Alien: Isolation Review
If last year's Alien's Colonial Marines succeeded in anything, it was in making of Hollywood's most menacing monsters into little more than a joke. The best that once gave kids the world over nightmares was reduced to little more than cannon fodder; oh, and it danced. It seemed like it would be the last nail in the coffin of what was one a horror movie icon. Fast forward to just over a year later and Alien: Isolation doesn't have this problem; in fact it succeeds wildly at recreating the terrifying world established by Ridley Scott's iconic 1979 film. Isolation comes so close to becoming the Alien game that fans have clamored for, for decades but a lackluster mission structure and disappointing story hold the game down. While Isolation is more than enough to make you forget the failures of past games, it's transgressions hurt just as much because of how close it comes to being great.
"...hostile humans, malfunctioning androids and something worse..."
Set after the events of the first movie, Isolation puts you in the role of Amanda Ripley, who is looking for information on the whereabouts of her mother Ellen (played by Sigourney Weaver in the films) and the rest of the Nostromo crew. Her search takes her to the Sevastapol, a giant space station where the Nostromo's flight recorder is being stored. It's apparent right from docking at the Sevastapol that something isn't right, and Ripley is tasked with surviving against hostile humans, malfunctioning androids and something worse - something much worse.
From the moment the game starts, it's clear that Sega and Creative Assembly wanted to make a game that was faithful to the Alien franchise, and they've succeeded wildly here. There's a remarkable level of detail here, from the DOS computer systems to the throwbacks to the world of the movies. Most impressive though is just how much all of that detail helps create an incredibly deep world. Everything from the condition of The Sevastapol to the audio diaries lying around helps create a fantastic back-story and reaches an almost BioShock level of detail. It's obvious that someone at Sega did their homework this time around, and it shows, I tried to spend as much time as I could exploring every nook and cranny of the station.
Of course, that's easier said than done due to what's stalking you I the corridors of the space station. I was honestly surprised by how long it took for the game to bring the Xenomorph into play (unlike previous games, there's only one in Isolation) but when it does, the game truly hits its stride. The Alien, referred to here, as simply The Beast is the clear star of the game. Featuring mostly unscripted AI, trying to evade the Alien is a truly tense and often terrifying experience. You can never really tell if the Alien is going to sprint down a corridor at you, sniff around a room or disappear into a crawlspace for minutes at a time. Even then, there are moments where you think you're safe, but the Alien changes course and comes at you out of nowhere. There are moments where the Alien seems a bit too smart and manages to attack you even when you're well hidden, which is cheap but forces you to think and strategize even more.
"It's a game that deserves to be played alone, in the dark..."
Most impressive is how all of these elements, the dynamic AI, the true to the franchise world and eerie production values combine to create a remarkably paced experience. The game puts its lighting system to great work and before long you'll start questioning every shadow that you see. The audio is even more impressive, with a dynamically impressive score and incredible sound effects (it's downright terrifying to hear the Alien scurrying around above you or clomping down the hallway), this is a game that understands what made the original movie so terrifying to begin with. It's a game that deserves to be played alone, in the dark with surround sound headphones on.
It's a shame then that with how much Sega and Creative Assembly nailed the atmosphere of the Alien franchise, they botched pretty much the rest of the game. Isolation's mission structure is by far the biggest letdown of the game, forcing you to do trivial fetch missions and far more backtracking than you should in a game like this. Most missions find you trying to sneak your way around the station, trying to get into one room or another or find some resource that you need. The problem with this is that you almost always feel like you're doing the same thing, like how many times am I going to have to find a way to restore power to the ship? How many times am I going to have to sneak into that same room?
There are also entire sections of the game where seemingly nothing of importance happens. The Alien franchise strived on how scary things were when nothing was happening, when you couldn't see your enemy - and Isolation is no different, but there are stretches towards the middle of the game where the Alien is completely absent and you're left to deal with the malfunctioning Working Joe androids, and the game becomes less of a strategic survival horror game and more of a brainless first-person-shooter. Why you would almost completely take out the best thing about your game midway through the experience is beyond me, and Isolation struggles because of it.
"...a good three to four hours too long for it's own good."
Isolation is also a good three to four hours too long for it's own good. While it may seem strange to complain about a game being too long in this day and age, Isolation seems to be heading towards a satisfying finale several times before the credits finally roll. The story is all about Amanda Ripley finding closure on the whereabouts of her mother, but Sega and Creative Assembly seem determined to not give it to her. It's like the old adage says, leave them wanting more; not give them countless hours of pointless wandering around a space station.
Like most guys my age, Alien was more than just another movie; it was almost a right of passage. It was the first real horror movie I saw, and defined what terror could be growing up. After so many disappointments and let downs, it's great to see a game that understands what made the franchise so great and absolutely nails that tone and feeling in a video game. It's equally disappointing though that the rest of the game is so incredibly disappointing and feels so rushed. All that aside, Alien Isolation is more than worth a look to anyone who loves survival horror, or grew up living in fear of Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece.
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