Alien: Isolation is a peculiar game. At first, playing it is a delight, the first sections doing an excellent job of establishing an atmosphere of fear and isolation. Set on a dying space station in deep space, Sevastopol, the game re-creates the look and feel of the first Alien film in a way not even that film’s own sequels have been able to do. The text and audio logs dotted through the station’s dark corridors and its flickering lights and derelict areas go a long way to create the sense this place was in a downward spiral even before the fateful events of the game itself. Playing as Amanda Ripley, who is trying to find out what happened to her mother Ellen and the crew of the Nostromo, players have to contend not only with the eponymous Alien but also with the increasingly desperate denizens of the station as well as its unpredictable, malfunctioning android population of ‘Working Joes’.
The game’s first sections do a good job of building atmosphere, and are so effective because nothing that much happens, aside from a few scripted events. The first encounters with the Alien are very dramatic and the game has some memorable scares and set-pieces throughout. Ripley is a resourceful protagonist, like her mother, but throughout she feels extremely vulnerable and outmatched, befitting the tone and feel of the classic entries in the Alien universe.
The problem is that what makes for exciting cinema does not necessarily create an enjoyable or rewarding video game experience. This is a game where you will die constantly, with the Alien often appearing out of nowhere to kill you instantly. The Alien is invulnerable, and although the game eventually gives you a few tools to banish it from the screen for a few seconds, resources are scarce and the Alien’s return is often literally just around the corner. You can hide, but the Alien will just keep searching for you and generally catch you as soon as you break cover, making hiding a dissatisfying waste of time. You have a motion tracker but considering the Alien can just re-appear from a vent above your head it’s pretty useless for large stretches of the game.
There are often long gaps between save points, and auto-saves are very rare; combined with the game’s considerable loading times, this can mean you will sometimes spend half an hour or more trying to traverse a few meters of corridor. When your reward for succeeding and reaching a save point generally just means crawling along another corridor with instant death lurking all around you, the desire to continue can wane. There are few moments of levity or really any changes of pace throughout the game, and the incessant nature of the gameply means it wears thin after a while. Sitting through a film for ninety minutes is one thing, but enduring this for 15-20 hours in a video game is quite different.
It’s frustrating because the game does a very good job of depicting a bleak space station environment, probably better even than something than Dead Space; having the genuine Weyland-Yutani aesthetic is a big part of this. But the game and its scares are simply not very much fun. One of the reasons I enjoyed the first Dead Space so much was precisely because you didn’t have to re-play that much of it: if you died you generally re-spawned pretty much where you were. Dead Space 2’s insane difficulty was one of its biggest weaknesses and the same thing applies here.
A few changes would have made a big difference, in particular the addition of more auto-saves. As it stands, re-playing sections half a dozen times (or more) just becomes tedious and completely immersion-breaking. This is even the case on easy difficulty. There’s not really a way you can make the game easier if the central mechanic is based on an unkillable monster who can instantly teleport to your location at any moment; but more save points would certainly have helped.
The Alien is one thing, but there is no excuse for the sections later in the game where facehuggers appear and can also cause instant game overs. You have a couple of weapons that can take them out, but it’s often the case that you will have one chance to make a shot with your shotgun and if you miss, you’re dead. No QTE. No chance to dodge. It sounds good and dramatic on paper, but after going through the same sections several times, the ‘coolness’ or novelty wears off. There was also one section towards the end of the game where one of the rare auto-saves actually spawned me in the middle of some burning detritus, causing a game over whenever I re-loaded. (Fortunately I could revert to an earlier save.)
It’s really too bad, because the game gets some important things right. Again, the aesthetic is perfect, borrowing heavily from the original Alien film. Even on PS3, the graphics and lighting are largely awesome, and the minimalist sound adds significantly to the atmosphere and sense of dread. The game has a few interesting weapons and a serviceable crafting system allowing you to make weapons like pipe bombs and molotov cocktails. But after a few hours of playing, I found myself not caring about it at all. After the game kills you for the umpteenth time, you just start to feel cynical about it and getting through it just feels like a trial of perserverance rather than a dramatic story.
Ripley is a resourceful but shallow character and none of the rest of the cast has any charisma or lasting impact–and neither does the story, either. The ending feels like a blatant hook for a sequel that now seems unlikely to be made thanks to the game’s underwhelming sales. Considering the game’s ludicrous difficulty and penchant for repetition it seems to me that only a fairly narrow audience of enthusiasts will find much of enduring value here.
Overall, the game feels like a 15-minute proof of concept demo that was stretched into a full-length game. The story is actually quite long and the game’s longevity would not have suffered by allowing the player to progress more smoothly. While striving so meticulously to make a ‘faithful’ sequel to the first Alien film, Creative Assembly forgot to create a game that was any fun to play.