Alien: Isolation (PS4) Review
(The copy of the game used in this review was provided by Sega PR)
Alien is an amazing movie, especially the first time you see it. It’s crazy that it can be a sci-fi movie, and a horror movie, and be so successful in both genres. That classic mix of near-future tech and nightmarish monster scares still holds up and inspires new projects to this day, 35 years on. And that’s where we find ourselves now. There have been many video games based on the Alien franchise spanning numerous console generations, in which there have been plenty of hits and misses. The most recent ‘miss’ being Colonial Marines, which showed promise, but failed to deliver in quality and completion. Now, Sega has taken another stab at the series by trusting the team at The Creative Assembly (best known for the Total War series of RTS games) to bring back the elements that made the original Alien movie such a long lasting staple of space themed horror.
In my initial impressions playing the game, it definitely checks all of the right boxes. The first person perspective is thoroughly fleshed out to include a view of your feet beneath you, realistic camera sway, and finely tuned line-of-sight mechanics. The visual design of the game world and menus mostly feel pulled directly from the set of the original film, and the variety and brilliant use of sound all converge to make one of the most immersive gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time. Alas, after the first couple of minutes the tears begin to show.
A couple of the biggest distractions throughout the game start from the very beginning. Every cutscene throughout the game skipped and chopped incessantly, and the lip sync on in-game conversations would almost always skip and then just stop. Leaving the NPC talking, but with a closed mouth. The other huge distraction was the less than stellar voice acting. Hardly a single line of speech recorded for the game has the right tone, cadence, or inflection, and the only ones that do are lines they had the original cast from the movie record. The lines delivered by these ‘real’ actors are so few and far between that they stand out like a shout in a library. Outside of that, the most striking example I have is going straight from the ending of this game back into a round of Destiny – the chasm of quality between the VO in Alien: Isolation and the spoken lines in Destiny is astounding.
From then on it was a roller coaster leading me from the highs of great tension, fantastic gameplay elements, and wonderful vistas, to the lows of rage quitting and broken game design.
My first encounter with enemies on board the space station Sevastopol was surprisingly a group of human survivors. Now, in the story of the game, the station has experienced some sort of disaster resulting in deaths, disappearances, and anarchy, but the survivors are still talking of hope for a rescue. Yet somehow, the first person you come across instantly shoots directly at your face and runs away for backup murderers. I can almost accept that, except the rest of the game has absolutely no consistency – some survivors shoot you in the face and must be avoided or killed, and others magically have no intention of such things and actually result in a game over if attacked. Oh, and there’s no real way to tell the two apart without making your presence known to them, and getting shot in the process.
The other massive failure in this first encounter is that I had already picked up some ‘revolver ammo’ by the time I drew first blood on one of the murderous survivors, yet for no good reason I COULD NOT touch her gun (also a revolver) that lay right in front of my face on the floor. I will never understand how any single person on this earth can still accept this kind of crap as good game design; you literally cannot have any of the weapons the other humans use until you find the special, flashing one in a box where the plot forces you. Simply appalling in 2014.
The stealth aspects of these encounters typically work pretty well. The game provides plenty of options to try to attract or distract your foes, allowing you a chance to launch a surprise attack, or sneak past unseen. You have flares and noise makers to lead the enemies out of your path and eventually bombs and guns to dispatch them with, all of which must be found or built from foraged components. The game makes you leverage all of these tools together as some have no effect on certain enemy types, but all are also limited to only having three of each available in inventory at one time.
Problems also arise from trying to effectively use these items. The physics engine often flips out when an object is thrown, so instead of landing and bouncing around a little, objects often blast around the room like a damn rubber super ball. This means that when you wanted the flare to land in an out of the way corner, it instead bounces violently and winds up right back in front of you or directly in your planned path.
There are lots of examples in the gaming world of better ways to do this; simple things like a visual arc to show where the object will land, or just some way to control how hard it is thrown would have changed how at least a dozen of my encounters (deaths) played out.
