Alien: Isolation is out today and I'm scared to come out of this stupid goddamn locker.
I've been scared by games before. Silent Hill 2 is hands-down the creepiest game I've ever played. I love/hate the way that game messed with my head, the grotesque carnival of misshapen enemies, distended and crooked, that triggered genuine revulsion. They weren't just zombies, they were hideous apparitions that made me feel physically ill. Elsewhere, there were moments when games like Condemned and Dead Space and Fatal Frame and even Doom 3 made me jump and weirded me out.
But nothing has ever quite terrified me like Alien: Isolation.
In the past, Xenomorphs have been hazardous cannon fodder. In fact, up until this point, there's never been a game that really captures what it means to come face to face with that perfect organism. No game has ever succeeded in capturing the sheer terror of coming face to face with the Geigerian monstrosity. It took the team behind Total War to do that.
I've been having nightmares since I started playing this game. Before last week, I hadn't had a nightmare in about five years, and even then they didn't feature monsters. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the last nightmare I had before this involved drowning in a sea of letters from banks or HMRC or the Student Loans Company. Once, I was crashing a mate's couch and I realised that I'd forgotten my toothbrush, and I dreamed that all my teeth fell out and I could only eat plankton. You know, relatively boring stuff. Lately, however, I've been dreaming of Sevastopol Station, and the multi-mouthed monster in its bowels.
Sevastopol is the scariest haunted house I've ever been in -- virtual or otherwise. Creative Assembly have constructed a painstakingly dated warren of hissing pipes, flickering corridors, whirring machinery, and contradictory bleeps. Those bleeps -- at once a slow, languid heartbeat denoting a save point is nearby, and also the rapidly shifting chirp of the motion tracker telling you that there's a 9-foot killing machine close by. The game wouldn't be nearly as effective as it is without those manual save points. You run for them at your own peril, every gap between progressive saves an exercise in holding one's nerve and withstanding the oppressive tension that soaks every frame of Alien: Isolation.
The aesthetics of Sevastopol are fantastic. The blocky computer monitors and late-70s vision of the future have been perfectly preserved here. The dynamic lighting flings shadows everywhere, making you question your surroundings time and time again. Whenever I rewatch Alien, I always try to pick out the Xenomorph in that sequence near the end where it unfurls itself from a cluster of pipes. I know that the moment is coming, and I always try to identify exactly where the damn thing is hiding. On Sevastopol Station, there are so very many things that look like the Alien at a shadowy first glance.
It's the sound design that gets me, though. I can hear scrabbling in the walls and above and below me. The hiss of machinery is barely removed from the hiss of the predator, and there'll be the occasional screech or wail that cannot be human (I'll get to them). The soundtrack is expertly woven into proceedings too, the spidery flurries of discordant strings do a good job of bringing out goosebumps and making me forget to breathe properly. The sense of immersion here, even without the addition of the Rift (which is, by all accounts, a device that could stop your heart when paired with this game), is phenomenal.
And then it appears. And I go silent and you pray that it won't spot you. Just leave, I whisper to no one in particular. Why won't it f***ing leave? Please go through that door. PleasepleasepleasepleaseWHYISITCOMINGBACK?! The motion tracker is device that has been implemented perfectly. It's so deliberately vague. The dot denoting the Alien is on top of me, but I can't see it. Is the machine lying to me? Amanda Ripley -- it is through the eyes of Ellen's daughter, on a mission to recover the Nostromo's flight recorder, that we witness these fresh horrors -- has to look down to check the tracker. For a split-second, I have to move my focus from my surroundings to this tiny, archaic screen. When I move them back, the Alien's face swims in my view. My girlfriend is suddenly at the door wondering what the hell that noise was. I must have screamed.
Playing the game on Hard, and CA recommend that you do so (it's still pretty terrifying on Normal, trust me), is to understand that the Alien equals death. It will drop down into the level with impunity. It will actively hunt you down every second you are playing. If you have the camera or a microphone plugged in, it will hear every sharp breath you take, and it will find you. You can't run, it'll hear you and it is so much faster than you could ever hope you be. You cannot stand your ground and fight, any gun you might come across is laughably useless. It can follow you into vents, it can trick you into a false sense of security -- disappearing suddenly only to re-emerge triumphantly when you let down your guard and step out into the open.
