Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Alien: Isolation

Post-Launch Review
Alien: Isolation (PC)
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Released: 7 October 2014
Played: story complete in 15h:30min


15 years after the disappearance of the Nostromo, Amanda Ripley is still trying to find out what happened to her mother. After all that time a real lead turns up on the remote decomissioned space station Sevastopol: the flight recorder from the Nostromo has been found. But that's not the only thing that's been found. Amanda barely manages to make it on to the severely damaged station to find it in lockdown, with half the population dead and the other half terrified of what's lurking in the shadows. Amanda will find out what happened to her mother, but not in the way she'd hoped...

At Launch

Reception was positive, averaging 80%. Reviewers praised the accuracy of the environments to the movie, the alien's AI and reactions to your actions, and the stealth-heavy gameplay. Many critics felt that voice acting was poor and the game too long and repetitive.

Post Launch

Two DLC missions were available as pre-order incentives and later became purchaseable for everyone. Crew Expendable lets you play as Ellen Ripley, Dallas, or Carter attempting to isolate the alien on the Nostromo, and Last Survivor puts you in the role of Ripley attempting to activate the Nostromo's self-destruct and escape. These are not part of the season pass.
A free update added two additional difficulty modes. Nightmare gives you a damaged and unreliable motion tracker, no HUD, more aggressive and intelligent enemies (including the alien), and removes map stations and many resources. Novice mode slows down the alien and gives you more health and resources.
Five add-on packs to the game's survivor mode (time trials) were released, all part of the season pass. Corporate Lockdown, Trauma, Safe Haven, Lost Contact, and The Trigger each add three survivor scenarios.

The Aliens games have always been good at replicating the feel and technology of the movies, but this is the first one based on the horror Alien instead of the more action-oriented Aliens. Partly by virtue of being the most recent and having the best technology to work with, but also because of a close attention to detail, Isolation is remarkably good at immersing you in the atmosphere of the original movie. It definitely helps that your ship, the Torrens, is the same model as the Nostromo - but the whole game is faithfully built to look just like the movie's vision of the future, complete with crappy CRT computer monitors, chunky ships and stations, and even a filter to make the game look just noticeably like it's playing off a tape in a VCR. The atmosphere is great.
While Isolation was positively reviewed, a lot of reviewers wrote about flaws. Many noted poor voice acting and lack of character development as flaws. I didn't notice any voice acting problems, and I wasn't too concerned about deep character insights in a life-or-death survival scenario where work needed to get done. Not saying those criticisms are wrong, just that I didn't notice them and they had no bearing on my experience.

Crafting is a little weak. Nothing wrong with it, but at the same time there's nothing about the system that makes it vital to the game. I guess it helps reinforce that Amanda Ripley is an engineer, but that's better handled by all the re-wiring and tinkering and improvisation you have to do to accomplish anything. The game wouldn't lose anything if you tore out the whole system and left completed items lying around instead of ingredients.
Criticism of the story was more noticeable - the story isn't very inspired. People find alien, alien is the perfect organism and murders everyone violently, some people want to use it but they're greedy bastards and killing it is the only option, we've got to find a way to kill it, etc etc. Nothing particularly exciting there, and you pretty much know what'll happen in the first two minutes of the game when you find out that someone located (at least part of) the Nostromo. There's an epic pants-crapping twist, but it's not so much part of the plot as a realization about the true depth of the situation you're in.

That said, it turns out that the story doesn't really need to be exceptional in order to scare the hell out of you and create one of the most intense gaming experiences I've... well, experienced. Which is not to say it's perfect, of course - the slow build to revealing the alien does a great job of building anticipation, and I was shocked to find no actual big reveal but instead a dramatic sudden shock when you realize it's in the room with you. The alien actually feels like it's hunting you, too, which definitely amps things up. It stalks around, checking corners and doorways, slowing down around hiding spots, moving unpredictably and listening for noise. You can even start to pick up on its behaviour via audio cues - the different hisses and roars are tells for different actions or levels of awareness. 
Many of the levels are fairly free-form. You're dropped into a wing of the station (say, the hospital or the communications level), given your objectives, and turned loose. You can try different approaches - move slowly and scavenge, move quickly but silently, cause distractions, turn enemies against each other, use the environment to your advantage by messing with the systems. Sometimes, though, you're forced into a much more restricted path, and these bits where you're all out of resources and short on hiding places can be real intense.

