Alien: Isolation / 17th of October 2014
Like so many Alien fans, I was affronted by the calamity that was, Colonial Marines, which saw me pin all of my hopes on Creative Assembly’s take on the subject matter, they certainly talked the talk when they discussed such notions of survival horror, and of featuring just one xenomorph throughout the whole experience, and yet, now that it is finally here, I can’t help but feel that Isolation might actually be worse than its predecessor. As unlikely as that may sound, it will soon become abundantly obvious for anyone unfortunate enough to play this, that the wonderful ideas and obvious love for the films, well, Ridley Scott’s original anyway, are completely blighted by some horrendous design decisions that make Isolation one of the most frustrating gaming experiences ever created.
First of all, there are positives, starting from the retro company logos, full of VHS tracking issues that clearly set out the developer’s intentions to remain true to the aesthetics of the original film, with most of the technology seen in the game looking like it came out of the seventies rather than the future, yet it only serves to make the world of Isolation seem all the more palpable, and far more accurate than Gearbox’s abysmal effort. Lights flicker on and buzz incessantly, door hacking devices and panels have kitsch dot matrix screens that could have come off of original Nintendo Gameboys, those familiar airlocks whirl open with the screeching of metal rubbing against metal, whilst the new synthetics could have had starring roles in Westworld. Sevastopol station is a mess, a backwater hub in a long forgotten area of space, home to a once thriving community now severely down on its luck-it feels lived in, authentic, and an ideal location for the game to be set in. Yet for me, this is as far as Alien: Isolation’s positives extend to, and that is why it may just be the most disappointing release of the year so far.
Now that I have put forward the positive aspects of the setting, there are flaws inherent in it which effectively killed the experience from the moment that I arrived on Sevastopol, making it an entirely underwhelming locale from the outset. Sevastopol Station is effectively a poor man’s Rapture, with the player indelibly arriving after the event, in this case, the arrival of the xenomorph, and the havoc that then ensued. The result, as in Bioshock, was that the populace decided to split off into various factions to battle each other for the remaining scraps whilst the alien stalked them all through the cold metal corridors, though obviously between fighting over resources and desperately trying to stay alive, the populace of the station still found time to record their thoughts in the form of audio logs, which is lucky for the player or they would likely find themselves with absolutely nothing to do here except admire the slapdash quality of the graffiti that adorns the walls, warning of the doom that one is expected to encounter as they press on into the game. In Bioshock, divisions between the people was appropriately explained by the narrative, but not so here, instead, we have an altogether flimsy set-up that sees the ship that brought Ripley to the station set to abandon her and the other survivors for no other apparent reason than that it was in the script. Naturally, after such a low-key opening to the proceedings, I thoroughly expected the game to soar, especially after the alien entered the fray, yet how wrong I was. What is arguably the game’s biggest strength, its one and only xenomorph, ultimately becomes its greatest weakness, and the primary source of the player’s frustration, yet before I tackle the alien itself, there is more that must be said of the setting and its atmosphere.
Now, a lot has been said of the game’s tone, and whilst it generally does a good job in terms of its visual representation of this, it’s not enough, for whilst there are a wealth of excellent lighting and particle effects that should have made Alien: Isolation drip with the sweat soaked tension of the original film, it doesn’t. Primarily, the sound design is pretty solid too, with the general clanging of sheet metal bending one way and then another as a heavy body forces its way through cramped air ducts, and the archaic beeps of the ageing technology, yet the score is rather weak, except the moments where Isolation resorts to using pieces from the original film score, the game typically bombards the player with a cacophony of strings to let them know that their relentless nemesis is nearby, and as this happens an awful lot, the score quickly loses its power. Eventually, even the atmospheric sound effects will start to grate, from the whirring of an opening door to the squeak of Ripley’s scuffed footsteps, in the end, they all become maddening.
