Alien: Isolation - Review

http://invisiblekidreviews.blogspot.de/2014/10/alien-isolation-review.html

Ever since Alien vs. Predator 2 back from 2001, fans of the Alien (as well as Predator franchise) have been waiting quite a whole long time for another great game of the series. Yet, the only games that got released only managed to drag most notably the Alien franchise further down into the gutter.
Most notably the horrible Aliens: Colonial Marines, which initially seemed so promising judging by demoed gameplay on expos, tragically turned out to be a poorly written and buggy mess of a game.
Therefore, it's very easy to understand why many gamers and fans are very skeptical towards Alien: Isolation. Once again published by Sega, developer Creative Assembly claims to understand what made the original "Alien" by director Ridley Scott so iconic and scary. Focussing on stealth gameplay, in which the game puts you up against a single Alien stalking and hunting you, the sheer concept of the game happens to be quite interesting and ambitious. But only the final game is able to show us whether said formula is able to elevate Alien: Isolation to the best Alien game yet...


Story

The plot:
The game is set in 2137, 15 years after the events of Alien and 42 years prior to Aliens. The game follows Amanda, who is investigating the disappearance of her mother Ellen Ripley. Amanda was transferred to the space station Sevastopol to find the flight recorder of the Nostromo. However, an Alien has already reached the station...
(source: Wikipedia)


After a brief narrative introduction by the one and only Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver in the movies), you awaken from hyper-sleep on the spacecraft "Torrens" as her daughter Amanda Ripley. Not being aware of what happened to her mother and what was the cause of her mysterious disappearance for the past 15 years, Amanda is sent to the abandoned space station called "Sevastopol". Her objective on said station is to find the Nostromo's flight recorder in the hopes that it might contain clues or answers about what happened to her missing mother.

When there's one thing developer Creative Assembly nailed with Alien: Isolation's story, it's the atmosphere. It's easy to see that much love has been put in recreating the iconic looks of Ridley Scott's vision from the 1979 original movie. And while the atmosphere and gameplay mechanics are undoubtedly the strongest aspects of the game, Isolation's story itself sadly feels unimaginative and overly long.
Though the game makes great use of the established atmosphere by mimicing several scenes from "Alien" and "Aliens", from ship-escape-runs to encountering an Alien nest, Isolation's story unfortunately doesn't make any efforts to actually extend the Alien lore. In that sense, there are very little "highlights" in Isolation's story, and the ones that are there feel like their main reason to be included is for pure fan service.

Amanda is the only character that you will slightly care about.

Topped up with a hugely unsatisfying sequel-bait ending as well as shallow side characters that you probably won't care about and that feel like they are only introduced to be eventually killed off, Isolation's story is far away from being anything special. By featuring such a predictable storyline, it's also that you will see plot twists like betrayals coming from miles away, making the whole affair feel like a been-there-done-that trip (at least storywise). This is only the more emphasized by the game's repetetive mission designs, which almost always have you make your way through a map to press a certain button while avoiding getting caught by the Alien. Of course, you could say that most sci-fi games have you pressing buttons as mission objectives, but seeing that the main driving force in this 14 hour game is constantly to pull a specific lever or push a specific button makes Alien: Isolation feel even more unnecessarily long and partially too dragging as it already is.

However, one of the few bright spots in Isolation's story are the scattered computers on the space station, which contain logs from the Sevastopol staff members. Though reading the diary-like entries is mostly optional, they do fairly well in extending and deepening the space station's backstory. Reading those reports from different staff members will make the Sevastopol indeed feel like an actual place, where people actually used to work in their daily routines, with the staff members' personalities ranging from greedy, suspicious, charming and more.

Here we go. Pulling lever no. 29823908...


Gameplay
 

Core Gameplay Mechanics  - "Constant Terror and Necessary Evils"

Being a stealth-horror-survival game, you will undeniably spend most of your time crawling or crouching around silently trying to survive rather than follow the thin storyline.
The theme of having to be silent at all times since the Alien could be lurking around anywhere in the station's big ventilation system is very well and consistently followed upon in Isolation. Not only is being silent and stealthy frequently mentioned in the game, but it also is the essential strategy of progressing through the game.

