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Alien: Isolation Review - Jaws in Space

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Fear is a reaction games do so well. Other creative mediums struggle since there is a wall of distance between yourself and characters, as they move of their own accord, making their own decisions: we really are just voyeurs in the slow destruction of their lives. Games toss those concerns aside, thrusting people’s choices into your hands, forcing their fate on you as their lifelines shrink into a final gasp.

Alien: Isolation recognises the roots of the franchise as precisely based on fear. And this is necessary for a first-person, survival horror.

The first film, made in 1979, was dubbed “Jaws in space” – one terrifying creature, who you hardly see, terrorising idiot humans who have never faced such a threat before. The only human survivor of those events was Ellen Ripley (the other survivor was the real star of the film, Jones). Isolation takes place nearly two decades after that, starring Ellen’s daughter, Amanda.

Developer Creative Assembly drew directly from assets in the film: gigabytes of data were sent their way, old unused footage, soundscapes and scores. They faithfully recreated every tiny detail of that world and no one can fault them for that.

One foot in the dark

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Seeking answers about her mother’s disappearance, Amanda joins a small crew travelling to a space station called Sevastopol. On-board, the station has acquired the last remnants of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley’s missing ship. However, even before reaching Sevastopol, events separate Amanda from the rest of the crew. She enters the Sevastopol and finds it’s a corpse, with little sign of the station life she expected. Or rather, its ghost.

Sevastopol is highly reminiscent of Rapture, Bioshock’s once proud city: it’s where you spend almost the entire game, it’s a character unto itself, it’s gorgeous, and it’s haunted. Ghosts of memories detailing its downfall haunt DOS-based terminals; citizens are now gun-toting maniacs who kill first, question never; and the sense of dread is constant.

Unlike Rapture, that dread is given a slick, lethal form in the shape of the Xenomorph, the alien. And it is this relationship that is central to the entire game.

Keep moving

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The game is about survival, not fighting. Ripley is no thick-necked marine. Like her mother, Amanda is a talented engineer, resourceful and always the eye of the storm: while others break down from the chaos, Ripley remains calm. Or rather, the Ripleys, since this is a trait both share and is the reason both (should) survive their respective encounters.

Using parts and scraps, Amanda can fashion and use various tools – noisemakers, Molotov cocktails, etc., - to aid her in survival. Hiding, crouch walking, keeping enemies at a distance all aid your progress, as you proceed to find a way off the station alive.

The game is designed to instil constant dread. After completing the game, I felt terrorised by its unrelenting, tortuous nature: presenting glimpses of escape and freedom, only to have them snatched away by a scaly hand. It’s brilliantly paced, such that it increasingly starts throwing everything at you, as your supplies start decreasing.

But that dread is conveyed in many ways: aside from the stunning environment, with gorgeous textures, incredible lighting, genius sound design, your tools are your downfall. Indeed, the xenomorph isn’t your biggest source of dread, it’s the motion-tracker.

Unable to detail the direction an entity is facing, the motion tracker can’t tell you if the entity is above or below you. Sometimes it’s broken, showing multiple targets, or malfunctioning as you crawl in dark vents. The game recognises your reliance on it and slowly erodes its credibility. You’re also unable to focus beyond the tracker while using it, unless you press a button to do so. Thus the default is blindness and fear – and that’s the very tool that’s meant to keep you alive!

And the main reason you’ll be using it is to keep yourself aware of a certain alien’s location.

This is no pet

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This game is primarily about relationships: Amanda and her mother, Amanda and her crew, Amanda and Sevastopol, but mainly Amanda and Mr Kitty. Or at least that’s what I called him, to help mitigate my fear of him.

Mr Kitty learns. He adapts. He is not scripted, but is guided by noises and memory of your weapons. Don’t expect walkthroughs to help you get passed him. You watch him from behind boxes, as his long, sleek form unfolds like a flower from the ceiling. His long tail curls near to your feet, as you slowly crawl behind tables and keep him at bay. You’ll see him through bars as you hold your breath in a closet. As you play, you learn his noises, his behaviour, his likes and dislikes. You know the groan he makes when he sniffs, when he’s upset, when he’s spotted you. You learn not to walk under open vents that has a strange, gooey leak. Seriously, don’t do that.

It’s fascinating that he’s your constant companion and constant enemy. Nowhere have I experienced a better gaming companion – Mr Kitty is far more fun than Ellie from The Last of Us (and only a little cuter). After learning his habits, I used him once to clear a room filled with gun-toting maniacs. By tossing a noise-maker he loved, he followed it and made a beeline in the ducts above to the room. He made short work of the gun-nuts, and I proceeded through unharmed. (Of course, he killed me many times later, but that one part … we were buddies.)

