, this never got old though. Every time I dashed for a locker, hearing the creature thudding towards me, my heart would beat faster and I would clench my jaw. Even once inside, you never know if it saw you enter. If it did, you are pretty much done, your only fate is to see the door ripped away and the clenched dripping teeth flying towards you. If it didn’t see you, you can adjust your position so that you can shrink back from, or peer through, the vent in the front of your hiding place. These were some of my favourite moments, watching the Xenomorph prowl the area or room outside, the light reflecting from its shiny head, the guttural shrieks enough to send a real human in that situation into a blind panic. Once that moment is over and it has moved off, you aren’t out of the woods yet. It sometimes doubles back, or is just standing right outside the nearest door. You know that you have to leave the “safety” of the locker or hidey hole at some point, you just find yourself having to roll the dice sometimes.

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This oppressive feeling stayed with me throughout the game. Even if the creature wasn’t “in-play” and was just scuttling about in the ceiling vents, you never knew when it might come down behind you. This was particularly tense when using your hacking device to try to unlock a door, or using the long-winded ion torch to cut away the thick metal cover of a maintenance vent. Any moment you expect the thing’s steps to rush towards you while you have your back turned, the sound design of the game accurately ratcheting up the pressure to get what you are doing done so you can see what’s behind you again. The game also features an ingenious crafting system which allows you to create various devices to aid in your survival, items like noise makers, EMP mines and medkits. Be sure to hide somewhere safe to craft them though as the game doesn’t pause while you mess about with components.

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Yes, this pattern repeats throughout the game, and yes, if you don’t enjoy this, you’re not really going to enjoy the game. If you do enjoy it, you are in for a nice big helping of what you fancy. The strange thing is, other games that use this “hunter and hunted” mechanic have left me feeling cold and disinterested. I guess it took something like Alien: Isolation to come along, a game that used and adapted something that I already had a good deal of interest in, to get me into this style of mechanic fully. I played through the game on the medium difficulty, as I do with most games. It was a challenge but just the right side of frustrating. The only people I have heard griping about the game tend to have played on hard, so that is something to consider if you have yet to play it.

My PC is sorely in need of an upgrade, so I was unable to run the game at maximum graphic settings, opting for Low in the hope of preserving higher frame rates. Even knowing this, I have never taken so many screenshots in a game before, clocking up almost 600. All of the screenshots in this article are from my playthrough and I think they look pretty stunning. When I finally have the money to upgrade my PC, I am definitely going to play through the game again with all the eye candy cranked up to its highest setting.

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I bought the Ripley Edition of the game which came with two free DLC packs, Crew Expendable and Last Survivor . Both see the action take place in certain time-frames of the Alien film. The first lets you choose to take control of one of the crew members of the Nostromo as they attempt to lure the creature into an airlock. The second lets you control Ellen Ripley as she finds herself without any crew mates and must activate the self-destruct system and escape the ship. The two DLCs were a good slice of film tourism but having played them, I wouldn’t say that you were missing out much if you opted to ignore them. Yes, it was nice seeing the well reproduced cast from Alien and hear some of those goosebump inducing sound-bytes from the film, but after playing the 18 hour (for me) main Alien: Isolation story, they were too short and too late to have much impact on me.

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I am now a couple of weeks on from completing the main story and I find the urge to start another playthrough slowly building in me. Also, something that I feel measures the quality of a piece of entertainment far more than a mere score is happening: I want to watch the films again. If I play, read or watch something that makes me want to consume more and more of that world, I count that as a massive endorsement as to the quality of the triggering item. Alien: Isolation has done this to me, and I think this is the best possible way to end this article. I hope a sequel in the same style emerges at some point in the future, maybe playing as stealthy Newt before the Colonial Marines show up in Aliens? I’d buy that!

GS Blogger: Casey Douglass

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