Spooktober 2014: Alien Isolation

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Cliches about imitation and flattery often apply to later works riding the coattails of an influential or novel property, but it can just as be said of any attempt to revisit a beloved franchise. How often have we seen the distant sequel, prequel or remake stuff itself with knowing winks and call-backs, or waste time retreading familiar ground?

The Creative Assembly are clearly very much in love with Ridley Scott’s 1979 Sci-Fi horror film, but rather than strive for mere imitation they’ve taken the film apart molecule by molecule and reassembled the components into something that’s part remake, part sequel and all Alien.

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It’s been fifteen years since Amanda Ripley’s mother Ellen disappeared along with the good ship Nostromo, and she’s still haunted by the event. One day a superior at villainous space-corporation Weyland-Yutani approaches her with an irresistible offer: the Nostromo’s flight recorder has been found and brought to a backwater space station called Sevastopol, administered by one of Weyland’s failing competitors.

Upon arrival it becomes clear that something is very wrong on board the Sevastopol: most of the occupants are dead, those that remain have organised into bands of armed looters, the population of android workers are murdering humans on sight and there’s something very large and very deadly skulking around the air vents. An explosion leaves Amanda stranded and separated from her companions, left to fend for herself against these dangers with whatever she can scavenge or build.

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It’s a set-up that draws immediate comparisons to Bioshock, and Alien Isolation stands up to the esteemed company well in terms of its vivid world-building. The Sevastopol is a remarkably lived-in place that feels utterly believable in every regard, right down to the slight air of desperation in the omnipresent advertisements for Seegson Corporation, the Nokia to Weyland-Yutani’s Apple in terms of space commerce. Instead of trying to skirt around Alien‘s lo-fi 70’s future the game completely embraces it, presenting a world where interstellar travel has been reduced to the equivalent of long-haul trucking using computers less sophisticated than the cheapest smartphone. The sevestapol is a technological marvel from a time when home computers were still largely the stuff of science fiction, all bulky CRT monitors and loud, slow mechanical devices. This could easily have come across as a cheap gimmick so it’s all the more impressive The Creative Assembley sells it so convincingly. You will believe in a world where humanity conquered the stars on the back of LCD calculators and diesel engines.

Despite taking place entirely within the confines of a cramped ship Alien smuggled in quite a lot of world-building, suggesting not just the titular creature but a future ruled by faceless corporations, androids that can pass for humans and intelligent AI systems. Alien Isolation’s greatest triumph is to transport the player to another corner of this world and to integrate it so well into the existing canon that it feels as if it was created from a cache of lost design documents stashed away by  Ridley and Co back in the seventies. Of course the Sevastopol was always there, off-camera; of course Seegson were hiding in the wings while Weyland-Yutani sent their clueless employees to their doom. It couldn’t possibly be any other way. My only criticism with the game’s visual presentation is that I wish that the developers had gone a bit further in putting their own thumbprint on it rather than just recreating the style and feel of the original movie.

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This is mostly because the one area where they did- the Sevastopol’s androids- show a wonderful talent for keeping to the Alien style while still making something completely new. These aren’t the near-flawless human mimics that Weyland-Yutani are known for; instead they’re Seegson’s crude attempt to break into the market, rubbery, emotionless drones that have more in common with mannequins than people. They’re also scary as fuck, easily stealing the show from the Alien. Your first encounter with the hostile robots will be a wake-up call to how Isolation handles stealth and enemy AI: even though they’re the least sophisticated of the game’s enemies they still refuse to follow the looping patterns that most stealth enemies fall into. Hunkering down in a safe spot and trying to find the gaps in their patrol routes will end in failure, because they don’t have set patrol routes. If you do find yourself tackling one of the things head-on you’ll be in for a drawn-out, cinematic battle. The androids are extremely resilient and powerful, and generally require the use of  a variety of weapons and tools to take down. First-person games have historically not fared well with melee combat, but swinging a wrench into a robot’s head in this game is extremely satisfying (until it announces “my turn” and effortlessly blocks your next attack before delivering a robo-punch to Amanda’s solar plexus).

Things escalate once you run into the Sevastopol’s human population. Not all of them are hostile, and some of those that are will give you a chance to back off before shooting. Like the androids their movements are unpredictable, and since they tend to appear in large groups combat isn’t advisable. You get access to several guns over the course of the game but they’re loud, slow and noisy, and ammo is in extremely short supply. If stealth isn’t an option then tossing an improvised flashbang or smoke grenade is usually far preferable to a shootout.

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Or you could let your adversaries fire away and count on the alien showing up to take care of them for you. Once you get past the long, tense build to its first appearance chances are pretty good that any loud noises will cause the thing to come shimmying out of the nearest air vent. This isn’t the small, disposable cannon-fodder of Aliens; the creature that stalks you relentlessly through the Sevastopol is Ridley Scott’s original “perfect organism”: seven feet tall, fast, intelligent and unkillable. You can’t outrun it. You can barely hide from it because its heightened senses are far more acute than those of the humans or androids. The only effective weapon against it is fire, and even that will buy you little more than a brief reprieve before it comes back, now extremely pissed off and wise to your tricks.

A lot of games have made claims about “living, breathing enemies” with adaptive AI, but Alien isolation is the only one I’ve played that comes close to living up to them. If you keep hiding in certain locations the alien will tend to look there more often. If you keep using noisemakers to draw its attention they’ll start to become less effective. Even the flamethrower, which is massively empowering at first, suffers from diminishing returns: blast the alien with it too often and it will back out of range the next time you whip it out, leading to a possible scenario in which you unload the last of your precious fuel only to find your target standing halfway across the room, completely untouched. Better get those molotov cocktails out extremely fucking quickly.

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Over the course of the game you’ll become more intimately acquainted with the alien than with any video game antagonist that’s come before. For substantial portions of Alien Isolation’s long playtime it’s always with you, if not stalking Sevastopol’s corridors then clambering around in the air vents overhead, footsteps rendered with some startlingly high quality sound design. The only way to prevail against it as you scurry around turning on, shutting down, over-riding, repairing and opening/closing the station’s many (many) faulty or hostile systems is to learn its behavioral patterns inside and out. Getting from one room to another starts to feel like an accomplishment, switching on a button a titanic achievement and hacking a computer terminal the sort of harrowing survival triumph that usually earns one a book deal and a big-budget Hollywood movie. Except you have to do all of these things and more again and again, until by the end of the game you feel like the world’s greatest badass.

At the same time it isn’t all palpitation-inducing stealth; Isolation is smart enough to give players a breather by shunting the alien off to the side at times. Late in the game when I found myself briefly headshotting androids and engaging in gun battles with humans it felt like a blessed reward, and there’s a wonderfully creepy old fashioned horror segment involving the androids that switches the atmosphere into a more traditional haunted house experience.

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The game’s story is serviceable, but not much more than that. Amanda distinguishes herself well enough from her mother and has an okay character arc over the course of the game, but the narrative is a bit too willing to retread material from the film, to the point that several supposed plot twists are rendered largely inert. Mostly it exists as an excuse to shunt the player around Sevastopol, and in that regard it does its job.

All in all, Alien Isolation is clearly a love letter from its developers, but it’s the sort of love letter that you can enjoy even if you’re not the intended recipient. This is a long, high-budget horror game with a substantial amount of resources behind it, the sort of thing that we just don’t seem to get all that often anymore. It’s also a harrowing, nerve-shredding thrill ride through one of the best-realized worlds in a video game. If you happen to be a fan of Alien, well, that’s just a nice fat cherry on top.

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