Alien: Isolation Review – She's a Cruel Mistress

Patrick Dane writes for Bleeding Cool:

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The best way I can describe Alien: Isolation is by using a really contrived and laboured conceit. Watch in horror as I dig deep into my writing toolbox and pull out a metaphor.

Imagine you are at watching the greatest Beatles tribute band live. These guys are the real deal, only a whisker away from the real deal. Their craft, research, talent, it all shines through and it's truly engrossing. There's a problem though. Because they are so good, they're going to mess up from time to time. When that happens, they have to start the song they were playing all over again. Add on top of that, it's a 10 hour gig where they are going to play through the entire Beatles back catalogue. Twice. The show never stops being really impressive, but the band are half way through the White Album for the second time, the guitarist keeps messing up Helter Skelter and you kind of have to pee.

That is the best way I can describe Creative Assembly's Alien: Isolation.

Now, that was an extremely contrived metaphor I know. That's why I am going to spend the rest of this review unpacking it.

I'd first like to just talk about how this game is an Alien wonderland. The research and care that went into this game is staggering. This feels like Alien. It looks like Alien. It is Alien. Creative Assembly have left no crook or cranny unresearched. From the moment the grainy 20th Century Fox logo first appears to the Apple II series style terminals, this is a game that is riffing so hard and so well on its source material, it isn't hard to put this as one of the most detailed movie franchise games ever. Remember, this is a franchise that has been lacking care since 1986. Honestly, Alien has had so many ties to mediocre movie and games, that Creative Assembly taking on the franchise with such a passion feels like a rescue job rather than cashing in on a franchise name.

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You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the iconic Ellen. Set 15 years after Alien, Amanda is still searching for her long lost mother and gets a glimmer of hope when a job comes up involving the flight recorder of the Nostromo on a space station named Sevastopol.

Once aboard Sevastopol, it's clear something has gone desperately wrong. The station is in ruin, the inhabitants have turned on each other and there are rumours of a 'Killer' picking everyone off one by one.

The story from this point rarely exceeds past 'try and get off the station' with constant divergence systematically stopping you doing so. Nothing too spectacular, but where Isolation does shine is in the world building of the Sevastopol station. Run by a woefully under resourced Seegson corporation, learning about the station's history and fall is always engrossing. This location feels hefty. It feel real. I may even be bold enough to say it is one of the most engaging locations since Bioshock's Rapture. It is also nice to see the Alien franchise plagued by a new corporation with other goals as Weyland-Yutani and the Xenomorph had started to feel like the R rated, sci-fi version of Catch the Pigeon. (That isn't to say WY don't have a presence though)

It's also incredibly refreshing to see the game embrace horror and take inspiration from the original Alien, rather than the often cited Aliens. This is a straight up survival horror. The times you go in the offensive feels awkward and jilted and rightly so. Ripley isn't a soldier. She's just an engineer. A survivor, not a killer.

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The mechanics of the game are enthralling too. You will spend a lot of your time sneaking around, hiding in closets and feverishly checking your motion tracker. You'll also be scavenging materials and crafting items to ensure your survival. Supplies are at a premium though . You can fire guns at human and android enemies, but I probably only picked up around 40 bullets in my entire run through. When a synthetic takes 4 or 5 shots to down, you'll soon learn that this isn't your main defence. That isn't even to talk of the Xenomorph which is basically impenetrable, save for scaring it away briefly with fire. It's gripping play and for the first half, it can be edge of your seat stuff.

At least until it isn't.

Where the game stumbles quite significantly is in its difficulty. While I was never bored with the game, more than a few times I got stuck on a section, dying more than 12 times and having to go back a couple minutes each time I did. I don't want to mince my words here, so believe me when I say Alien: Isolation is hard. At times, it's even unfair. There is a thrill at being stalked by an unbeatable Xenomorph and being under stocked with supplies, but it quickly wares off when you realise your options for getting past are very limited. This is the kind of game that will have you going for an elevator at the end of a difficult section you've played 10 times over before dropping a Xenomorph right outside the exit, thus killing you.

The thing about hard horror games is that they don't really work unless you are procedurally generating situations. The first time you play through, it is intense. You always feel a wrong step away from death, because, usually, you are. Although, once you've died 5 times and you keep having to take it really slow through the same part, that intensity turns to frustration. More than a few times, I threw the controller out of my hands and sighed loudly. Not because it was a release of tension from the situation, but because I knew I had to go back six or seven minutes and play through the same part again.

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Alien: Isolation is also incredibly long. Take that as you will. The campaign clocks in around 15-20 hours which isn't in and of itself a problem, but it does become one because of how the narrative is structured. Creative Assembly obviously understand pacing and draw from the original movie in this area very convincingly. When the Xenomorph doesn't make a proper appearance until an hour in, it is clear the creative team 'get' Alien. However, that pacing is ever laboured as the game and action ramp up. From a narrative stand point, it is just structurally uneven. It has a great first and second act, but the third is so lopsided that it ends up taking up half the game. There was a time when I thought the game was about to end, only to find it still had six hours to go. The escape from the Sevastopol can feel endless and unfair, with Ripley nearly finishing the story several times before she is diverted or dragged away. By the time the credits roll, it can be incredibly trying, especially as the already punishing difficultly is increased the further you go.

Alien: Isolation is an astounding piece of design that sometimes struggles to maintain the user experience. The care and thought put into the game is staggering and, at times, it's downright masterful. It's just undercut by an intense desire to brutalise the player by unfair and frustrating methods. In many ways, this is the Alien game we've been waiting for. A true survival horror centred around a Xenomorph stalking and hunting you. It can just be hard to appreciate it when you are getting slapped around so often.

However, in spite of myself and the times I was ready to throw the controller down in frustration or dying the 12th time in one area, I'm kind of in love with this game. The care, the detail, the pacing, this is a game designed by a team of people who love this franchise and want to do right by it. That is difficult not to be swept in as you descend into Sevastopol. It can be infuriating, but by the time the credits roll, I can't help but be enamoured with the journey I had been on.

Patrick Dane, once a would be filmmaker, has somewhat accidentally found himself as an entertainment journalist over the past two years. You may recognize him from around these parts, or you may not. Who's counting? From E3 to SDCC to the Top Gear track, Patrick has explored the world of entertainment wherever it has taken him. He is always happy to talk words at you. Hopefully the ones above will suffice your needs.

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.