Creeping slowly down a long hallway you hear an inhuman screech off in the distance. It is echoed by a series of men and women screaming in terror, followed shortly by the sounds of gunfire. But one by one the gunfire is silenced until there is only a final, blood curdling cry until the abandoned hallways are once again full of that oppressive silence you’ve come to know. Emerging from under the desk you dove under for cover and being trying to find an alternate path to your destination. Unfortunately the newfound silence is broken by the sound of something slithering out from the ceiling vents just behind you…
Situations like this are the bread and butter of Alien: Isolation. Amanda Ripley, daughter of famed badass Ellen Ripley, agrees to go to Sevastapol Station to retrieve the flight recorder of the Nostromo, her mother’s ship. The station belongs to Seegson Corporation, a lesser known company that makes shoddier but cheaper costing goods, but unlike Walmart the company is failing and thus closing down Sevastapol. It’s being taken apart, sold for scrap and only run by a skeleton crew. If that all sounds bad then the news that there’s a Xenomorph killer on the station. That’s one of the aliens for you non-nerd types.
So you’ve got your lady engineer by herself on a gigantic space station to deal with paranoid humans, malfunctioning androids and one nasty beast… how the heck is she supposed to survive? Stealth. Stealth, stealth and more stealth. Most of Alien: Isolation revolves around two simple rules: If you make noise, you’re probably dead. Use your Motion Tracker, learn how to read it and figure out where the enemies are before moving. Keep these two things in mind at all times since you have so few safe havens on this station, much less any allies.
Almost every remaining human on the station has gone near insane due to paranoia. As such they’re more than happy to kill you on sight so you’re going to have to avoid them. Later on you’ll gain weapons that allow you to kill them but all but one of those makes a lot of noise. Noise that will probably attract the Xenomorph to your location, so fighting them isn’t a great idea. Luckily you’ll find blueprints to craft a number of tools that you can use to disorient, blind or distract them so that you can sneak by. If you’re feeling cruel you could even use those tools to make enough noise that you draw the Xenomorph to their location to solve two problems at once.
These same tools will be invaluable in dealing with the androids since they’re intensely ferocious. These aren’t the ones from the movies, these so-called Working Joe’s don’t look like humans. Instead they look like plastic skinned crash test dummies with creepy monotone voices and a slow, purposeful stride. They’re always polite, even as they try to punch your face inside out, and are helpful enough to warn you that running away from them might cause you to hurt yourself. There are EMP mines and stun weapons that disable them but they’re still very dangerous since you can’t fight them head on. They simply counter you and beat your face in.
As dangerous as the Working Joe androids are the Xenomorph is ten times worse. The humans and androids will often leave you alone once you get outside of the area that they consider theirs. The alien will never stop pursuing you. It will either walk around or move high speed through the ducts looking for victims and any noise, even that of simply walking, can draw its attention. See, the humans and androids can often be easily escaped by hiding inside of a locker and waiting for them to lose interest. However the alien will often take note of your escape and try to sniff you out, requiring you to stay perfectly still in your hiding space and hold your breath until it moves on.
What’s worse is that where the humans and androids could be killed if it became necessary, nothing can kill the Xenomorph. Molotov cocktails, flamethrowers or high powered weapons will deal minor injuries and chase it off but it always returns. When it returns it’s also usually pretty angry, searching more thoroughly for you and being rather insistent about it. Just don’t do it unless you really have to. Hide, use the provided motion tracker to figure out where the beast is and sneak past it. Throw flares or noisemakers to draw it away from you and then get out of there as fast as possible.
The problem with this arrangement is that it can get on the painful side in some areas. In several, set pieces the alien is fully aware that there’s prey nearby (read: you) and it will move around, looking specifically for you. In these parts of the game the Xenomorph is so far up your butt that it’s incredibly hard to make any progress. Later in the game you can make use of the flamethrower to force progress when the alien just won’t give you any time to breathe but in the early stages of the game, notably Missions 5 and 6, the alien refuses to stop. You’re constantly dealing with him hanging out in the same room, nearby rooms (where it can see you through glass windows) or coming out of the vents in rooms that you’re in. This comes before you’ve really acclimated to the game itself which ends up acting like a huge progress bottleneck.
This has an amusing effect on the game – the beginning and ending parts of the game are so intensely difficult that the relatively easier middle part loses much of its tension. See, early in the game you’ve got to deal with the alien relentlessly pursuing you and near the end you have a wide variety of threats working against you, making these two quite obviously difficult. But in the middle of the game you actually get some action scenes, facing down groups of robots with a number of different guns, and when the alien is lurking around you have enough distractions, be they tools or other people, to manage to get past the beast with less difficulty.
