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‘Alien: Isolation’ Review: Fight or Flight

After a slew of games that have ranged from disappointing (Alien vs. Predator) to the downright awful (Aliens: Colonial Marines), the Aliens franchise hasn’t had much luck in the virtual realm of video games. Developer Creative Assembly aims to change that with Alien: Isolation, a terrifying game of cat and mouse set in the Sevastopol space station.

It’s clear from the very beginning that the team behind this game is made up of fans of the films. The game has a decidedly old school VHS look, and the environments look like they were taken right off the set of the 1978 film. It’s really quite impressive, enough so that I found myself wanting to watch Alien only a few minutes in.

Alien: Isolation nails the “lo-fi sci-fi” look and feel of the original Alien perfectly. Making sure the Sevastapol station looked like it could have existed alongside the Nostromo couldn’t have been an easy feat, but Creative Assembly has done a fine job in bringing it to life. I found myself exploring every nook and cranny not for places to hide, but just so I could soak up its world.

A remarkable eye for detail was needed to make the Sevastapol as memorable a locale as it is, and as it is, it drips with personality that’s immediately recognizable as belonging to this franchise.

This strength extends to nearly every facet of the game, from its menus to simplistic design. There’s a certain level of beauty in this kind of horror game, which continues the popular trend in horror games to drop the player into an unfamiliar environment with limited resources and very capable enemies. Going in guns blazing will always get you killed, whether you’re fighting a gaggle of Working Joes or its more intimidating baddie, a lone xenomorph that hunts poor Amanda Ripley throughout the Sevastapol.

It’s a shame the story and characters are outshined by the gorgeous world they each inhabit. Few of the characters make much of an impression. Many characters are left underdeveloped, their sole purpose to serve as fodder for the game’s enemies.

The game takes place 15 years after Alien and follows Amanda Ripley, the now very grown up daughter of Ellen Ripley, as she embarks on a mission to find out what happened to her mother. With the help of a team formed by Weyland-Yutani, Ripley and co. make a trip to the Sevastopol where the Nostromo’s flight recorder is being held. Finding the answers she needs won’t be easy, because video games, as things almost immediately start going horribly wrong for Ripley.

Alone in an unfamiliar environment where something has clearly gone horribly wrong, Ripley must use her wits and a liberal helping of resourcefulness in order to survive.

Creative Assembly didn’t waste time taking creative license when coming up with the enemies of Alien: Isolation, so they should all be familiar to fans of the films. Personally, I prefer this, because these antagonists have already been proven effective since their introduction in 1978.

This also looks to have given them more time to make sure every one of them is thoroughly terrifying. The androids (called Working Joes) are especially unsettling with their creepy glowing eyes and total disregard for human life, and then there are the fan favorites, including the iconic Facehuggers and an freakishly tenacious alien.

As much as I love the Working Joes, the xenomorph is the real standout. It’s complex AI makes it a cunning predator that will offer a challenge no matter how skilled you’ve become at playing survival horror games. This thing is supposed to be the perfect hunter, an apex predator, and in Alien: Isolation, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a true villain, built to kill and lacking any modicum of mercy.

Unfortunately, the moderately repetitive gameplay mixed with the steep learning curve can sometimes make this game frustrating. When you have what’s essentially an unkillable enemy and a player-controlled character that’s almost completely useless in combat, keeping things from becoming frustrating becomes a balancing act.

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As a first attempt, it’s understandable — expected, even — to not get this completely right. Even as a first try (the first in what I hope will become a new series) Alien: Isolation does a fantastic, if imperfect, job at keeping what could have been a massively difficult experience for some players from being too frustrating.

Even still, you need to know going in that this game is tough.

Much of the game revolves around exploration and stealth bits, as Ripley is tasked with locating items or simply surviving long enough to make it to from point A to point B, hiding from enemies and gather precious resources along the way. The items she scavenges can be used to craft tools that will be needed to escape the Sevastapol.

Ripley can make all sorts of things, from flares to noisemakers, smoke bombs, mines, molotovs medkits and even pipe bombs. Finding creative uses for some of these tools can save you, and I really cannot push the importance of learning your way around each early on hard enough. Every item has a purpose, and Ripley will need every ounce of help to stay alive.

Most of the time you’ll want to stay under the radar, but when that’s not an option, Ripley will have access to a few weapons to get her out of stickier situations. There’s not much, but whipping out a revolver, shotgun or flamethrower — my personal favorite — can grant her some breathing room, when it’s needed.

The most important tool in Ripley’s arsenal is the motion detector. You’ll want to use it as often as possible, especially in the game’s darker and more labyrinthine environments. Having an idea of where the things that are hunting Ripley is the only real advantage she has, and it can save you from some horrifying close encounters that she likely won’t survive.

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Being resourceful and creative with Ripley’s limited supplies and weapons is key, and it’s why Creative Assembly didn’t overcomplicate the design. Without “game-y” elements like special moves, abilities or any sort of complex interactions, the player is free to focus on survival. There’s no awkward cover system, deep combat system, or anything of that nature.

It’s bare bones, and it works.

If I haven’t hinted at this enough, let me make it clear that you will die, and there’s a good chance you will die a lot. It’s up to you to take a page out of the alien’s book and learn from your mistakes. If you can evolve and learn to react faster than the xenomorph that hunts you, then there’s a lot of fun to be had here.

This game is a love letter to one of my favorite films, and it gives me hope in the future of this franchise, at least when it comes to video games. We had to wait a long time to get a great Alien game, but this one was worth the wait. Feel free to wipe the last decade and a half of failed attempts from your memory. This game is even good enough to make up for Colonial Marines.

The Final Word: Alien: Isolation wants to build a terrifying survival horror game around one of the most influential films of all time, and it’s hugely successful in that endeavor thanks in no small part to its strong cast of enemies and some beautifully realized environments.

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