Before we begin, a word of warning: This game is not for the faint of heart. I have been a fan of the horror genre all my life, read many books, watched tons of films, but none managed to pull my fear strings as hard as Alien: Isolation.
So with that out of the way, let me tell you why this review is different compared to all the reviews I have done before. I wrote fragments of my impressions and thoughts on a notepad as a played through the game and used them as the basis of my review. It breathes more life into the review in a sense. Hope everyone finds it interesting!
This game, Alien: Isolation, is based on the late 70’s cult classic sci-fi horror flick: Alien. There have been numerous games based on the franchise, but only by name, which is pretty much the case for all movie licensed games sadly. However, Isolation is a different beast entirely. Where previous Alien games used the license just as a name to cover a lackluster game, this however is the most faithful recreation of the Alien universe or any film to game for that matter. It flawlessly manages to capture the very essence of the Alien franchise while harnessing the power of this interactive medium to further suck you into Ridley Scott’s sci-fi nightmare beyond the proficiency of films.
You play as Amanda Ripley, the descendant of Ellen Ripley. Amanda has been working for a mega corporation called Weyland-Yutani for a while now. Her main purpose for working with them was because the corporation had ties with the disappearance of her mother some 15 years ago. She finally gets a break which hopefully will shed some light to the answers she is looking for.
When it comes to gameplay, there is just one important thing the game emphasis more than anything else: is to Survive. All the impressive sound and visual design aren't just there for the sake of immersion, finally, they actually serve as very important gameplay systems. You need to keep your senses in full capacity because of the all the different kinds of dangers that are lurking all around the space station. Because of the desperate situation, many of the people over there who managed to keep themselves alive formed various groups in order to work together and try to survive. Unfortunately, that means they tend to keep it to themselves and will consider anyone outside of their group hostile, like yourself. It is suicide to go head to head against them if they outnumber you, so you need to carefully plan out what you are going to do. Will you take them on all by yourself? Will you try to sneak past them with the help of your gadgets and wits? Or will you take the help of the Alien by throwing a noise bomb which as expected emits a lot of noise for the Alien to swoop down from above and kill everything in the vicinity. You can also manipulate the machines in the station to give you an edge by hacking into the systems. The hacking mini-games are fun very well grounded to the world design around you.
Then there are creepy androids or better known as Working Joe. They are basically a very simple version of synthetic humans in the Alien universe. Now, you never can trust robots no matter how friendly they appear to be at first, the same rule applies here. Some of the Joes are malfunctioning which is causing them to savagely kill any human that is not obeying the exaggerated rules planted into their head. What is even worse, they robots don’t go down easily and can take some serious punishment before it kneels over and dies with the same hollow look as if nothing happened. Yes, the Joes are perhaps the creepiest thing you will encounter in the game, more so than the Alien I felt. Something about their dead emotions, their stern attitude and the way they look at you with those dead eyes and talk in equally empty voice is very unsettling!
Going further up the top of the food chain we have, the Alien: it is unbeatable, unkillable and once it sees you there is a very good chance you are dead. So it is very important to make sure such a situation never even happens in the first place. In order to do that, you need to stay hidden as much as you can. Ripley is an engineer and just like her mom, a true survivor who can make the best out of the given situations. She can hide in lockers; hack terminals to alter some of the security systems around the space station to make new escape routes; use her extensive engineering skills to craft tools and gadgets like flash bang, Molotov cocktail, etc. to give her a better fighting chance and make it through. Despite all this help, it does not make your time any easier with the Alien lurking about, because the thing is…you are never safely hidden. For example when hiding inside the locker, the Alien can sniff you out at times. You quickly then need to it react by holding your breath and lean back for a few seconds – you can’t always do that though as it slowly eats away your health. Early in the game you find a motion tracker which gives you a small opportunity to sniff out danger few feet away from you. As with all things, you are not completely safe with the motion tracker either. It is one directional in accuracy; it interferes with the metal around you when confined under closed spaces (where more than likely you will be going regularly to hide). The Alien is a lot smarter and just all around better than you. I know it sounds unfair and it is supposed to be. Moments where a giant white light appears on the radar followed by a big thumping sound constantly reminds you of its presence.
You are constantly being haunted most of the game by this vicious, hideous, merciless creature. That is 20 hours of constant tension and that is not even the only thing you need to worry about, the environment is very unpredictable and changes in hostile ways as the story progresses. So take a deep breath and hope you won’t break while you playing.
You need to pay close attention to your environments as much as possible. Focus on scoping out escape routes and hideouts as you explore you enter new rooms. The game encourages you to memorize some of the key codes that unlock doors and such so that you can input them quickly. It only takes a few seconds for all hell to break loose and trust me, it just does not feel right when you get killed just because you lapsed concentration for a few seconds there and teleported to the last save station. Save station? Does that mean the game does not automatically save progress? Yes and there is a good reason why – As much as I can appreciate the simplicity of auto save system in modern games, it takes away a great deal of care and thought process when you deal with situations. That is because you always have the luxury of knowing that you will be able to restart somewhere near your death; however, with the save station system, there are long stretches when you have to play without the confidence of knowing you can load back somewhere near. This system plays well with the cautious approach the developer want the players to take.
