Alien Isolation Retrospective

The Alien game we wanted, needed, and will probably never see again.

Replaying it for the fifth time in nine years, I still love Alien Isolation even if it’s not a perfect video game. When you consider it in the long list of attempts to gamifying the iconic IP – with most results ranging from average to god-awful – it sits comfortably at or near the top depending on your genre preferences.

Most developers looked to the more action-heavy spectacle of Aliens and focussed on first-person shooters, of which Rebellion’s 1999 Aliens Versus Predator and Monolith Productions’ 2001 Aliens Versus Predator 2 are still top picks despite their age.

In contrast, Creative Assembly’s 2014 Alien Isolation looks to the first film as inspiration for a slow-paced and immersive first-person stealth game with survival-horror elements – albeit still interspersed with a few action-packed sequences that don’t always gel with the overall package.

Alien Isolation The Nest

I could talk about it for hours, yet it’s a difficult game to describe in exciting terms when so much of your time is spent moving slowly – preferably crouch-walking – around the lovingly-crafted Sevastopol station, keeping an eye on the motion tracker, scrounging for supplies, and engaging in simple QTE-style mini-games to manipulate machinery or hack terminals.

The thrill comes from getting around and performing simple tasks under constant constant duress, dealing with dynamic systems that ensure events rarely play out exactly the same way, and knowing that failure – and Alien Isolation can be brutally unforgiving – might send you back to a distant manual save station. Observation, planning, patience, and careful timing are demanded of you; while preserving ammunition and collecting parts to craft useful tools feels essential to survive towards the end-game when encounters with the Alien become more frequent and scripted.

With hindsight, it’s no surprise Alien Isolation’s mix of unforgiving stealth, survival elements, and horror doomed it to limited commercial success with a niche audience.

Give me immersive worlds and gameplay, not “cinematic” immersion

“Immersive” is an overused term when describing modern video games, all too often associated with realistic but tedious and over-animated interactions. Alien Isolation might feel a little dated where animations are concerned, but it is immersive in the sense it meticulously recreates the aesthetics of the 1979 film – drawing on both the film and concept art – using similar sound effects, audio cues, and music to nail that atmosphere of lingering dread; and then uses the mechanics to grounds you in that world.

The clanking sound of automated lights down a corridor; the sudden hiss of de-pressurising valves; the slow scraping of iris-style vents dilating; the soft chatter of archaic-looking terminals; the gentle sloshing sound of the flame-thrower when equipped; the scratchy beep of the motion tracker; and thudding footfalls of the Alien when it’s on the prowl.

Like the films, Alien Isolation’s Sevastopol Freeport offers an unromantic vision of space exploration and resource operations, with claustrophobic and sterile living spaces; incessantly loud, glaringly bright, and often hazardous workspaces; endless bureaucracy with no local government to enforce it; and eternally sweaty and unhappy humans.

There’s incredible, consistent attention to detail and tons of environmental storytelling that’s hard to miss when the core gameplay mechanics force you to keep an eye and ear on your surroundings.

It could have been the script for Alien 2

The story, which sees Ellen Ripley’s grown-up daughter Amanda travel to Sevastopol to recover the USCSS Nostromo’s flight recorder, may have some pacing issues but it hits all the right notes. It starts slow, escalates wildly, then lures you into a false sense of security before a chaotic final act. It probably runs on for an hour or two more than it needs and ends abruptly but it gets a lot right thematically.

Amanda comes to understand the uncaring nature of corporations that place profits above people; she encounters androids more sympathetic by virtue of programming than the self-interested humans that created them; she demonstrates her technical knowledge and slowly transforms into a hardened survivor while everyone else falls around her.

Alien Isolation Hidden Logs

For fans of the movies, there’s an entire flashback sequence, a few familiar scenarios, and many subtle references that will entertain – though many of the twists won’t come as much of a surprise. More importantly, those who explore will find so much additional lore, world-building, and secondary story arcs for those that want it.

Backtracking is worth it not for a handful few blueprint upgrades but for the text messages and audio-logs found on terminals. They reveal more about the history of space travel and technological development; the competition between SEEGSON and Weyland-Yutani; recovered pre-flight messages from the Nostromo crew (with decent voice impressions); and how the downfall of Sevastopol and its inhabitants started long before the Alien arrived.

Alien Isolation Flashback

A mix of simple and revolutionary

When it comes to the hybrid stealth-action gameplay, Alien Isolation is refreshingly simple – to the point it felt a little dated compared to older games like 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution and 2012’s Dishonored.

Amanda can run, walk, and crouch-walk; lean left, right, up, and down; crawl into air vents and closets, and automatically squeezes into low spaces. She doesn’t get more health, move faster, or sneak more effectively as you progress; instead, she gets weapons that you’ll rarely want to use, useful gadget blueprints to distract or incapacitate threats, and tools and upgrades that are doled out as the plot demands. You can attempt to explore a lot of the station from the get-go, but the story does a good job of sending you back through several areas so you can access optional areas without wasting too much time.

