It’s a bad sign that the weakest parts of Alien: Isolation are the parts with the alien. You’d think getting that right would be a priority. Instead, the best parts of the game involve running around space corridors and turning space handles and flipping space switches and pressing space buttons and getting through space doors and turning on space generators. But then an alien comes along and forces you to play something else entirely.
After the jump, why couldn’t Alien: Isolation be a little more isolated?
The worst thing about this alien showing up is that he’s ruining a perfectly good game. When you’re skulking about maybe engaging in a little lite combat, Isolation is every bit as good as, say, Starbreeze’s Riddick games at their best. But where Isolation really comes alive is when it trusts itself to be a haunted house. During these stretches — and there are long languid deliciously empty stretches without lite combat or stealth — Isolation can be every bit as solid as the System Shock and Bioshock games. Here is a place with personality, with atmosphere, with a sense of history and purpose, and it looks absolutely terrific on the Playstation 4. And it’s not just the technical specs. Isolation doesn’t look good because it’s a next-gen game. You might say Isolation looks good because it’s an older-gen game. It appeals to nostalgia. It is a period piece.
Sevastopol Station, where most of Isolation takes place, is an adoring recreation of the quintessential hard sci-fi production design of the 70s and 80s. This is, in Alien in 1979, what we imagined space travel would look like. Cramped, functional, bright where it needed to be, dark where it didn’t, sometimes wet, threaded with ducts and padding, divided by heavy doors instead of swishy doors. Big clumsy buttons and handles for meat-handed working men’s hands to turn and sickly green CRT monitors and flickering neon tubes and beeps and bloops and nary a hint of SmartGlass or holographic displays or gesture interfaces to come (Hi, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus!). Even the hacking minigames are period pieces.
Alien was the weathered grimy answer to 2001 and the blue-collar comeback to Star Trek and Star Wars fantasy sci-fi. It was the hardest hitting sci-fi production design other than Blade Runner. And Alien: Isolation totally gets it. Which makes it a real joy to move through this place, to experience it as it’s laid out in the story. It may not have the density of activity and interactivity of other games. But unlike, say, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, another gorgeous game with a very low density of activity and interactivity, turning every corner in Isolation is a treat. In Ethan Carter, I’m in yet another rustic wilderness. In Isolation, I’m back in my childhood nightmares.
The story deserves credit for where it goes in the context of the movie, but even more credit for where it doesn’t go. The ending, in particular, is satisfying. By which I mean a lot of people will hate it. I figure it’s always a good sign when a videogame story ends in a way that will make a lot of videogamers hate it. The characters are mostly weak throwaway characters with a couple of exceptions (the protagonist thankfully being one of them). But Isolation gets what it needs from its story and characters.
And then the gameplay happens. Based on the talent that went into making the environments, this could have been a System Shock or a Bioshock. But Looking Glass and Irrational had confident ideas about gameplay. They were making shooters. The difference is that Sega’s Creative Assembly team is making, well, I guess you’d say it’s an instant-fail stealth game. That is about the worst thing you could do to a setting with so much promise. I guess they could have made it an arcade racer or a free-runner or a match-three. Those would have been worse. Not by much.
The alien arrives and now you’re faced with a lumbering indestructible inscrutable plodding guard, sometimes leaping from vents, sometimes just going away, sometimes ducking into doors. You wait. You watch. You wait some more. You do the thing where you watch him and then walk behind him because surely he’s not going to just spin around. I’m pretty sure I’ve accidentally stepped on his tail. When you get his attention, it’s mostly instant death. There are a few additional options using a handful of tools, crafted in the style of The Last of Us from bits and bobs you’ll find, but these are in very short supply. Weapons are underplayed in the extreme, which I suppose makes sense if you didn’t see Aliens. I think I’ve found the single most useless revolver in the universe. It’s on Sevastopol Station. If you see it there, you can just leave it. You’d probably be better off using harsh language. Oddly, there’s no provision for the alien having acid for blood. Thank heaven for small favors?
So what does it tell you that when the alien arrives, the game design falls apart? It tells you the team fell in love with an idea before they could make it work. You’re creeping around in a really cool haunted space house when an invulnerable instant-fail state lunges out at you, or it passes a doorway in front of you and you have to hide or actually does just spin around and see you. At which point you reload and replay your way to that point again. There is nothing scary about a videogame when the stakes are so low. That’s not horror. That’s tedium. Alien: Reloading.
It’s a fundamental problem with supposed “horror” videogames. It’s why most horror games are really just shooters where you shoot things that look like they belong in horror movies. FEAR, Blood, Undying, Painkiller, Dead Space. Occasional jump scares excepted, the “monsters” in these games evoke no more terror than the tangos in Call of Duty. To attempt horror, you need something other than repeated forced reloads. You need something like the camera conceit of Fatal Frame or the character development of Tomb Raider or the appreciation of a mythology of State of Decay.
Alien: Isolation deserves credit for trying something different, along the lines of Amnesia, a horror game where you weren’t even supposed to look at the monster. But trying something different isn’t enough. Succeeding at something different is preferable. At least we’ll always have Sevastopol Station. As places go, places where something worth witnessing happens, this is a five-star establishment. As games go, not so much.
Discover the true meaning of fear in Alien: Isolation, a survival horror set in an atmosphere of constant dread of having to reload for the eleventh fucking time.