The 1979 film Alien still stands as one of cinema’s most memorable films. Originally labelled a haunted house movie set in space, it created a whole new sub-genre of science fiction horror, kickstarted the careers of Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver, and introducing mainstream audiences to the fantastical works of the late surrealist sculptor and painter, HR Giger.
Inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2002, the film has won many accolades and left a lasting legacy, spawning a media franchise of sequels and inevitable videogame tie-ins over the last 35 years. Giger’s alien represented an omnipotent, unstoppable antagonist; the perfect killing machine. It wasn’t supernatural, but it was otherworldly. And as with all great horror, what you didn’t see was what scared you. Like any franchise that reaches critical mass and gains a global cult following, some of the follow-up works have been good; some poor. It’s fair to say that many of the videogame adaptations of the canon – either through technical restraints or poor design - have fallen into the latter category.
In much the same way as the film’s direct sequel Aliens took the franchise in a new action-oriented direction, so too did the interactive videogame versions. More often than not over the years, players have found themselves in an all-out balls-to-the-wall frag fest, facing off against hundreds of clumsy, poorly articulated Xenomorphs that represent little threat and are no more than bullet sponges. This might seem like a great concept to keep people engaged and entertained, but it gets old fast.
The last game tie-in, Colonial Marines, fell victim to the above scenario. And it fell hard. So hard, in fact, that publisher Sega recently settled a $1.25 million class action lawsuit, leaving developer Gearbox Software to fight yet more litigation against a baying mob of angry Alien fans who felt betrayed and misled by the game’s marketing strategy. Many have speculated that the reason Sega settled so quickly was to calm the waters for the release of its latest title, Alien: Isolation. With an official trailer appearing at the beginning of the year, the community’s reaction was positive (I listed it as my most anticipated game of 2014). Coming full circle and returning to the roots of the Alien universe, developer Creative Assembly’s focus was survival horror. They have brought audiences as close as possible to the original film, both in location and setting.
The story unfolds aboard the space station Sevastopol, 14 years after Ellen Ripley’s first encounter with the Alien. You play Amanda Ripley, first introduced by James Cameron in Aliens as Ellen’s daughter. With your mother still missing, you’ve come to the station on the understanding that the black box flight recorder from her ship, the Nostromo, has been discovered.
Within moments of booting up the game, you know you’re back in Ridley Scott’s world. From the tinny 20th Century Fox opening (recorded through an old VHS copy of the movie without tracking adjustment) to the dark and dank corridors of the space station, every detail is perfect. 20th Century Fox provided Creative Assembly with three terabytes of archived data relating to the original film to help them model every aspect authentically. And it shows. This being Ridley Scott’s 1970s analogue version of the future, the vintage technology is old and tired. Flickering monochrome displays and cassette decks; flashing bulbs (there are no LEDs in this game); overflowing ashtrays; greasy aperture vents; steam and gas leaking from random piping. The game is dripping in nostalgia for Alien fans.
In keeping with the above aesthetics, Sevastopol feels instantly familiar. Wandering around its labyrinthine corridors, you continuously catch glimpses of artifacts and décor ripped straight from the movie. Even before you’re introduced to the game’s antagonist, you know from your surroundings that things have gone bad. Graffiti and anti-corporate sentiment litter the walls and the mainframe computer logs; there’s evidence of a general feeling of unrest.
Indeed, the first confirmed victim you come across in the game is the station itself. Owned by the Seegson Corporation (a competitor to Weyland Yutani) the station is old and creaky, the result of a steady decline in deep space travel. It soon becomes clear that Sevastopol’s economic problems are only the beginning.
The game does a great job at introducing you the overall mechanic of favouring stealth over combat. The populous of Sevastopol are scared and the survivors are skittish, even though many of them don’t know what’s actually going on. They will shoot first and ask questions later. It’s this outlook, combined with the erratic behaviour of the station’s crew of Working Joes (consumer grade networked androids prone to malfunction) that you keep on the edge for the first few hours. Confrontation with either party usually ends in death.
So in the first couple of hours you will learn to stay out of sight, how to use the intuitive lean and peak mechanic, hack wall mounted computers to create diversions allowing you to get from point A to point B undetected, craft decoys, and use your handheld motion sensor (pro tip: if you have a Playstation Camera or Kinect make sure you disable the microphone, as ambient sound in your living room will give away your position in-game). All of the above serves as a perfect preface to your inevitable meeting with the game’s titular antagonist: a single, seemingly omnipotent Xenomorph that can’t be killed and is unrelenting in its primal urge to maintain its position at the top of the food chain.
That first meeting really is memorable. I can’t remember a game in recent years that has had me so on edge. Whenever your motion tracker beeps and you realise that the creature is nearby, your heart begins to race and you start an inevitable scramble for cover, whether that’s hiding in a locker or under a desk, or just freezing in a corner and hoping it doesn’t see you.
In another stroke of genius, the film’s original score kicks in dynamically, providing discordant orchestral peaks as the creature approaches. This is the definition of survival horror. You can’t outrun this creature, you can fight it. If you try, you're dead. The best you can do is distract it, which can become very satisfying when you toss a noisemaker into a group of hostile enemies, then wait and watch as the Alien tears them to pieces. The old adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not applicable here, however. If the Alien spots you, it won’t thank you for the free meal. As you progress through the campaign Amanda’s arsenal does grow and you will eventually obtain access to tools and weapons that can ward the creature off for short periods.
Creative Assembly have succeeded in creating a very believable enemy in the Alien; one that will stalk you from afar for the longest time, watching you in silence from a ceiling vent, allowing you to feel safe for the briefest of moments, before pouncing on you with incredible speed and power. It can kill you in several brutally chilling ways, which never fail to shock but which can, on occasion, become rather tedious.
There’s a fine line between tension and frustration. Sometimes you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle. In the early stages of the game there are sections which feel impossible and after many protracted restarts (the in-game save stations are sometimes placed at rather lengthy intervals) there’s a danger that you’ll stop having fun. Another small complaint is the campaign’s length. Creative Assembly has crafted a generous 20+ hour campaign, however there is an argument that this kind of heart pounding horror would have been best served over an 8-10 hour course. Thankfully, the environments are rich and varied enough to keep you engaged.
When you hit your stride, you will thoroughly enjoy the feeling of satisfaction upon completion, although you may be exhausted by the end of it all. The story is rich and compelling, encompassing all the elements of mystery and intrigue we’ve come to expect from the movies: corporate greed, betrayal and the manipulation of power. But most importantly it’s a woman’s search for the truth and Amanda Ripley is voiced perfectly, with many of the mannerisms recognised in her mother.
Alien: Isolation represents a strong return to form for an ailing franchise. Creative Assembly have succeeded in capturing the essence of the original film, harnessing a sense of despair and foreboding and giving players a chance to experience the horror of HR Giger’s seminal creation first hand.