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SummaryA 2020 Review - Alien: Isolation (PC, 2014)
The Good- Scarier than I expected. Panic-inducing experience, as designed. - Completely engrossing experience thanks to the top-notch audio and visual quality. - Alien AI is something to behold. Something other developers should aspire to accomplish. - Great map design and setting. The rough state of things on the Sevastopol station really add to the effectiveness of the game's darker, more dreadful tones.
The Bad- Boilerplate story that does its best to imitate its original source rather than set itself apart more meaningfully. Doesn't hold together the weaker points of gameplay, but sags down with them. - Second half of the game becomes incredibly tiring and tedious when managing your alien woes mixed with having to frequently backtrack the map in order to accomplish new goals. The alien never lets up and the game feels like it will never end. - The feeling of powerlessness and stress become exhausting. The trial-and-error quality to survival leaves me feeling like I've wasted a lot of time and that I can't win. (What can I say? I'm a mentally weak man.) - No replayability. 100% glad I played it, but have no interest in ever playing it again.
The Bottom LineAlien: Isolation is a death-by-alien simulator masquerading as a first-person survival horror game. Dripping with late-1970s tech-ambiance, Creative Assembly has produced a rather safe narrative that closely follows the original Alien's tale of Ellen Ripley. Not falling far from the tree, the protagonist you play is none other than Amanda Ripley - Ellen Ripley's daughter. In what must feel like the family curse, Amanda is stricken with a far-too-similar fate being stuck on a space station trying to survive against aliens. If you aren't a fan of the series or haven't seen any of the movies - don't sweat it. Just bring an extra pair of underwear and dive into this insanely atmospheric and engrossing experience.
Tags: A few words or tags that come to mind are: atmospheric, stressful, powerless, tedious.
Avg. Time to beat: ~20 hours Quickest Speedrun: ~2.5 hours (even on nightmare difficulty)
2020 Retail Price: $40 Lowest Historical Price on Steam: $10 Lowest Historical Price outside Steam: $7.50
Quick Take: Alien: Isolated is not fun. It is not an enjoyable experience by traditional standards, but it is a horrifically beautiful and a completely immersive one. Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton said it better than anyone else, "While many a video game has been designed for people who enjoy killing aliens, Alien: Isolation can only have been created for people who derive some perverse pleasure out of being killed by an alien." This game in its purest form is an engrossing simulation of how it would feel to try your odds against the alien xenomorphs in a bout of survival. Your odds are very slim. Between the sound engineering and the visual design, the two complement each other like two peas in a pod or...two facehuggers in an egg-sack, if you prefer. Together the two bring about an utter sense of dread, panic, and stress. You can hear the alien scampering through the ventilation; you can see its slimy drool ooze down in wait. You can hear the rich pops and sizzles of the CRT screens and analog devices used throughout the game. From opening production credits to end-game credits, it's a technical marvel...but is it an entertaining one? Well, that's where things get complicated... That's where I begin to feel the ol' quote "I want to get off Mr. Bones Wild Ride" becomes relevant again. At 16 hours in, I decided that's all the thrill I'll be getting out of that ride. Are you ever 100% glad you did or tried something, but wouldn't ever do it again? I appreciate Alien: Isolation for having done so much, so right - but I can't say I enjoyed or had fun playing it. It's stressful. I'm a huge horror film buff, yet this is a much longer and interactive experience - one that did not give me that "just 5 more minutes" feeling. It was more of a "where the hell's the savegame telephone at?"
Concept: Aliens (the movie) themed survival horror game. You're Ellen Ripley's unlucky daughter, Amanda - who also finds herself face to face with the same alien species that cost her mother's life. In a fight for survival, will you lead Amanda to her victory or just die 1,000 times trying? Yes. The answer is, yes.
Graphics: Impressive. Certainly so by 2014's standards but even for 2020 standards, this offers a high bar to pass. Compliments the audio design incredibly - both pairing together to reel you into the space-station, Sevastopol, along with all its horrors. For users looking to play at minimum or low specs, the game surprisingly doesn't look terrible when adjusted down. It holds up well enough, however, my advice would be to hold off until you can play at top specs. A huge amount of the value comes from the visual and audio. Unless you're easily entertained by horror games, I'd wait until you can get the full experience. It's worth it.
