Six years since its release, the survival horror game set in the Alien universe still stands as remarkable and haunting.
When it comes to video games portraying the atmosphere and tone of its film influences, Alien: Isolation is in a class of its own. Translating the Alien film series into a unique horror game focused on persistent terror as opposed to fleeting cheap thrills, this survival horror experience channels a sense of dread and slow-burn tension that forces players to respect the very thing that stalks them. Though its reception at launch was met with some polarizing responses--including from GameSpot's former reviews editor Kevin VanOrd--and along with modest sales, this comparatively unorthodox take on the Alien franchise became a favorite in the years since its release--even prompting fans to make an unofficial VR mod to amp up the scares.
On the sixth anniversary of its release and in time for Halloween 2020, GameSpot is taking a look back at Creative Assembly's uncompromising horror game, and how it made players to learn to fear the Xenomorph once again.
Right from outset, Alien: Isolation sets the tone for what players can expect. Its eerie 1977-era 20th Century Fox fanfare opening is a throwback to the beginnings of the Alien franchise. Creative Assembly wears its reverence for the source material on its sleeves, reveling in the iconic 70s retro-futurism that defined the movies. In the game, the nostalgia of it is alluring, but Isolation does more than pay its source material lip-service, it builds on and presents a story of its own that both fits into and enhances the movies.
Ridley Scott's 1979 film is still regarded as one of the most influential and powerful horror films ever. Channeling elements of slasher films and science fiction, the crew of the Nostromo stumble upon a strange alien life-form of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, quickly spiraling out into a fight for survival. Despite their reliance on futuristic, yet run-down technology capable of interstellar space travel, the film was very much a humbling experience for its characters. For survival horror, this feeling of vulnerability and perilousness is an especially vital pillar of the genre--which Alien: Isolation ratchets up considerably throughout.
Initially developed as a third-person stealth action game with an in-depth cover system, the developers at Creative Assembly soon shifted to first-person to have a more intimate feel. Along with this, it introduced design tenets from the immersive-sim sub-genre--a la Dishonored and BioShock--and leaned on the tension and gameplay of classic survival horror games. Set 15 years after the Nostromo's destruction, Alien: Isolation brings Ellen Ripley's daughter Amanda to the Space Station Sevastopol to uncover clues behind her mother's disappearance. But of course, an alien organism is already onboard, unleashing a seemingly unstoppable creature focused entirely on picking off members of the space station one by one.
Unlike the bombast of movie's sequels, the game stays true to the first movie's subdued, disquieting feel. Aside from the flamethrower, firearms are the least useful of tools at the player's disposal, as the Alien is invulnerable to bullets, and is always lurking in the vents and tunnels of the station. Alien: Isolation is a re-examination of what horror and the fragility of character is in gaming, hammering the notion that you're trapped, and with no way out.
Video games as a medium have quite a history of boiling complex, highly-intelligent apex predators into a moving target for players to unload bullets into. This is especially true for how the Alien series has evolved in the gaming medium, with most of these games revolving around shooting swarms of Xenomorphs with smart-guns, pulse-rifles--and even with the Predator making an appearance. Because of this, the Alien creature became the quintessential video game cannon-fodder. However, Isolation was cold and cruel in showing players how futile this approach was, instead forcing players to relearn their relationship to the Xenomorph and, ultimately, respect it. While your goals and destination are mostly one-note, Isolation allows players to come up with their own solutions, either from sacrificing resources to craft new items, or by making a bold move to take advantage of nearby enemies as a distraction to make a quick getaway.
With a focus on staying on top of your resources, avoiding enemy encounters when possible, and a static save system that makes simply recording your progress a risk in itself--the main hook of Isolation's design is making players constantly aware of how vulnerable they are. Coming a year after the lackluster and uninspired action-horror game Aliens: Colonial Marines, the developers at Creative Assembly distinguished their Alien game with authenticity. Alien: Isolation, in many ways, relishes in subverting expectations; whether that's making players the prey instead of the predator, or giving players conditioned to expect a shooter something entirely different.
Though Isolation's lead character comes from one of the sequel's deleted scenes, Isolation benefits from extrapolating out what made the original movie memorable. In addition to Amanda, however, are an assortment of side-characters that can be played as in the Survival mode, offering their side of the story on the Sevastopol. As a ramshackle space station falling apart, populated with knock-off Working Joes androids that couldn't be sold off due to how creepy and off-putting they look, the setting feels like a haunted house floating in the cold depths of space. And to make matters worse--there's a high-intelligent, merciless killer lurking about.
Alien: Isolation saw its release in a particularly interesting year for horror gaming. The genre had gone through a rather surprising upswing with notable releases from independent developers like Five Nights at Freddy's, to some more larger scale releases like the enigmatic P.T--the teaser for the now dead Silent Hills. What these games have in common with Alien: Isolation was that they forced players into a position of disempowerment, either keeping them in a specific location, or tasking them with making to it one location from another, while avoiding the gaze of the antagonist.
With the survival horror genre, much of the experience is about humbling the player and getting them to feel the sense of uncertainty that looms throughout their trek. Alien: Isolation isn't about the big victories of taking down bosses over the course of several hours, but rather the smaller victories scattered throughout; slinking back into the shadows as the Xenomorph enters the room, narrowly avoiding certain death, or managing to grab an item of a desk in the same room as a Working Joe. Broadly speaking, Alien: Isolation spends 12-15 hours ratcheting up the tension when needed, and then gradually loosening it up. But in the midst of it all, the ever-present threat of the Xenomorph feels like the touch of fingertips on your neck, threatening to choke the life out of you at a moment's notice. Its delicate cycling of tension feels more like a constant chokehold.
While Creative Assembly and Sega may never make a game like Isolation again, it will be remembered for its bold, brave inventive realisation of the Alien franchise's potential. It understood what the property was capable of beyond the shooting galleries and recycling of cheesy one-liners. Alien: Isolation stands as a remarkable achievement for its re-examination and re-invigoration of the horror experience in gaming, and is likely one of the best things to happen to the Alien franchise in a long time.