The alien is not the only threat on board the station. That one sentence, flashing up as a loading screen hint, perfectly sums up the philosophy of Alien: Isolation. You might have one of sci-fi’s most terrifying extraterrestrials well tracked, you might know its exact location at this moment, but there’s always something else to worry about too. Isolation is not simply about having the most jump scares or even the scariest monster – although you do have to go some way to find one as fearsome as Giger’s xenomorph – it’s about never letting you settle.
Sure, there might be no alien threat to worry about at the moment, but there’s something else. Even the fact that the threat is nonspecific adds tension. There’s something else. The implications in that are almost as unsettling as the gruesome extraterrestrial that poses the show-stealing threat. And that’s only right too, the mostly-abandoned space station that is home to your adventure is packed with threats that are very much of mankind’s own creation. Whether it’s synthetic labourers, megalomaniacal mainframes or selfish human paranoia, played out to its violent, tribal conclusions, almost everything that is able wants to kill you for one reason or another.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, just a little. Let’s start from the beginning. You play as engineer Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley, who was lost when the Nostromo disappeared fifteen years ago. You’ve been approached by an executive of Weyland Yutani with the offer of a trip to help you find some closure, and to help them recover proprietary equipment. The Company has been informed that the flight recorder of the Nostromo has been discovered and is being kept on the Sevastopol – a practically defunct space station in the midst of decommissioning.
You wake from hypersleep as you arrive at the Sevastopol to find it in a worse state of repair than expected. Your captain can’t contact the station and you can’t dock so the three of you from WY don spacesuits and embark on a routine space walk to get onto the station and recover that flight recorder. Amanda, the executive that invited you and a nervous legal executive make the jump together but, as you will probably expect, things don’t quite go to plan, you get separated and you find yourself on a decrepit, eerily quiet space station with no way of contacting your ship or your colleagues.
You will go an hour or two without seeing the alien at all. The other dangers and tensions of Sevastopol are gradually introduced until you’ve almost forgotten that you’re essentially playing through a starter course of humanity’s failings, waiting for the main course to arrive. And yet the alien, terrifying as he may be, is simply the headline. The story of what makes Isolation so scary lies within the tension it creates – that’s the real enemy and that begins in those opening moments. The notion that nothing is going to go smoothly, that everything is going to be a struggle, lays the foundation for later game elements – and especially the alien’s presence – to build on.
What starts as slightly panicked exploration to find a way of communicating with your colleagues quickly descends into a rudimentary game of hide-and-seek, with the highest imaginable stakes. And yet, it’s not much more than an inconvenience to those of us who’ve played their share of stealth games. You learn movement patterns, you move slowly, you stay down and you hide in cupboards. It’s familiar, even as it is relentless and unforgiving.
Make it through one area and you’re only moments away from another in-game disappointment and another threat to avoid. Humans that hunt in groups but are generally disorganised and mercifully noisy. Synthetics that are basic in their AI and follow tightly defined patrol routes and timings. You might be able to kill them, if you’re prepared and careful but they’re always best avoided. The odds are never in your favour and combat is – rightfully – not something this engineer protagonist is adept with.
Vents, locked doors, computer systems, hacking, power re-routing and item crafting are all introduced relatively slowly and sedately. You find items that are useful, you find blueprints and materials to craft items that can act as distractions. You find a weapon. You’ve worked out how to piece together a kind of safety net in case you’re spotted. Keeping in mind the places you can run to hide, the things you can use to distract and, in case of emergency, the ways you can kill. You start to think you’re finally getting on top of the situation, the odds are turning in your favour, just a little bit. And then there’s an alien.
The alien changes everything. The alien is clever, quiet, fast. The alien learns. The alien can’t be killed. Your ragged safety net no longer exists.
Suddenly, those items you’ve been playing around with become essential and your wasting of materials in situations that might have been otherwise avoidable is unforgivable. The ability to cause a distraction is no longer a pleasing game mechanic, it’s a matter of life and death. The previous abundance of cupboards and lockers you can hide in suddenly seem far too sparse, the distances between them much too great. Manual save points – the game’s only way of checkpointing or saving your progress – seem almost sadistically spaced out. The penalty for death is to return to your last save, to retread your footsteps and feel the fear and uncertainty all over again.
