So, Aliens: Colonial Marines… that… happened. SEGA already had a second game ready to try to win fans over though, waiting in the wings at Creative Assembly. Alien: Isolation is meant to be the exact opposite of Colonial Marines. It’s single-player focused, has only one Alien, does not retcon dead characters into suddenly being alive, and is actually coherently executed by a single team who gives a d*** about the property. It was also one of my most anticipated titles of the year, and had a lot of franchise fans crossing their fingers. So did it succeed? Yes… and no. The case of Alien: Isolation is a complicated one, as it both completely achieves the goal of being a great Alien game, but fails in some respects as a horror game. Yes, those two ideas can be separate. In this case, it is very clear that if it wasn’t for certain things “needing” to happen due to the IP, it might have been a better game altogether. Let’s get the bad out of the way now, because it’s what you’re going to have to put up with at the beginning and end of the game.
You are Amanda Ripley, daughter of the famous survivor of the Nostromos incident, and you want answers as to your mother’s disappearance. A synthetic Weyland-Yutani rep tells you they’ve found the Nostromos’ flight recorder has been recovered at Sevastopol Station, and that you can come along to hear it and have some shred of a clue as to what happened to your mother. What follows is a cliche filled horror narrative that ironically both pays too much and too little homage to the more cliche and less cliche elements of the horror genre. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An alien creature that’s extremely lethal gets set loose on a perfectly peaceful but financially unstable outer rim colony/space station. The station’s AI core starts behaving strangely and seems to outright be trying to kill you despite a cheery facade. You are frequently on your own, with everyone helping you either just over a radio telling you to press buttons or behind a solid wall you cannot get through. Environments are linear but fairly large and allow for some backtracking if you want to find extra gear and collectibles. The alien hates fire but regular projectile weapons do nothing. You wield a mix of makeshift tools and industrial equipment that doubles as guns. There’s a twist mid-campaign where the threat changes somewhat for a while before going back to the original foes you were fighting. There’s an overly long sequence involving a literally on-rails cart moving incredibly slowly. If you’re thinking “this sounds an awful lot like the first two Dead Space games and Aliens“, you’d be right!
It’s more than a little ironic that the series that took so much from Alien is being now apparently taking notes from Visceral Games’ TPS survival series. As a fan of both franchises, I should love this, but instead it just feels forced and unoriginal. The game seems to have very little ideas of its own, instead alternating between riffing on ideas Alien, Dead Space, Aliens, and Dead Space 2 all did before. Isolation especially overdoses on “accidents” setting you back anywhere from fifteen minutes to over an hour of additional gameplay that just hurts the pacing. For some reason, they also throw in new armored human enemies that come out of nowhere near the end for no reason. Even right at the end, in the very last hour, the game whips together a completely out of place hazard navigation section with less than an hour left in the game. There’s a time and a place for these sort of events to happen, and they can be beneficial if used properly. Except the time when these should be used is in the early to middle parts of the campaign, to establish you as the under dog and that you’re out of your element. Instead, the opening has the least twists in turns, instead favoring the slow burn of the original Alien film. Once again, this could have worked, but it shouldn’t have aimed for such a bombastic finale then.
The original Alien‘s ending was intense but it never moved quickly. It was still incredibly slow, and if Creative Assembly wanted that pace, they should have stuck with it till the end. The final encounter could have been in a large area where the Alien could be anywhere, and you have to try to complete a series of goals without getting caught. What we get instead is something underwhelming, frustrating, and counter to everything good in the game’s set up. My final moments in Isolation were not filled with elation or terror, but a frustrated yell of “JUST END IT ALREADY!” This however was also due to the fact that, as Outside Xbox accurately put it, the game has too many endings. Instead of just picking one solid climax, the game has several moments that could have ended the game. Before you’re really more than half way through the game, you’ll see the first one. Then there’s another that -really- feels like it too. Then you roll your eyes at the next one. Then you are screaming for the game to end because it keeps pulling out more and more sequences like an overly zealous relative showing you his boring vacation photos. For all the talk about being a game about “closure”, it feels very afraid of actually ending.
