Friday, November 28, 2014

Microreview [video game]: Alien: Isolation

(Almost) Perfect organism.

I’m a huge fan of the Alien franchise. Alien is an amazing movie. The rest of them are mostly good for different reasons, but Alien is the true masterpiece. The video games based on the franchise, however, have largely focused on Aliens and beyond. It’s all marines, and pulse rifles, and “game over, man”, and usually predators too. The next most recent Alien franchise game was Aliens: Colonial Marines and it was a huge mess, but it was a straight-up action game. A bug hunt, if you will. It seemed like Sega had wasted a lot of money and time to make a game that couldn’t do any justice to the movies. Now, we have Alien: Isolation. Note the difference in title. Alien rather than Aliens. Isolation, not Marines.

There is but one alien. There are no colonial marines. There are no pulse rifles. This is a game that wants to recreate the suspense and horror of the original Alien. The game casts the player as Amanda Ripley. Amanda is the daughter of Ellen Ripley, the main character from the Alien series. Amanda’s an engineer and she joins a Weyland-Yutani crew to retrieve the flight recorder of the ship her mother disappeared from in Alien, the Nostromo, from the space station Sevastopol.
Sevastopol, from a cutscene
Isolation is a first-person game, but to call it a first-person shooter would be misleading. Sevastopol is inhabited with scared civilians, scavengers, maintenance androids (known as Working Joes), and an alien. Though the game provides a handful of weapons and constructable devices to combat these threats, in most cases, it’s a better idea to run and hide. In sharp contrast to every single other Alien game ever, this alien is invulnerable. It cannot be killed, only chased off or evaded. The androids are not invulnerable, but they are rather hard to kill. You will waste a lot of ammunition if you try to kill all of them. Fortunately, Sevastopol is littered with cabinets, lockers, and closets to hide in. The AI is not particularly hard to get away from, either. The alien has rather good vision and runs faster than Ripley, but the androids seemed particularly unaware of their surroundings. They were more of a threat in numbers. Human combatants seemed to have the awareness of the alien, speed of androids, and guns. In fact, I was rather put off early on in the game by the first encounter with hostile human enemies. I started the game on ‘hard’ difficulty, and as soon as anyone spotted me, I was riddled with bullets and reloading my save game. It happened about 10 times on the very first enemy encounter. I just couldn’t get around them sneakily. After I dialed the difficulty back down to medium, it was less of a problem.

This mixture of threats lead to some interesting situations. If the alien was around, it could be exploited to clear a path. Most often, if I found hostile humans, I’d use a throwable or other tool to make some noise. It would attract the alien, who would summarily clear the room of all hostile humans. Then I could swoop in, pick ammo off of the bodies, and continue on my way. This never seemed to work with androids, though. I guess the alien didn’t care about them. This ambiguity also affected the constructable items. There are a lot, such as noisemakers, smoke grenades, EMP mines, molotovs, and others. There is no tutorial, which I appreciate, but it takes some practice to learn the usefulness of each item. I never found a situation where the flashbang would’ve been more useful than any of the others. This combined with a save point system to create a lot of tension, but also at least some unneeded frustration.
Some really incredible lighting and effects.
You can’t save anywhere, only at emergency terminals. These terminals helpfully beep continuously, so they’re easy to find. However, there is a delay between when you use it, and when the game saves. This means that if the alien is chasing you, you can’t run to the save point to save your progress before it impales you from behind. There were also a couple situations in which the next save point is far enough away that dying before you reach felt like a real loss of progress. A particular section had me navigating a stairwell while stopping to turn on lockdown systems. The stairwell was littered with androids, and the alien was lurking around. Combat makes noise, so engaging the androids meant also engaging the alien, which I was not equipped for at that point. I died more than a few times because I had gotten two of the three lockdown systems turned on, but an android stumbled across me, and the alien ate my face in the ensuing struggle.

So the AI isn’t great, the save points suck sometimes, and the story is thin, but Alien: Isolation is fantastic to play. All of the environments are ripped straight from Alien, and amazingly detailed. Sevastopol looks lived-in and falling apart. It almost decays in front of your eyes. Every work area is filled with tools and containers. One of the best parts of Alien is that the set design is amazing and it’s just as good in Alien: Isolation. Human enemies talk to each other. Working Joes mutter to themselves constantly. The alien hisses and crawls through vents. All of the screens and monitors and computer interfaces look perfectly early eighties. The environment in Isolation is unparalleled.
Spoiler alert: This isn't going to do anything to the alien.
This level of detail is also enhanced by the immersive controls. They’re fairly simple, but the game combines them in interesting ways. Door bars need to be removed, maintenance hatches need to be cut off with a torch, security systems need to be hacked. These are all done with two mouse keys, a use key, and the movement keys. You can look around while you’re performing most of these actions, so you can see if an android is approaching or if the alien is in the distance. Even though it was often too late to escape if you did notice such thing, being able to keep an eye out felt right for this game.
I love the eighties technology aesthetic in this game.
Most first-person games clock in under 10 hours. The bigger budget games can get even shorter, such as Call of Duty games. Alien: Isolation does no such thing. I clocked 15 hours into it. It may have gone on a little longer than it needed to, but I never felt like it was outstaying its welcome. In fact, the more I played, the more I wanted. After getting past the frustrating stairwell bit, I was hooked.
"I admire its purity. A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality."
The bottom line is that, despite some minor flaws, Alien: Isolation is an amazing game, probably the best Alien franchise game ever.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 amazingly detailed environments, +1 Alien game that’s not a bug hunt, +1 immersive, sensible controls

Penalties: -1 dicey AI, -1 save point frustrations

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 (Well worth your time and attention)


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Creative Assembly. Alien: Isolation [Sega, 2014]

Bonus DLC Review: I had a chance to play through the “Crew Expendable” and “Last Survivor” DLCs for Alien: Isolation before posting this review. These two DLCs are short (maybe 30 minutes each) but replicate some of the intense parts of Alien, taking place on the Nostromo and playing as members of the crew. It’s cool in the way that walking through a movie set is cool. The ship is lovingly recreated and there are audio logs from the crew scattered about. There’s not a ton of new game to play in here, but any Alien fan should play them.

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