Alien: Isolation

EXPERT YET EXCESSIVE TERROR

Another AAA movie franchise has recently released a title that has turned heads. Alien: Isolation plays heavily on the ideas, aesthetic, and even some of the story of the classic ‘79 film that inspired waves of successors and slapped new life into the monster movie.

In this, you play Ripley, but rather than Ellen, you play her daughter Amanda. She investigates a space station that claims to have recovered the black box of Ellen Ripley’s fateful voyage, and is determined to figure out what happened to her mother. This plot is quickly derailed when, of course, the station has gone dark, and investigating on foot leads to Amanda’s new priority: get the hell out of dodge.

The game gives the player weapons and gadgets, but in spare supply, and the enemies are dangerous and numerous. Amanda, while creative, is no space marine. Stealth is the primary mechanic, and the layouts encourage it by means of ventilation shafts and low tables. The game also gives Amanda the series’ trademark motion tracker, which, although meant to hunt down enemies, is proven to be useful for both avoiding them and reminding the player of the proximity of their impending doom.

The game provides three different groups of enemies: Humans are observant, armed, and numerous, but are disorganized, easily distracted, and all too vulnerable to the other dangers on the station. The “Working Joe” androids, whose rumpled, plastic skin and burning red eyes are made only creepier by their calm admonitions and concerned questions, are highly observant but extremely predictable, and can only attack at melee. Last, and most importantly, is the Alien, the one and only aboard the station, who is unobservant, easily distracted, and fickle. It is also blindingly fast, instantly lethal, completely invulnerable, and perhaps the most devastating trait for any enemy in a stealth game: tirelessly tenacious.

The Alien is undoubtedly the selling point of the game, and it deserves every inch of its hype. The creature is huge, and being spotted by it is as good as any death sentence. The death scenes ignore petty gore in favor of a tightly first-person display of powerlessness and primal fear. Few games have ever discouraged death so easily. The creature is also highly randomized and unscripted, so its actions are very hard to predict. Occasionally, this means that it will randomly trap you in a corner before you can find cover, which is frustrating, but often the layout of the levels stops this issue and the unpredictability of the beast only adds to its fear factor.

Serious credit needs to be given to the artists and animators of the game, as well. Not only do the electronics and design of the station help evoke the late ‘70s sci-fi of the film, but the Alien is exceptionally well designed. Its leggy form and graceful, horribly alive movement help capture the alluring squick of Geiger’s original design.

Ultimately, I have one big criticism of Isolation, and it’s a strange one: It’s too long. The game drags on and on forever, and Ripley’s journey is entirely one of two steps forward, one step back. The game is brilliant in what it does, but after a while, outmaneuvering the Alien on a space station becomes repetitive, and when the game does end, my sigh of relief should be for the stressful affair being over, not for finally escaping doing the same thing over and over again.

pwasted@synthesis.net