Death is another fun subject. Rule number one in Alien: Isolation is don’t get attached to being alive. Death is constant here and thankfully doesn’t carry much consequence outside sitting through a couple loading screens and backtracking through a room or two. Just remember rule number 2: Save every chance you get.
The game is helpful in communicating the existence of save points by utilizing that wonderful sound design I mentioned earlier. Save points have a distinct beeping noise that starts once you enter a room containing one. Just follow the beeps to your salvation, but don’t get too comfortable as the game hates you so much that you can even die just trying to access the save point if there’s an enemy nearby!
Still on the topic of death, let’s talk about that titular character, Mr. Alien. The main hook of the game is that once it’s shown up for the first time, the Alien is a constant, immortal threat to your life.
The game designers absolutely did their homework in designing this monster. After the first encounter, the Alien is almost always hiding in the air ducts, waiting for something to catch its attention. Of course, that means ‘anything’, including you and the other AI entities on the station. Sometimes it may make more sense to set off a pipe bomb in a room full of humans, just to let the alien rip them apart, than try to sneak through or take them on yourself. Though, the consequence is that the Alien is now on high-alert and must be avoided instead of the humans. Quite the gamble, eh?
Yet another sore spot in the game design is also brought out in the inherent nature of the Alien. The system running the Alien’s actions just doesn’t feel consistent throughout the game. Most of the time, only explosions, sprinting, or hitting something with your wrench will bring the Alien out. Other times it just jumps in and out of the ducts randomly and sniffs and stomps around aimlessly. It’s usually in those aimless wandering moments that the cheapest, most frustrating and confounding deaths occur.
There were so many times where the Alien was in the room with me (or dropped down right next to me, even while I was crouched to be quieter :/ ), leaving me with no option but to hide in a locker. But somehow, without me having made any noise, it rips the door off the locker and rapes my face. Over and over things like this would happen, and the only solution was to reload the last save and hope that the Alien just wouldn’t be in the same place. That’s basically the only strategy I found that worked consistently; just reload and cross your fingers. Eventually you come across a flame thrower, but that only manages to chase it off briefly, and, of course, ammo/fuel is scarce.
There are only two stretches of the main game that you are free from the Alien’s tyranny, and sadly, those are definitely my favorite parts of the game.
Another contributing factor to the endless death loop of this game is the map system. It works pretty well in terms of showing the location of save points, re-wire spots and locked doors, but it’s useless for finding a path to your objective. For one thing, it doesn’t number the floors, so you can see where your destination is, but there’s no way to tell if it’s actually on the same floor, or above/below the current level. That and it doesn’t show where open, active doors are – only the locked ones. So if you’re caught trying to hastily make an escape, there’s no way to plan a clear path.
Overall, Alien: Isolation has everything it needs to be a great interactive experience, except fun. I never had the feeling I was making any progress, and when I did think it was getting close to the end, it kept dragging on and on. There are numerous great twists in the story that fall right in line with the existing mythos of the Alien series, and they all go off without feeling too cliché or like retreads. There’s a completely original story in place here and it is definitely worth experiencing, but after playing through on normal and feeling completely worn out, it might be worth trying out on easy instead…
Also, the broken bits of game design are mostly outshined by the level of immersion. The use of sound and the feeling of being inside a real person in this world, take the game miles beyond mediocrity, but in the end, for me, the closest approximation is: Bioshock with Aliens, and no fun.
Alien: Isolation has all of the right parts and pieces to be a perfect recreation of the classic Alien film, but a few technical/quality issues, and an Alien that can be too random and frustrating, take away from the fun and immersion. As a horror game, it really does excel; the sound design is superb and the story and surroundings are totally worth the price of admission. As a whole, the game deserves to be experienced to feel the terror and desperation of being trapped in a space station with a killer monster on the loose, but be prepared to pull out your hair, and die a few hundred times…