Sound: The sound design is killer. It breathes life into nothingness and fills the space with dread. From the menu screen, it is apparent that the audio will set the tone through much of the game. Hearing the alien bang around the ship or scamper about in the ventilation is disturbing when you've been hiding in a locker for ten minutes contemplating what actions led you to this awful place.
Gameplay: In one word - stealth. You will be crouching, hiding under desks, leaning, hiding in lockers, tip-toeing, and generally avoiding anything that moves or makes a sound. This will be much of your gameplay experience for a large portion of the game. Lots of tools and consumables/throwables to aid you in your fight. These won't be useful in killing an alien but should help separate you from the Alien a bit more easily. Unless you've memorized the maps and are an experienced speed-runner - you'll need to take the slow and steady approach. Kicking-down-the-door style of gameplay will get you killed. Although, hiding will mostly do the same. Perhaps my one word for gameplay should have been - dying.
Entertainment: Did you like the movies Source Code or Edge of Tomorrow? Then you'll enjoy experiencing it first-hand in an interactive simulator game, only with Aliens and Facehuggers. I found Alien: Isolation to be akin to a thrill-ride. A lot of fun in short bursts, but it is not something most people would enjoy for long stretches. I could only take so much stress and tension before growing tired of it and wanting to move on. "I want to get off Mr. Bones Wild Ride." comes to mind.
Replayability: How enjoyable is revisiting the same haunted house over and over again? Sure, the actors will always do things a little differently but it's always the same song and dance in the end. For me, it does not have replay value. It doesn't much affect my purchasing-interest if a game isn't replayable, so I'm cool with it. Maybe you are too.
Cheats??: None natively. There are existing trainers that can be downloaded and run alongside the game. I didn't find them to be useful or fun and led to achievements halting early on in my play-through. Use at your risk.
---Full Review Below---
Alien: Isolation is an immersive, first-person survival horror game set in the universe of the popular 1979 movie series, Alien. It provides a linear, puzzle-like progression with sci-fi and horror elements that are reminiscent of the 1999 PC game, Half-Life. You play as Amanda Ripley - Ellen Ripley's daughter. Hunting for answers relating to her mother's disappearance fifteen years ago - Amanda arrives at the retired space station, Sevastopol. She soon discovers the station has been ravaged by the same Alien that her mom had once faced. Going up against the legendary alien Xenomorphs is a terrifying experience to endure. A position you will find yourself far too regularly.
Creative Assembly has created a game true to its source material. Die-hard fans of the series are rewarded with its similar effect on the senses. Its richness and melding of audio, visuals, and narrative are a strong part of what made the original film so great. Alien: Isolation provides a horrifying simulation of facing the alien parasites head-on and struggling for your own survival. The unnerving atmosphere seeps its way through the halls and corridors of the maze-like Sevastopol station. I applaud the creators for doing an excellent job recreating the same intensity and unease as the films. The game surpasses the movies in many regards, including its effectiveness at bringing the audience in for a much closer, more frightful experience. Even in 2020, there is no better way to experience the thrill of being trapped on-board with the Alien Xenomorphs. It's a harrowing engagement to play this death-by-Alien simulator, and as the player, you get a real sense of what it might be like to have to defend yourself and survive against one.
The story falls a bit flat and too closes mirrors its source of inspiration. I can forgive the creators for not wanting to alter a working story-formula too much. Especially when the original worked so well. But this story feels shoehorned into place. It works, but it's not interesting and takes a back seat to everything else. Maybe it helps the Alien AI and horror elements stay in the spotlight. Maybe keeping a potentially too-radical story from imposing too heavily upon the game's features. I don't know. But to me, a more compelling story would have made for better cohesion thus more driving power during the slower, more repetitive parts. Instead, we have to endure an already long, stressful journey with lower motivation to continue forward.
