It's the first step towards the Alien game you've always wanted. But it's a tiny, uncertain step.
Given the poor showing of the last few major games set in the Alien universe, however, it's a welcome one. Developer Creative Assembly understands that an Alien game is nothing without fear, nothing without suspense. A burst of gunfire is all the more effective when silence precedes is, and the sight of a halitotic extraterrestrial is only meaningful if it represents danger--for where there is danger, there is thrill. And Alien: Isolation occasionally captures both that gut-wrenching sense of fear and the momentary comfort of escape. Every breath could be your last. And so you savor each one.
Oh, but how I wish these moments were more common in Alien: Isolation, which isn't to say that your encounters with the iconic xenomorph aren't themselves problematic; I will get to those problems later. No--it's the endless meandering in between that proves troublesome, much of it intended to build tension, but most of it falling victim to a neverending sameness. I say neverending, but in reality, Alien: Isolation limps to its frustrating ending after many hours more than it can support. This is four hours' worth of a great idea stretched into 14-plus hours of messy stealth gameplay, creaky video game cliches, and limp exploration.
What makes Alien: Isolation so ultimately disappointing is that when it's on, it's on. You are Ellen Ripley's daughter Amanda, seeking information about your mother's fate aboard the Sevastopol, a derelict space station home to a remaining population of skittish survivors and a snarling, salivating xenomorph drone. The game reaches its zenith within levels structured as a game of cat-and-mouse, casting you, of course, in the role of the underpowered mouse. You crouch, slink, and peek around corners and above crates from a first-person perspective, avoiding the sideways glances of the fearsome creature that gives the franchise its name.
When all mechanics are working as intended, alien-evasion is dread distilled into its purest form. You are equipped with a couple of standard firearms and a few helpful gadgets, such as noisemakers for distracting the beast, and a flamethrower that acts as a temporary safeguard in later levels, but the motion tracker is the most vital tool you possess. Hold a button, and the tracker's dot shows you the relative location of nearby entities, friends and foes alike. The tracker does not tell you, however, if the alien is above or below you, scurrying through the ventilation ducts. If your sound system is lacking, you should don a good pair of headphones if you desire precise situational awareness. Hearing the xeno's clawed feet can paralyze you with fear, and you must battle your basic fight-or-flight instincts when you hear the alien's shuddering exoskeleton. To fight is to perish; to flee is to directly gift your flesh to the pursuer.
Actually, running might save you if there's a locker close enough to hide in, though your best bet is to stay crouched, stay hidden, and stay aware. These are the moments when Alien: Isolation weighs heaviest on your soul. Within said locker, you see the alien enter the room. It sidles up to your hiding place, and you hold your breath--in real life, and in the game. If the xeno hears your gasps, or if you fail to lean into the rear of the locker, it snatches you from your shelter and you peer into its two gaping maws before succumbing to death. Weirdly, holding your breath causes your health to deplete after a few seconds, so if you're nearing death when the alien comes calling, it might nab you even if you follow the game's instructions to the letter. The mechanic is strange: not only does it not make sense that you lose health when holding your breath for a few scant seconds, it doesn't make sense that the alien would be the cause of death. The game never informs you of the possibility, so should it occur, you might assume the game doesn't abide by its own rules. After all, no amount of logic would lead you to believe that the alien grabbed you because you ran out of health while holding your breath.
Nevertheless, I can't deny the appeal of dodging the murderous menace. There were moments in which I was Ripley, impulsively sprinting away from the xenomorph when I heard it fall to the floor from a vent just behind me, and crying out when its barbed tail plunged into me from behind and emerged from my torso. I would peer from around corners to see it scanning the area just 20 feet from me, and follow quietly behind it as it slithered down the hallway. But these moments, these game-defining high points, account for only a few chapters out of many, and Alien: Isolation doesn't even make the most out of them. At one point via radio, your comrade encourages you to rush, the game thus prompting you to run towards your destination. And over the next few minutes, you confront several of Alien: Isolation's annoyances, compacted into one bite-sized space for your displeasure.
When all mechanics are working as intended, alien-evasion is dread distilled into its purest, simplest form.
