Alien: Isolation, Review - Games Weekly

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Alien: Isolation, Review

Alien Isolation begins where the 1979 film ended, with Ellen Ripley’s chilling ship’s log entry. It’s a perfect jumping-off point for a game that casts you as Amanda Ripley and asks you to investigate your mother’s disappearance, but it also serves to highlight the gulf that still exists between film and videogames. Sigourney Weaver’s short performance re-recorded for the game is nuanced, poignant and loaded. It’s a powerful moment that’s immediately undermined by the game’s first cutscene, which flatly introduces us to engineer Amanda and fellow Weyland Yutani employee Samuels, the latter bringing news of the discovery of the Nostromo’s flight recorder.

The vocal performances aren’t terrible for the most part, but what little depth the actors salvage from the script is undercut by The Creative Assembly’s bespoke engine, which, despite being exceptional in every other respect, renders humans as dead-eyed manikins with lockjaw. Characters are at least extremely sweaty, but otherwise they struggle to resemble the movie’s stars. And while Samuels and Ripley’s lines improve even if they don’t feel like they truly belong to this universe
Taylor, Weyland-Yutani’s legal representative for the mission, is an inexplicably poor addition to the cast, and wouldn't be out of place in a middling JRPG.

This inauspicious start is further marred by niggling little mechanical hiccups that really should have been relegated to the past by now. Kill a human in your first stealth encounter, for example, and you’ll be able to take their revolver ammo but not the gun that lies next to them; your revolver is waiting for you in an office a little farther ahead. And much later on in the game, you’ll need to activate a cleaning droid in order to make use of its transport hatch to get around a locked gate. The
solution to the puzzle is obvious, but for some reason you can’t interact with the bot until you’ve practically pressed your nose against the obstruction first a counterintuitive action, given that the people who locked that gate in the first place are currently on the other side, emptying their clips at you.

But while these and a few other problems, not least the insufficient explanation of the game’s various systems, make for a bumpy on-ramp, you’ll soon find yourself ignoring each tiny letdown just to drink in the astonishing atmosphere of  Isolation ’s central locale. A lot has been made of the team’s access to the original production material for the film, and its attention to detail manifests itself everywhere, right down to the spidery pipe routing and padded leather panels that line the Sevastopol space station’s corridors. It’s there in the flickering CRT displays and bulky hardware, and in the bobbing office toys and loud expulsions of steam from previously unnoticed valves. There have been plenty of Alien games prior to  Isolation , but this is the first time you feel like you’ve stepped onto the set.
The alien has access to almost every part of the station that you do, and there are no easy AI shortcuts to exploit
That overwhelming sensation, and the joy of spotting every reference and transposition, will be enough to carry you through the first hours prior to the introduction of the much-hyped xenomorph, at which point  Isolation  stops being disappointing and reveals itself to be unlike anything you’ve ever played before. 

It starts relatively gently, with a number of horrendously tense stealth sections in which you try to keep track of the creature’s position while moving towards your objectives in teetering, uncertain steps. It might take ten minutes to get from one side of an area to another, and mistakes spell death with few exceptions. Before long, however, the alien has access to almost every part of the space station that you do, and there are no patrol routes to learn, no easy AI shortcuts to exploit: you are being hunted, and your survival now depends on instinctive decisions.

Thankfully, Creative Assembly’s tech does a far better job of rendering the creature than it does its prey. The alien moves with terrifying purpose and will be upon you in seconds if you make too much noise. It can’t be outrun, but if you can block off its path by punching an emergency door override as you pass through it, for instance or break line of sight, then there’s a small chance you’ll be able to hide in a locker or under a desk. But the game never panders to its players, instead delivering an uncompromising take on what it might be like to be trapped on a space station with a deadly foe. This means that sometimes you might open a door to find the creature, and a restart, waiting on the other side. Players expecting more traditional videogame empowerment may find such moments frustrating, but Creative Assembly’s alien would feel compromised if you weren't so vulnerable.

