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Alien: Isolation Review

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  • Alien: Isolation Review

    A competent horror title that over stays its welcome.

    Right from the start with the old "20th Century Fox" opening, Alien: Isolation wants you to understand that is out to recreate the feelings and the horror mindset that the original movies first gave audiences back in the 70's and 80's. It is you, playing as Ellen Ripley's daughter, Amanda, against the Alien Xenomorph, the environment, and a healthy dose of tension.

    The game takes place just 15 years after the events of the first Alien movie and 42 years before the events in Aliens. Playing as Amanda Ripley, you are simply trying to find your mother, who went missing aboard the Nostromo. As you may expect, things don't go exactly as planned and you soon find yourself separated from the rest of your crew and against the Alien, a variety of creepy androids, humans, and the environment itself.

    The game is largely a first-person romp through the dark and atmospheric hallways and passages of the Sevastopol, a space station that has recovered the flight recorder from the Nostromo. There are a few small puzzle elements here and there but the bulk of the game centers around survival. True to its core focus, there won't be any on screen indicators highlighting where you should head to next. Your only real help comes from some text and audio logs, interactions with other people, and a map that you have to trigger manually to view. This decidedly barebones approach isn't anything new to the horror genre but it is still always a pleasure to see in a new release. There is very little hand-holding going on here, so don't go into this expecting it to be a walk in the park.

    And so begins the hunt

    Despite having the guise of being an open exploration style of game, there are various blocks set in place that keep you from wandering too far off the path that the developers want you to go in order to progress the story. This is quite apparent in the early part of the game where many doors are sealed shut until you find a few pieces of equipment that will let you pass without much hassle. Later, the exploration opens up a bit, even going so far as to allow you to backtrack to parts of the station you were at earlier in order to pick up supplies or equipment you may have missed your first time through.

    Even when returning to these "familiar" places, the sense of tension never really disappears. If you aren't being hunted by the Alien, you are always keeping a watchful eye out for androids or even a few human survivors that will stop at nothing to ensure their own survival. The environments ramp up this sense of tension by being perpetually moody with some fantastic lighting and visual effects that attempt to give it a cinematic feel. Some of these little cinematic touches include VHS style degradation on some of the in-game menus, old-school computer terminals, and the type of environments and items that were "futuristic" according to 1970's and 1980's beliefs. Another way that developer Creative Assembly attempts to push the cinematic film look is through the use of chromatic aberration, a visual technique that doesn't give all colors the same focal point. Therefore, what you're left with is an effect that looks like a slight distortion of colors, typically green and red. It's an effect that I don't particularly care for in this or any other game that utilizes is. Fortunately, it is possible to disable chromatic aberration in the game's options.

    Ripley isn't completely helpless during her ordeals. Thanks to a rather straightforward crafting system, she can whip up a few tools to help her survive just a bit longer should trouble arise. These items range from simple medkits for healing, to flash grenades, and more. She can also pick up and utilize a few weapons including a revolver and flamethrower though ammo is at a premium. Improved equipment can be crafted during the course of the game but only if you find and pick up the blueprints that will allow you to make those items. Chances are you probably won't miss them if you keep an eye on your surroundings, but it is entirely possible to do so. Fortunately the game will show missed items on your updated map should you miss them.

    I hope you aren't afraid to crawl around in some cramped vents

    The bulk of the tension and scares come less in the way of jump scares and more in the way of atmosphere. Even without any enemies on screen, just the subtle beeps of the motion tracker hinting at the Alien's presence is enough to send a shiver down your spine. The art direction and ambient sounds do nothing to lighten the mood one bit. Instead, they do a great job of making the situation feel dire and a touch ominous, even when there are no enemies around. Once the Aliens shows up, all bets are off. Previous game plans are thrown out the window due to the somewhat dynamic nature of the Alien's AI routines. Sometimes that dreaded Xenomorph will drop down where you expect it to, other times it may scurry away to perhaps drop down in an adjacent room without your knowledge. Finding a path to safety or your next objective may require a small bit of backtracking at times, but nothing ever too severe.

    Unfortunately, the Alien stomps around with what sounds like big, cement shoes. Meaning that you can always hear the Alien before you see it most of the time. I would have preferred if the Alien moved with a bit more stealth like in the films. I really feel as though the tension in the game could have hit all new levels if you had to rely more on your eyes than hearing death's approach in advance. Of course, I also feel as though the motion tracker is a bit of an overpowered tool. It can be used at almost any time without much penalty, letting you know exactly where your enemies are and when they eventually move out of the way of your freedom. I honestly would have preferred if the motion tracker ran off the same batteries that your head mounted flashlight uses. It would force the player to utilize it less often and in my opinion, would increase the suspense a considerable amount.

    There eventually comes a point where, if you were smart with your resource management, you feel a bit too powerful against that what stands in front of you. For a horror game, that's not really a feeling I want to have. This lack of suspense also turns up with the game's save mechanics.

