Alien Gaming Legacy: Alien Isolation (2014) - Reviewed

After the disastrous blunder that was the first person shooter movie tie-in Aliens: Colonial Marines was developed by Gearbox Software and released by Sega, the videogame industry’s take on the Alien franchise was all but in the toilet and had nowhere else to go but up.  What was promised in the E3 2011 teaser trailer to be a fully rendered FPS game instead outsourced the developmental stages of the game to other companies which resulted in a finished product that fell short of what people saw in E3. 

Soon the game garnered the reputation as being one of the worst ever released with the price tag dropping to as low as $5 for new sealed copies.  The idea of a worthwhile Alien game at this juncture seemed remote in the minds of gamers and Alien fans alike.  It didn’t help that in essence, Aliens: Colonial Marines didn’t do much to dissociate itself from other generic first person shooter games or the other previously released Alien vs Predator FPS games.

Unbeknownst to gamers and fans, Sega and production company Creative Assembly were well at work on delivering arguably THE definitive Alien game that would not only give fans the interactive experience they so longed for decades, but would also transcend the library of Alien games that came before it.  Dubbed Alien: Isolation, the idea this time around was to transform the game from being a standard FPS to being a hide-and-seek survival horror game ala Outlast with much of the time spent evading the creature which cannot be killed. 

Released on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, Alien: Isolation did something other Alien based games before it never thought to try by designing the game to be more in line with Ridley Scott’s 1979 film than James Cameron’s 1986 film, right down to reportedly using three terabytes of original production materials provided by 20th Century Fox.  Designers had everything they needed to create the most thoroughly detailed homage to Ridley Scott’s vision of the future ever attempted, including consulting editor Terry Rawlings for advice on which direction the game should go.
The game developers were so painstaking in recreating the lo-fi technological look of the 1979 vision of the future, in-game animated sequences created for the game were transferred to VHS and Betamax video recorders before being displayed on CRT monitors along with adjusting analog tape tracking settings.  The load screens in between levels, for instance, look like a worn VHS tape with a lack of detail and frequent static white noise emanating from the tracking.  Contrary to what George Lucas and Ridley Scott did with their prequel films with upgraded technology, Creative Assembly concluded that their game’s look should be limited to what the props and production design department had available to them in 1979, not dissimilar to Robert Wise’s approach to re-editing Star Trek: The Motion Picture with respect to retaining the look the film’s visual effects would have had when originally exhibited.

Also differing from the Scott directed prequels, Alien: Isolation remains intrinsically tied to the universe of the 1979 film with the legendary Ellen Ripley.  Along with downloadable content including a playable Nostromo mission which invited cast members Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and Sigourney Weaver (sadly sans Ian Holm and John Hurt) to provide voicework, the story itself hinges around Ripley’s daughter Amanda (glimpsed briefly in a deleted scene from Aliens) who is searching for her mother fifteen years after the mysterious disappearance of the Nostromo spaceship. 

After discovering Ellen Ripley’s final transmission from the end of Alien, Amanda Ripley and the Weyland-Yutani team set out to retrieve the flight recorder only to discover far more than they bargained for.  What makes this throwback to Ridley Scott’s film so effective is how much stealth work you have to undertake as Amanda Ripley, sneaking about and hiding from either renegade human survivors, murderous androids and of course the dreaded xenomorph itself whose heightened senses make it very easy to spot you.  I recall one moment where the creature’s tail only just barely touched Ripley’s leg and in an instant it charges and murders you within seconds. 

This is where the game’s 7.1 surround sound mixing really comes into play, with the sounds of the creature’s footsteps emanating from the rear speakers towards your point of view depending on where your avatar is looking.  You can really hear the creature sneaking up behind you or lurking about, a huge benefit to the player’s awareness of the creature’s whereabouts and where to tiptoe around it if need be.  Given you carry a motion tracker with you, hearing it sound off when holstered provides a good head’s up that the xenomorph is near and could drop in on you at any time, leaving you with just enough time to find a hiding place…or not…

As aforementioned, the xenomorph cannot be killed no matter how many bullets you fire at it but you can briefly scare it away with your flamethrower long enough to give you a chance to hide or leave the room before it inevitably comes back moments later.  There are also moments where you create handheld alarms to distract the alien long enough for you to tiptoe past it undetected, a tricky feat considering the slightest sound or touch can revert it’s attention back to you.  Some of the tensest moments in the game come not so much from evading the creature, though there are a couple of chase levels that are particularly terrifying.  Rather, it’s the waiting for something to happen that builds unease, not knowing when or where the creature will strike which makes it’s brief appearances all the more startling. 