But there are flaws in the system. Once the initial rush dies off, it's easy to get comfortable (or at least switch from scared to analytical/methodical) when you've seen the movies and played the games and thoroughly know what you're dealing with. I felt frustrated at times, having to replay large chunks of levels due to alien-related deaths. The more you replay a segment, the more the fear and tension drop into annoyance, killing the atmosphere. It works fine if you can clear an area in a couple of tries, but if you're beating your head against the wall playing a long sequence over and over and over again, the alien becomes an inconvenience rather than a scary monster. It also doesn't help when you learn that most of the time, if you stay out of sight long enough, it hops into the vents and then you're free to do what you want if you don't make too much noise (which isn't always true, but often enough that it made me feel too safe).
Later on in the game, though, you make a discovery that absolutely skyrockets the tension. Highlight the white text if you want spoilers; it's safe after the next image. After blowing the alien out of the station into the vaccuum of space, you figure you're safe and now you just have to deal with humans and androids. You get a big tense buildup with increasingly dangerous synthetics building into a crescendo... and then what there's a whole nest full of eggs and aliens and what this is insane one of these things is invulnerable and what am I supposed to do against a whole hive?! That reveal is - no lie - one of the most intense gaming experiences I've ever had. Suddenly that niggling thought of "how does this thing keep track and follow me across this entire station" makes perfect sense because it's not just one of them.

There's one curious omission, though, with this big reveal. The depths of Sevastopol are full of alien eggs... but what's laying them? Other than the eggs, there's not a single hint of the queen that has to be there somewhere. Makes me think sequel, but the station crashes into the planet. So did the game just avoid the queen to not make it too Aliens rather than Alien? Curious.
The alien isn't the only star of the game. I was pretty impressed with Amanda. I'm always happy to see a character who displays real bravery: you can tell she's terrified, but she acts anyway. You can just see her hands shaking when she holds up the revolver. You can hear her short ragged breaths when hiding from the alien. She yelps or screams from sudden shocks or pain. But she trucks through it all, doing what needs to be done, and that's a great way to help keep the player motivated too. You never learn much about her life or history, but you can tell she's smart and focused even when scared, traits she shares with her mother.

I guess I should mention survivor mode before I finish. Basically it's a time-based competitive mode - see how high up you can place on the leaderboards by evading the alien and escaping the area as quick as you can. There's only a handful of maps by default, but the five add-ons give you more to play with. The competitive element and lack of story make it not really my style, but if you enjoy the gameplay it's great to have some extra levels with optional challenges to complete.
Alien: Isolation has its flaws, such as a generic plot and some unnecessary elements. But the atmosphere is a dead ringer for the movie that inspired it, and the alien is a genuinely threatening monster. At times I got annoyed or felt safe, but Isolation often manages to turn those moments around with clever pacing and surprises. There are some incredibly intense sequences that rival the best games I've played, especially that real jaw-dropper. And it's replayable since the alien's AI changes its movement and patterns so that you'll never be able to predict everything. Excellent survival horror game and very worthy of the Alien title - it should be at the top of your list if you're a fan of the movie or the sci-fi horror atmosphere.

Recommendation: play it.

The DLC missions Crew Expendable and Last Survivor are all right, I guess, but there's nothing new or exciting there in terms of story. I hardly ever ran into the alien, and when I did, a quick spurt of flamethrower juice got it out of the way long enough to finish the objectives. Sure they got the original actors back for voice work, but you get only a handful of new lines that don't really do anything, plus some recycled stuff from the movie. So I wouldn't recommend those.

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