Much of the game's effectiveness stems from its sound and visual direction. From the very second it launches, the player is met with a rich, filling audio that tickles the ear with its static hums and hisses. If it weren't for the technical accomplishments of the audio and visual, Alien: Isolation would be far less than the success that it is. Honestly, this might be the most stand-out game in terms of its audio design and ability to draw in the player with sound alone. It's an impressive achievement. The throwback themes of the late-70s technology are strewn about. Looking to the past for inspiration, the Sevastopol space station's design and appearance bring us right back to the same point in time that the original Ellen Ripley found herself face-to-face with the Xenomorphs. Warped CRT screens, static-noise eliminating from the security tuner box, or the beeps and blips from the motion detector are all great examples of the aesthetic the design team worked into the game. I feel like the flamethrower and Molotov could have better flame effects; the flames don't last long enough, the smoke effect is very weak, and could have made for a more serious impact in its use.
The Alien has both the most advanced and impressive AI designs, as well as the most frustrating ones to endure. It never gives up, it never relents. It's realistic to the series. For sure, this is how the Alien would behave if hunting you - but it is frustratingly difficult to progress the game at times. It is true, no two reloads of a save game are the same. The Alien does not always follow the same path. It shadows you, learning your habits and tendencies. It adapts to your play-style to better get the drop on you. While impressive, this makes for a very challenging experience in avoiding its traps. The other enemy type, Androids, are very thorough in their scans and sweeps when they see or hear you. If you are outside of a vent or locker, they'll find you rather quickly. The Androids, formally named "Working Joes", are the physical form of the APOLLO AI mainframe system. The APOLLO system provides security, communications, monitoring, and Android orchestration to the Sevastopol station. Alien: Isolation fumbles powerfully in its attempt at creating consistent human animations of movement and speech. Non-combative human-AI behavior and mannerisms are uncomfortable and confusing. The humans act skittish to a cartoon extent, just shy of a parody. They wail about in terror, while also frequently getting stuck in place halting all emotion. Cut-scene animations commonly have audio and video synchronization problems with mouth-movements and voices falling out of sync.
Fear, panic, and stress will be the prevailing emotions throughout playing. This game is about stealth and silence. It's difficult. You'll die a tremendous amount, often in startling ways. You cannot kill the Alien. You can trick it to go looking for you elsewhere (via equipment/throwables) or you can temporarily scare it away with a flamethrower. Rushing the Alien will mostly earn you another death animation. The androids will stop and hurt you before you can land a blow. Rushing around the map will make more noise and attract the Alien to your location all the quicker. This will likely wear down certain players, keeping them from finishing the game. It's frustrating and leads to replaying and re-accomplishing goals until you can hopefully get to the next save-phone. Watch-out! - if you save with the Alien right behind you, guess what will still be behind you once you reload?
For all the hassle required to finish, I found the end cut-scenes and conclusion to be lackluster. There were several times I felt like quitting out of frustration. It shines brightest within the first 4-8 hours while the horror and intrigue is still fresh and alive, and before any of it becomes tedious or repetitive. As much I enjoyed the many thrills Alien: Isolation has to offer, it was rather taxing on my ability or will to keep playing. Having an unsatisfying story, the game failed to hold-together my motivation to help power me through some of the more difficult or slower parts. Nonetheless, this release serves as a standout technical achievement for the genre. It accomplishes staying true to the movies, being masterfully designed in its cohesiveness between the sound and visual designs, and is powerfully scary to experience.
The worst thing I can say is that through all its thrills and immersion, I never found it to be a fun experience. It's one I'm glad I had, but not one I enjoyed much. I think this might be the case for many players or potential ones. It's made for a difficult game to review; how do I recommend something that I did not enjoy? My advice is to view i like a thrill-ride. Look for a low price point (have seen it go for $10 on Steam) and keep expectations realistic. I don't see the need to put more than 4-10 hours to really get the full experience. If you scare or get startled easily, perhaps see if any of your friends have a copy you could check out with them. It's absolutely worth experiencing but I'm not convinced the price for admission is priced right for most of the year. At being 6 years old, I feel $40 is quite a reach. $20 seems fairer - but I personally would wait until it falls to $10 or less.
Thanks for reading!