At the beginning of the game, you are given very little tools for survival as well as defense, yet it doesn't take long till Amanda slowly builds up her engineering oriented arsenal and obtains her primary tool for survival - the motion tracker.
Whereas other Alien games used the iconic motion tracker to various degrees of success, the motion tracker works extremely well for Isolation's gameplay concept and atmosphere set-up.
Aside from doing a lackluster job in actually showing you where your mission objective is, the motion tracker's importance for the game interestingly enough comes from both the tool's usefulness as well as its limitations. Since the motion traacker only shows where the Alien is and not its line of sight or which direction it's facing, the motion tracker offers just enough uncertainty to keep things always interesting and the player on the edge of his seat even when knowing where the Alien is.
It's those special kinds of moments when you are pulling up your tracker only to suddenly see that the Alien is directly coming out of a vent behind you or crawling around above you in the ceiling that make Isolation's unpredictable and unscripted moments easily the best parts of the entire game.

The struggle is real.

Yet it's undeniably the first missions and early parts of Isolation that are the most terrifying and effective of the game. This is due to two reasons: the very limited tools of defense against the Alien, as well as the game's distant manual save points.

During the first missions, the Alien itself feels the most terrifying and invulnerable since Amanda is pretty much completely defenseless against it with hiding being your best and only option for survival. The Alien can never be outrun, hurt or killed and will directly one-hit-kill you on sight. Even hiding in closets and holding your breath when the Alien is nearby is only so much a temporary solution. With that said, the player will definitely feel the need to move forward to progress through the game, yet at the same time will be scared of running into the Alien. This feeling is excellently pulled off by both the game's mechanics as well as the established atmosphere. Therefore, it's sad that occasionally obvious inconsistencies break the immersion a bit, like for example the inability to hurt the Alien even when actually shooting revolver- or shotgun-bullets at it or the inability to flatout pick up the shotgun of a downed foe since the game only wants to give you a shotgun in a later mission. Sure, in terms of keeping the game a stealth experience it makes sense, but why then introduce weapons like the revolver or shotgun so early on in the game in the first place?

Get used to seeing this close-up a whole lot.

Another aspect contributing to the game's terror is the fact that the game doesn't automatically save, instead relying on manually activated save stations. Save stations are scattered around the game's maps but are generally placed in large distances from one another. The design choice for manual save stations is at first sight a bad one with the sole purpose of frustrating the player and making the game artifically challenging. Yet, on second thought, the distant save stations are something that can be described as a "necessary evil".
It is undeniably true that unfortunately many of Isolation's sections can feel extremely frustrating and very trial-and-error oriented when you have to repeat a section over and over again with such a big set-back, yet without these distant save stations, players would otherwise likely be tempted to play Isolation recklessly, which would hamper the game's horror-feeling very much. Frustrating gameplay sections are therefore a given in Isolation's quite challenging campaign. However, at the same time actually reaching a save station after a stressful long portion of a mission will always feel like an accomplishment in and on itself.

Isolation therefore can easily be considered a challenging game, however, the game gives you the ability to adjust the game's difficulty at any time. Players, who are close to throwing the game away due to a specific frustrating portion, can always lower the game's difficulty to move on more smoothly.
And even though the game even on its normal setting is more challenging than most stealth games, the game itself recommends you to play the game initially on hard. Despite this not making any sense whatsoever (why then have a "normal" difficulty setting anyway?), the hard difficulty setting is a great addition as it makes your experience even more exhilirating with a more "realistic" feel. On hard, the Alien is easily at its most sensitive with seemingly the slightest sound (for example even the beeping noise of the motion tracker) or moves tipping it off. It might be the most punishing but also the most immersive way to experience the game. Still, average players should definitely play the game first on the normal difficulty.

Matrix flashbacks incoming.