The presentation can be summarized in one word: outstanding! The gorgeous lighting effects are some of the best I've seen and most effectively utilized like a horror game should. The way lights reflect when you point your flashlight around metal constructs like ventilation shafts, and further reflects back and radiates by bouncing off the surrounding metal plates, an effect called radiosity, is very hard to pull off in video games. This further gets complicated very easily when the surrounding surfaces where the light bounces off each other is made up of different materials, as different materials absorb light in different ways thus radiates differently. As you can you imagine, it is very computationally expensive to calculate such variables and thus many game out there do their best to fake this effect. However, the smart folks at Creative Assembly wouldn’t settle for anything less than realistic. They managed to find ways to achieve realistic light scattering and reflecting without bogging down hardware using a very impressive engine they made in-house for the game. Where there is light, there is shadow and the engine handles them dark regions of our world as authentic as the lighting. With shadows realistically defuse and sharpen depending on the source of light, distance of the object and the material it is cast upon. The engine also uses a new form of texture compression that allows the developers to add crazy amount of detail all over the world without sacrificing any texture quality as well. The particle effects like the fires and explosions take a massive leap forward as well. The first time I saw a flame bursting out of the ground below made me fixated towards it for a few seconds, it looks incredibly realistic! What is even more impressive is how easily you can make this fantastic graphical showcase of a game to run with very modest systems, an incredible technological achievement. If you want to learn more about the impressive technology fueling the game, read this article from AMD. All these graphical advancements are in full force to make you believe that you are in an actual space station. The station is not just made of pretty shiny metal, but it is complete with displays utilizing the CRT monitors with bumpy mechanical keyboards scattered across the desks to the punch card system which serves as a save point. When this technology and art combine, it creates the perfect retro sci-fi vibe the game is going for.
According to science, even though visual memory is the most prominent form of memory, it is the memory that is recorded through sound that evokes the most powerful of emotions. So for a horror game, audio is incredibly important, if not more than the visuals. Well then, lucky for us, Creative Assembly completely nailed it here. This game has probably the most advanced sound design I've heard in gaming. It is there not just to create the hollow atmosphere, but it is probably the best tool at your disposal to survive. With you being inside of an aluminum shell, every sound is more pronounced than it normally is. The sound of thudding metal of something big and hulking by the vents and ceiling right on top of you can be very scary, but at the same time it gives you the opportunity to hear you're foes and make decisions: which is to either fight or flee (just flee when the sound is too heavy!). Word of massive caution though, Ripley is no soldier. She has not much experience with fire arms and nor covering herself with armor. The game has a solid ambiance-heavy soundtrack that feels very inaudible most of the time, but you can still sense its presence. The rhythmic hum of the machines working away for no one, Amanda’s silent breath as she clears a room to the radio garble by the communication hubs, all which combine to create the best spooky soundtrack a game can ever make. If you ever been holding out for high quality headsets for a game to properly utilize it, wait no further.
One of the few drawbacks of this outstanding game is the hostile human AI. Oddly, they feel more robotic in nature than the Working Joes (synthetic human gone psycho). Their combat routines and walking patterns are very simple in nature, so does the human allies which I think is even worse in this regard. I think the issue is probably because CA was so much focused on the AI of the Alien that they had to make some cuts in the human AIs. The good thing is there are only very a few encounters with the humans in the game. The human AI is not terrible by any means, it just that it sticks out like a white paint on a black wall considering how well done the AI of Alien is. So how good are we talking about? Very good. The Alien is a truly a living, breathing hunter which reacts smartly to every situation happening around it, whether by the hand of the player or the environment. The Alien seeks you out like the expert human predator it is: It checks around every room, around corners, vents, underneath the tables and it can even can hear the smallest of noise you make or the scent out your location if you’re too near it. Clearly, a lot of work has been gone through Alien and I am very happy with the results, CA made the right decision here. The Alien is impressively detailed, it definitely is very faithful recreation of the movies. I can’t stop thinking how realistically its tail slivers across the floor, stuff of the nightmares I tell you!
Nothing is perfect, but Isolation comes closer than most games out there. I had some issues with the game highlighting the interactive elements of Sevastopol. Being a sci-fi ship, everything is littered with lights, however only with few of them you can interact with obviously. The game usually denotes the interactive parts with a bright shade of green. Now for the most part it works just fine, however, there are times I can't tell how much I lost time just for looking for a proper console to interact with. Upon pressing the action button on every console in the room, I finally triggered the right console. It turns out, this console was not green. Similarly I got stuck for almost an hour figuring out where to go next, the answer appeared to be right below me; it was hard to notice that because the green light was not very noticeable. These visual cues sometimes made it annoying for me to figure what I can interact with. Especially with a game like this when every second counts and timing has to be precise. Also there is a small immersion breakers here and there like nothing happens when you hit the environment with your wrench or anything. Early on the game, I was cornered to a spot by some pissed off Working Joes just because I tried to beat one of them with a wrench. I had no ammunition or any sort of gadget, all I had was my wrench. I thought of breaking some of the glasses on the tray near me to cause a distraction while I slip pass them by the other side, sadly, my wrench completely goes through the glasses. It could have opened up the game even more, oh well. There is finally the awkward lip-sync during cut scenes, I feel it just does not feel natural as the lip movement does not match to what the characters are speaking. Again, there are very small and mostly nitpicking issues in otherwise a fantastic game.
It is amazing to think a lifelong RTS developer like Creative Assembly managed to make a survival horror game in the truest of the definition. At times it feels like Alien: Isolation takes the best elements of Dead Space and Outlast and creates an awesome experience. But that would do nothing but injustice to the game as a whole, it is stands out on its own. I would like to end by saying that I loved every bit of my time at Sevastopol. I would love to return to it again but…definitely not anytime soon!
P.S. I actually documented my entire journey through Sevastopol by Twitch streaming and recording the entire thing from start to finish, complete with my own facecam(and scares). If you are interested, you can check it out from my YouTube playlist for the videos. You can also follow me you on Twitch, I really focus on interacting with the people more than playing games when I Twitch steam. I would appreciate the company so join in!