Alien: Isolation – A Love Letter

Let’s start with the obvious statement: I love Alien: Isolation. It’s the best Aliens game I can remember playing, and it’s the best survival horror game I’ve played this year. I don’t say that lightly, either. There are a lot of reasons I adore this game, not the least of which is that I loved the franchise growing up. I’ve been wanting to play something like this for most of my adult life, so there’s that bias to consider. However, anyone that remembers Colonial Marines, or that has ever played a shitty franchise game, will realize that a brand can’t carry a game on its own. Well, it will sell the tickets, but it won’t make the ride any more fun.

Aliens: Isolation, on the other hand, feels like a game that’s true to both its source material and its identity as a video game. The story, the characters, the aesthetic and the gameplay all reflect the Aliens franchise, and they all work in tandem to bring across the nail-biting, flame-throwing, adrenaline-fuelled bull-clap that is working for Weyland-Yutani. In fact, this game feels so well put together that I’m probably going to be talking about it for a while. So, today, I’ll give you the short and dirty, hot and flirty, and, next time, we’ll go a bit deeper. Where to even begin?

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I guess… Alien: Isolation is a first-person, stealth-heavy survival horror game developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. (That’s right; they’re back, And they have a vengeance.) The game has a strong narrative focus that’s built around the engagement of the core gameplay. That is to say that the game is about hiding from threats in an atmosphere of intense danger and so is the story. If you want to mow down aliens with an over-powered machine gun, then this game isn’t going to provide you the fix you need. If you’re looking for something to make you feel the visceral effects of fear, then step right this way and let’s see how it’s done.

In truth, every piece of this beautiful puzzle is important, but let’s start with its most visceral element: immersion. For me, immersion is an endlessly fascinating topic, because it relies almost entirely on the designer’s understanding of how people engage with video games. Every piece of a game is crafted to be used and understood by humans. Everything from the sound to the gamepad is designed to allow you to project an “agent” into the digitally expressed world. The more intuitively you can control your character and receive information from the environment, the more likely you are to simply sink into the game. Still, you could study intuitive game design your entire life –it’s directly related to several massive fields– so that doesn’t get us very far.

Okay then, let’s get specific. The first and most obvious example is that, after gameplay starts, you *very rarely leave your first-person perspective until the end of the game. This seems small, but it ensures that you are always “you” when you’re in the game. More than that, every action you perform on the controller has some sort of analogue in the game and vice-versa. This is true for most games, but it’s done particularly well in this one. Any action that requires a single button-press only requires a single button-press. Looking around and pivoting all use the right analog stick (Also, the RAS occasionally stands in for your right hand when pulling levers). Whenever you’re moving something’s position around, be it your character, your head or your blow-torch, you’re using the left analog stick. It feels very natural. But wait, there’s another layer to this.

Every action you perform in the game takes time. Duh. Every save point, hack point and locked door requires a different investment of time and the performance of a mini-game. Usually, I’d barely mention this, or I’d only mention it if it became annoying, but, here, spending time is an essential element of gameplay. Each action takes place in real time and many of them rely on some form of accuracy on your part. So the, “Come on.. come on… oh shit, I fucked uaaAAUGH!” happens directly to you, unless you keep a cool head in the midst of your panic-inducing struggle for survival. And let me tell you, it’s hard to work carefully and methodically when you’re being hunted by slavering creatures from the vents.

Speaking of things hiding in vents, you can crawl through the Jefferies tubes, as well! Sometimes, it’s a relatively safe method of travel. Other times, it’s an alien brunch delivery system. Don’t worry, you can tell the difference if you just listen for movement in the vents or use your motion tracker. Of course, there’s more than just the alien out there, so that dot could be anything. That’s not always difficult to verify.

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Still, it makes it worth doing a run-down of the potential threats you’ll face on Sevastopol Station. The humans are your least threatening opponents, but they’re still deadly. They’re the survivors of the Incident that went down before the game started and turned Sevastopol Station into the fun-house of horror you’re currently tromping through. You’ll have to forgive them if they shoot first and ask the completely unrelated questions from their limited dialogue pool, later. You don’t have a lot of health, and you’re completely unarmored, so they can take you down with a pistol pretty fast. They do have a limited ability to react to your actions with something other than bullets, but so few of them are friendly that I just ended up bludgeoning them to death from behind, most of the time. Which is probably why they’re so unfriendly to begin with.

The Seegson synthetic robots are the real unexpected treat. Their creepy, uncanny valley-esque design looks like exactly the sort of thing you’d mass-produce if you were more concerned with cost than comfort. With glowing red eyes and a stilted speech pattern that’s used to great effect, you won’t soon forget why you’ll never buy a Seegson again. Seriously, Seegson is –right behind you– every step of the way and isn’t that just terrifying. Unfortunately, they’re androids, which means they’re made of tougher stuff than the average human. They’ll break your neck before you can properly bludgeon them to death with a wrench. You’ll need to go hi-tech to take these guys out. Or, you know, just apply fire-power liberally. If you’ve got the resources to waste. Maybe it’s a better idea to just sneak by.

Then there’s the alien. If you’re worried about authenticity, then this Wiki-post‘s “Development” section should get you started. Personally, I’m a fan of the design they settled on, which is nice, because you spend a lot of time with the alien. It is your constant companion for large sections of this game. It’s the threat in the vents you think about as you slide your keycard into a save point. When you’re hacking a door, you’ll be listening for the “slunk” that means it left a vent somewhere in your area. And when you can finally fight it, that’s the last thing you’ll want to do. I didn’t realize how insanely effective the flamethrower could be for a long time, because I was far more comfortable avoiding the alien than fighting it. That’s not always the best idea.