Crafting Mechanics - "Craft for the Moment"

Crafting is another main aspect in Isolation even though it is not overly fleshed out or complex. On the other hand, material you collect for crafting is fairly limited in Isolation emphasizing the survival feel of the game.
Any items you can craft like med-kits, pipe bombs, flashbangs, etc. share components (material), meaning that instead of a noise maker, you could just as well build something else out of it. This makes crafting the right item for the right moment a constant in Isolation. Additionally, you can also only build a specific item after acquiring the appropriate blue print, which are hidden in specific rooms somewhere on the station. It is possible to miss blue prints, which makes exploration in Alien: Isolation a crucial part to your survival. Yet of course, the more time your spend exploring and looking around, means that you simultaneously spend more time putting yourself in danger of running into the Alien or other enemies at any time, making it a very nice "risk vs. reward" aspect of the game.

The "McGyver-factor".


Pacing Issues - "You Can Run and You Can Hide"

Alien: Isolation is undeniably at its strongest when it emphasizes that you are the hunted in its general "cat-and-mouse"-gameplay. However, unfortunately this survival aspect slowly but obviously fades as Amanda gains more and more tools over the course of the game, which boost her abilities to actually defend herself against the Alien and other enemies.
After a few missions, you will eventually obtain a flamethrower that drastically changes the game's tone and how you approach missions. With the flamethrower in your arsenal, only a few short blasts are enough to make the Alien flee into a nearby ventilation shaft, making this once terrifying constant danger far too often nothing more than a repeatedly appearing annoyance. Obviously the game wanted to make you feel like "tables have turned" to emphasize an evolution and dramatic curve in Isolation's storyline, yet this just backfires quite a bit seeing that the horror aspect is so heavily dragged down by this weapon. The game tries to balance the power of the flamethrower to a respectable degree of success by keeping gas (flamethrower ammo) only in short supply. Still, the flamethrower itself should've felt far more like a final ace up Amanda's sleeve instead of a constantly present instant-win-button.

Not only turning the tables, but also turning the playstyle.

Another huge misstep for Isolation is it's odd pacing. Aside from the game being far too long for its own good at about 14 hours without any big variations in mission design, at about the half-way mark the Alien simply disappears for story-reasons. Considering that Alien: Isolation's flagship feature was putting you up against a huge unstoppable Xenomorph, it's quite puzzling to see the Alien missing from the game for so many missions, making the game's middle portion feel like having a big narrative hole in it.
Trying to fill the gap are agressive, gone-rogue androids (paying homage to Ian Holm's character Ash from the original Ridley Scott movie). Despite initially coming across very creepy with their white faces, blank expressions and monotone voices, androids are immensely less interesting and threatening compared to the Alien. The main problem here is that the androids are generally easier to take out or outsmart. Androids don't insta-kill you, never move faster than a march (making them very easy to outrun) and are easily stunned by a stun batton or flatout killed with a couple of bullets.
As "side enemies", androids are satisfying enough, but as a replacement for the game's main attraction? Not so much.
This is made even worse through the fact that some of the game's android focussed missions have you face small groups of androids all at once, whereas the game does a not so subtle job of gearing you up with enough weapons and ammo to take them out. By then you are packed to the teeth with a revolver, a shotgun, a flamethrower, pipe bombs, molotovs and mines. Sure, playing it stealthily still remains possible in those sections, yet it's very obvious that the game actually wants you to shoot your way through. With the game therefore devolving into such unfittingly action oriented scenes, these design decision in those parts come off as very weird and poorly paced, seeing that Isolation is clearly at its best when it focusses entirely on its pure stealth mechanics.

"Sorry, Dave. But I cannot let you do that."


Off-Campaign Content - "Possibilities Hidden Behind A Paywall"

Another disappointing aspect is what the game leaves you with once you beat the main story.
Aside from the main story, the game ships with a leadership challenge mode called "Survivor Mode". Survivor Mode could have been one of Isolation's stronger features if it wasn't for its extremely limited amount of maps to play on.
In Survivor Mode, you have to make your to an exit with the Alien looking for you. The quicker you get out, the higher your score, whereas completing optional objectives along the way will also boost your score. Especially seeing that it mostly only takes a few missions to complete a run, it's almost criminal to see that the game only gives you one single challenge (challenge map) to play on. Other Survivor Mode challenges are only available once you purchase the DLC which comes out later this month.
Though it's extremely cheap and sad to see that Alien: Isolation's value is therefore immensely limited (and possible strengths are being hidden behind a paywall), it at least makes it easy to define the game as pretty much a perfect rental or pruchase at a discount.

