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Admiring the Purity of ‘Alien: Isolation’

The Alien franchise has a long and rocky history in the world of video games. One could say the same thing about the films, but that’s a different conversation for a different time. From the very first one, simply titled Alien on the Atari in 1982 all the way to as recently as 2019, with Alien: Blackout on mobile devices, game companies have looked at the franchise and seen dollar signs. But rarely have fans of the films gotten a video game experience that feels like one of the good films. There were the Alien vs Predator games on PC in the early 2000s, but that was more Aliens than Alien, and even then, the Xenomorph had to share the spotlight with its fellow extraterrestrial human killer, the Predator (who itself has not had the best experience in video games).

Aliens: Colonial Marines in 2013 looked to be a dream come true but very quickly turned out to be a nightmare. And not the fun kind. But unknown or maybe just unnoticed by a lot of people was Creative Assembly’s take. Sega (who bought the rights to the franchise back in 2006) was so focused and readily banking on the shooter crowd to turn Colonial Marines into a surefire hit that they, and everyone else, forgot that this other company more known for real time strategy games, was working on their own nightmare. Simply titled Alien: Isolation.

Whereas Gearbox with Colonial Marines was trying to hearken back to James Cameron’s effort, Creative Assembly aimed to make players feel that fear that audiences felt watching Alien back in 1979. Boy, did they succeed.

The story of Isolation is relatively simple. Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda is an engineer who has spent the last few decades of her life looking for her missing mother. Out of the blue, she receives news that the black box of the ship she served on, The Nostromo, has been found on a space station called Sevastopol that the company has lost contact with. Anxious to find answers she heads to the station only to find herself face to face with the same creature that her mother came in contact with years before.

And from there begins one of the purest survival horror experiences money can buy.

In order to get here, Creative Assembly knew they had to get some things right. Roughly 10,000 of them, but three most important were as follows.

    • A good lead character.
    • A good environment for the player to explore.
    • And the Alien’s AI.

If those didn’t work, the game didn’t work. But obviously they did, otherwise, this would have a very different title.

Let me start with the protagonist. Amanda Ripley has a lot to live up to. Her mother is probably the most iconic female character in science fiction. Giving players control of a Ripley that isn’t the Ripley we know, is intimidating and scary. But, through some great writing and voice acting, they have given us a hero we can root for. What makes Amanda work is that she feels like her mother did in that first film. Like an ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary situation. A Lovecraft protagonist, the everyday person who comes face to face with an eldritch horror. She isn’t a space marine, bounty hunter, assassin, mercenary, or even security guard. She’s an engineer. The space equivalent of a handyman, the type of person you call when your electrical wiring is on the fritz. She is pretty ordinary. Like her mother, she grows into a fighter. But even in later parts of the game where she’s attempting to kill or lead the Alien into a trap, she always sounds terrified. Breathing heavy or cursing to herself, they do a fantastic job of putting you in the shoes of someone you care about. Someone you want to survive, not just because you control her.

Now onto the environment.

From the opening, you feel like you’re in the original film. The retro-futuristic technology, the lighting, the music, the sounds computers and other devices make, the clothing people wear, even how dark part of the stations are, it has all been meticulously crafted and put together to make an immersive experience that sinks its claws in you and doesn’t let go. It’s reminiscent of how many shadows and dark corners there are on the Nostromo in the first part of the movie. You feel uneasy before Amanda ever even gets to the space station. Because you know what is eventually coming. But we’ll get to that later. Something else I must commend CA for is their restraint. Once Amanda gets on Sevastopol, it is a good while before you ever run into the Alien. For the first hour or so, you’re just exploring the station. You can tell it’s been around, but it always feels like you just missed it by a few seconds. You see what happens when one of these creatures comes into an environment with a large population of people. Unlike the Nostromo in the original film, the Sevastopol station is home to hundreds of people. It’s a hellhole. Civilians have armed themselves and turned on each other, many parts of the station are abandoned and empty, it’s constantly dark. It is like getting a look at what happened to the colonists on LV-426 in Aliens, but there are no Colonial Marines in sight. It’s just a bunch of civilians and a few security guards. And like the best survival horror games have taught, you can find recordings and messages that give you an idea of what happened that caused all this discord and anarchy. That’s all before you ever see the Alien.

