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Alien: Isolation begins where the 1979 film ended, with Ellen Ripley’s chilling ship’s log entry. It’s a perfect jumping-off point for a game that casts you as Amanda Ripley and asks you to investigate your mother’s disappearance, but it also serves to highlight the gulf that still exists between film and videogames. Sigourney Weaver’s short performance – re-recorded for the game – is nuanced, poignant and loaded. It’s a powerful moment that’s immediately undermined by the game’s first cutscene, which flatly introduces us to engineer Amanda and fellow WeylandYutani employee Samuels, the latter bringing news of the discovery of the Nostromo’s flight recorder.
The vocal performances aren’t terrible for the most part, but what little depth the actors salvage from the script is undercut by The Creative Assembly’s bespoke engine, which, despite being exceptional in every other respect, renders humans as dead-eyed manikins with lockjaw. Characters are at least extremely sweaty, but otherwise they struggle to resemble the movie’s stars. And while Samuels and Ripley’s lines improve – even if they don’t feel like they truly belong to this universe – Taylor, Weyland-Yutani’s legal representative for the mission, is an inexplicably poor addition to the cast, and wouldn’t be out of place in a middling JRPG.
This inauspicious start is further marred by niggling little mechanical hiccups that really should have been relegated to the past by now. Kill a human in your first stealth encounter, for example, and you’ll be able to take their revolver ammo but not the gun that lies next to them; your revolver is waiting for you in an office a little farther ahead. And much later on in the game, you’ll need to activate a cleaning droid in order to make use of its transport hatch to get around a locked gate. The solution to the puzzle is obvious, but for some reason you can’t interact with the bot until you’ve practically pressed your nose against the obstruction first – a counterintuitive action, given that the people who locked that gate in the first place are currently on the other side, emptying their clips at you.
But while these and a few other problems, not least the insufficient explanation of the game’s various systems, make for a bumpy on-ramp, you’ll soon find yourself ignoring each tiny letdown just to drink in the astonishing atmosphere of Isolation’s central locale. A lot has been made of the team’s access to the original production material for the film, and its attention to detail manifests itself everywhere, right down to the spidery pipe routing and padded leather panels that line the Sevastopol space station’s corridors. It’s there in the flickering CRT displays and bulky hardware, and in the bobbing office toys and loud expulsions of steam from previously unnoticed valves. There have been plenty of Alien games prior to Isolation, but this is the first time you feel like you’ve stepped onto the set.
That overwhelming sensation, and the joy of spotting every reference and transposition, will be enough to carry you through the first hours prior to the introduction of the much-hyped xenomorph, at which point Isolation stops being disappointing and reveals itself to be unlike anything you’ve ever played before.
It starts relatively gently, with a number of horrendously tense stealth sections in which you try to keep track of the creature’s position while moving towards your objectives in teetering, uncertain steps. It might take ten minutes to get from one side of an area to another, and mistakes spell death with few exceptions. Before long, however, the alien has access to almost every part of the space station that you do, and there are no patrol routes to learn, no easy AI shortcuts to exploit: you are being hunted, and your survival now depends on instinctive decisions.
Thankfully, Creative Assembly’s tech does a far better job of rendering the creature than it does its prey. The alien moves with terrifying purpose and will be upon you in seconds if you make too much noise. It can’t be outrun, but if you can block off its path – by punching an emergency door override as you pass through it, for instance – or break line of sight, then there’s a small chance you’ll be able to hide in a locker or under a desk. But the game never panders to its players, instead delivering an uncompromising take on what it might be like to be trapped on a space station with a deadly foe. This means that sometimes you might open a door to find the creature, and a restart, waiting on the other side. Players expecting more traditional videogame empowerment may find such moments frustrating, but Creative Assembly’s alien would feel compromised if you weren’t so vulnerable. The ferocity of the alien’s attacks and the game’s low tolerance for misjudgments are both magnified by the manual save system, which requires you to use emergency phone points around the station to shore up your progress. They’re generously placed for the most part, but there are a few tough, lengthy sections in which failure will set you back a good chunk of play. Resorting to quick or auto saves would dilute the tension, but long gaps between save points can sap your willingness to experiment with the game’s AI and the various tools at your disposal.
Setbacks do at least demonstrate how many different ways each scenario can play out. Along with the alien, you’ll also encounter human enemies and Working Joes, the no-frills android types manufactured by Seegson Corporation, which owns Sevastopol. On Hard difficulty (which Creative Assembly recommends as the way the game should be played), a bullet or two is all it will take to end you, but if you can survive being fired on for long enough, the noise of the guns will bring the alien down