STAFF REVIEW of Alien: Isolation (Xbox One)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014.
by Khari Taylor

Alien: Isolation Box art Before getting started, let's first address the 1000-pound gorilla in the room: Yes, Alien: Isolation is easily a much better game than Aliens: Colonial Marines, so if that is your only barrier to purchasing, you can stop reading here and get yourself to your nearest game store to snap this game up. Of course, the above criteria likely applies to over 80 percent of all videogames ever made, so if you are interested in how Alien Isolation measures up as an "Alien" game as well as a game overall, keep reading.

Taking place 15 years after the events of the original Alien film, Alien: Isolation puts players in the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of the film's protagonist, Ellen Ripley. Hoping to uncover the answers behind her mother's disappearance, Amanda journeys as part of a five-member Weyland-Yutani crew to Sevastopol Space Station, where the flight recorder of Ellen's long lost ship, the Nostromo, has been transported after having been recovered by another passing ship in the area. What should be a simple retrieval mission for her mother's former employer as well as much-needed closure for Amanda turns into a nightmare when a freak boarding accident separates Amanda from her team and strands her onboard the now-derelict station, which has fallen into disrepair while lawlessness, chaos, and a hungry, full-sized Xenomorph Alien run rampant among the surviving inhabitants. Now Amanda's sole mission is simply to survive and get off the station by any means necessary.

On paper it’s the perfect spin-off plot for an Alien pre-sequel, and Sega's Creative Assembly has done an admirable job of weaving the concept into a functional survival horror game, at a rudimentary level at least. In keeping with the tone of the horror film genre and survival-horror game originators Resident Evil and Silent Hill, (Amanda) Ripley is not an overpowered, armed-to-the-teeth ass-kicker. Instead, she has normal human frailties and must use stealth, her wits, and her valuable skills as an engineer to survive. Thus players will be spending a good deal of time crouching and sneaking about as Ripley, sticking to cover and salvaging any materials or items and they can find in order to craft improvised medicines, weapons (e.g. pipe bombs) or tools of distraction (e.g. noise-makers, flashbangs). This doesn't mean that Ripley can't fight or wield a gun; Alien: Isolation is also part- first-person shooter and players will occasionally need to line up a headshot or ratchet-melee an attacker into submission, but every action that Ripley takes costs time and can leave her vulnerable.

For example, there's no auto reload action when Ripley empties her revolver; players must manually hold the reload-button down and watch the animation as she loads the bullets one-by-one. No regenerating health or guaranteed knockout blows either; restoring Ripley's health means stopping so she can inject herself with medicine, and attacks with her wrench can be blocked and countered, so players have to time their blows so that they cannot be anticipated (e.g. from behind or as a follow-up to a much stronger attack, such as a gunshot). On top of these risks, all of these actions make noise and can attract even greater threats, such as additional enemies or the Alien itself, making any protracted fights tantamount to suicide. Thus in almost all situations, retreating from dangerous encounters and slipping by your enemies unseen is the most effective way to survive.

Hiding and taking cheap pot-shots are the only options however; Ripley can also use her engineering know-how to make the environment work for her and against her foes. Rewire boxes allow Ripley to reallocate power to or from chosen utilities, such as alarm systems, public announcement systems, air purifiers, and door access switches, which can be used to clear a path by drawing enemies to certain areas, conceal Ripley's movement, or grant access to previously inaccessible rooms. She can also gain entry to restricted areas by hacking their terminals, or build tools to break into them by force. But before Ripley can build any tool or weapon, she must first find its blueprint, and in the case of consumable items like medkits, smoke bombs and the like, Ripley must also find and collect enough materials to craft them. This means that players must not only concern themselves with Ripley's survival but also search for required blueprints and materials whenever it is safe to do so. Thankfully, the location of blueprints as well as materials appear to randomize location as the story progresses, so as long as players make the effort to search when they can, they are eventually bound to come across all the important blueprints without having to backtrack to earlier levels (which would make very little sense in the context of the story).