    Alien: Isolation offers up no auto-saves or checkpoints. Every save is a manual one, meaning that if you die before reaching the next save terminal, you have to redo the progress you lost. Though I'm sure that what I'm about to say may be interpreted as my wanting the game to be "easier" somehow, that is not at all my wish. While the current save system manages to show off that the enemies and AI are dynamic, it also ruins the tension and the challenge. If you just spent the past 30 minutes trying to stealth your way through an area, you aren't going to want to do that again, because what's the point? In this game, there is no penalty in death besides the loss of time. When you die, you can load up your old save and, for the most part, run through the area in a fraction of the time because you now know where to go, areas to avoid, and you will end up right back where you had died previously without much added effort. I really see no reason why a checkpoint system could not have been utilized after key items were acquired. The tension would still be there. The dynamic nature of the AI would still be there and players have the added benefit of not having to redo areas and progress they already completed. For me, death in this game was merely an annoyance, not a way of adding tension.

    I'm sure he's fine

    The save system woes aren't a huge issue and most people have absolutely no problem with them but for a game that can easily hit about 20 hours, it may end up wearing on you. As you may have guessed already, Alien: Isolation is a rather substantial game as far as length is concerned. Most players will probably take between 15 and 20 hours to complete it. There are a few cases where the game throws a false ending at you only to continue with another segment of gameplay. While you are obviously going to get a substantial number of gameplay hours per dollars spent, I can't help but feel like the game could have been half as long and still been just as good, if not better, than what we ended up with.

    With that said, the things I enjoyed in Alien: Isolation are done really well. The stealth mechanics are great, with plenty of places to hide or sneak around. If you need a bit of help from your environment, various access panels allow you to cause distractions or set up smokescreens that will let you navigate through an area without being spotted as easily. Even the Alien itself can be utilized to your advantage. It is, as you may expect, not solely fixated on you and may end up taking a few of your other foes out that stood in the way of you and progress.

    As much of the story is told through text logs, audio logs, and first-person in-game interactions with friend and foe alike, it can be quite jarring when an in-game cinematic plays and completely takes you out of the experience. On top of that, the cinematics display an incredible amount of visual judder. I believe the scenes are 30fps but the judder makes it feel like substantially less. From what I have read, it seems to be a common issue across all platforms and can be insanely off-putting, especially when coming from the very smooth 60fps gameplay that many will enjoy on the PC.

    The game looks great on both current-gen consoles and PC

    However, if you still can't get enough of the game after your 15+ hours of story are over, you can always try the Survivor mode. In short, Survivor pits you against the Xenomorph as you try to accomplish assigned tasks. You are given limited supplies and limited equipment. It takes the tension and the anxiety of the base game and condenses it into a bite sized chunk of gameplay that you probably won't mind trying out more than once. Sadly, only one map is included in the Survivor mode, with additional maps coming as DLC.

    One last piece of bonus content that I tried out was the Crew Expendable DLC that places you in the shoes of either Ellen Ripley, Dallas, or Parker. It was a nice nod to the original crew and quite a bit of fun. The $3.99 (USD) DLC offers up roughly an hour of additional gameplay and is probably a no-brainer for fans of the films or those simply wanting more content for whatever reason.

    I must note here that I was sent the PlayStation 4 copy to review from Creative Assembly and Sega. There are just a few minor differences between the PS4 version and the PC version. First, the framerate seemed to be 30fps on the PlayStation 4, while it was 60fps on my computer. I never really felt as though the differences in framerate between the two versions were any real issue but I was left wondering why 60fps wasn't attained on either current-gen console. Both platforms displayed the weird judder while playing a cutscene, however. I also did not notice any real differences between the two platforms as far as other visuals are concerned. I'm sure there may be some but as a casual comparison, they both looked great.

    In the end, I quite liked Alien: Isolation. It offered up substantially spooky environments and the kind of gameplay that horror fans crave. It's you versus a relentless foe where both sides are simply fighting to survive. I won't say that I was ever frightened or scared, though many players will be. Actually, there was one time where I exclaimed aloud and it came near the beginning of the game when one of the androids sidled up behind me Creepy Watson style while I was looking at something in the environment. Generally, the game was tense and moody but I never noticed my heart racing like I would have wanted or expected from a horror game. Obviously, many others will be scared to death, especially if you run a "let's play" focused YouTube channel. Additionally, I cannot look past the save system that, in my mind, seemed to add nothing of substantial value to the game besides some additional and unnecessary playtime if you should happen to die. I also can't help but feel like the game over stayed its welcome by a few hours. I'm sure many will disagree with me though, especially with how many other modern game releases offer little in the way of a substantial time investment.

    At the very least, Alien: Isolation is leaps and bounds better than anything offered by Aliens: Colonial Marines. That fact alone is well worth the price of admission.

    + The game almost perfectly nails the look and feel of the original film
    + The sound design is mostly spot on save for the intense thumping of the Alien walking around
    + The game is rich in atmosphere and tension
    + Every encounter feels substantially varied thanks to the dynamic nature of the AI
    + The game that Aliens: Colonial Marines should have been
    + Additional game modes are very enjoyable if you want to pick up and play a bit and don't have much time to sit down for a long session
    - Quite a bit of visual judder during cutscenes
    - Would have preferred that every cutscene was instead presented in-game and in real-time. The third-person view feels out of place given that the gameplay is all first-person
    - Not a fan of the game's save system as it completely ruins any tension I may have been experiencing
    - The game feels to stretch on for a bit too long
    Related Information
    Title: Alien: Isolation
    Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 (Reviewed on PC and PlayStation 4)
    ESRB Rating: M for Mature 17+ for blood, strong language, and violence.
    Alien: Isolation was provided to Total Gaming Network for review purposes from Creative Assembly and Sega.

    Don't give up, skeleton!