It's so perfectly constructed, too. Creative Assembly have done a brilliant job of building and animating the damn thing, and delivering every last drop of sensory feedback. You can hear and feel its weight, stomping about the floor, crashing around the vents. If you dare to peek out (hooray for leaning mechanisms!), you see it. It's so utterly present in this game, never far away. It has the behaviour of a predator too, it pauses and sniffs and scans and waits patiently, like a cat daring a mouse to make a move. It bristles with menace, and you are hilariously, weepingly defenceless.
I have found that I can't play Alien: Isolation in long spurts. The tension is so unbearable at times that when I die in-game it is as though a pressure valve has been suddenly released, my heart explodes and I find myself staggering away from my PS4, desperate to engage with something else before coming back again. But I can't help coming back either. Alien: Isolation is an exercise in exquisite psychological torture.
It isn't just you vs the Alien, either. Sevastopol is home to crazed bands of survivors who'll shoot you on sight (even when they warn you off and you obey, they'll generally shoot you). Lobbing a distraction their way when the Alien draws near is immensely satisfying as you watch the Xenomorph descend on the insane rabble that just tried to kill you. And then you remember that they were desperate and fearful and bereft of whatever human considerations they had before. And the Alien is still alive, and still hungry, and still hunting. Then there are the androids, banal mannequins come to life. They are just so utterly nondescript, so perfectly normal, average in height and build and name (Working Joes), still calmly repeating bland health warnings and instructions not to run as they stalk you down. But they can be outrun, they can be destroyed... eventually.
The Alien cannot.
Alien: Isolation has a brilliant, unmatchable first half. It is a tour-de-force of terror and survival horror. That shifts as things go on, however. It's a game that's easily 20 hours long, but there's a fair bit of backtracking and the game has about three points at which you think it's all over, only for the game to shove a few more hours of the same gauntlet of shredded nerves at you once more. By the end, you're thinking "when will this all be over?" in a fashion I imagine Ellen Ripley must have felt by the end of Ridley Scott's movie. In that respect, Alien: Isolation is fantastically real. This is a survival-horror game that you survive. Some will find that the length of the game stirs up frustration at the repetition. I found that to rather be the point. Storywise, it could have used a bit of judicious editing, but at no point was I bored. I found my relationship with/towards the Alien began to change. I started studying it, trying to better my understanding of it. It's a captivating creation, sometimes I just stared and marvelled and died. Moreover, I never had time to grow tired of it. When I died, I stepped away however briefly (this is why the review is "late") -- it's not a game that can be appraised in long slogs, nor should it be.
Alien: Isolation is the most terrifying game I've ever played. It has several flaws (the Alien glitching through your hiding place is a surefire way of ruining immersion), it can legitimately be accused of padding its mid-section, and piling up of Android towards the end can get a bit silly, but I didn't care about any of that, I was simply too busy giving myself heart attacks. Alien: Isolation succeeds in doing something no other game has: doing justice to the Alien itself. Sevastopol itself is a character in its own right that deserves considerable kudos -- the world-building is absolutely brilliant -- but Creative Assembly's greatest triumph is in making something we've seen so many times now in films and games seem fresh and horrifying. They've managed to remind us exactly why the Xenomorph is to be feared, why Giger's creation has been a staple of the horror genre for decades, and what it means and feels like to be hunted.
Hats off, frankly.
- It's terrifying
- The Alien has never been so brilliantly realised in a game until now
- Sevastopol Station represents some incredibly focused, detailed, and immersive world-building
- The sound design will send shivers down your spine
- Aesthetically stunning
- Mission design is fairly banal; when you take the Alien away
- Length can make things seem a little bloated
- Deaths can be downright unfair on Hard
- Don't play this if you have a heart condition
The Short Version: I'm not coming out of this locker.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.