It’s one of the more unlikely success stories of last year: Total War developers Creative Assembly, whose every previous attempt to branch out from the series that made their name has crashed and burned spectacularly1, make an Alien game that couldn’t be further away from Total War if they tried, in a genre they have no prior experience with, and with a very ambitious design brief that flouts most of the established rules of conventional first-person shooters. I think I could be forgiven for being somewhat skeptical of their ability to deliver on that brief prior to release, and yet a scant three months later Alien Isolation has ended up placing highly on nearly every single “Best Of 2014” list I’ve seen so far2; the sheer weight of critical acclaim resulted in it moving up to the top of my play list so that I could see what all the damn fuss was about.
I do enjoy putting the boot into the Creative Assembly on this blog, but on this one I’ll give them credit where it’s due: they might have been an odd fit for the Alien licence, but they’ve come through and produced a game that, while not exactly great, is at least pretty good for most of its length and which delivers on its survival-horror conceit in spades. Alien Isolation has you playing as Amanda Ripley, the engineer daughter of the movie series’ protagonist, who travels to Sevastopol station — a gargantuan installation orbiting a gas giant that’s in the middle of being decommissioned by its corporate owners — after hearing the news that the flight recorder from her missing mother’s ship has been located. Because this is both an Alien game and a survival horror game set in space, the station turns out to be a decrepit, poorly-lit industrial nightmare populated by homicidal androids, suspicious human survivors with itchy trigger fingers, and of course the titular Alien. Ripley’s goal changes several times throughout the course of the story, but you always know where it’s eventually going to end up: once trapped on Sevastopol, she has to escape by any means necessary.
Note that the “by any means necessary” isn’t just a rhetorical flourish. Although she does possess a curious familiarity with the few firearms she comes across, Ripley isn’t a soldier. She’s an engineer, and uses her problem-solving skills to craft all sorts of devious devices with which to distract and disable her foes. Not kill, though, since while the human enemies are as vulnerable as you’d expect to bullets, fire and explosions, androids are annoyingly resilient (hitting an android with a molotov cocktail merely ensures that you’ll take additional burn damage as it throttles you with flaming hands) and the Alien is flat-out unkillable. Ripley herself is also unusually frail for a first-person protagonist; the damage I took from firearms varied weirdly throughout the campaign, but I got into at least one firefight where my human opponent one-shot me from three-quarters health. Android attacks reduce your health bar by half if you’re unlucky enough to be caught by one. Direct combat is unwise both because of Ripley’s vulnerability, and because there’s always the possibility that the sound of combat will summon the unstoppable Alien to slaughter everyone involved. If it sees you it’ll sprint directly towards you, and if it catches you you’re dead.
Because shooting baddies is usually such a bad idea, subterfuge and evasion are instead the core themes of Alien Isolation’s gameplay. Enemies can only hurt you if they can see you, and they can’t see you if you’ve just lured them to another corridor with a flare or a noisemaker. Sevastopol is riddled with the FPS staple of man-sized vents for Ripley to crawl through, as well as desks to huddle under and lockers to hide inside. You’re constantly scavenging crafting components from the station to build a variety of IEDs such as smoke bombs, flashbangs and EMP grenades that can temporarily stun android opponents. By contrast ammo is relatively scarce, and I don’t think I picked up more than twenty shotgun shells in the entire game. The intent is that you’re supposed to hide in the shadows and avoid conflict where possible while achieving your goals. Alien Isolation is almost entirely designed around promoting this image of the game in the player’s head; it plays by different rules to the rest of its genre, and breaking them is supposed to result in a quick and bloody death.
That’s the sales brochure, anyway. Like the psychotic synthetics the Sevastopol’s corporate owners keep trying to flog to unwitting buyers, the reality is somewhat different. It’s true that you can’t run and gun in Alien Isolation — if nothing else, you really don’t have enough bullets to take out everything you encounter. However, the nature of Sevastopol’s environment is somewhat more flexible than Alien’s designers would like you to think. An astounding amount of effort is expended in an attempt to create an ever-present atmosphere of tension and dread that’ll keep the player on their toes, but Alien relies rather more heavily on scripted events and musical cues to do this than I had been lead to believe. When a game is trying this hard to convince me of something I immediately start trying to pull back the curtain to see what’s really going on, and once I did this the Alien Isolation “experience” came dangerously close to unraveling entirely.
