If there’s one game this year that I absolutely must give my faithfulness award to, it’s probably Alien: Isolation. I’m honestly having trouble thinking of a team of developers who clearly love the source material of their game and want to pay it an honest respect *more* than the developers behind Isolation at Creative Assembly. So much so that absolutely nothing is misplaced, although a few things are mishandled. Everything in Isolation is almost perfectly sculpted and placed to the point where you never have your immersion broken or get taken out of the story, and it’s crystal clear that Creative Assembly wanted to paint Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger’s original vision in a way that did it honor. And they have.
The largest parts of that immersion can be boiled down to three features: graphic design, audio, and mechanics. Graphically, the game is absolutely stunning. Isolation aims to recreate Scott’s original style in the first Alien of “low fi sci fi”, and does it with perfection. Analog computers and cameras and voice recorders and huge, bulky spacesuits with 80’s GUIs. Believe me when I say that this is by far and away the most accurate and stellar portrayal of Alien in any other medium ever made. Second, the sound design: also, absolutely fantastic. Isolation uses the original score from the movie combined with eerie, high-tone background music that’s contrasted against it, and creates a mix of something that both astounds and terribly unnerves you at the same time. And finally, the mechanics, which, while they are a bit simplistic, lend themselves to the scenery that much more. There’s a lot of button pushing and primordial hacking and lever pulling in Isolation, which does wear thin after a while considering the standard formula is “get to location X” while avoiding everything in your way, but fortunately, this is circumvented by Isolation’s greatest strength: it’s fear factor.
It’s been said that the best horror games have you just as terrified when something isn’t happening as when something is happening. Silent Hill 2 understood this. Amnesia: TDD understood this. And I’m glad to say Isolation does as well. The sound of the Alien crawling in the vents above you is constant, as well as the subliminal noises and creaks and bangs that keep your skin crawling, making you never aware when the Alien will drop down. And when it is on the screen, it’s fantastic. Creative Assembly have designed Giger’s Alien (there’s only one in this game) with virtually no scripting and mostly organic AI, creating the effective illusion that this is a real, breathing predator that searches rooms and doubles back and reacts to sound. It’s genuinely terrifying when you’re hiding in a locker, barely a metre away from the beast, knowing that if it turns right, it might hear you breathing or your motion tracker beeping, rip off the locker door and end you.
That being said, with a lack of scripting comes some annoying and downright frustrating moments.The Alien can sometimes spend three or four minutes searching the room you’re hiding in and leaving you no chance to get away before it leaves, and other times it may just drop out of a vent right in front of you and leave you no chance to escape. And given that Isolation’s style of hacking and even saving requires you to leave yourself vulnerable for a few seconds (which, to be fair, does add to the horror factor), the game can be very unfair with how quickly and without warning you can be killed. This is both the greatest strength and weakness of the game: *NOTHING* you do is not potentially dangerous in some way. Sprinting down a hallway, using a save point, hacking a door, building an item... everything opens you up to a horrible death, and while that is incredibly atmospheric and nerve-wracking, at least a few times during your playthrough, you'll probably face a very unfair end. And the horror factor does tend to drain in the second half, when you're given a reliable method of defense against the Alien that keeps it at bay, and there's always someone talking in your ear, in contrast to the first half, where you're almost entirely alone and you have only molotovs to slow the Alien down, which are hard to craft, minimal and difficult to aim. So I feel the game could have benefitted by giving us fewer methods to defend ourselves.
All that said, Isolation’s core is a solid, terrifying experience of a tride and true survival horror. It flies its colours well, and executes its design almost perfectly. There are some issues with the story what with it being very, very long, and the fact that you seem to have won multiple times before the game yanks the rug out from underneath you and tells you there’s a few more hours to go could be seen as annoying by some (though for me, I felt the game is paced and spread out enough that it was negligible). However, I felt that even getting to a save point in this game was a minor victory, and it makes the terrifying moments shine as bright as a star. Isolation’s concept is fantastic, its execution solid and its atmosphere astounding.
For any Alien fan, for any survival horror connoisseur, and for any curious gamer that has enough money to reupholster their computer chair, this is a must-buy.
My Rating: 9/10