Alien: Isolation —Clunky, but Visceral

Ah Halloween, that season of horror.The two standout releases for the season of horror are <em>Resident Evil</em> creator Shinji Mikami&rsquo;s latest work, <em>The Evil Within</em>, and the subject of today&rsquo;s column, <em>Alien: Isolation</em>.

<em>Alien: Isolation</em> is a direct sequel to the original film, placing you in the control of Ellen &ldquo;Space Badass&rdquo; Ripley&rsquo;s daughter searching for the truth about her mother&rsquo;s disappearance, but of course, some alien-related horror makes that mission difficult.

The previous game in the <em>Alien</em> legacy, <em>Aliens: Colonial Marines</em>, was a critical disaster, a soulless shooter where aliens are simply buggy cannon fodder rather than a legitimate threat.

Here, there is just one alien. Your hodge podge of improvised and found weapons are rarely ever effective. And as the bad guy from <em>Ocean&rsquo;s Eleven</em> would say, there&rsquo;s only one piece of advice you can take: run and hide. Because if it catches you, well, it&rsquo;s game over, man.

The alien has real presence. You can hear its pounding footsteps as it stomps through the levels or hear its shuffling around the vents. Your greatest tool is the motion tracker that senses how close it is coming. Much has been made of the alien&rsquo;s AI, and it certainly feels like a lifeform rather than a set of preprogrammed paths. It doubles back, it returns to places it finds suspicious, it&rsquo;ll just do things that seem random sometimes, and it seems to get mad or more tenacious as it keeps missing you.

There&rsquo;s a lot of <em>Bioshock</em> in this game, borrowing a similar structure and atmosphere. The atmosphere is oppressive, especially due to the great sound design. The ship itself sounds like a monster, and the eerie music as the alien approaches really gets you running for a place to hide.

Still, as much as I like <em>Bioshock</em>, I&rsquo;m not sure the stealth gameplay of <em>Alien</em> works with the same structure as a shooter. It ties into my major problem with <em>Alien: Isolation</em>: the game tends to get in the way of its own strengths.

Because it&rsquo;s so easy to die, the fact that there are no checkpoints or auto-saves means frustration can often be the emotion that overrides the horror. That said, once you understand the game&rsquo;s reliance on manual save stations throughout the game, it&rsquo;s something that can be worked around. But it&rsquo;s a shame, the constant death and replaying actually destroys some of the pacing and atmosphere the game tries to create.

Gameplay progression can be incredibly nonsensical. A door is only unlocked by activating some robot unprompted. Somehow hacking a power system changes your checkpoint to a different location. Plot necessary items can be too hard to see in the dark, and the game doesn&rsquo;t do enough to make them easier to find.

The game actually tries to rely on gaming tropes too much. If something like <em>Slender</em> or <em>Five Nights at Freddy&rsquo;s</em> complicated too much of their gameplay, it wouldn&rsquo;t have been as good of a horror experience. To be honest, any horror built up by the atmosphere and the alien was often muted by frustration of the clumsiness of the gameplay around it. Something&rsquo;s wrong when I sigh when the alien kills me rather than get scared by it.

It should have had more focus on the alien rather than diversions from that great core. While the alien is a great horror gameplay element, <em>Isolation</em> tries to introduce other enemies, such as other humans fighting for survival, and a bunch of malfunctioning knock-off androids that just don&rsquo;t work as well. The plot is barebones and can&rsquo;t really hold up more than some additional fan service for <em>Alien</em> fans without that alien running around. A spoilery warning: the alien is actually absent from much of the last third of the game, and at that point, it&rsquo;s a hard sell to continue playing.

Luckily, <em>Alien: Isolation</em> has a survival mode that allows you to engage in the simple you vs. alien gameplay that it nails so well. And I&rsquo;m inclined to be forgiving to developer Creative Assembly, whose prior experience was in the <em>Total War</em> strategy games, not atmospheric stealth. I&rsquo;ve seen far worse attempts from veteran horror developers.

It&rsquo;s a bit clunky and misguided, but that core gameplay with the alien still makes this an experience worth being a part of. Just make sure you have a walkthrough with you so you can get around the nonsense progression. It&rsquo;s encouraging to see developers relying on the exact opposite of running and gunning to sell their game.


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