Alien is less scripted than, say, Call of Duty. (Most things are, to be fair.) The Alien AI in particular is supposed to be dynamic; it won’t be around all the time, but when and where it appears is largely unpredictable and contributes greatly to Alien’s sense of tension since a lot of the time you’re trying to perform some complex task (i.e. a quicktime event) while hoping that the Alien doesn’t drop out of a vent next to you. The flexibility the various items give you in solving a particular problem is also a great boon to Alien, and the scarcity of some resources introduces more interesting decision-making than “Shoot robot in face” since you won’t have whatever you used to to do that for encounters further down the line. With respect to the behaviour of its enemies, however, that Alien Isolation is a game playing by a different set of rules unfortunately doesn’t obviate the fact that it is a game, and whatever rules it has are by necessity going to be rather gamey ones.
Again, let’s take the Alien as an example. Alien Isolation does an extremely clever thing by not introducing it in a gameplay context until about two or three hours into the game (hell, you only ever catch a glimpse of it in the whole first hour of the game). It slowly ratchets up the tension — you know there’s this monster on the station with you, you’re constantly given evidence of its presence, and the simple absence of it is scary in the beginning because you don’t know how it’ll behave when you eventually do run into it. This feeling of trepidation persists even after it has finally reared its absurdly-shaped head for the first time – at least for a little while. It’s still an unknown, and watching it stalk around the room from your cramped hiding place inside a locker is appropriately terrifying. It’s been built up in your head as such a threat that you project that threat on to it without logically thinking through its behaviour.
Sadly this lasts right up until the first time the Alien does something absurd — and because of its unpredictable AI it will do something absurd, like dropping down from a vent that was right next to me and then immediately scurrying back up the same vent shaft without even so much as a hello — at which point the illusion is broken and it becomes vulnerable to deconstruction, and what I figured after some testing was that the Alien was just a particularly tall and noisy version of your typical stealth game baddie. Like I said earlier, it can’t hurt you if it can’t see you, but it turns out that the Alien can’t see you unless you are directly in front of it. It has no peripheral vision at all. It is curiously short-sighted, not being able to see you if you’re crouched in half-light more than a few metres away. It can hear you if you walk, but if you crouch-walk you can happily follow just a few steps behind it as it prowls down a corridor — at least until it turns around. Its threat lies in the unpredictability of its appearance and its search pattern, and even these are neutered somewhat because the Alien is one of the noisiest monsters I’ve ever encountered in a game. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine how they could have made it less stealthy; its footsteps make a thumping noise that can be heard several rooms away, you can hear it banging away as it scurries through the vents overhead, and whenever it enters or exits a vent the resulting racket is akin to somebody throwing a cricket ball into a steel garbage can.
Presumably this has been done to cut down on frustrating bullshit deaths as the Alien seemingly pops up out of nowhere, but this is somewhat undone by yet another gamey thing the Alien does: in order to prevent it getting stuck at the other end of the level while you carry out your tasks unobstructed, it’s been tethered so that it will always appear close to your position. This is fair enough — god knows its pathetic enough that it could probably use the help — but this occasionally means that the Alien will outright teleport through walls as you run over an invisible line that snaps it to another portion of the level. I died more than once when I heard it come out of a vent behind me and walked forward through a door assuming it was safe only for it to magically already be in the room in front of me.
So the most prominently advertised feature of the game is suffering from a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes: it works as long as you believe in it, but as soon as you start poking at it you discover that there’s really not a huge amount there. That’s not to say that it doesn’t bring something to the levels where it features (it would be hard for an eight foot tall invulnerable monster to not be intimidating in some way) however I quickly learned to figure out where the Alien would appear by the number of lockers the level designers had sprinkled around. If there were no lockers I was safe to make as much noise as I wanted, gunning down androids and humans with wild abandon. If there were lockers3 — and moreover, if I could hear the almost omnipresent banging in the vents when the Alien is around — then I’d move more slowly and take care not to be caught in the open. Once the game hands you the flamethrower, though, that’s it for the Alien as a serious threat even in the levels where you know it is present. A few quick blasts of flame will drive it back into the vents, so even if you get caught by it you’ve effectively got a reset button. What presence it has vanishes almost entirely at that point and it becomes no more than an annoyingly oversized bug you occasionally have to spray with your Alien-B-Gone.
