Alien: Isolation is a game so dripping in atmosphere, so intensely coloured with dread that you’d be tempted to call it the true sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 terror-inducing Alien. James Cameron’s action-oriented 1986 sequel Aliens arguably ruined what made the xenomorph so horrifying. This is not to say that Aliens is a bad film. On the contrary, it is one of the greatest action films ever made. But it changed the very nature of the creature. What was an invulnerable, nightmarish monster became something that could easily be killed with the right amount of firepower.
In 2014, video game developer Creative Assembly sought to remind everyone what made this grotesque extra-terrestrial so terrifying. That behind H.R. Giger’s freaky, psychosexual, Freudian creature design is an unstoppable force that has no goal in mind other than to destroy you. The developer instilled in video game form a behemoth reflective of those famous words spoken by Ash (Ian Holm) in the first movie: “The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… A survivor. Unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality”.
Following decent-ish reviews, but disappointing sales, many fans had presumed that a sequel to Alien: Isolation was dead in the water. But, if rumours from late last year are to be believed, this may now be more than just a pipe dream. In light of this, and the large grain of salt that must be taken alongside it, it feels like a great time to look back at this underappreciated gem, what made it so special, and why not continuing its story would be a crime.
Alien: Isolation picks up 15 years after the events of the original film, effectively mirroring what worked, while also building on it in a way entirely organic to the lore. Playing as Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda, you are informed that the flight recorder from the Nostromo has been located aboard the Sevastapol, a giant space station belonging to the Seegson Corporation. Separated from the rest of your crew, you are forced to board the station alone, coming to find it abandoned, derelict, and that an unwanted passenger has been killing the few remaining survivors.
It’s hard to overstate the affinity and respect that Creative Assembly clearly felt towards Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie. Having been provided with unfettered access to almost all of 20th Century Fox’s original production material, Sevastapol is a terrifying, panic-stricken locale that embraces the dark retro-futurism of that film.
Fractured light dominates the station. Every dark, misty corridor and cramped air-vent heightens an intense sense of claustrophobia that refuses to let up for the 18 or so hours that the game takes to finish. Windows looking out into the vast expanse of space provide only an occasional respite. The fuzzy UI, clunky VHS and Betamax-filtered tech, and CRT monitors harken back to the rough, down and dirty science-fiction worlds of the 70s and 80s. This unreliable technology, combined with the crackling sound design helps create a pervasive sense of anxiety. The graphics still hold up to this day, and it’s hard to believe the game is nearly 10 years old.
Then, of course, there is the alien itself, a marvel of video game design the likes of which had never been seen before. Creative Assembly already had H.R. Giger’s xenomorph design to go off, but also went to painstaking lengths to make sure the creature’s behaviour was unscripted. Dynamic AI ensures you can never know what the xenomorph is going to do, and it learns from your behaviour as the game goes on. It is about as close to a real Alien simulator as you can get.
No two encounters are the same, with the xenomorph just as intent on killing you as you are on surviving. No matter how much you try and understand it, you will never feel like you truly know what to do. Hearing it slither through the walls, or seeing its acidic saliva drip from the vents above you never ceases to invoke terror. It’s an intensely disempowering, stressful experience that will have your palms sweating and your heart racing. You may even wonder why you are putting yourself through it. This is a game where you will bathe in the glory of small victories.
A true survival horror game made in a time when survival horror games were being forgotten, Alien: Isolation deserved far more admiration than it got, and it appears that many reviewers know that. Post-Resident Evil 7 (a game that undoubtedly took inspiration from this one), it’s easy to forget that in 2014 fans of the genre began to feel they had been forgotten about. Alien: Isolation represented a AAA return to the slow-burn, dread-filled tension that many a fan had been yearning for.
Gameplay is brutally unforgiving. Save-points are scarce and require Amanda to actually insert a key-card into a registration point, leaving you vulnerable to attacks mid-save, which can lead to you losing up to an hour of gameplay. This was refreshing in an age of cyclical auto-saves every thirty seconds. Furthermore, despite eventually coming into possession of an assortment of weapons, in-keeping with the original film, the xenomorph cannot be killed. The best you can do is scare it off with a flamethrower, before rushing to hide under a desk, or slipping into a cabinet and holding your breath. Yes, there is actually a button for that.
A profoundly unique game, there is a reason that Alien: Isolation has developed a cult following in the years since its release. It is a work crafted with so much love and care. It doesn’t just have an unending appreciation for the first film, but also serves as a reminder of what horror games are capable of. Melding the scrappy, nerve-wracking first-person perspective of games like Outlast with the kind of graphics that only a AAA studio can afford, in many ways it is even more thrilling than Alien itself. After all, you are the one in the driver seat here, you are the one skulking in the shadows and hoping your limbs don’t get torn off.
Amanda Ripley is every bit as strong and capable as her mother was, and for her story to end on the cliff-hanger it did would be a travesty. It would also represent the end of what many view as the true continuation of Alien. That monster that is the stuff of nightmares, from which you can do nothing but run or hide.
So, here’s to hoping we get a much-deserved sequel. Either that or it joins Titanfall 2, and is remembered as an innovative game that managed to reinvigorate and breathe life into a stale genre, while also not getting the sales it deserved. And that, at the end of the day, is nothing to be ashamed of.
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