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Alien: Isolation Review

I mostly played at night. Mostly.

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.

What’s Good:

  • Aesthetics match the film brilliantly.
  • The alien and the idea of the alien are equally terrifying.
  • Constant progression of ideas forces you to stay alert.
  • Sound design is absolutely fantastic.
  • Hardcore stealthy play is imperative but…

What’s Bad:

  • Quite a lot of time is spent simply hiding in cupboards.
  • Occasionally looks a little unpolished in animations and facial textures, especially.
  • Mission structure sometimes resorts to back-and-forth busywork.

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.

Score: 9/10

Version tested: PlayStation 4

  1. tactical20
    Since: May 2010

    ….and there’s the review we were all hoping for! Now, where to pre-order for the Nostromo edition? Any suggestions?

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:19.
    • JR.
      Since: Apr 2013

      Zavvi have an offer on at the minute if you pre-order the Notromo Edition (any format) you get a free steelbook (bluray) of either Alien/Aliens/Alien3/Alien Resurrection. Also if you set up a new account with a new email address, you get 10% off (code: WELCOME) so you can pick up a copy of the game and a limited edition steelbook for £40.37. Just ordered a copy myself. Only downside is Zavvi aren’t the most reliable company for getting pre-orders out to you on release day.

      Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:29.
      • paulleeper2430
        Since: Dec 2009

        Thanks you just saved me a few quid. Its didn’t ask which steelbook I wanted though, does it just pick one at random?

        Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:53.
      • JR.
        Since: Apr 2013

        No worries. I’ve seen it a bit cheaper elsewhere but not with the steelbook. Really looking forward to playing this now.

        I think it tells you to add them both to your basket and it knocks off the price of the steelbook at the checkout.

        Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 15:10.
      • tactical20
        Since: May 2010

        Nice one!

        Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 15:54.
  2. ico
    Since: Aug 2010

    Nice review and nice score. Appreciate the Newt headliner too. Hopefully when you complete the game it’s got Hudson shouting ‘game over man, game over’ but I’m sure I’m being a little too optimistic there.

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:22.
  3. Dan Jones
    Since: May 2010

    Definitely pre-ordering this now. The horror of the original film for me was the unsettling environment for the crew, and how you never knew what to expect next – the Alien or a bloody cat!

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:27.
  4. boeboe
    Since: Feb 2013

    Back of the net.

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:30.
  5. bunimomike
    Since: Jul 2009

    Lovely review, Peter. Very absorbing and I could feel the trepidation with your words. Fascinating to see the IGN review on 5.9 (way lower than how Metacritic’s scores are turning out). The reviewer mentioning that he died hundreds of times. Is that the case? Did you die hundreds of times?

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:31.
    • Peter Chapman
      Team TSA: Editor
      Since: Forever

      Yep, you die hundreds of times if you play on tougher difficulty settings and don’t pick your way through areas slowly and very carefully. I dropped from normal to easy difficulty for several sections, just to get through in enough time to write a review. I also tried the hardest setting a few times and it’s absolutely brutal. I die a lot if I try to play Halo on its hardest difficulty though, that’s what the hardest difficulty is for, right?
      It’s fair to say that it drags on a little too, but it’s all in service of the notion that you’re mostly powerless and your actions are mostly futile.
      As an aside: don’t read IGN’s review if you’re sensitive to spoilers, there’s a pretty big one in there.

      Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:38.
      • bunimomike
        Since: Jul 2009

        Ah, good to know. To be honest, your tone with the review had me smiling as it sounds like it might be the first Alien game I’d actually like to play. I normally play every game on Normal but will adjust accordingly. I’m not too proud to change things as and when the need arises.

        Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 15:17.
  6. TSBonyman
    Since: Dec 2009

    Great review, i’ll have to give it some more consideration now as i didn’t expect it was going to turn out so well.

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:38.
  7. wonkey-willy
    Since: Jan 2010

    great read Peter..
    i think i will go for the “full change of underwear” special edition judging by what you have said..
    not a big fan of stealth myself so i will in the words of Rimmer

    Let’s get tough. The time for talking is over. Call it extreme if you like, but I propose we hit it hard and hit it fast with a major — and I mean major — leaflet campaign, and while it’s reeling from that, we’d follow up with a {whist} drive, a car boot sale, some street theatre and possibly even some benefit concerts. OK? Now, if that’s not enough, I’m sorry, it’s time for the T-shirts: “Mutants Out” … “Chameleonic Life Forms, No Thanks” … and if that’s not enough, well, I don’t know what will be.

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:40.
  8. Tuffcub
    On the naughty step.
    Since: Dec 2008

    Bugger. Going to have buy this now.

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:40.
  9. hazelam
    Since: Feb 2009

    well, that’s a relief, not another ACM fiasco, and it’s actually really good, a scary, not retarded, alien, and a woman as the lead character.

    i think i might have to pick this up
    seems like they’ve done so many things right with this one, where ACM did so many things wrong.
    a female lead for one.

    i’d love to get the edition where you can play as Ripley, though i hate the whole exclusive dlc crap.

    out of interest, was the review of a next gen, PS4/X1, version or PS3/360?
    i mean, are the unpolished looking textures and animation there despite being on PS4 or X1 or because of current gen hardware?

    anyway, great review, put my mind at ease about the game.

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:45.
    • Peter Chapman
      Team TSA: Editor
      Since: Forever

      I reviewed on PS4 and the issue with textures is really very minor. Doesn’t make a difference to the feeling the game creates, just makes the cutscenes and similar a bit cheesy

      Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:57.
      • zb100
        Since: Aug 2008

        Sorry Peter, just spotted this comment & wanted to confirm that it is definitely playable on the PS3. Really very much enjoying it.

        Story is taking a while to get into but definitely a well required training course as I’ve just sauntered onto the Nostromo DLC & ohmigod ohmigod fuuuuuuuuuuu…

        Comment posted on 08/10/2014 at 21:34.
  10. MadBoJangles
    Since: Nov 2009

    Pre-ordered the Nostromo Edition for PC :)

    Great review! Can’t wait for this!!

    Comment posted on 03/10/2014 at 14:48.

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Alien: Isolation
  • Developer:The Creative Assembly
  • Publisher:SEGA
  • Platforms:PS3, 360, PC, PS4, XBOX ONE
  • Release Date:

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