The highest compliment that you can pay Creative Assembly’s uncompromising, nerve-plucking and lengthy entry in the Alien canon is that even without any prior knowledge of its source material, Alien: Isolation is superb.
It doesn’t matter whether you can appreciate the care with which the world of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original has been replicated. It’s almost irrelevant the misfortune that has befallen Ellen Ripley in the past, mother of Isolation’s hard-nosed protagonist Amanda. It’s beside the point whether you’ve encountered the banana-headed extraterrestrial before in the movies, spin-offs, comic books and videogames that have steadily diminished the creature’s fear factor over the years.
That’s because the moment when the xenomorph does arrive – initially unfurling from a gloomy ceiling duct and rising to an imposing 9ft in height – the sheer terror of the situation completely seizes the player in the moment and refuses to loosen its grip for the ensuing duration.
The big question that has loomed over the project ever since it was announced is whether or not that terror can be sustained across the entirety of a single-player campaign. The good news is that, outside of a spirited climactic twist, it achieves exactly that. Even before the eponymous Alien emerges from the dark, the sense of foreboding is immeasurable. The derelict ship groans and clangs while its disintegrating husk drifts through the empty vacuum of space, its corridors barely lit by flickering light, and its air-conditioning system ominously rattling.
When it does appear, the claustrophobia that permeates the setting is amplified substantially. You’ll cower in lockers, peering through the thin slats while you wait for safe passage. Eventually you’ll crawl through the shadows, studying your motion tracker for any sign of movement, waiting patiently for the monster to move a safe distance away before progressing.
Interestingly, this measured approach to survival is established through a series of more traditional scenarios. Dropped into one of several compact, open environments spread across the space station, other hostile residents will fire on Amanda, which forces a stealth adoption almost immediately. Of course, it turns out that while these gun-toting survivors offer an immediate danger, later in the game they’ll also serve as a convenient distraction; a marvellously wicked lure to coax the creature out of the darkness, giving it something to feast on while you swift-foot it out of the vicinity.
Danger is ever-present and fear isn’t just derived from the titular beast. Aside from humans and extraterrestrials, malfunctioning androids that take forceful means to keep the facility operational stalk the ship’s walkways with implacable red glares. Again, these offer more survivalist trials in preparation for the alpha predator. Get locked into combat and you’ll quickly find the AI adapting to your playstyle, catching your arm as you attempt to bludgeon it into a puddle a milky fluid and even luring you into a false sense of security by rolling out a more durable model in the game’s final act.
Likewise, the Alien’s AI studies your actions and adapts accordingly. It’s difficult to quantify how successful this plays out. While we didn’t rely too heavily on gadgets during our playthrough, we found that only a couple proved overly useful – the flare and noisemaker – and the xenomorph continued to be fooled in each instance where we used them. However, on other occasions, it did display a canny awareness of our thought process – for example, waiting inside a vent above a door we wanted to pass – and we quickly realised that there was not one strategy guaranteed for success.
Not that it particularly matters. There’s no questioning that the Alien is a deadly adversary, and one that will repeatedly get the better of you in a variety of grisly death animations. Aside from a few moments of cheap, inescapable bad luck (such as the terrifying sight of it charging towards us inside an air vent), your demise is often destined due to your mistakes. Firing a gun, sprinting through the station or leaving your torch running too long can all make you susceptible to a swift attack. It’s a punishing but gratifying system, albeit one that can occasionally seem uncomfortable indulging itself too deeply.
Once you’re handed the flame-thrower, things become much easier. A quick jet of fire is enough to deter an attack and ammo isn’t scarce enough that you can’t rely on it for long stretches. Other weapons are less effectual, but serve a purpose. Craftable items include flashbangs, EMP mines, Molotov cocktails and noisemakers, mostly used for a distraction aid, but again, you’ll rarely find yourself without enough materials to at least craft a couple in a pinch. Unless you’re particularly sociopathic when it comes to engaging other survivors, our handgun was well stocked throughout.
This comes down to playstyle to some degree, whether you’d rather remain silent or risk exposure. Those looking for a tougher challenge will be served better playing on Hard, where resources are stripped back and the AI cranked up a notch in difficulty. Yet, despite what sounds like a few compromises for accessibility, there’s a hefty challenge laid across the 18-or-so hours of campaign that will keep the heart pounding.
Whether or not you’re actually frightened of the Alien itself, Creative Assembly has masterfully structured its campaign, carefully placing checkpoints just far enough apart where the fear of the Alien isn’t just founded in the inevitable jump-scare, but also in how much progress you’ll lose.
The objectives that push players around the station boil down to rudimentary tasks, mostly involving rebooting offline systems using a series of analogue puzzles. Many of these are completed on computer terminals, which is where the majority of the game’s story takes place.
While the plot involves Amanda searching the Sevastopol space station for the black box recorder of her mother’s missing ship, Nostromo – offering insight into the gap between the original film and its first sequel – the back-story to the station’s descent into chaos plays out through the sickly green hue of a computer monitor. Told through email exchanges and audio recordings, details reveal how bureaucracy drove rifts between employees, while economic downturn caused ruinous fortune to the lives aboard.
Elsewhere, fans of Ridley’s film will relish the Nostromo logs voiced by the film’s actors. These are found concealed across the multiple towers of the station, and the metroidvania structure encourages you to go back with the right tool to explore the rooms behind every sealed door. While the geography of the station is relatively intuitive, there’s more that could have been done to make the map clearer. It’s also curious that viewing the map screen pauses the action. Considering that the game constructs so much of its design around tension, it’s a small quibble that is at odds with the conceit.
Ultimately, Creative Assembly has delivered on its promise of an unforgiving thriller that refuses to pull its punches. Isolation reaffirms the Alien as the ultimate horror icon, both terrifying and awesome; trapping you within its cage proves to be the shot in the arm the franchise needed. Bold, unrelenting and very scary, Alien: Isolation is a triumph in every department. No prior knowledge is necessary. Just prepare yourself for the most terrifying game of the year.