As indicated, the sound design is excellent. The nuances in Mr Kitty’s snarls are discernible, adding to him being a real creature made of pixels. Sevastopol is old, the creaks and groans and hisses of its slow death add to its haunted house feel; that they sound like Mr Kitty is unhelpful but adds to the fear. You never know whether that noise was a tail scraping against a wall or the ship turning.

Unfortunately, Mr Kitty is not a constant worry. About half-way through, he… well, disappears. “He” returns, of course – indeed the game sends you into a pit of hell where he dwells – but a lot of the game is spent tackling boring and annoying synthetics. Called “Working Joes”, they are unnerving but become annoying quickly. Even Mr Kitty becomes annoying after you pass the 12 hour mark.

This is a looooong game and even constant dread turns into irritation: you’re no longer afraid while hiding in the closet, you’re just annoyed and want him to go away.

However, when the game allows for his stalking, when you have to navigate dark hallways while he sniffs around and your supplies are low, the game is perfect. I felt the terror Ripley experiences in the films: this is a menace of pure destruction, of absolute terror. There is no beating it, only surviving it. Nowhere has that been made more clear to me than in this game – and I’ve seen those films numerous times.

Balancing the scales

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On PS4 at least, the game is gorgeous. Scuff-marks on the floor, the milky blood of synthetics that actually lands on items, enveloping sound and groans, tiny details of machines that flicker when you press certain buttons to power them up. I love all of this.

The attention to detail that is birthed from a 1980’s view of the future is incredible. (I recommend watching the original film some time before, to truly appreciate the various Easter eggs and homage to it. I don’t want to spoil anything here.) The point is: it’ quite clear the folks at CA adore the franchise.

Mr Kitty is truly menacing, his movement terrifying in its alien nature. The idea of, say, a multiplayer would show just what makes him terrifying: though there is no multiplayer, I think a human player as Mr Kitty would ruin its unpredictable, animal nature. It is this which makes him terrifying. Watching him crawl towards me as I frantically try raise a flamethrower at his face never failed to be heart-pounding.

His unpredictability can make the game feel unfair. But, to me, that unfairness only arises from poor decisions on my part not the game’s. There were times when I thought I was perfectly silent, only to be stabbed from behind. But I can’t be certain.

As indicated, he does start to become more an annoyance than a terror. The game refuses to end. And that hope for an end lends itself toward frustration as the game takes its cue from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King.

And one can’t escape the realisation this is a lever-pulling simulator.

It’s hard to know what activities you can give a player in a survival horror aside from menial tasks in a terrifying setting – but the game really screams “I am a video game” when predictable events occur: the door is locked, in order to open it you need to activate a nearby lever, the lever needs power, you need to journey to two sides of the floor and activate each one, but Mr Kitty is around. Rince, repeat. Oh but sometimes you need to push a button… after using a lever.

This does, of course, create tension as you’re trying to do a menial task – one that suddenly becomes Herculean when a monster is thrust in-between your goals. There’s a later stage which just takes this past 11, however and that was perhaps the scariest and best part of the entire game. You’ll know it.

The scraps

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I’ve said little about the story because, well, it’s an Alien game. If like me you know the usual beats between Ripley and Weyland-Yutani, you can probably predict what’s going to happen. It’s a fun ride and the characters are excellently portrayed. Special mention must be made of Amanda herself: not only the best female lead I’ve played - since no one mentions any aspect of her sex, except for one creepy guy – but also brilliantly acted by Andrea Deck. Deck’s performance is perhaps the best I’ve seen this year. I hope she wins all the awards.

Overall, this is a brilliant game. Yes, it screams “video game” with its tedious button pushing, but there is a lot draped over it. Bioshock was “just” killing monster people, but covered in gorgeous environments and brilliant story-telling. The Last of Us was just third-person survival-horror, but excellently done. Every game can be reduced to its “justs” and “its only a mix of x and y”; but that doesn’t tell us whether it’s good or not.

Isolation’s failings is it shows its hand too much. Instead of keeping the cards against its chest tightly so that a little xenomorph could burst through, it shoves you into video game activity #3,445. When its focused on your battle of wits and depleting resources against Mr Kitty, it’s on point. The sound, the design, it’s almost exactly the Alien game we’ve been wanting. The game is extremely long and tiring; you will feel fatigued from fear and irritation. One could argue this is in keeping with the notion of fear itself: people don’t stay afraid forever, eventually they overcome it through sheer annoyance and say enough is enough and go out chucking Molotovs at Xenomorphs and sprinting to elevators.

I can’t say I want to play it again – at least now (the DLC is sort of laughable, as its distilled the best parts but put them behind a paywall. That’s a topic unto itself). But it’s one of the best games I’ve played this year and it’s well worth any stealth, horror or Alien’s fan’s time.

Play it with quality headphones for the ultimate (non-VR) experience.

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