But that’s not all. The alien itself, supposedly an unscripted AI driven monster - which doesn’t make a proper appearance until around an hour or so into the campaign - is itself a game breaker, there is almost no logic whatsoever to its actions as it stalks the ducts and corridors around Ripley, leaving players stranded in hiding spots for long periods at a time, perhaps only then to be slaughtered as the xenomorph randomly decides to rip open the doors of the locker in which the protagonist is hiding. Creative Assembly seem to have taken a lot of inspiration from Red Barrels’ Outlast, and whilst this mechanic was far from perfect in that, it actually comes across as being a whole lot worse in Isolation. As the foe here is completely unpredictable, it can disappear for long periods at a time, or return moments after seemingly fleeing the scene, leaving players unable to do anything right, and if they do manage to progress, it is simply out of luck, so obviously some of us are not so fortunate. My confrontations with the alien were nothing short of infuriating, with it insisting on never leaving my side for more than a few seconds at a time, meaning that my progress through the game was decidedly slow and cumbersome. This was made even worse by the junctures when the beast decided to investigate the locker in which I had hid Ripley, the game gives button prompts intended to allow the player to hold their breath and duck down out of sight, yet in the instances when this happened to me, not once did it actually work, regardless of my actions, the alien simply prised open the door anyway, which is an intolerably frustrating event if the game has not been saved for some time. And in my experience, that was always when this invariably occurred.
The bulk of the game will be spent sneaking through corridors using the motion tracker, though personally, I simply used this to identify the direction that I needed to travel in rather than as a means of detecting the alien itself, it’s presence typically highlighted by its angry hisses or the crashing as it drops down out of the ducts overhead. It then proceeds to lumber around inelegantly, alerting players with its heavy, laboured footsteps that resound around the metal rooms and corridors of the station. When backed into a corner though, the game’s screeching score has a tendency (like Outlast) to cover atmospheric sounds, leaving the player struggling to determine the position of the creature, leaving them stuck in their hiding places for longer than is actually necessary, and typically, forced to replay the same sections time and time again due to the absence of a checkpoint system. Initially, even this seemed like a fine concept, a return to the classic survival horror ways, except in Alien: Isolation, it is a huge misstep, and one of the most glaringly obvious design decisions that has left the actual end product a considerable distance behind the game’s obvious potential.
From the outset, the game was designed to be based on stealth rather than action, which means that combat is about as clunky as it comes, and the solitary alien, which is impervious to all attacks, can once again be a source of frustration itself, though for different reasons. In one confrontation with the beast, after several failed attempts to clear an area, I resorted to firing six rounds from my handgun into the alien’s dome to see what the effect would be, and to my non-existent surprise, there was none. Not a single trace of evidence that I had even shot the creature which simply bolted towards me and finished me off, again. As there is only a single xenomorph in the game, it is indestructible, making the game design feel altogether antiquated, it cannot be bested nor deterred from attacking, thus depriving the player from enjoying a dynamic game of cat and mouse with the creature, with confrontations only allowed to go to two opposing extremes; either you live, or you die. Likewise, attacking synthetics can be an exercise in futility, particularly if players face them head on, where just two attacks from the androids will see Ripley finished off. The player, in Isolation, is not given permission to adapt to the situation, they must simply tackle it in the way that Creative Assembly have deemed correct, and this is also extended to the level design too, where straying too far from the correct path will usually result only in death. Thusly, to say that Alien: Isolation feels archaic would be nothing short of an understatement.
The game controls are a bit of a mess, the inventory wheel isn’t great-especially when I spent half of the game wondering where I would be able to create items, only to eventually highlight one on the wheel and receive a button prompt to create an item, so cheers for that. Character models aren’t great, and their animation is even worse, lacking in blending, they move along about as rigidly as the game itself. Which brings me to another of Isolation’s biggest faults, its length. The game is so dragged out that it actually seems to lose track of what the original purpose of the game was, Ripley’s own motivations are fulfilled long before the game’s end, which sees the player forced to run through a gauntlet of death, repetition and mind numbing boredom without any real reason to do so, apart from simply bringing the whole exasperating experience to a close. And I am sure that most gamers will agree with me in saying that this is not the Alien experience that they expected, nor deserved.
I simply cannot find the words to describe exactly how disappointing Alien: Isolation is, from the outset, Creative Assembly made it sound as though they were surely going to craft the perfect Alien game, and yet, with the final product in hand, it is little more than a travesty that is about as worthy of the brand as the horrendous Alien vs. Predator films, and that says it all really. The ideas are there though, so perhaps Creative Assembly deserve one more chance to make the consummate Alien game that we have all been waiting on, because this, for all of their promises, it most certainly not it.