Speaking of, throughout the entire course of the story, the Alien’s presence is always felt. Whether it’s the sounds of it moving through the vents, walking around in rooms next to yours or even just the fear and chaos spreading around the station. When it finally does make its appearance, it’s here to stay. This is where the game could have easily fallen apart. If the AI didn’t work properly, it was all for nothing. Fortunately for CA, it worked more than properly. The Alien’s AI in this game is about as perfect as it gets. It is constantly looking for you. And if it spots you, you’re dead. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. It chases you into vents, it looks for you in room after room, it just feels relentless. Not only that, it learns from your behavior. Hide under too many desks, and it will eventually start getting down on all fours and looking for you there. If you throw too many soundmakers or flares to get it away from you, it will stop paying attention to them. They really make it feel like it is an intelligent killer looking for its prey. Looking for Amanda. Looking for you. That sense of something hounding constantly is sure to bring back memories of the Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 or Mr. X in 2. Except the Alien’s appearances aren’t usually scripted or at least, they’re able to hide the scripted nature very well. Even if you don’t see the Alien or hear it roaming around, even if you feel like it’s in another part of the station, you still don’t feel safe.

Because if the Alien doesn’t kill you, maybe some rioters or worse, a Working Joe will.

The Working Joes are actually one of my favorite inclusions not just in this game, but to the entire Alien canon. In the story of Isolation, the Sevastopol Space station isn’t originally owned by Weyland-Yutani, the infamous evil corporation trying their hardest to get ahold of an Alien for the purpose of bio-weapons, it is owned by one their less successful competitors, Seegson. And that lack of success shows in their androids, the Working Joes. Unlike WY’s fancy life-like Bishops, Ashes, and Samuels (Amanda’s very own creepy robot to distrust), the Working Joes barely resemble people. Their skin looks like doll plastic, their eyes glow creepily, they all have the same robotic voice, their mouths don’t move when they talk, and their speaking tone never changes. Which makes it all the creepier when one spots you in an area you’re not supposed to be in. One minute you’re sneaking around and everything seems fine, and the next you hear, “You’re not supposed to be here.” And you turn around and see this walking after you.

But even the Working Joes, as strong as they may seem, don’t hold a candle to the Alien. You can get away from or even kill a Working Joe, the Alien however shrugs off just about every weapon you would try to use on it except the flamethrower. But even that just scares it off temporarily. It always comes back.

In a great fakeout, about halfway through the game it appears that Amanda manages to kill it by (what else) venting it into space. But when she tries to shut down the Working Joes, Mother (the station’s computer) tells her that there is a problem down in the reactor, and so begins what is hands-down the most terrifying and well realized part of Isolation. You find a nest down in the station’s reactor.

That means doing your damnedest to avoid both Aliens and Facehuggers ready to hatch from their eggs. This entire sequence is about as tense as you can get. You are constantly on the lookout for an unhatched egg hidden in a corner, the horrible little screech they make when they spot you, or just other Aliens. All the while trying to overload the reactor to destroy the nest. Not only is the objective difficult, but the environment here is so perfectly grotesque and off-putting. The mix of all this organic webbing with the still functioning machines of the reactor makes the whole environment feel so unnatural. You feel like every second you spend inside could be your last. Because if you don’t kill a Facehugger before it gets to you, it is an instant death And as the period on that sentence, the last thing you see is the point-of-view shot of it on your face, and the last thing you hear is poor Amanda choking as it slips its appendage down her throat. It’s as uncomfortable and horrible as a game over can get. It was easily the part that I had the hardest time with. Not because it’s terribly difficult, but because I was just too scared to move.

After that it’s business as usual for the rest of the game. Avoid the Alien, Working Joes, complete your objectives. Only now with that added fear that any second you will walk into a room and hear the screech of a Facehugger, not knowing where it is. And also, the station is falling apart.

This is all my long and rambling way of saying that if you’re looking for a fantastic survival horror experience, one that captures the feel of that first film, this game is it. It has everything. A protagonist you root for. The environment and music make you feel like you’re in a film set between Alien and Aliens, the impeccable AI of the creature never lets you feel safe or secure. This is it. The perfect Alien experience as a video game. Now, should you decide to pick it up, I won’t lie to you about your chances but…you have my sympathies.

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