Alien: Isolation Review
For the record, I am not a sci-fi fan. That being said, I have always appreciated the “Alien” movies for their thrilling, edge-of-your-seat style. The original was especially Hitchcockian, in my estimation, and I respect any entertainment product that uses atmosphere, pacing and character development to generate a reaction. Anybody can use a bunch of gore and gross people out. Unfortunately, the Alien video games haven’t been up to snuff, so everyone was looking to Creative Assembly’s effort to finally, at long last, right the ship.
Well, I wouldn’t say the ship is righted, but at least it isn’t sinking anymore.
I’m sure we’ll see graphical presentations on next-gen consoles that will eclipse Alien: Isolation this fall. I think we’ve already seen a few, in fact. Even so, I like to base my visual judgment on how those visual elements affected me: If they enhance my immersion and enjoyment, despite not blowing me away with photorealistic detail, this category will get a high score. For the game in question, there are times when the slickly designed alien made me recoil in legitimate fear, and other times when the relatively bland sci-fi backdrop took me out of the experience. Like so many other aspects of this game, it’s a hit-or-miss situation.
As far as I’m concerned, if you’re trying to produce a genuinely terrifying game, the audio should be near the top of your priority list. For the most part, the developers understood that when making Isolation, as the appropriately creepy ambient effects, combined with an often chilling soundtrack, make a necessary impact. The music selection could be more diverse and the balancing isn’t perfect, but the point is made. The voice acting is decent, if not amazing, and overall, the technical side of the game is just shy of impressive. Graphics and sound are a huge part of any adventure that has its roots in horror, and this is a valiant attempt.
As we all know, we haven’t seen a really great Alien game in a very long time. One could even argue that the last memorable experience was Alien vs. Predator on the Atari Jaguar. I’d like to say Isolation is the game that breaks the streak, that rightfully cements the franchise’s place in video game history. After all, this premise and concept should translate wonderfully to the world of interactive entertainment. I am encouraged at the result here but it’s just a little too inconsistent; it’s like a roller-coaster with fantastically satisfying highs and hum-drum lows. When it’s tense, it’s super tense; when it’s not, it’s mediocre.
Here’s the thing; It takes skill to build that requisite tension. It requires an excellent sense of pacing and an intimate understanding of the human response. If you spend too long building up, the accumulated tension will plateau and the individual will begin to grow weary of the elongated situation. At the same time, a continual onslaught of nastiness will simply numb the viewer (or in this case, the participator). It’s this balance that takes a lot of practice and if it falls short, the entire experience suffers. Creative Assembly doesn’t quite get it right.
In the midst of all these great peaks of fear and urgency, there’s a whole lot of tedious and flawed stealth, along with relatively boring exploration. I almost wish the game was shorter; it’s exceedingly difficult to maintain the necessary balance for a good 15 hours. In fact, if the game was half the length, eliminated a good portion of the tedious gameplay elements and focused on the highlights, this would’ve been an 8+ title, easy. But anyway, not that I’ve established the proper tone for the review, and now that the reader better understands my overarching sentiment, let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of this chilling quest. It begins with the main character.
You play as Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, and you’re looking for information concerning your mother’s fate. You’re aboard the Sevastopol, a derelict space station where you’ll encounter a few stalwart survivors and a nasty xenomorph drone. In order to survive, you can’t just run around in first-person mode, shooting anything that moves. In the first place, you don’t always have the necessary weaponry and ammunition; in the second, you are woefully overmatched. This is what creates much of the game’s tension and it’s highly effective. You’ll be sneaking about, terrified that something a hundred times faster and stronger than you will sniff you out.
The mechanics are solid but not every gameplay system is perfectly implemented. For instance, while it’s pretty straightforward to use your weapons and items, you’ll soon notice that your motion tracker is the most important tool in your bag. And while it’s simple to use – just hold a button and the tracker’s dot shows you the location of nearby creatures, by they ally or enemy – it doesn’t tell you if those entities are above or below you. Misinterpreting that dot can be deadly. It’s hardly a game-breaking flaw but it can drive you crazy when you’re relying on that technology to save your life. Remember, you’re almost always being hunted…
Then there’s the ridiculous idea that Amanda loses health when she holds her breath longer than a few seconds. And why am I more vulnerable when holding my breath? Can the alien sense my fear, or something? I don’t get it. Even so, I don’t want to discount the effectiveness of those horrifying aliens. The environment is creepy enough; toss a few roving xenomorphs into the mix and you should be scared completely out of your wits. Whether you’re peering around a corner or hiding in a locker, your pulse rate will invariably increase and those palms might start to sweat. This is precisely where the game excels and I love that part of it.
It’s just that there’s a tremendous amount of trial-and-error because the game doesn’t always explain things correctly. I was told to move my ass and yet, moving my ass resulted in death. The second time through that section, I realize speed is entirely unnecessary and the only way I’ll survive is if I take my time. What’s the deal? These confusing elements clash with the inherent fear the game generates, and contributes to that previously mentioned roller-coaster effect. Then there’s the exploration, which basically just involves rewiring doors, pulling levers, getting unlock codes, etc. It’s hardly innovative but it’s mostly functional.
Aliens aren’t the only enemies you have to worry about. There are androids, too, and they’re all over the place. How you deal with them has a drastic impact on your well-being because they can be extremely aggressive if provoked. It’s all about timing, planning and strategy, which is exactly what I wanted to see. On the flip side, as you approach the end of the game, the adventure starts to lean too much in the action direction. While I suppose that’s inevitable, it’s sort of like a sour cherry atop a mildly pleasing sundae. During your time, you will be scared, intrigued, frustrated and bored. It just depends on which reaction dominates.
Alien: Isolation desperately tries to give us something fearsome and memorable. But the inconsistent approach leads to periods of tedium thankfully interrupted by flashes of unmitigated terror. If you can revel in the highs and forge through the lows, you should emerge satisfied. If, on the other hand, you’re more sensitive to design, control and mechanical issues, you’ll be a bit harsher on the game. This is one of those times when it’s difficult to recommend or denounce; you just have to play it to see if it’s something you’ll like. I apologize for not offering a more concrete analysis, but this is the best I can do.
The Good: Freakishly detailed aliens and a great atmosphere. Creepy ambient sound effects. Mostly solid control. Loaded with tension. Offers flashes of brilliantly choreographed suspense.
The Bad: Inconsistent visuals and pacing. Lackluster exploration elements. Some gameplay mechanics don’t make much sense. Trial-and-error can be frustrating.
The Ugly: “Am I bleeding out the eyes when I’m holding my breath? What’s going on?”
10/10/2014 Ben Dutka