The game features plenty of large complex areas, with multiple access and exit points, where you will have to be very much on your toes in order to simply keep out of the alien’s way but there’s more to it than that. The alien learns. Your early encounters will be terrifying but look back on them a few hours further into Isolation and you will think them rudimentary, almost simplistic.
The alien learns that a loud noise is something worth investigating. Then it learns that a loud noise usually has a cause. Then it figures out that, if it can’t find you in adjoining rooms, you must be hiding somewhere more carefully. It learns to look under benches and beds. It learns to listen for your motion tracker’s beeps – a noise that will seem hatefully loud to you after a while, especially if it’s coming from the controller’s speaker. The alien learns that it should listen at, even sniff at lockers and cupboards you might hide in. And you’ll have to learn too. You’ll learn or you’ll die. Isolation is unforgiving and intended to be difficult. The easiest difficulty gives you a few extra moments and more plentiful crafting materials. The hardest difficulty gives you nightmares.
Some areas contain both alien and non-alien dangers. These often cause the most trouble because you’re having to track two sets of threats that behave quite differently. They’re also the cause of one of the game’s most disappointing elements because the tension is somewhat interrupted when you realise that the group of shouting humans, searching the corridors for you with their revolvers drawn, often seem not to attract the attention of the alien that can apparently hear you breathing from inside a locker.
You can use the camera on your system to track your head movements so peeking out of those lockers means leaning forward and hiding further back means burying yourself in the sofa as Ripley cowers from the glistening threat. The camera can also be used to listen for loud noises so, let out a yell from your sofa and you might alert something deadly in your game. This is a smart way of not just allowing you to inhabit the game world but allowing the game world to seep into yours – and it enables even further immersive tension.
The motion tracker becomes your most valuable tool but it isn’t a cure-all. You can hold a button to switch focus from the tracker’s screen to the environment and release it to return but you won’t be able to simply hold the tracker up and move around the Sevastopol. It’s also imprecise, showing only the location of movement when it comes from in front of you. If it’s to the sides or behind, that’s all you’ll know. The tracker often shows the rapid movement of something – presumably the alien – in the walls, floors and ceilings around you. It also emits a beep, which can be heard by nearby enemies and will give away your location.
All of the items in Isolation come with caveats. Flares, for example, are useful for distracting the alien but he will work out that they must have come from somewhere and eventually he’ll search for whoever threw them. Your flashlight is essential for darker areas but it drains batteries and pinpoints your location to anyone or anything that might be able to spot the beam of light. Even the revolver must be reloaded one bullet at a time, with another press of the reload button for each projectile you slot into the chamber. It’s a pattern repeated across all the items you find or learn to craft: nothing that’s useful comes without a cost.
The things you’re used to as a modern console owner are subverted slightly to mean that even mundane actions can be fraught with tension. Crafting something to act as a distraction involves committing components and confirming the build. Finding key codes means reading terminals that take a second or two to boot up and when you read those key codes, you’d better remember them because you’ll be entering them manually at the keypad. Even saving the game, a moment that should be a little oasis of relief, takes a second or two and you’re not safe while you’re standing at the emergency phones that act as save points.
The alien is the one big, insurmountable threat. It’s the centrepiece but it isn’t the only thing – or even the primary thing – that causes Isolation’s persistent feeling of dread. The alien is troubling enough but that idea that there could always be something else is a much more powerful force. Knowing that no matter how close an eye you keep on the motion tracker, how well you avoid the alien, you’re always only one locked door away from some other kind of surprise means that you never allow yourself to settle into the mechanics of a video game. You’re playing a situation and you’re constantly unsure of what that situation will shift to become from one moment to the next.
That idea of never being comfortable with how the game is unravelling is something that feels quite unique and it’s extremely well imagined here. Plenty of survival horror games have you feeling vulnerable as you essentially fulfil the role of a hero but things are different here. In Alien: Isolation you’re not the hero, you’re the prey.
Version tested: PlayStation 4