If you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to fight. Equipment check!

Motion Detector – Way-finder and monster-tracker. It sweeps a conical area in front of you, ensuring the necessity of frantically spinning in a circle, looking for threats.

Access Tuner – Acts as an upgradeable door-key and sonic screwdriver. Used to structure your access to the environment and for playing mini-games on while you’re being hunted.

Plasma Torch – Like the access tuner, but with fire and a different sort of mini-game. Much louder than the tuner, and generally takes more time.

Revolver – Almost useless against everything, except the humans. Takes a few seconds to aim properly

Shotgun – I used this exclusively to kill synthetics with a Stun Baton – Shotgun combo. (Stunned Synths take more damage TMYK)

Flamethrower – Useful against everything, but especially significant for its ability to drive off the alien or to make it think twice about attacking. It goes through fuel very quickly — use sparingly

Bolt Gun – Incredibly powerful, but it has a long charge-time. Takes synthetics down with a single head-shot, but almost useless against more mobile targets

Stun Baton – EMP Mine on a stick. I never used it on a human for this very reason.

Crafted items List: Found or made using schematics.

Flare – Provides light. Distracts things… It’s a flare.

Noisemaker – Can be thrown to draw enemies to the source of its sounds. Can be planted on the ground for the same purpose! Now with inconvenient four-second timer.

Smoke Bomb – You won’t be able to use the haze to vanish if you’ve already been spotted, but you can use it to block visibility in a single area. Can be planted as a mine. (The Mine feature of many devices can be used to warn you when something enters an area)

Flashbang – Disorient your foes! Except the alien. It’ll just eat you. Good for taking out large groups of humans.

EMP Mine – Disables synthetics for long periods of time. Facilitates beatings.

Molotov – Fire is one of the few things that will scare off the alien. You can use this as a mine to provide you with some limited protection if you’re doing something that needs doing. Lights synthetics on fire, making them more terrifying.

Pipe Bomb – The Equalizer. It’s a pipe bomb. Works on aliens, synthetics and humans alike.

Medkit – Heals roughly half your health gauge. Keep your health bar topped off and you’ll be much harder to execute.

As you move through the game, your arsenal grows, improving your ability to take on the hostile environment you find yourself in. Yet, you’re never in a position to discount those threats. Yes, the flamethrower will cook all comers, but there’s only so much ammunition for it, and the alien is relentless. Even if you had unlimited ammo for the thing, you’d still have to keep your eyes and ears open, unless you wanted the next vent to be the last one you sauntered under. You could have all the coolest toys and a fully stocked ammo belt, and you’d still have to be careful. But don’t worry, it’s okay, you’ll never be THAT well stocked.

Even with my obsessive need to loot all the things, I started having to be precious with my resources as the game wore on. And that’s always nice to see, but, now that we have most of our pieces, let’s take a second and talk about how some of these items are used to reinforce the narrative of the game.

You start off with nothing. Eventually, you get what amounts to a giant wrench that you use to open doors and bludgeon things. (Pro-tip: Use it to hit the side of the ship to call an alien over for din-dins) That wrench serves very well against the humans, but as you start sneaking through maintenance tunnels, you start to be harassed by Seegson synthetics. These don’t respond very well to a decent bludgeoning. In fact, unless you do it correctly, they’ll just kill you. The Revolver you get is a little better, but it’s clearly no match for the Seegsons. Then, you meet the alien. If you get near it, it’ll eat your face. I’m being literal. That’s what it does. At this point, you’re the helpless mouse play-mate of a cranky, chitinous cat.

As you continue playing, you find the schematics for the different kinds of mines and equipment. Each one will give you the edges you need to survive, if used correctly.  Also, as you play, you’re getting better at playing. — Discovering the quirks of the A.I. — Figuring out what kind of things you can do with the different equipment. — Learning how to pin-point an enemy’s location using sound — By the time Amanda Ripley was ready to fight the alien, so was I! Of course, neither of us knew how to go about it, but that’s okay. That’s how it should be. Part of horror is going in blind. Acting in the face of the unknown. Occasionally, hiding in a cupboard and just not talking about the acid-dribbling thing outside.

The player’s gameplay arc follows, in large part, Ripley’s narrative arc; Alien: Isolation is a great example of “do, don’t show.” Yes, some of the things you do are slow and ponderous (a spiffy jaunt in space comes to mind), but they all serve the overall game. As a survival-horror-sci-fi experience, A.I. is fantastic. Of course, given its effectively rigid structure, I question its replay value. The alien A.I. may be organic, but the overall experience is not. I could see myself going back in for the DLC and a little play-time with my giant, black alien-kitty, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll play again and again. I got a great eighteen hour experience out of it, and it is an experience worth having if you love Aliens and/or horror, but your mileage may vary, especially with its AAA price tag.

Still, for having an incredibly thoughtful, engaging experience that was both fresh and authentic, I’m giving Alien: Isolation A Sack Of Leering Clown-Skulls That Was Hurled At Your Face out of A Quiet Dripping Sound In The Night. Good luck surviving the horrors of Sevastopol. And remember, be careful who you trust.

Addendum: I didn’t mention the stealth or go into any detail with the alien A.I. because I’ll be going into them in greater depth in a later post. For now, I feel that it’s enough to say that both of those elements are essentially functional and serve to create the atmosphere of ongoing oppression that defines large chunks of the game. Also, the sound design is gorgeous, and the art direction is painstaking, but this love letter is long enough. And there’s only so much time before the airlock closes… I’ll see you on the other side.

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