There's the issue of the command to hurry, for instance, because following the game's lead means you will quickly die. You see, the xenomorph now waits for you to cross under a vent opening from which it can attack--a mechanic that the game introduces when you are under duress. (As it happens, though, there is no actual reason to hurry; the level gives you all the time you need, even though the game itself has insisted you rush.) Your motion tracker is little help here; your cue to the alien's presence is the cascade of saliva and goo dripping from the ceiling's openings. This is a neat idea, but the mechanic's sudden appearance isn't foreshadowed, making your first death at its hands one of Alien's multiple "what just happened?" events. The game is fond of introducing new rules in this fashion, leading to head-scratching trial and error and the occasional pounding of fist upon desk when you realize the game's limited save system is making you repeat the last 15 minutes of slow, careful sneaking.
Bear in mind, however, that alien encounters are limited to just a few levels. Typically, you're walking, pulling levers, riding elevators, and walking some more. This is the downtime, the time for building atmosphere, and Alien: Isolation wisely embraces that 1970s retro-futuristic style that characterized Alien, with its monochrome computer monitors and its cathode-ray technology--the kind of datedness Douglas Adams called "zeerust." Perhaps it's fitting that the game itself looks rather dated, its character models in particular, whose elbows look as though they could cut glass when they bend, and whose blank faces are always covered with a bizarre sheen of sweat. The visual weaknesses would be easier to overlook had they not interfered with the game's attempts to build tension, but having the alien's head clip into the locker you're hiding in dispels any anxiety the scene has established. The alien itself looks fantastic, at least; death may prove frustrating, but it's the best way of admiring the xeno's two sets of razor-sharp teeth.
The exploration ultimately falls flat, a victim to backtracking and simplistic gameplay elements lacking in creativity. Many video games feature security cameras that alert the enemy to your presence--but in Alien: Isolation, the camera off-switch is often located directly beneath the camera. Sometimes, you must log into computer terminals to find codes that unlock important doors--but the email with the code might be on the same terminal that does the unlocking. The rewiring stations that allow you to disable cameras may also allow you to manipulate the Sevastopol's air-purification mechanism and other systems, but rarely to any meaningful end. The cameras, the rewiring stations, the codes--it's as if they are here because that's just what video games do. Even the story beats fall victim to by-the-numbers claptrap: the game leads you from one section to the next, always making it clear which characters exist to serve as alien fodder, and predictably mirroring the original film's themes and plot.
Androids serve as your most frequent foe in Alien: Isolation, and they're common enough that it's tempting to bash them straight-on with a stun baton. A typical synthetic turncoat won't take too kindly to a direct attack, however, and will aggressively fling you at a nearby wall, if not outright whack you. The first-person perspective makes becoming a synthetic's personal yo-yo frighteningly disorienting, another notch in the game's favor. Here, again, I feel as Ripley does: helpless and afraid as I desperately scan the environment, seeking a clear path through impending danger. Some gadgets prove mostly useless when dealing with synthetics; they seem wholly unfazed by flashbang grenades, for instance, making a shotgun blast to the head the most appealing option when there's nowhere to run.
This is four hours' worth of a great idea stretched into 14-plus hours of messy stealth gameplay, creaky video game cliches, and limp exploration.
Other synthetic encounters are simply ridiculous, however. A dozen-plus hours in, you ride an open-air elevator downward, taking in one of Alien: Isolation's most striking views, one that intimates that the game's finale could be at last drawing near. A synthetic is waiting for you at the bottom, and there is no mechanic in place allowing you to veil your presence from him, or his three robotic friends that follow. A number of cover locations just beyond tell you that stealth was meant to be an option, but the manner in which the keen-eyed synthetics are spaced, the nature of a lift ride that deposits you into danger, and the narrowness of the walkways you traverse make for a cluster of madness. To deal with synthetics is often to engage in a silly game of tag, in which you lead a few androids around in circles until you buy yourself enough time to turn and toss a molotov cocktail at them.
That elevator ride signals the moment the hopes for Alien: Isolation shatter--the moment it tries and and mostly fails to mimic a more straightforward action game on its way to a frustrating conclusion. At least the ending brings with it a sense of relief. Some of this relief stems from the lingering fear of the alien's presence. You have left the game and its creature behind, never to smell the alien's putrid breath, never to witness its syrupy saliva, never to seek refuge in a claustrophobic locker and wish the beast away. More relieving is that you won't have to trudge through the same duct-lined corridors for another however-many hours, or have to repeat ten minutes of switch-pulling and keycard-searching after firing a bullet into a friendly's head because you presumed she might attack you, as so many dwellers do. Alien: Isolation provides us a glimpse into a future that holds the Alien game you've always wanted. It is not, however, the vessel that carries you there.