Best of 2014: Alien Isolation
I learned very quickly that there’s nowhere to hide in Alien: Isolation and there are so many ways to get yourself killed. If you run too fast, you’re dead. If the Alien sees you, you’re dead. Oh, you fired a gun at the enemy android? Guess what? The Alien heard that, you’re dead. You’re in the middle of saving? The Alien says “hello.” You stayed in the locker too long; silly human, you’re dead. Nothing inspires fear quicker than paranoia around the most mundane actions. Now, wrap this moment-to-moment gameplay around a strategic crafting system and an incredible atmosphere. The result is, in my mind, the best designed game of the year.
To call Alien: Isolation the best Alien game ever made wouldn’t be saying much. Video games haven’t been kind to the four-movie franchise (five if you count Prometheus). Most of us are still recovering from last year’s painfully broken Aliens: Colonial Marines. Alien: Isolation strives to emulate the horror atmosphere of the first movie.
This game takes place 15 years after the first film. The player controls Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter who’s briefly mentioned in Aliens. Ellen Ripley has been missing for 15 years. Amanda learns from a co-worker that the black box of the Nostromo has been recovered. She sets out to Sevastopol Station with a small team to investigate. The situation quickly becomes complicated and Ripley learns that an Alien creature is terrorizing the station’s inhabitants.
I wouldn’t call the story in this game anything special. The characters are mostly forgettable and Ripley interesting character traits don’t extend past her vulnerability. What makes the story work is that it serves to set up the gameplay. The narrative never gets in the way of the gameplay and this was the right choice by developer Creative Assembly.
Few games begin as confidently as Alien: Isolation. For starters, there are no signs of the Alien until 45 minutes in. You don’t actually see the Alien until the two hour mark. The first proper gameplay encounter with our xenomorph-friend is several chapters in. It’d be wrong to call this a slow start. On the contrary, this game makes the most out of every second in those first two hours. It takes the time to build up the world and introduce the mechanics. If you count this as a tutorial, it’s one of the best ever.
Alien: Isolation has everything you could want in a horror game. The retro aesthetic of the first film has been lovingly recreated. The atmosphere and attention to detail is phenomenal. Last year I talked about what makes a good horror game and named three key elements: atmosphere, isolation and vulnerability. This game absolutely nails all three elements. Not since BioShock has a video-game environment felt so alive or bursting with clues. The Sevastopol isn’t just a setting, it’s practically a character. It’s falling apart when Amanda Ripley arrives and the situation gets worse as the game goes on.
Ripley spends most of the game on her own. There’s always an objective guiding her in a general direction and something always goes wrong. It’s not just the Alien she has to deal with either. There are plenty of paranoid survivors and deadly androids to contend with. Not everyone on the station is trying to kill Ripley but no one is going to save her. It’s up to the player to use their wits, skills and tools to overcome each obstacle. There’s no hand-holding and often the game throws a curveball at you.
What makes Alien: Isolation special is how powerful Ripley’s enemies are. Humans are the weakest enemies in the game but mostly travel in groups. Androids are incredibly tough, taking multiple shots to the head before going down. Keep in mind that firing a shot is the quickest way to attract enemies. The Alien can’t be killed and if it sees you, it’ll rush you immediately. There are ways to fend it off but this only make it retreat briefly; you can bet it’ll be coming back.
At times, the gameplay in Alien: Isolation feels similar to Outlast, at least when the Alien’s around. It’ll stalk around the area, moving from room to room. You’ll stay glued to the motion tracker, watching the Alien’s every move. There are key differences between the two games however. If you hide in a locker in Outlast, as long as no one sees you, you’re safe. If you hide in a locker in Alien: Isolation you better not stay there for too long. The Alien checks all the hiding spots and there’s no pattern to its behaviour. It’s a completely unpredictable creature who has a habit of showing up at the worst possible moment.
You have to play by the Alien’s rules. If it walks into the room you’re in, hide and don’t move. If it goes left instead of right, adapt. There are ways to distract the Alien; noisemakers are worth their weight in gold. If you’re clever, you can use the Alien to take care of pesky humans in an area; just make sure it doesn’t find you. The mechanics of the game are built around these encounters.
Sometimes it’s just you and the Alien and this is where Alien: Isolation shines. The encounters with the Alien are better early on, when you have fewer items. Even with plenty of noisemakers, molotovs and a flamethrower the Alien is just as deadly.
Scattered across Sevastopol Station are several components which can be used to craft items. You can only carry a limited amount of components and a specific amount of each item. This system fleshes out the gameplay by adding short-term goals.
The crafting system in this game adds a perfect element of risk versus reward.You’ll run into situations where the exit to an area will be closer to the nearest unexplored room. So you’ll ask yourself “do I risk entering that room with an Alien walking around?” It keeps the immersion going which in turn, makes the game scarier. It brings to mind the gameplay The Last of Us but Alien: Isolation avoids one huge flaw in that game.
Towards to the end of The Last of Us, the challenge goes right out the window. I talked about it last year but the gist of it is that by the end of the game, the player is packing with weapons and ammo. Alien: Isolation doesn’t completely avoid this issue but it deals with it in a simple way. The items and weapons will only get you so far. A smoke bomb is helpful against humans but just try using it against the Alien. You can’t simply pull out a pistol and shoot your way out of a corner without any consequences.
I find myself coming back to the word “consequences.” Just about every decision in this game has the potential to turn against the player. The simple act of running can get you killed almost instantly. You never feel safe and that’s rare achievement for any game. Even when you have resources you still have to decide how to use them. The flamethrower is effective but can you risk burning through your ammo? Is it worth using my last noisemaker to get past the Alien?
Alien: Isolation is an outstanding achievement in game design. Every single moment is filled with tension and few games can put you on the edge of your seat like this one. From a game design perspective, it’s my choice for game of the year. However there was one game that delivered a better experience than this one.