The once mysterious Xenomorph which first appeared in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic ‘Alien’ has been on more consoles and appeared in more game genres than there have been movies about it. Yet despite the surprising occurrence with which the Alien universe has been tapped into in the video game medium, there has been little to celebrate in the Xenomorph’s translation from film to game. With ‘Alien: Isolation’, the team behind The Creative Assembly chose to focus on the movie that first evoked fear of the Xenomorph. With an almost slavish dedication, the developers at CA have essentially recreated the world of ‘Alien’ as originally envisioned by Ridley Scott and H.R Giger.
The translation of key elements from the 1979 film into a first person video game means a few things for ‘Alien: Isolation’. In terms of look, the lo-fi vision of the 2100s, as perceived from the tail end of the 1970s, means lots of chunky gadgets and flickering CRT screens replete with beeps and whistles for you to play with while the focus on one single alien stalking you throughout a lone, floating space ship makes up the majority of the gameplay experience. The insistence on translating the most memorable aspects of ‘Alien’ and, to a smaller extent, the 1986 sequel ‘Aliens’ also means that the story of ‘Isolation’ runs through the same beats of the first two films.
Players will control protagonist Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, the badass who fought, died and was resurrected to keep on fighting throughout four Alien movies. ‘Isolation’ takes place 15 years after the events of ‘Alien’ and Amanda Ripley is made aware of the discovery of the Nostromo’s (Ellen’s ship from the first film) black box recording having turned up on a decommissioned space station named The Sevastopol. Accompanied by Weyland-Yutani executives, Samuels and Taylor, the trio make their way to a station that is in the middle of a weeks long campaign of terror and murder instigated by, you guessed it, the Xenomorph.
If the previous paragraph meant very little to you then rest assured that the game does a good job of easing you into the story and making you aware of the state of the universe in which the story takes place in. In this way, newcomers to the ‘Alien’ franchise may find the opening hours more enjoyable as they unravel the mystery behind Sevastopol and how the Alien came to be there. Meanwhile, Alien veterans will see plot points coming miles away as ‘Isolation’ ends up becoming mostly a retelling of the 1979 film. However, those familiar with the movies will ultimately find so much more to appreciate in ‘Isolation’. The game is packed with so many visual references to the film that playing through ‘Isolation’ makes you feel as if you really are inhabiting the world that Ridley Scott created. ‘Isolation’ is the most accurate film-to-game translation that I have ever played, and it goes such a long way in making the environments you traverse feel believable. This believability is also vital in making you feel real danger once the Xenomorph is finally introduced.
‘Isolation’ takes its time settling you into its world and story and once you finally do meet the Xenomorph for the first time, the story still manages to keep the same languish pace. This game is slow and long but tense throughout. In fact I hesitate to even call this a horror game and this may have to do with the fact that thirty five years of having the Xenomorph as a prevalent piece of pop culture has dulled its potency as a symbol of terror. Instead the game succeeds at generating tension and maintaining that tension for excruciatingly long periods of time. There were moments where I had to put the game away for a while more because I needed a release of that tension rather than because of the length of time that I had been playing. The Xenomorph only appears for just under four minutes in the original film while here in this game you are forced to traverse an entire space station with the Alien stalking you for at least a dozen hours.
That being said, ‘Isolation’ does change the formula throughout the game. The Alien isn’t the only threat aboard the Sevastopol as bands of untrusting and paranoid human survivors inhabit the station as well. In addition to the humans are the working Joes, androids based on the designs of Seegson Synthetics, a company that operates in the shadow of THE company, Weyland-Yutani. The working Joes are meant to be easily discernible from humans with their white, plastic skin which hangs loosely around their necks just under their glowing, mechanical eyes. The Joes are disconcerting to look at, even more so when they are casually walking the corridors while on fire as they try to choke the life out of you. They’re like a more sedate and polite version of the Terminator.
To aid you in your travels throughout Sevastopol are a handful of tools which unlock previously inaccessible doors (Metroid style) in areas already explored. The station is connected by a series of tram terminals which recall ‘Dead Space’ which was itself heavily influenced by the ‘Alien’ film. Amanda is an engineer and so it falls to her to repair and restore the many failing systems of a station that is well on its way to being dismantled due to its recent decommissioning. In this way Amanda Ripley and Issac Clarke have a lot in common. However, the similarities end in their approach to dealing with enemies. Hiding and evasion are your primary tools when encountering enemies. You don’t really ‘deal’ with the humans and androids and especially not the Alien; avoidance is the primary goal. You are given a handful of weapons but discharging a revolver or a shotgun to kill one human or android will swiftly bring the wrath of the Xenomorph down on you if he is in the area. About a third of the way through the game you are given a flamethrower à la Dallas in ‘Alien’ and this weapon does a lot to alleviate the tension for as long as you have fuel remaining in the tank. Should you be caught crawling from one hiding spot to another then a hot blast from the flame thrower will deter the Alien for a few seconds sending it hiding in a nearby vent. Its use simultaneously brings comfort at having dodged death as well as dread as you take stock of your remaining fuel. In addition to this is a light crafting system where you can build noise emitting distractions or explosives out of found parts and scrap.
The Creative Assembly have talked up its Alien A.I a lot in the run up to release and they have mostly delivered on their promise of creating an unpredictable killing machine. There will be long stretches of time spent cowering in lockers and cabinets or under and behind many pieces of Sevastopol’s geography. The unpredictable nature of the Alien means that he can patrol the area just outside of your hiding spot for a length of time long enough to turn tension into boredom. The game also records progress based on manual save points in the game world. Reaching a save point is one of the few, precious ways that ‘Isolation’ allows you to relieve the tension it builds up but it also becomes uncommon to lose a fair amount of progress made in the game. Nothing kills horror and atmosphere more than having to redo the same section of rooms and corridors for the umpteenth time.
‘Alien: Isolation’ is the first game truly worthy of the license. Playing through it is living in the world of the 1979 film. The look and sound of Ridley Scott’s classic has been recreated with such an astounding level of detail that were it not for the perfect killing machine hunting me throughout Sevastopol I would have loved to explore every corner of it. Instead I spent most of my time apprehensively crawling through vents or hiding in lockers while I studied my motion tracker. Every inch of ground you cover under the Xenomorph’s prowling gaze is a victory and that sense of being relentlessly hunted and hopelessly underpowered is what the Alien franchise used to be about. Looking past its problems with pacing and length and the inherent frustration that comes with having to die and replay sections of the game, ‘Alien: Isolation’ makes you feel hunted, and in a game based on the iconic Alien, that makes it a great success.