That said, things quickly get turned upside-down once the Alien begins making regular appearances. Unlike the humans and humanoids that Ripley will encounter in the game, the Xenomorph cannot be killed or outrun, so the player's only hope of survival against the Alien is concealment. Ironically however, it turns out that the best way to hide from the Alien is often right under its nose (while taking cover under or behind something of course, like a table or large computer console). While doing so is risky, Ripley has far more mobility and can easily access to her diversionary bag of tricks in the open, all while keeping a constant eye on the Alien’s position. In a tight spot, players can also hide in one of Sevastopol Station's numerous lockers or storage containers to wait the Alien out, but the chance of the Alien failing to uncover them is a 60/40 proposition at best, so it’s often wiser to just keep moving. And while Ripley can also use ventilation systems to avoid enemies and find alternative routes to her objective, the Alien has its own network of vents that it can use, meaning it can show up at any time, almost anywhere.

But while Alien: Isolation is clearly a good game that all but nails the necessary tone and atmosphere, there are many problems that prevent it from being a great game. Surprisingly, one of the most frustrating ones is an unfortunate side effect of Creative Assembly's retro-inspired art design, which admirably attempts to replicate and re-envision the look of the 1971 film to a detrimental fault. While the franchise’s signature motion tracker, in-game maps, rewire boxes and several other devices capture the aesthetics of Alien to a T, the information they convey is often obtuse and hard to understand, and it becomes very easy for players to get lost, not only in some of the similar-looking environments but also on the map itself, which is often adorned with symbols that players need to decipher more than once on a legend before they can actually tell what they are looking at. Similarly, Rewire boxes do not show the player's position on their map interface, so using them effectively often requires players to jump back out of the Rewire UI, check the in-game map to find themselves, then re-interface with the Rewire box to figure out where they are in relation to the systems they want to affect, which costs players valuable time (during which the Alien may be hunting them).

Stingy on-screen button prompts make it incredibly easy for a player to miss a crucial interactive object (like a floor vent entrance) if he or she is not looking directly at it, which can result in the player wandering around aimlessly for several minutes not knowing where to go or how to advance. The occasional suggestive thought from Ripley to herself could easily put the player back on the right track when he or she has made no progress for an extended period of time, but sadly there's no such assistance.

Beyond these UI issues, there are inconsistent game behaviors as well. Sometimes an activated speaker system will make noise as expected and draw an enemy’s attention. Sometimes nothing will happen at all. Shutting down an air purifier will usually bathe the affected area with dirty, cloudy smoke. But now and again, it won't, and a well-planned distraction will fail. And more often than not, because of the strict first-person immersion of the game, players will interact with a button or device but have no idea exactly what they did, because they simply weren't looking in the right direction or weren't given a visual or audio cue to clarify what happened.

Finally, encounters with the Xenomorph soon wear out their welcome with repetition, as the creature will often show up, then exit only to reappear moments later, prolonging uncomfortable encounters indefinitely until the Alien both discovers and kills Ripley or the player manages to reach a scripted point in the game where the Alien will not follow. Throw in manual save-points that are too few and far between and a lack of an auto-checkpoint system, and you have an experience where players can expect to die and replay long sections of the game often, or even put off necessary exploration of the game because they simply want to get to the next save point and move on.

Alien Isolation can be a stressful experience, but this reviewer still recommends that players give Alien: Isolation a try, especially if you're a fan of the Alien franchise of films or have more than just a passing interest its spin-off games. Gamers have been long deserving of an Alien game that does the name justice, and despite its flaws this is the closest a modern videogame has come in a long time, especially from a visual and audio standpoint.

Just pack a good deal of patience, take the time to explore and save your game at every opportunity, and you’re likely to find the going a bit easier. But before buying, give it a rent or watch a bit of a livestream first to decide if it’s the right game for you.

1) Simpler, easier to interpret UI, clearer visual cues to help players understand what is happening, and better audio clues to provide helpful hints when players are stuck.

2) Encounters with the Alien are too frequent, diminishing their impact and making them more of a chore. Less is more.

3) Implement auto-checkpoints or make save points more accessible to cut down on the amount of replaying that players have to endure after dying.

Overall: 7.6 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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