The score itself, written by Christian Henson, Joe Henson and Alexis Smith, is a loose riff on Jerry Goldsmith’s original score for Alien with the famous opening credits sequence serving as the game’s main menu.  Having seen Alien: Covenant recently along with a secondary viewing of Prometheus, both of which went of their way to repurpose Goldsmith cues from Alien, I have to say Alien Isolation does a far better nod to the famed composer’s work than Scott’s prequels do.  Rather than simply cutting and pasting Goldsmith’s tracks onto the soundtrack, Alien Isolation reworks much of them into the game’s own unique score with subtle differences that recall the 1979 film without taking you out of the world of the game.

Adding to the tension are, like the 1979 film, long stretches of almost dead silence save for distant metallic rumblings coming from airducts where the creature is roaming about.  Equally tense are some levels that hardly involve the creature at all but do involve murderous androids aiming to protect the company’s interests in preserving the alien, though for some reason unrelated to the films all of the droids are bald, expressionless and have glowing red eyes ala James Cameron’s The Terminator.  Most of them will punch or choke you but only off camera succeeds in what Ash’s android in 1979 tried to do with a rolled up porno magazine.  Another disconcerting factor involving the droids is that you can be locked in a battle for your life with one of them and the xenomorph can still drop in on you unexpectedly and make quick work of you. 

Prominently featuring in the game is a flashback mission where you and a team of scientists investigate the planet LV-426 from the first film, wading slowly through high winds, deep cold and snow and mountainous rocks before reaching the dreaded derelict alien ship.  While more of an elongated playable cut scene than the fight or flight survive with your wits gameplay of the rest of the game, the LV-426 level gives players the chance to walk in the spacesuits with the scientists among the space jockey and skeletal corridors leading to the egg chamber, a must for any experienced Alien fan.

The only real drawback to the game is, like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dead Space and the recently released fourth entry in the Doom series, you cannot simply save your progress at any point in the game.  Rather your progress is determined by which checkpoints you can reach and which obstacles you can beat.  Although you’re given game save kiosks throughout, accessible through a key card like the ones Dallas and Ripley used to access MUTHER from the 1979 film, the kiosks are few and far between.  This means if you went through a series of obstacles you can die moments before reaching the checkpoint and have to start all the way back at the last one.  It goes without saying Alien Isolation is a game you will frequently die in, sometimes so unexpectedly that you have your guard up for much of the rest of it. 

Despite complaints regarding the game’s voice acting and lightweight storyline, Alien Isolation proved to be a critical and commercial success that looks, sounds and feels closer to Ridley Scott’s 1979 film than any of the two prequel entries he’s directed recently.  Winning eleven gaming awards including the PC Gamer 2014 Game of the Year Award, the game stands currently as the best possible Alien videogame yet in a long list of games that tried and failed to capture the essence of what made the series so popular in the first place. 

While fending off xenomorphs in a first-person shooter platform is hardly new, setting it within the universe created by Scott’s film with a return to the series gothic horror roots is a refreshing direction for the game.  Although we’re not necessarily playing as Ellen Ripley in the game (save for the Nostromo downloadable mission), this is closer to what the original film series was like than most of the previous Alien videogame offerings.  With Alien: Covenant just around the corner and ready to delight or divide fans around the world, after a bad fourth movie, two Alien vs Predator movies and now officially two prequel movies, my friendly recommendation is to give Alien Isolation a try.  For this Alien fan’s money, Alien Isolation is arguably the most thoroughly satisfying entry in the Alien series since the much maligned 1992 film!  It is a lovingly detailed homage to the 1979 film which will challenge gamers expectations and expand upon what fans thought they already saw in the universe of acid blooded perfect organisms unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.  


- Andrew Kotwicki