Survivor Mode is basically a game of hide and seek in a way.


Graphics
 

Visually, Alien: Isolation happens to be not only one of the best looking games of this generation thus far, but it also happens to be a beautiful love letter to Alien fans.
Isolation's art design is ridiculously detailed adapting the look of Ridley Scott's 1979 "low-fi" look of the spacecrafts and interiors perfectly. It really feels like you are inside the world of the first Alien movie. Simply walking along the beautifully realized halls and witnessing the corridor lights slowly tick on will ensure that Alien-nuts' hearts will beat faster by these small moments.
What further gives the game's visuals more character, is the fact that the two different ships or stations in the game, the Torrens and the Sevastopol, feel and look quite differently from one another. Whereas the Torrens feels like a safe haven with its sterile 70s sci-fi look, the Sevastopol draws quite some parallels to Dead Space's industrial feeling spook house of a space station. Blood smears, broken doors, torn out cables hanging from the walls and of course occasional bloody corpses along with exceptional lighting work underline the horror atmosphere in the game very well. 


Sound
 

Aside from a great set-up for the game's atmosphere from the visual front, every horror game needs a fittingly strong sound design as a counterpart - and Creative Assembly nailed that.
Instead of focussing on a score, Creative Assembly put a larger emphasis on the game's sound design. With that said, music is largely absent from the game, instead relying more on tense silence and creepy sounds. Contributing to the motion tracker mechanic is therefore also the need to pay attention to the sounds of your surroundings - especially the sounds of the Alien crawling in the vents. It's terrifying and great at the same time to keep attention on the motion tracker while simultaneously hearing how the Alien crawls around in the nearby vents searching for you as you are hiding from it.

And while music is rarely used in Isolation, the one that actually is used are great compositions of the original Alien score from the movie. Specific cinematic moments like the first big encounter with the Alien or when the Alien is extremely close to you while you are hiding are underlined by rising violin cues that are fittingly unnerving.
What the sound department is lacking however, is in the voice acting. Voice acting in Alien: Isolation (along with the generally uninspired dialogue) ranges from rather weak to solid, with Amanda's lines being delivered by far the best out of the cast of characters.     

Pretty much a 1:1 replica. Stunning.


The Verdict

Let alone for the game's well enough executed core concept of a cat-and-mouse-game between the terrifying Alien and yourself, Alien: Isolation is worth experiencing. It's just sad that the game itself seems to be scared of extending or experimenting with the game's core formula or even the Alien lore, especially when looking at the game's repetitive mission design, weak story and excessive length.
Parts when the game actually does seem to evolve or play around with its main formula unfortunately backfire most of the time. Through the fact that the game's strong early missions are quickly replaced by parts, in which most notably the obtained flamethrower drastically changes your playstyle, and parts, in which the main Alien is just missing from the game for too long, result in Alien: Isolation suffering from a very odd and misguided pacing. Even the game's distant manual save points, which are guaranteed to lead to many frustrating moments, can be seen in the light of a "necessary evil" that forces players to carefully approach missions instead of a reckless playstyle. Yet, seeing how the game progressively gets weaker and more and more boring after a very intense and great first half, just shows that Alien: Isolation was a game idea that most probably  would've benefited from being shorter and more focussed on what makes it strong. Also, quite a bit more value in the form of more challenges for the Survivor Mode shipped right from the start would've also been an improvement.

Overall, due to its great presentation and core mechanics yet weak other aspects and little additional content, Alien: Isolation is best recommended as a rental. It's entire package is an okay experience to beat within a weekend or a worthwhile buy on a discount.
Being the mixed bag of a game that it is, Alien: Isolation is not the exceptionally awesome Alien game that fans were waiting for for years, yet it's also not a bad travesty some were dreading. Alien: Isolation simply shows that there are indeed great and rather unique concepts for Alien games that need to be explored more intensively to finally bring us that one great Alien game that we all want.

          
  
 Final Verdict: 6 out of 10 

Status: Okay / Good Rental




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