Thankfully, that’s about the worst of it. While the story is a failure that merely strings the game along, the gameplay is stellar. All the genre staples of crafting items, managing limited resources, and evading threats more often than confronting them are all here. Instead of being Outlast with guns, it’s much more The Last of Us without nearly as many scripted set pieces, less focus on action, and with much bigger environments. Even subtle things like your accuracy wavering when your gun brushes against a wall help build to the tension. Your first gun is so alien to Amanda that you can visibly see her hands shaking, especially during tense moments when the Alien is near. She’s more at home with throwing traps and industrial equipment, especially during puzzles. She can hold her breath while in hiding places, and can slide into vents when she needs to. For the majority of the campaign, you are given a very flexible style of play. You can be aggressive with the Alien and other threats on Sevastopol Station, although you’ll often have to work faster and be under greater pressure as a result. You can be a silent little mouse, hardly ever pulling the trigger and instead using traps and distractions to draw enemies away. Or you can be like me and bounce between both as each scenario presents itself.
The game just really excels whenever it is allowed to just be. The only three instances of where the game doesn’t work well are when it becomes highly scripted. There’s a QTE sequence you have to start by running headlong at something that otherwise would seem dangerous, a sequence where a previously vulnerable enemy type becomes invulnerable because “reasons”, and the introduction to Facehuggers as enemies is more than a little rushed. Other than this, the game works fairly well. Humans are paranoid but at least don’t try to kill you first thing, the Alien hunts anything that breathes, and the androids are very effective at being creepy, unsettling monsters. I’d go so far as to say the Working Joe androids could have held up the game on their own, as they hit just on that right level of late 70s to early 90s creepy almost-human looking animatronics. There’s even a brilliant shift in their tone over the game as they go from sounding ironically chipper to downright predatory dialogue. Instead of “you are in a restricted area” you’ll hear “I’m going to catch you” told in a gutteral, almost playfully evil voice. I hope we see more of the Working Joes in the franchise from here on out.
The combat does show some influence from Dishonored, although it simplifies the melee combat and puts more emphasis on both being stealthy and using the right weapons for the right enemies ala Dead Space. You use the revolver for conflict with humans and if you have no other ammo left to fight Working Joes. You use the shotgun with regular Working Joes and the boltgun with Hazmat Working Joes. The Alien can be scared off with the flamethrower, and it doubles as a great weapon against heavily armored humans. The molotov is great to damage a group of enemies or instantly scare off the alien. Pipe bombs clear groups of Working Joes in an instant. Noise makers can be lifesavers if thrown properly when the Alien is near but don’t work nearly as well with Working Joes. Humans can outright be used as bait to distract the Alien as you slip past. It all just has so many cogs and possibilities that despite the game’s long length, it feels like there are still so many new combinations that could have been made. For instance, you never see a three-way conflict between the core enemy types, and there are plenty of other match ups I would love to see explored at some point, either in DLC or in a sequel.
Also, praise does need to be given for the Alien’s AI design. While I still found it a bit exploitable (during my playthrough, it almost never checked vents despite my frequently hiding in them), overall it was a fair opponent. The Alien’s arrival is like being invaded in Dark Souls, and its departure is as rewarding here. While you can never truly kill an Alien with your supplies, you can get yourself some breathing room. The flamethrower you get at around seven missions in is a lifesaver in this respect, keeping the Alien off your back whenever it starts to camp around certain areas. It’s also great in that while the Alien will try to follow you around, it won’t always be right in your face. A few times, I’d lure it one way by going into a new section of the station then immediately backing out. It hissed in frustration and skulked around while I rebooted a machine and activated an android to keep the process going so I could hide. By the time the Alien returned, I was ready by the exit and off in a flash. Moments like these are great, and purely dynamic within the game’s level design and systems.
There are so many elements like this that it’s a pity the game isn’t made more like old school first person stealth games like the original Thief and the more recent Dishonored. It’d be fantastic if I could blast my way into a hatch instead of using a tool to cut my way, or if I could navigate more of the levels out of order so as to gather more supplies and upgrades ahead of time. While there is certainly a small Metroidvania element to some rooms and access points, most of it never really seems easy to access, due to a confusing transit system. The map you use works fine, but since the game isn’t fully open world, it only shows your current location. If I could set markers for myself and better understand how to backtrack, I’d have a lot more reason to revisit old locations other than when the plot requires you to do so.