Mind you, it’s not as if this completely ruins the tension. Even in parts of the game where it seems as if there is no way for the Xenomorph to bother you the tension is still immensely high since you just don’t know when the alien’s going to pounce. Just as you get used to dealing with the androids rather easily via EMP or Stun Baton the game introduces newer, scarier androids that are intensely difficult to deal with and just as alert as the alien is. Any point where the game feels “easy” just means that things are going to go crazy in a little bit.
Another issue is that of the difficulty levels modifying the enemies’ awareness capabilities. On easy the enemies are all rock dumb, including the alien. But on normal, the humans and androids are both pretty alert and the alien is pretty capable of detecting anything you do within .40 (based on the motion tracker). It’ll hear you if you try to run or even walk instead of sneaking around and it will pursue you into the vents should you foolishly try to hide there. But at the same time its peripheral vision is crappy and times when it clearly should be able to see you it’ll just walk away instead.
As such it feels like you should really be playing on hard difficulty. Here the humans and androids are just as easily evaded as they are on normal but the alien is much smarter. If you make any obvious noises, such as having your motion tracker out when it’s too close, it’ll tear open your hiding place and kill you right there. You’ll have to be incredibly careful about moving around, bumping into objects that might fall over and make noise or even opening and closing a hiding spot when it’s too close. The thing is smart as heck on this difficulty. Sadly humans and androids are amped up to the point that they’re a one or two shot kill, making sections dealing with them very annoying. This is doubly true early on when you don’t have any way to distract them but it never stops being annoying to get killed in one hit while peeking out of cover.
With that said these are all very personal issues and ones that are hard to hold against the game itself. Some won’t mind the difficulty of hard mode, finding the challenge to be incredibly fulfilling. Others will find normal to be just right and feel satisfied clearing it on that level. It’s really more of an issue of me feeling as if the game isn’t entirely balanced in its difficulty. Easy is incredibly easy, normal is easy enough but at times immersion breaking and hard is incredibly hard.
Perhaps the problem is that the abilities you possess mean a skilled player can really move around with ease. Walking, running around or sneaking about are obvious but the ability to peek over or around cover allows you to peek out to see where enemies are. Paired up with the motion tracker you can follow enemies movements until they get close enough to hear the trackers beeps and then peek around cover to follow them after that. If the enemy will see you, hide inside of a locker or medical cabinet or if these aren’t available then slip under a desk or table to hide.
Then you have the tools: You can throw flares to draw enemies who see it to a location, noisemakers will draw all who hear it to the location (causing enemies to fight), Molotov cocktails and pipebombs will destroy your foes and flash bangs and EMP’s will disable humans and androids respectively. Pair all of these up and you have a whole lot of options to deal with your foes. A damn good player will dance through hard mode while a mediocre player will struggle through normal with all of these at their fingertips. It’s up to you as to how the whole thing comes together.
Beyond the gameplay elements, there’s the world itself which just looks amazing. In Alien, the ship had the look of a large industrial vessel. The above deck areas had a cramped, lived in look with a strong sixties vibe to it while the below deck part seemed almost like an industrial factory. The computers all seemed to be using the old 1977 Apple II for video display while interfacing with advanced robotics and machinery including androids and artificial intelligences. Taking this look and running with it the folks at Creative Assembly have created a station that has a dirty, lived-in look to it that mixes a fifties aesthetic with the previous design from the film. All this comes together to make for a station that is clearly massive but has this intensely cramped look that combines a distinctly retro look with a futuristic one for a unique setting.
What really didn’t impress me was the graphics of the character models. All of the human characters have an almost plastic look to their skin. It’s this incredibly smooth, artificial looking flesh that seems to have things like freckles or beauty marks painted onto it. The smooth, unnatural look works well for alien since it only enhances its otherworldly look but on the people it’s intensely off putting. It’s not quite so bad in game but it’s very, very apparent in the cutscenes and it makes the damn good animations and voice work feel like it’s going to waste on these plastic creatures the game calls hu-mons. Then again sometimes people’s mouths don’t move at all while they talk so maybe everyone is secretly androids running through a simulation of something I did see a reference to Blade Runner in one of the rooms after all…
These issues with the game, that of frustrating segments, uneven difficulty and plastic characters, are really all more technical hiccups than huge issues. In my near forty hours with the game I’ve not come across any real glitches or bugs, no major issues with the game itself, beyond some wonky actions by the xenomorph, and no game breaking problems. In an era with numerous fundamentally broken or glitch riddled games, Alien: Isolation is a breath of fresh air in this regard. That, by contrast, makes many of the other issues fairly minor by contrast. So long as you can deal with a few areas of frustration the rest of the experience is definitely worth the money for one of the finest horror games ever released.