Stealth is all about line-of-sight, noise levels, creating distractions, and breaking contact if it goes wrong but, honestly, staying crouched and keeping a waist-high object between you and the threat works 90% of the time. Combat against aggressive survivors and the creepy Working Joe androids is unremarkable but feels suitably high risk. Amanda has a steady aim and potentially deadly gadgets up her sleeves, but walking into an ambush or getting backed into a corner results in a quick death.

Of course, once the Alien is introduced as a continuous presence, everything changes.

In a sense, the Alien is your traditional video game character, with a skill tree that evolves over the course of the game based on your actions. Use a specific distraction like a flare or noisemaker too often and the Alien will ignore it. Get repeatedly spotted hiding under desks or in vents; it’ll prioritise searching those locations when it hears a noise. Use the flame-thrower for the first time and the Alien will back away from you when it’s drawn and the pilot light is on; rely on it too much and it’ll soon realize it can charge you down through the flames if close enough.

Facing just the Alien is suitably terrifying but, outside of scripted events, cautious progression will typically keep it in a passive state wandering the ceiling vents. When you’re forced to deal with both it and other threats, human or android, the potential threat is amplified. Sure, the Alien can make swift work of hostile survivors but that’ll likely leave it actively stalking the area. When you’re facing the Alien and androids, stealth becomes mandatory as you’re stuck between two lethal threats that mostly ignore each other, unable to tackle one without drawing the attention of the other.

When you throw in the aforementioned manual save stations, Alien Isolation can make for an incredibly tense and terrifying experience that few other horror games can achieve.

Alien Isolation Incredible Atmosphere

RNGesus offers no salvation

All of Alien Isolation’s problems stem from the same dynamic Alien system that makes it so compelling. It’s one of the few games I can think of that can claim to have scared players to the point of paralysis, impacting gameplay flow and narrative pacing.

You see, it’s only in replaying Alien Isolation that you can appreciate how forgiving the stealth mechanics are, how tightly scripted many mission encounters are, and how well-paced the story can feel. In contrast, your first playthrough – regardless of the difficulty you pick – can feel relentless and unfair.

There are times when the game seems to play by an understandable set of rules and your reward for staying quiet is an Alien content to scuttle around the vents while you interact with terminals and open paths. Other times you’ll open a door or vent only to find the Alien quietly waiting behind it. This degree of randomness persists throughout the game and really doesn’t gel with the inconsistently-spaced save points – something the devs clearly knew when auto-saves are suddenly introduced in the chaotic finale.

Alien Isolation Random Deaths

As a result, far too many first-time players spend their time lingering in hiding spots the moment they hear the Alien drop from the vents or put themselves at even greater risk by backtracking to save points between every minor objective. It drags out play time, reduces the frequency of narrative beats, and disrupts the flow between developer-intended triggers.

During free-form exploration when the Alien’s behaviour is dynamic, first-time players are too scared to go off the beaten path to access optional rooms and terminals that flesh out the story and universe with notes and audio-logs. During scripted encounters where the Alien is incredibly aggressive – designed to push you forward towards an exit or cutscene while fending it off with a flame-thrower or gadgets – they would try to hide, expecting the Alien to eventually disengage, only to be pulled out and killed over and over again.

With no clear distinction between dynamic gameplay and scripted sequences, Alien Isolation captures the terrifying atmosphere of the first film in a way most horror games can only dream of. The downside is that it can easily frustrate players to the point of giving up and I imagine many gave up a few hours in exploring the San Christobel Medical Facility.

I refuse to accept a mobile game and comic as a closure

I find replaying Alien Isolation a bitter-sweet experience. It’s the closest we’ve gotten to a game that captures both the look and feel of the 1979’s Alien but we’re unlikely to see a direct or spiritual sequel.

It launched a year after the falsely-marketed and overwhelmingly average Aliens: Colonial Marines left many fans rightly suspicious; publisher SEGA was, of course, disappointed with “only” sold 2.1 million sales; and developer Creative Assembly shifted back to strategy games and stayed there. As a result, Amanda’s fate was resolved in a low-effort Five Nights at Freddy’s-style mobile game and an action-packed comic trying too hard to be Aliens rather than Alien.

To be fair, any glowing recommendation has to come with caveats. Alien Isolation is at its most immersive and terrifying the first time around, but I found it a more rewarding and better-paced experience in subsequent runs when I wasn’t hunkering down in closets all the time and understood what the developers intended.

If you somehow missed this at launch and are a fan of either IP or horror games, Alien Isolation is well worth enduring a few rough edges and randomness. It’s available on all platforms – including an excellent Switch port – and is frequently discounted. Maybe with enough lingering interest and the resurgence of profitable horror games, it could finally get the sequel it deserves.

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