It’s also a blessing when the story takes a backseat that the pacing just comes together. The game tells you to either crouch or run, but I actually found that slow, cautious walking often got me where I needed to go when not crouched and moving from cover to cover. Alien Isolation is a game about patience, planning, and knowing your enemy. It’s this solid design and focus that makes it one of my favorite survival games and arguably the best Alien game on current and last-gen consoles (granted, that isn’t saying much). Overall, it is a great Alien game, and anyone who is a fan of the franchise should give it a go. There is one caveat though, which I mentioned at the start — the game has problems as a horror title.
This problem mainly lies in the fact that while the Alien is very dynamic, and intimidating at first, it is a one trick pony. You learn its noise prompts, its animations, and its behaviors… and eventually the horror just sort of goes away. Seriously, after a while, deaths don’t even seem to matter. Save stations are everywhere, and you almost always have enough time to use one before getting caught. Just like everything else, it comes down to strategy, playstyle, and observation. It doesn’t help that Amanda’s delivery and lines barely help increase the tension. I’m separately reviewing the game’s current DLC offerings, and Sigourney Weaver adds a lot to the atmosphere with her vocals as the tension ratchets up. Amanda might as well be a silent protagonist as far as most of the game is concerned, and that actually hurts the game’s horror in the long run. The pacing issues also impact this, leaving you more frustrated than terrified by the end. Still, save for Darkwood, this is the first game in forever to actually scare me in a way that was enjoyable. It just stopped scaring me barely over three hours in. Still, it kept entertaining me afterward, which is more than I can say for some horror games.
The Difficulty Difference: When you start up the game, it recommends you play on Hard. After beating the game on Medium, I can guarantee experienced survival fans should start there, as Medium felt very easy. People just interested in experiencing the game as fans of the franchise might want to start on Easy though.
The Platform Difference: While almost every version of the game has experienced some bugs and glitches, there seem to be some freezing and optimization issues for last-gen systems. I had to twice stop my PS3 and let it cool down before I could proceed to play the game further. This may be due to the small amount of visual downgrading Alien Isolation has on display, with most of the assets looking almost as if I was playing the current-gen version of the game. The PC version offers the graphics of the current-gen versions while being at the price of last-gen, so if you have the hardware, go with PC. If you only have last-gen, still feel free to pick the game up, just don’t play it for extended periods of time.
It’s not a game with a “Follow” marker and someone guiding you through the world. Know what you’re getting into. You have to think, something far too few AAA games try to encourage in their playerbase these days. After a few releases like Destiny, it makes me glad Alien Isolation exists. It’s a game for a group of gamers severely underserved both last generation and this generation. Save for more open ended titles like Dark Souls, Dishonored, Just Cause 2, and the original Crysis, campaign focused games have had to walk a very linear line in the gaming world. While this means you might make a mistake that sends you back a while or you might waste some supplies by accident, at least you have the freedom to do so. I’d rather have options than a barely interactive movie, and Alien Isolation does that brilliantly. Those who didn’t grow up on such games may not take to it as easily, and the story does have some issues, but Alien Isolation is worth the wait. We finally have a proper Alien game, folks.
Moment of Artistry
Sitting little more than a foot away from the Alien, holding your breath in hopes it doesn’t hear you in the cabinet you crammed yourself into. Being chased by androids that keep going despite being lit on fire. Tricking your foes with clever tactics and gadgets you made while fleeing them. These are all the sort of fantastic moments that can happen in a game like Alien Isolation.
+ Solid selection of gadgets
+ The Alien is a fantastic opponent
+ Great art direction that evokes late-70’s sci-fi aesthetics
+ Level design encourages creative approaches to scenarios
+ Extremely flexible gameplay
+ Brilliant atmosphere
+ Decent puzzles and mini-games
+ Satisfying combat and stealth mechanics are equally fun to use
– Facehuggers are just an irritation rather than a challenge
– Campaign drags itself out by never knowing when to end
– Odd visual and occasional gameplay bugs
– Lackluster story
– Majority of the cast only seems to be here to get a paycheck
– An underwhelming finale that’s more frustrating than satisfying
Alien Isolation was developed by Creative Assembly and published by SEGA. It is available on, PC (Steam), PS4, PS3, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
This review was conducted with a consumer copy of the physical PS3 Nostromos Edition acquired by the reviewer.