Of course, Alien Isolation does try its hardest to prevent you from realising that its antagonist doesn’t really have any teeth. Human enemies are relatively rare, but I found the androids to be appropriately creepy and tough enough that I thought twice about tangling with them head on — for me, the scariest moment in the game didn’t involve the Alien, but was instead the first time an android caught me messing with one of the rewire points scattered around. It snuck up quietly, grabbed me out of the interface and threw me back against the wall. I unthinkingly responded by shooting it twice in the head with my revolver, but this only rocked it back on its heels slightly — and then it came right back at me and strangled me to death, since I was cornered with nowhere else to go. That was an effective enemy, and while single androids are less of a threat the more tooled-up you get, fighting one will invariably attract two or three more to investigate the commotion. The androids are used as a supplement to prevent you from getting too used to the Alien and they do the job well despite also being stock stealth game baddies; their behaviour being predictable and robotic is at least natural for them.
The game also distracts you with all manner of scripted events and cutscenes, and these are more effective than they normally would be thanks to Alien Isolation’s outstanding sound and visual design. The visual design in particular is absolutely incredible; the look and feel of Sevastopol station has been patterned after the Nostromo from the first Alien movie with plenty of anachronistic 1970s era sci-fi tech, and it really does add a hell of a lot to the game if you’ve ever seen that film. Many of the weapons and devices Ripley uses are bodged-together tech lifted straight from the film, and even little details like the creepy iris-like vent covers have been brought across into the game to great effect. It helps that the general quality of the graphics is completely ridiculous; occasionally you get to go outside the station to do something in an EVA, and I’ll admit to spending whole minutes staring at the jaw-droppingly pretty gas giant that Sevastopol orbits. The writing and plot isn’t stellar, but the characterisation of both Ripley and the people she talks to throughout the game is actually pretty good, to the point where you start to care about these voices on the other end of the radio link before they inevitably start to cark it. And finally I think the general structure of the game is very solid; it’s very good at interspersing levels that are relatively calm with levels where it makes you trudge through awful places you don’t want to be (but really you do because this is an Alien game and you wouldn’t be playing it otherwise). I think the people who say it could probably stand to be a bit shorter do have a point, but I’m not sure what you’d cut since you’d unbalance that structure.
On the whole there’s really quite a lot to like about Alien Isolation. It’s a shame that its stealthy facade crumbled so easily, since while it maintained it it really was looking like Game of the Year material. In terms of visuals it still is, I think; it’s certainly the best-looking game I didn’t play in 2014 and I’d happily have played it even if it didn’t have an Alien in it just so that I could go around Sevastopol looking at stuff. I also think that the CA’s handling of the development was a blessing in disguise; they’re not an FPS developer, and they made a game that’s decidedly not an FPS even if it did end up being rather more runny-shooty than they probably intended. However, while I do feel kind of like the asshole at the back of the cinema who can’t suspend their disbelief and who starts pointing out all the factual inaccuracies in the film, I could not take the Alien seriously as a threat and I had little patience for the predictable stealth mechanics and level design. That part of Alien Isolation is a little too artificial — a little too gamey — for me to really get on with.
- Does anyone remember Spartan: Total Warrior? Viking: Battle for Asgard? Or *shudder* Stormrise? If you don’t, rest assured you really weren’t missing anything. ↩
- Even if you discount PC Gamer giving it their Game Of The Year award, since PC Gamer is pathologically incapable of giving AAA PC-centric developers a bad review. ↩
- While useful as a general Alien barometer actually using the lockers to hide in is something of a mistake, since you’re immobile, backed into a corner and can’t see a goddamn thing while you’re in there. The Alien’s vision is so terrible that playing line-of-sight games with it is far more effective, and since it apparently begins to look in lockers if you hide in them a lot (although I never saw it do this) it may ultimately end up being rather hazardous to your health. ↩