The ferocity of the alien’s attacks and the game’s low tolerance for misjudgments are both magnified by the manual save system, which requires you to use emergency phone points around the station to shore up your progress. They’re generously placed for the most part, but there are a few tough, lengthy sections in which failure will set you back a good chunk of play. Resorting to quick or auto saves would dilute the tension, but long gaps between save points can sap your willingness to experiment with the game’s AI and the various tools at your disposal.

Setbacks do at least demonstrate how many different ways each scenario can play out. Along with the alien, you’ll also encounter human enemies and Working Joes, the no-frills android types manufactured by Seegson Corporation, which owns Sevastopol. On Hard difficulty (which Creative Assembly recommends as the way the game should be played), a bullet or two is all it will take to end you, but if you can survive being fired on for long enough, the noise of the guns will bring the alien down upon your aggressors, providing a brief window in which to move safely as it completes its grisly work. Working Joes, meanwhile, don’t interest the creature, and also have little concern for your need to stay quiet or move slowly. These three AI systems combine in fascinating ways, often chaotically, and allow Creative Assembly to deftly avoid the need to script encounters and scares, instead relying on its technology to generate organic moments of tension.

For all that you’re vulnerable, you aren’t completely helpless, either. By holding Circle, you can cobble together various devices from components found about the place, your bag of tricks expanding as you discover new blueprints. This array of kit is indispensable for your survival, and includes medikits, smoke bombs and noisemakers, all of which become more powerful as you pick up design documents for upgrades along the way. Throwing a noisemaker into a gang of people will have a
similar effect to them firing on you, allowing you to use the alien’s curiosity to your advantage. But the creature is not easily deterred, and won’t just leave straight away, so using this tactic can also place you in more danger.

Still more terrifying is the creature’s capacity to learn. Repeatedly throw flares to distract the alien and it will eventually lose interest in them, decide it’s being toyed with and come looking for you. A weapon you find deeper into the game changes your relationship with the alien yet again, providing you with one last desperate chance to escape when spotted. But what feels like a favourable shift in power is quickly undermined when, as a result of its use, the drone learns to sneak up on you from behind rather than approach head on.

Along with weaponry, you also have a version of the  motion tracker, its nerve shredding pings emanating from the DualShock 4 speaker. Brilliantly, the noise it makes in-game will also alert nearby threats to your location, which can lead to some unpleasant demises if you happen to pull the device out at the wrong moment. You also have a Security Tuner, used to hack terminals and some locked doors through a variety of short minigames, such as matching glyphs, which can be
intensely fraught when you can hear the alien prowling nearby. Other doors require wrenches or cutting tools to bypass, so finding the right gear will open up previously inaccessible areas of the station, and you’ll regularly backtrack through its lightly bounded spaces.
Humans aside, Isolation is beautiful and full of design flourishes. Doors, for example, feature panels that shift inward once the main door has opened, tricking your brain into thinking something dangerous is moving nearby
Thanks to the game’s meticulous design and lighting, you’ll never tire of moving around Sevastopol. More important, though, is the alien itself: across our 20-plus hours of play, it didn't once behave incongruously or do anything to lessen its impact. The story fares less well, overreaching itself when what feels like the climax is followed by a several more hours of running about, during which the studio comes perilously close to letting Cameron’s influence drown out Scott’s.

Even this can’t ruin the brilliance of the core systems or the exquisitely orchestrated atmosphere in a game possessing some of the most terrifying sequences we’ve ever encountered. Unlike the creature at its centre, Isolation isn’t structurally perfect, but it is brilliantly hostile in a way that’s likely to shock many players. Here, Creative Assembly has crafted a survival experience that feels as fresh as it does familiar, and raised expectations for what a horror game can achieve. If only it had the script to match.

Isolation allows you to use a PlayStation 4 Camera or Kinect to track your head movements and noise levels in the room. The latter is inconsistent, the alien not registering our claps as it passed, while at other times it would pounce on us for seemingly no reason at all. The head tracking works better, but doesn't feel as natural as it might have done due to the modicum of lag between your own movements and those on screen, and the fact that you still have to hold L1 to peek. Still, physically leaning around cover to keep an eye on the creature just feet from you remains a rush, even if pressing a button somewhat undermines the immersive effect.


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